UEFA Champions League

6 Things We Learned from Champions League Last-16 First Leg

Richard MorganContributor IFebruary 20, 2014

6 Things We Learned from Champions League Last-16 First Leg

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    Alastair Grant/Associated Press

    After two nights and four intriguing first-leg ties in the UEFA Champions League round of 16, there have been plenty of talking points from across the continent.

    And so these are the six things that we have learned after the long-awaited return of Europe’s premier club competition this week...

Leo Can Score in England After Finally Breaking His Premier League Voodoo

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    Well, it was just a matter of time really before Barcelona's Lionel Messi managed to score a goal on an English club side’s ground.

    The little Argentinian has found it going tough when playing against Premier League opponents on the road in Europe—notwithstanding the forward's brilliant strike against Manchester United in the final of the 2011 UEFA Champions League at Wembley Stadium—that is until Tuesday night's trip to Eastlands.

    Messi opened the scoring against Manchester City with a second-half penalty, with the 26-year-old's 66th goal in Europe's premier club competition now leaving the four-time Ballon d'Or winner just five strikes away from drawing level with the all-time leading goalscorer, Raul.

    And when Messi returned from his latest hamstring injury last month, the player told Marca that it would take him all of 10 matches in which to recapture his sharpness up front (h/t Football Espana). Well, his goal against City was his 11th in his past 11 games, so one can only wonder what kind of form the attacker will be in when he has finally regained full fitness!

    1 - Lionel Messi scored his first goal in England in an away game with his penalty. Argentina.

    — OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 18, 2014

Demichelis a Danger to All Around Him

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    Manchester City's urbane head coach Manuel Pellegrini launched a stinging post-match attack on referee Jonas Eriksson after the Swede had awarded Barcelona a penalty and then dismissed centre-back Martin Demichelis just after half-time at Eastlands on Tuesday evening in what was ultimately a match-turning decision.

    The experienced Chilean claimed that the official was "on Barcelona's side from beginning to end." While the home team were indeed unfortunate to have a spot kick awarded against them following Demichelis' foul on Barcelona forward Lionel Messi since the sequence started outside the area, Pellegrini could have no real complaints about the red card issued to his defender though.

    All of which begs the question: Why was the Argentina international starting in the first place?

    Anyone who had watched the former Malaga player horribly exposed in City's 1-0 home loss to Chelsea in the Premier League earlier this month, albeit in an unfamiliar holding role in midfield, could have predicted what was in store for the Blues against Barca?

    And while the 33-year-old may have appeared to be in charge of proceedings for the opening 50 minutes of the eagerly anticipated contest, there was always the nagging feeling that a moment of madness was just around the corner.

    So why then did Pellegrini trust Demichelis with keeping the Catalan's forward line quiet when it seemed obvious to all and sundry that the central defender was simply an accident waiting to happen?

    L'Equipe on Martin Demichelis: "It's fairly incomprehensible that a club as rich as Manchester City can field such a mediocre centre-back."

    — Tom Williams (@tomwfootball) February 19, 2014

Irrepressible Ibra All Set for Personal-Best Campaign

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    Irresistible Paris Saint-Germain playmaker Zlatan Ibrahimovic simply carried on with the same devastating form in front of goal that the Swede has been displaying all season long in the Ligue 1 champions' 4-0 destruction of Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday evening.

    Ibra's first-half brace at the BayArena left the front man out on his own as this season's top scorer with an incredible 10 goals in just six UEFA Champions League matches, and 41 in total in the competition, while the player's second strike was just another from his ever-expanding collection of wonder goals.

    And if the 32-year-old continues on in this rich attacking vein, then the striker is on course to beat his personal-best haul of 35 goals in all competitions, which he managed both last season for PSG and once while with AC Milan.

    Currently, the pony-tailed marksman has 34 goals to his name in just 35 matches, and with still three months left of the campaign, surely only injury can now prevent this season from being Ibrahimovic's best ever.

    112 - Zlatan Ibrahimovic made 112 touches tonight, his record in a Champions League game. Omnipresent. pic.twitter.com/SX6uH39AA1

    — OptaJean (@OptaJean) February 18, 2014

Courtois Is a Class Act

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    On-loan Atletico Madrid No. 1 Thibaut Courtois once again demonstrated at San Siro on Wednesday night just what an outstanding goalkeeper he is with a man-of-the-match display in the Liga outfit’s impressive 1-0 win against AC Milan.

    The Belgium international, who for the third campaign in a row is on a season-long loan move to the Vicente Calderon from Stamford Bridge, produced two world-class saves in the first half to keep the visitors on level terms going in at the break.

    Firstly, Courtois somehow managed to tip Kaka’s deflected effort from the corner of the box onto the bar, before the 21-year-old then did even better to push Andrea Poli’s close-range header to safety via the woodwork after good approach play from on-loan Queens Park Rangers playmaker Adel Taarabt.

    And the shot-stopper’s heroic first-performance became even more vital when striker Diego Costa powered home a late header to inflict on the Rossoneri their fifth straight knockout defeat at the hands of Spanish opponents, with Atleti now firm favourites to make it through to their first UEFA Champions League quarter-final since 1997.

    An immense performance from @thibautcourtois at San Siro saw him named http://t.co/YJlIo5RElw's Player Rater winer http://t.co/p9MihS7i8e

    — Paul Bryan (@UEFAcomPaulB) February 19, 2014

Germans Do Miss Spot Kicks as Ozil Pays the Penalty

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    Arsenal’s £42.5 million record signing Mesut Ozil endured yet another frustrating night as the 10-man Gunners lost 2-0 to Bayern Munich in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League round-of-16 clash at the Emirates on Wednesday night.

    The Germany international, whose displays for the north London club have come under increasing scrutiny by the media of late, was handed a glorious opportunity to give the home side a deserved early lead after being tripped in the box by the erratic former Manchester City defender Jerome Boateng.

    However, in the absence of regular penalty-taker Mikel Arteta, who was suspended, the 25-year-old took on the spot-kick duties, despite having already missed in Europe against Marseille earlier this season.

    And sure enough, Ozil's weak effort was easily kept out by the man who went to the same school as the playmaker in Gelsenkirchen, German No. 1 Manuel Neuer, in what proved to be a pivotal moment in the match.

    Mesut Ozil has taken two penalties in the Champions League this season for Arsenal. He missed both. pic.twitter.com/Yx0F4aJf2L

    — Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 19, 2014

A Man for All Seasons

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    Not long after first arriving to take up the reins in Bavaria, new Bayern Munich head coach Pep Guardiola claimed that his skipper Philipp Lahm was “the most intelligent player he had ever worked with.”

    Now, considering just who the Catalan has managed in his career at Camp Nou, then that is high praise indeed from Guardiola. However, once again in north London on Wednesday evening, the 30-year-old proved just what a clever and skilful player he is.

    Lahm surprisingly began the first-leg tie back in his old position of right-back after having spent the majority of this season in his new role holding in front of the back four, one of the subtle changes that Guardiola implemented after replacing previous boss Jupp Heynckes in the summer.

    PASS MAP: Philipp Lahm completed 122/123 passes tonight (99%). He also made a superb assist and 2 key passes. pic.twitter.com/1kXQLn6ZPE

    — Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 19, 2014

    And that may explain why initially the experienced Germany international appeared to struggle with Arsenal's attacking forays down his right flank, although it did not take Lahm long to again find his bearings.

    However, after the Gunners were reduced to 10 men following the first-half dismissal of keeper Wojciech Szczesny, Guardiola cleverly opted to swap the always versatile Lahm with Javi Martinez in midfield, with Rafinha replacing Boateng.

    As a result, the captain was now freed to exploit the increasing gaps in the home side's back line, with Lahm inevitably then setting up first Toni Kroos for the opener, before picking out unmarked substitute Thomas Mueller late on with a perfect cross to seal the Bavarians' win.

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