UCL 2011/12 Matchday 3 Preview (Part 1)

Real Madrid vs Lyon

Unsurprisingly, Real Madrid have taken control of Group D in the UEFA Champions League. A win at Dinamo Zagred was predictably difficult, but they got three points out of it then waxed Ajax at home. Now they welcome Olympique Lyon to the Bernabeu on matchday three, a win away from just about putting the group on ice and leaving the three others teams to squabble amongst themselves for the second advancement place.

Madrid versus Lyon match-ups have become commonplace. Apparently the ping pong balls like seeing the two matched up because this is the fourth time in the last six years and third consecutive season that the two have been drawn against each other in the Champions League. Lyon eliminated Madrid two years ago in the round of 16, getting a win at home then holding on for a draw in Spain to advance en route to a semifinal appearance. Last season it was Madrid that followed that script, drawing at Stade de Gerland and winning at home to advance.

If Lyon want to top their familiar foes this time around they will need to find a way to put the clamps on Gonzalo Higuain, which is something that looks downright impossible right now. The Argentine has three hat tricks in his last four matches for club and country. Good luck to Lyon with trying to keep Higuain down in this one.

Their loss to Levante and draw with Racing Santander in the rearview mirror, Madrid have found their form once again. They've won their last four matches by a combined score of 17-3 as Higuain has shined alongside the always fantastic Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil, but it is the rejuvenated (also known as finally healthy) Kaka that has an added dimension to their attack. Those players are a handful for any club and have proven to be a uncontainable for anyone they have come up against in the last month.

Lyon's defense isn't exactly sterling either. They're not atrocious and have held their own in Ligue 1, but when tasked with keeping in check some of the league's better players, like Javier Pastore three weeks ago, their midfield looked overmatched and their defense was left scrambling. It wasn't a pretty performance and while struggling with Pastore is nothing to be ashamed about, Madrid bring a team full of players on that level.

Want to know the best way to beat Real Madrid? Being healthy is one of them and unfortunately for Lyon, they are not close to healthy. Lisandro Lopez is out, as is their midfield duo of Clement Grenier and Jeremy Pied. The Madrid back line might be in some trouble with Ricardo Carvalho a doubt and Raul Albiol out, but that decimated Lyon attack is unlikely challenge them anyways.

So let's get this straight. The Lyon attack doesn't have Lopez and their dependable midfield to go at the Madrid back line. Higuain is also on fire and there's still that Ronaldo fellow, Ozil and Kaka for Los Blancos. Oh yeah, this one is going to go swimmingly for the French side. Madrid, see your way onto the brink of the knockout stages.

Napoli vs Bayern Munich


Napoli host dangerous Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday, and the game should be an absolute blast. Bayern have crushed all who've stood before them so far this year (save Borussia Monchengladbach and Hoffenheim), but if Napoli are good at anything it's dealing with strong teams - they've already beat AC Milan and Inter this year and gave Manchester City a torrid time at the Etihad on their first Champions League matchday.

This game matters far more for the home side than the visitors, however - with City already dispatched at the Allianz Arena and looking unlikely to do more than draw against Bayern when the Germans visit England, it looks as though getting three points from this fixture could well mean the difference between second place (and the trip to the knockout stages that would go with it) and third. Bayern, early as it is to be making statements like this, should probably be considered to have first place happily locked up and deposited in a security vault somewhere. The race is for second, and that means Napoli versus City.

And that means avoiding suffering City's fate at the hands of Mario Gomez, Bastian Schweinsteiger and most especially Franck Ribery is paramount for Serie A's most likeable side. Considering the occasions on which Napoli have disappointed this year - losses to American Hero Michael Bradley's Chievo as well as Parma last weekend spring readily to mind - one might not put much hope in their avoiding a stuffing or even coming close to scoring on Bayern's goal, where Manuel Neuer serves as moat, drawbridge and ferocious monster guardian all rolled into one impenetrable package. Bayern Munich are good, the sort of good that means you have to say the word with more emphasis than the rest of its environment, which grovels at the Germans' presence. They are good. Napoli are merely good.

Fortunately for the Italians, there's some hope, because their attacking trident of Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani is amongst the most formidable in world football. It's certainly more cohesive than Manchester City's collection of forwards, excellent though that Arsenal may be, and they nearly gave Bayern some trouble in the very early stages. Why can't Napoli?

Furthermore, Napoli's problems have all stemmed from the fact that they're a team that plays on the transition. They don't do well against sides that sit back and don't let them play, unless Cavani is in one of his long-range scory-scory moods, and whenever a side has come out to attack them they've played reasonably well. The visiting side will be doing just that on Tuesday, and if Napoli can survive that storm (they'd better be hoping the likes of Paulo Cannavaro, Hugo Campagnaro and Morgan de Sanctis are at their best) they can probably hope to be the first side to score against Bayern since early August.

However, when your team needs to be perfect and the opposition needs to be poor to have a chance at three points, nobody should be expecting too much. That's not even mentioning the problem's Napoli's three-man back line (something manager Walter Mazzarri is reluctant to change) will have with Bayern's lone striker formation. All in all, it doesn't look good for the visitors.

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