We saw the best and worst of the Champions League. At Stamford Bridge, I saw Chelsea steamroller their way past Belgian side Genk, scoring four by half-time before easing off the gas, eventually winning 5-0. Meanwhile, in Portugal, another of the competition’s lesser lights, APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus, held Europa League winners Porto to a 1-1 draw to stay top of their group.
Genk and APOEL are both champions of their own countries but they owe their place in the group stages of the competition to the changes introduced by Michel Platini in 2009. Clubs from middle-ranked countries such as Belgium and Cyprus have come through at the expense of top-ranked countries, who are now drawn against each other in the qualifying rounds.
In the past two season’s Italy’s fourth-ranked side, Sampdoria and Udinese, have both failed to make the group stages, losing to Werder Bremen and Arsenal respectively while this year Russia’s Rubin were beaten by Lyon.
The changes have freed up space for the likes of Genk, APOEL, Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb and Viktoria Plzen of the Czech Republic. Dinamo are pointless after three games, while Genk and Plzen have a point apiece. However, APOEL are arguably the form team of the competition, having beaten Zenit at home and picked up draws at Shakhtar and Porto.
APOEL have few, if any, big-name players on their books as they compete in the Champions League for only the second time. They have a Kaka, but he is the Brazilian defender who played for Braga in their Europa League campaign last season, rather than the more famous namesake at Real Madrid.
Argentinian forward Esteban Solari is the brother of former Real Madrid midfielder Santiago Solari, and a member of a famous footballing family – his uncle is Jorge Solari, who played for Argentina at the 1966 World Cup and whose daughter is married to former Argentina star Fernando Redondo.
Portuguse midfielder Nuno Morais, who was at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho but never made the grade, has carved out a career for himself in Cyprus.
The star of the campaign so far has been Ailton, a Brazilian who made waves in Denmark with Copenhagen before switching to APOEL in summer 2010. With four goals in the qualifying rounds to add his two in the group stages, he is currently the competition’s top scorer.
APOEL coach Ivan Jovanovic is a Serb who enjoyed a modest playing career in Greece before embarking on a coaching career in the region. In European competition, APOEL have been set up for the counter-attack, with surprisingly effective results so far. Nevertheless, reaching the last 16 of the competition would be a stunning achievement.
In contrast, Genk are dead and buried already. After last night’s game, Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas paid tribute to his counterpart, Mario Been, recognising the Dutch tradition of attacking football. But there was no disguising how poor the Belgian champions were.
But such is the nature of the Champions League group stages. The big teams are rarely knocked from their stride. And stories like APOEL are few and far between.