Yesterday we saw a series in marqueé clubs in action across a number of decent (not great) matches. Today, we get our marqueé match, though the rest of the day's fixtures are likely to be overshadowed.
Manchester United, drawn at home by Rangers on match day one, goes to the Mestalla to take-on upstart Valencia. After losing Davids VIlla and Silva (and Carlos Marchena) this summer, Los Che surprisingly occupy the top spot in Spain's Primera Division after a convincing weekend victory earned while resting players.
Conversely, United played a full team this weekend. They were grawn at Bolton and (again) allowed multiple goals. In their eight competitive matches (I'm generously counting the Carling Cup), United's only won four, with their only road victory coming at Scunthorpe United. Having traditionally struggled in Spain, United may be happy with (and set-up for a draw.
Elsewhere, Barcelona returns to Kazan to face a weaker Rubin team than the one that took four points from last year's Blaugrana. The holders, Internazionale, welcome Werder Brememb to a Guiseppe Meazza while Dutch champions Twente are the first Champions League visitors to White Hart Lane.
The rest of the fixtures fail to compel. At least, by Champions League standards.
Where we left off: Twos all around as each of the group's four teams scored and allowed two goals, each earning one point after greats in Enschede and Bremen.
Where we stand now: Each club should believe they can get out of group. Twente was the underdog, but after taking a point from the holders (and seeing how Spurs and Werder have played), the Dutch champions should dare to dream. While none of the other teams should adjust expectations, Werder failing to get full points at home to Spurs puts them in a small hole.
Tottenham Hotspur (England, 1 point) versus FC Twente (Netherlands, 1 point) - Twente is coming off a draw with league-leading Ajax, Theo Janssen bagging another brace. A depleted Spurs defense allowed only one goal to relegation-embattled West Ham United but failed to get on the scoresheet. Pushing Gareth Bale back into midfield (with the return of Benoit Assou-Ekotto) will help.
Internazionale (Italy, 1 point) versus Werder Bremen (Germany, 1 point) - Despite sitting first, fans and media seem worried about Inter after their weekend loss to Roma. Their draw at Twente contributes to the crisis of confidence, and against a Werder team who gave the Nerazzurri trouble in group stage two years ago (taking four points), the papers may find more persecution material after Wednesday's match. Both teams have significant injury absences, with Inter missing Diego Milito, Thiago Motta and Javier Zanetti while Werder's without Naldo, Clemens Fritz, Torsten Frings and Claudio Pizzaro.
Where we left off: Lyon and Benfica cruised to wins in a group that looks to be one of the weakest in recent Champions League memory.
Where we stand now: Lyon's continued struggles in Ligue 1 hint this may be Benfica's group for the tacking, though the Eagles also look a step-off last year's pace, having already lost three times in Liga. Still, Schalke and Hapoel have given us little reason to think they'll threaten these two weakened favorites.
Schalke 04 (Germany, 0 points) versus Benfica (Portugal, 3 points) - Schalke has finally started to show some life in the Bundesliga, taking four points from their last two matches. Benfica's won two-in-a-row in league but have failed to replace the dynamism lost with Ángel Di Maria's move east. Playmaking midfielder Pablo Aimar is set to miss the match, mitigating Benfica's ability to exploit a Schalke defense that has allowed 12 goals in six league matches.
Hapoel Tel Aviv (Israel, 0 points) versus Lyon (France, 3 points) - Lyon's in 18th in France and have not won since bringing Yoann Gourcuff in from Bordeaux. Perhaps worse, they don't look promising, either. Whereas you could justify bad results if the team is showing signs of their potential, Lyon looks like a team with the potential to spend the whole season wondering why Gourcuff isn't the player he was two years ago. In other words, they could prove last year's Bordeaux, just with worse defenders.
Where we left off: Manchester United was being drawn at home by Rangers while Valencia debunked the notion of Turkey being a tough road trip, destroying Bursaspor.
Where we stand now: Valencia continues to sit atop the Primera. Manchester United continues to beguile. If you evaluated today's snapshot of these clubs, Valencia would be the group favorites. For Valencia, United's trip to the Mestalla's coming at just the right time.
Valencia (Spain, 3 points) versus Manchester United (England, 1 point) - Is there reason to believe United's defending will be better today than it's been all season? Perhaps, considering Ferguson's shown a willingness to play for draws on the road in Champions League. However, given the leaking defense and Valencia's start, United goes to Valencia as underdogs. In addition, United will be without Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Antonio Valencia, while Los Che will miss Ever Banega.
Rangers (Scotland, 1 point) versus Bursaspor (Turkey, 0 points) - Rangers won't approach this match the same way they did the trip to Old Trafford, and given Bursaspor's performance against Valencia, there's no need for such reverence. Turkey's teams have performed poorly in Europe since Fenerbahçe made the Champions League quarters three years ago. Though Bursa is perfect in league and has only allowed one goal, they're within reach for Rangers.
Where we left off: Barcelona used Panathinaikos as methodone after getting strung-out by Hercules, winning 5-1 at the Nou Camp. Copenhagen got a late goal against (formerly favored to go through) Rubin Kazan in Denmark, illustrating the gap between Barcelona and Group D's other clubs.
Where we stand now: All of the Hercules-fostered doubts about Barcelona have been squelched. Copenhagen's form in league, where they're running away from the rest of Denmark, speaks to a club that could challenge for second, while Rubin and Pana sit second in their respective leagues.
Panathinaikos (Greece, 0 points) versus Copenhagen (Denmark, 3 points) - Panathinaikos has already lost twice in Greece, allowing four goals through as many matches, both measures sharp downturns from last year. Granted, the form Pana showed last season would be a high standard to replicate. However, their current form hints they could be vulnerable, and while Copenhagen wasn't especially strong against Rubin, the Danish club needs only a point in today's match to take control of the race for second. In addition, Pana will be without Sidney Govou, who picked up a thigh injury Sunday.
Rubin Kazan (Russia, 0 points) versus Barcelona (Spain, 3 points) - Given the lack of challengers in this group, Barcelona can afford to cruise through group play. While Pep Guardiola has named his first choice players in the starting lineup, it's really uncalled for. It would be better for the team to pace itself, but what do I know? The spot on my mantle for my Champions League trophy is adorned in dust, not hardware. Regardless, Barcelona will put it's best foot forward - sans the injured Lionel Messi - in the day's early start.
||Hapoel Tel Aviv