GILES SMITH'S THURSDAY THOUGHTS
The past week's football has thrown up much for columnist Giles Smith to compare and contrast, not to mention define…
The most important result on Tuesday night was, of course, the one in Denmark. A win for Juventus against Nordsjaelland, which most people casually expected, would have put them second in the group. The fact that, against all odds (and despite something in the region of 30 attempts on goal) they only managed a 1-1 draw meant we could downgrade our own result in Donetsk from code red (a potentially campaign-wrecking points-drop) to code green (a mildly disappointing off night against a very good team). This was a happy outcome.
The bare reality of Group E has always been this: that if we stay ahead of Juventus, we qualify. Three matches gone, then, and we're exactly on track.
One report described Oscar's 88th-minute goal against Shakhtar as 'no more than a consolation goal'. Well, one can see what was meant, given that we ended up losing - and the word 'consolation', when used in the phrase 'consolation goal', traditionally means 'absolutely no consolation whatsoever'.
Even so, an interesting point was raised in that description because is it technically possible to score a 'consolation goal' in a game that finishes 2-1? Don't 'consolation goals' traditionally come in games where a side is trailing 4-0 or 5-0, or worse, and then sticks one in and takes it home as 'a consolation'?
If that's the case, then I would say a goal scored in the 88th minute at 2-0 down in a Champions League group stage match isn't a consolation goal so much as a goal which suddenly puts you right back into a match with a decent chance of levelling up and achieving a valuable draw in the two minutes plus stoppage time remaining. Players whose teams have scored a consolation goal don't normally bother to pick the ball out of the net and sprint back to the centre circle with it. I think that's how you tell the difference between a 'consolation goal' and… well, let's just push the boat out and call it 'a goal', shall we?
The fact that it was only 2-0 at the point at which Oscar scored that 'consolation goal' was very largely down to Petr Cech who, for a considerable portion of Tuesday night's match, appeared to be making his own personal highlights video to distribute via YouTube. Shakhtar had a punishing 17 shots on target in those 90 minutes, and the fact that this wasn't reflected more obviously on the scoreboard tells its own story.
This followed another similar burst of brilliance at an important time in the enormously enjoyable victory at Tottenham; and one before that at Arsenal; and one before that in the victory in Denmark against Nordsjaelland. Most of the talk is, naturally enough, about the blend of new and exciting talent up front in this cleverly remodelled side, but it ought not to be allowed to mask the fact that our old goalkeeper has been once again on sensational form, doing what he does.
Indeed, personally, I don't think there is a better goalkeeper in the Premier League. Some people will mention Joe Hart, but that's the Joe Hart who comes out to wave at Polish corners, in the way that one might step outside to wave at floats during a carnival. To my mind, Cech is more reliable than Hart and has the better temperament. And also the better hat. There is no goalkeeper I would rather have than the one we've got.
Are yellow cards bigger in the Champions League? I don't mean their impact - I mean the size of the actual piece of cardboard waved by the referee.
I may be wildly wrong about this, and it could just have been an optical illusion. But it first occurred to me on Tuesday when David Luiz got booked and the referee seemed to brandish a yellow implement considerably larger than the ordinary. The impression only grew last night during Manchester City's game against Ajax when the referee went to book a City player and seemed to hold up something roughly the size of a programme.
Is there a bigger card for Europe? A standard European measurement on cards, at odds with the domestic measurement? It would be very like UEFA somehow. And very like Europe. Or is it just that everything connected with the Champions League somehow seems bigger? Someone will tell me eventually.
On Sunday it's Manchester United at home in the Premier League. And then on the following Wednesday, it's Manchester United at home in the Capital One Cup. Can one have too much of a good thing? Perhaps we should talk about that next Thursday.
Meantime, one could look superficially at this week's adventures in the Champions League, where we lost our game and United somehow scraped through theirs, and conclude that United were the side coming in to the first, and more important, of those fixtures on a roll. This would be patently absurd, though. In fact the opposite is true.
Better, surely, to go into a game as important as Sunday's on the back of a narrow away defeat to a very good side on storming form than on the back of an embarrassingly narrow home victory over a fairly poor side who entered through the qualifying rounds. United will be preparing for these fixtures riven with uncertainty, as they appear to have been all season. That doesn't make them any less dangerous, of course. But we couldn't be in a stronger position.