Highs and lows from Europe

Updated: September 30, 2010, 12:42 PM ET
By Leander Schaerlaeckens |

Five observations after the completion of Round 2 of Champions League group phase games:

1. Gazza… Wilsha?

During Tuesday's game against Partizan Belgrade, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's prodigy-o-meter pushed past its upper limits, spat out smoke and exploded thanks to 18-year-old attacking midfielder Jack Wilshere. After Wilshere became Arsenal's youngest-ever Premier League debutante two years ago, he made his debut for England against Hungary on Aug. 11. He has now made his first serious dent in the Champions League, too.

On Tuesday, Wilshere was electric in helping set up Andrei Arshavin for the first goal, penetrating deep into the Partizan box before back-heeling the ball into the path of Arshavin, who blasted his shot into the bottom corner. Wilshere did it again soon after, setting up Tomas Rosicky one-on-one with the keeper.

Wilshere had everything to do with a dangerous flurry of Arsenal chances in the first half that should have put the game, which ended 3-1 in the Gunners' favor, beyond reach early. Wilshere's young, yes, but the kid's game is eerily similar to a young Paul Gascoigne, which bodes well for his footballing future.

2. Encore! Encore!

This may be blasphemy in some circles, but I find the group stage of the Champions League, this league of leagues, dull. Things don't get interesting until the knockout rounds, leaving you to wonder (until dollar signs enter your mind) why UEFA ever devised a group stage.

Still, there were bright spots, including Tuesday's Chelsea-Olympique Marseille affair.

The creed on OM's crest reads: "Droit au but" -- straight at goal. And that's how both teams went at it all night. It was a high-octane match, the perfect antidote to the static, conservative and negative ("pragmatic," as managers prefer to call it) approach taken in most Champions League games. Chelsea-Marseille had an exciting, if a bit fluky, goal by John Terry reacting to a shanked corner, and some good goalkeeping by Marseille's Steve Mandanda. In the end, it was a few bits of wood that kept Chelsea from winning by more than 2-0. To its credit, Marseille came to London for three points, in spite of knowing that such a tactic would likely end in no points at all.

If only every game was like this one.

3. AC Milan is not a contender this year

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho or no, this AC Milan side will not win an eighth Champions League trophy this year. While its attacking corps is bountiful, the rest of the squad is lacking in depth, as was evidenced in its 1-1 draw against Ajax on Tuesday.

While Ajax has a handful of gifted players, most notably Uruguay striker Luis Suarez, it was not expected to get a result from this game. But credit the Dutch club for taking the match to Milan. Ajax had the vast majority of quality touches in the opposing half, especially in the opening thirds of each half. All Milan could do was roughhouse its lithe opponents, hoof some long balls and attempt an endless succession of through balls, one of which, somewhat fortuitously, led to Ibrahimovic's equalizer.

As Milan was happy to stumble to a tie, Ajax was the moral winner.

Expect nothing of this Milan team this season, other than flaccid showings by a grab bag of players deemed too old or unfit by other clubs.

4. Dani Alves is overrated

Many questioned why Brazil coach Dunga would start Inter's Maicon over Dani Alves at right back during the World Cup. Alves, after all, has the reputation of being one of the world's foremost players. Watching him play for Barcelona against Rubin Kazan on Wednesday, I see no evidence that Alves should be considered a world-class player.

His defending is mediocre, his crosses erratic at best. Against Rubin Kazan, he was late to a defender and conceded a penalty, which put the Russians ahead. (Barcelona would equalize on a second penalty to set up the final score of 1-1.)

Alves' lumbering runs up the field aren't very effective, and too often his aggressive play leaves his spot in the back exposed.

5. Valencia is a remarkable story in the making

Valencia knows all about being cash-strapped. This summer, it had to sell stalwart superstars David Villa and David Silva. Nikola Zigic had to go, too, leaving the club with Juan Mata as its main ammunition.

Yet Los Che are no worse for the self-inflicted transfer window pillaging. In its first Champions League game two weeks ago, it beat Bursaspor 4-0. (Valencia is also tops in La Liga at the moment.)

On Wednesday against Manchester United in the Champions League, plucky Valencia nearly got a result. Through clever position play and solid showings from the free agents it brought aboard to replace its loss of star power, Valencia stayed with United all game. It wasn't a particularly exciting game -- OK, it was quite dreadful at times -- but Valencia created most of the chances before Javier Hernandez scored the game's only goal for the Reds in the 85th minute.

Valencia is no small club, but it could be the season's Cinderella story.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for He can be reached at

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer,
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.