Pitchside

5 things we learned from this week’s Champions League

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It was a good week for the four group winners, all of whom proceeded to the Champions League quarter-finals without too much trouble.

But there were still plenty of story-lines to come out of this week¹s European action. Here is what caught our eye this week:

How do you solve a problem like Mesut?

Four days can be a long time in football. Last weekend, Mesut Ozil ended a 16-game run without a goal by opening the scoring in Arsenal's FA Cup win over Everton. No other current German international in an attacking position had gone longer without a goal (injuries notwithstanding).

"He seems physically regenerated," said Arsene Wenger after the Everton game. "He had more strength in his legs and did lots of dirty work for his team-mates."

Maybe that was why Wenger started Ozil wide right against Bayern, to track the runs of David Alaba. It didn't happen: Alaba was Bayern's most dangerous attacking player in the first half and Ozil was replaced at half-time after suffering a hamstring strain.

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There was little sympathy for him in the English media: "Ozil and Out" was the Mirror's headline while the Daily Mail, harshly, accused him of "nicking a living". This all-or-nothing attitude encapsulates Arsenal fans in a nutshell, according to Suddeutsche
Zeitung: "There is total joy or manic-depressive rage. In between: nothing."

The same is now true of Ozil: a brilliant bargain when he first joined, and now a busted flush and waste of money. The truth, as always, is somewhere between the two extremes.

Stefan Rommel, writing on Spox.com, pointed out that Ozil has 16.5 million fans on Facebook, almost as many as Arsenal itself (22 million) and that when he apologized after his penalty miss in the first leg ­ a 155-word apology in German ­ he received nearly 19,000 comments. Rommel wondered if Ozil's focus had shifted, too much, into the world of marketing campaigns and branding strategies.

Ozil did start Germany's last friendly against Chile one week ago ­ he even set up the winner for Mario Goetze ­ but he was booed off the pitch after his substitution and faces a tough three months if he wants to keep his place as Germany's number 10 at the World Cup. First he needs to get fit again. But it's far too early to write him off.

France's refereeing crisis:

The French FA has overhauled its refereeing department this season but given the performance of Stephane Lannoy at Camp Nou on Wednesday, it will need to do a bit more than that. Lannoy did not favour one side over the other, but simply made mistakes throughout the game: he could have given Barcelona a penalty for a foul on Lionel Messi after eight minutes, and the same to Manchester City for one on Edin Dzeko late on, a decision which so incensed Pablo Zabaleta that he ended up with a second yellow card. France Football's Philippe Auclair summed up Lannoy's performance with one word:
"Catastrophique".

Lannoy was on FIFA's long-list to officiate at the World Cup this summer but he did not make the cut. That news, back in January, heralded navel-gazing in France about the lack of quality among their referees: it will be the first time since 1974 that no French referee has been at the World Cup.

Pascal Garibian, former president of French football league's disciplinary commission, is the new referees' technical director in France and has announced his intention to "rejuvenate refereeing" in France by improving the officials' communication skills and encouraging the profession as a vocation. One of France's most famous referees, Joel Quiniou, who holds the record for most World Cup matches (eight across three tournaments, 1986,
1990 and 1994) said things are improving: "Before it was all about rules, rules, rules, but now we are seeing the human aspect more, and respect and behaviour are becoming important too."

The last time a Frenchman refereed a European final was the 2001 UEFA Cup final, when Gilles Veissière was in charge. Garibian has his work cut out if that wait is going to end any time soon.

History beckons for Atletico:

Diego Simeone was playing for Atletico Madrid in 1997 when the Spanish side last reached the Champions League quarter-final; it was 1977, when Simeone was seven, when they last won a knock-out game at this stage, beating FC Nantes; and Simeone was four in 1974 when Atletico, with Pepe Reina's dad Miguel in goal, reached the European Cup final, losing 4-0 after a replay. For Bayern, Uli Hoeness, who has had better weeks, scored twice.

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Forty years later, is a repeat possible? Borussia Dortmund did it last season, confounding the reputations of bigger clubs (notably Real Madrid) to reach the final. But BVB had at least spent the previous season in the group stage; for Atletico, this is their first time back in the competition since 1997. All credit, then, to Simeone, who has fashioned a side that is still a contender for La Liga and has a proven record in Cup football, as beating Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup final and Real Madrid in last season's Copa del Rey final proves.

"Football owes Atletico this trophy, and this term they're entitled to feel in with a chance of calling in that debt," wrote Alfredo Relano in AS after Atletico trounced AC Milan 4-1. "A few others will be in there; but after a game like that, who has it in them to snuff out the Rojiblancos' dreams?"

Is Bayern's penalty hoodoo returning?

Who knows just how good Bayern might have been in recent years had they beaten Chelsea on penalties in the 2012 Champions League final. That might not have given them the hunger to win the treble last year, or seen Pep Guardiola come and improve the side this season. And yet one of the few flaws from the Heynckes era remains: Bayern have an Achilles heel from the penalty spot. Lucky for them that they could afford to miss two penalties against Arsenal ­ David Alaba in the first leg, Thomas Mueller in the second ­ and still get through fairly comfortably.

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Mueller has scored five penalties this season while Arjen Robben scored from the spot in Bayern's recent win over Schalke (though that was to secure his hat-trick). It's unlikely that a team up against Bayern would even make it to penalties but the latest wobble does make you wonder if German players' supposed infallibility from the spot is something of a myth.

The year of the Zlatan:

Have you noticed Zlatan Ibrahimovic popping up everywhere recently? One minute he's out-pacing a Volvo on Scandinavian ice-peaks, the next he's doing keepy-ups in a volcano. He was quieter in PSG's 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen, ending a run of scoring in five straight Champions League games (and so failing to join an elite list who managed six in a row which includes Ronaldo, Burak Yilmaz and, er, Marouane Chamakh). He also matches Ronaldo for goals this season ­ 38 ­ though has played in four more games.

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France Football this week backed Zlatan's claims for the 2014 Ballon D'Or (everyone's a candidate, of course, but to do so 10 weeks into a World Cup year seems both premature and optimistic) and suggested that his image makeover would only help him. "We know how important image is," said former Auxerre coach Guy Roux conspiratorially. "If Franck Ribery had not gone through a car windshield when he was little, can we be sure he would have still finished third in the Ballon D'Or?" Um, I think the answer to that is probably yes.

The magazine, a co-organiser of the award, pointed out that no-one moans about Zlatan's salary any more and his agent Mino Raiola brilliantly described him as "Platini, Van Basten and Pirlo all rolled into one player".

The main issue with the Ballon D'Or is not that FIFA have now piggy-backed the award and made it less interesting (although that's true too); it's that a calendar year award which spans two seasons simply doesn't work. Take the World Cup out of the equation for a second: even if Zlatan wins the Champions League with PSG (it is possible), and Ronaldo, Messi and say, Gareth Bale, all score 30 goals each between September and November, then that trio will be in the running. Make the Ballon D'Or a seasonal affair; then Zlatan would surely have a podium place for this campaign.

Ben Lyttleton is the author of the soon-to-be-published book Twelve Yards:
The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty

Follow Ben on Twitte @benlyt

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