Group E was one of the groups I tabbed as the most stacked when I looked at it in my column earlier this week, with only CSKA Moscow serving as a sacrificial lamb to a triumvirate of tough teams. Roma got their first crack at the Russians, hosting CSKA on Wednesday, and they took full advantage of the opportunity. Juan Manuel Iturbe scored the first goal just six minutes into the contest, Gervinho added his first four minutes later, and by halftime Maicon and Gervinho had added two more to pace the hosts to a 4-0 lead. Sergey Ignashevich’s own goal after halftime exacerbated the issues for the visitors, and only a brilliant Ahmed Musa shot past Morgan De Sanctis could prevent Roma from walking away with the shutout in the 5-1 win.
In the other group match, German champions Bayern Munich found the going tough against English champions Manchester City in their clash of titans at Allianz Arena. Bayern was the clearly dominant side of the duo — holding nearly 60 percent of the possession, generating 21 scoring chances, and putting eight shots on goal — but through the first 89 minutes of the match City had kept them scoreless. Joe Hart was outplaying World Cup-winning keeper Manuel Neuer at the opposite end of the pitch, making save after save… until Vincent Kompany conceded one corner too many. Mario Gotze sent in the ball, and it was Jerome Boateng who managed to attach his right boot to the cross and guide it past Hart for the winner. For Pep Guardiola’s side, it wasn’t the most inspiring victory, but it nabbed three points and kept Bayern on pace with Roma.
The two leaders of the group won’t play until late October, meaning that they could ostensibly put themselves in position to qualify before facing one another. Bayern travels to Moscow for their next match against CSKA, while Manchester City will host Roma on the last day of September. City will need a victory against the Italians if they don’t want their European campaign to end before it’s really picked up steam yet.
Can Barcelona reclaim the same sort of flowing tiki-taka that took the world fully by storm in their treble-winning 2008-09 season? The early returns are fairly inconclusive at the Champions League level after their opening 1-0 victory at Camp Nou over Apoel Nicosia of Cyprus. Against the team that was expected to be the goal-differential booster for the three heavyweights in Group F, and at home no less, Barcelona was hardly the crisp side of its championship seasons. Gerard Pique headed the winner past Urko Pardo in the 28th minute off a Lionel Messi set piece, but for the rest of the game the favorites looked sloppy. The numbers at face value look like classic Barcelona play — 72 percent of the possession, 17 chances on goal — but they were far from crisp in their finishing. Though they secured the three points without too much sweat, Barca will rue the glut of missed opportunities against Apoel.
But Barcelona at least secured victory, something the other two teams in the group cannot say. Of course, they’re Ajax Amsterdam and Paris Saint-Germain, two sides that have the potential to push the Catalan favorites in this group for the two qualifying spots. One is a four-time European champion, the other a free-spending French outfit that has vaulted to the pantheon of top European clubs of the 21st century. In Amsterdam it looked through the first half and much of the second as though the visitors were going to return to France with the full complement of points thanks to Edinson Cavani’s close-range shot past Jasper Cilessen in the 14th minute. Though the two teams split possession evenly, PSG was generating more chances in their time with the ball and looked firmly in control. Then Marquinhos brought down Thulani Serero in a dangerous position right at the top of the arc outside the 18-yard box, earning a yellow card and granting Lasse Schone the opportunity to equalize.
Ajax has the easier chance to rebound, traveling to Cyprus to face Apoel. Paris Saint-Germain has to host Barcelona in the Parc des Princes. The various permutations possible could leave any of the four teams in pole position, though based on early returns PSG and Barcelona look like the most solid prospects for advancement. Their showdown in Paris on the last day of September could determine which finishes top of the table.