[UEFA CUP]It's that time of the year when things can start to look bleak. The nights are drawing in, the leaves are falling, the nights are getting colder, and the entirety of the UEFA Cup group stage stretches out ahead like so many games you'd rather not know about. But like it or not, we are bringing you the latest news on the progress of Kharkov, Zilina, Heerenveen, NEC and Nancy toward lifting the trophy now almost wholly obscured by the big bad shadow of the Champions League.
Part of the competition's problem is that some committee of knaves passing itself off as UEFA's marketing arm inserted the unwieldy group stage into what was a perfectly fine knockout competition. As the top three out of five teams in each group qualify for the next round, the combination of zero tension and a surfeit of unattractive opponents means that crowds tend to stay away. Next year, another UEFA marketing genius has decided, the competition will be rebranded as the Europa League. The swell of excitement among fans and potential sponsors has yet to make itself felt.
In Thursday's first round of games, AC Milan strolled to a 3-1 victory at Heerenveen (Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato only came off the bench with 18 minutes left), Schalke 04 beat Paris St. Germain by the same score in front of the night's biggest crowd, almost 49,000, and in the closest things to qualify as glamour matchups Hertha Berlin tied Benfica 1-1, Sevilla of Spain beat Stuttgart 2-0, and Aston Villa edged Ajax, 2-1, with American Brad Friedel in goal. Other Italian victories were achieved by Sampdoria (2-1 at Partizan Belgrade) and Udinese -- 2-0 at home to a continually miserable Tottenham Hotspur team reduced to 10 men.
Any shocks? Not as such, although two La Liga sides lost on the road -- Racing Santander of Spain fell 1-0 to Twente Enschede of Holland, while CSKA Moscow downed Deportivo la Coruna 3-0. And English FA Cup holder Portsmouth was tanked 3-0 by Sporting Braga of Portugal.
Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp complained before the game that the group stage imposed too many games on the participants and that the competition's lengthy schedule, as well as the ludicrous addition of Champions League failures halfway through, makes it one of the hardest to win. He favors a return to the old knockout rounds from start to finish. But he and the rest of us will likely be stuck with what UEFA, in its wisdom and desire for yet more TV cash, has gifted us -- Champions League Lite.
FC Twente 1 (Denneboom) Racing Santander 0
Schalke 3 (Mabiala OG, Kuranyi, Altintop) Paris St. Germain 1 (Chantome)
DID NOT PLAY: Manchester City
Standings: Schalke 04 (3 points), FC Twente (3), Manchester City (0), Racing Santander (0), Paris St. Germain (0),
Galatasaray 1 (Kewell) Olympiakos 0
Hertha Berlin 1 (Pantelic) Benfica 1 (Di Maria)
DID NOT PLAY: Metalist Kharkiv
Standings: Galatasaray (3 points), Hertha Berlin (1), Benfica (1), Metalist Kharkov (0), Olympiakos (0)
Partizan Belgrade 1 (Diarra) Sampdoria 2 (Bonazzoli, Dessena)
Sevilla 2 (Romaric, Renato) VfB Stuttgart 0
DID NOT PLAY: Standard Liege
Standings: Sevilla (3 points), Sampdoria (3), Standard Liege (0), Partizan Belgrade (0), VfB Stuttgart (0)
Dinamo Zagreb 3 (Mandzukic, Balaban, Vrdoljak) NEC 2 (Carlos OG, Janssen)
Udinese 2 (Di Natale PK, Pepe) Tottenham Hotspur 0
DID NOT PLAY: Spartak Moscow
Standings: Udinese (3), Dinamo Zagreb (3), Spartak Moscow (0), NEC (0) Tottenham Hotspur (0)
Braga 3 (Aguiar, Renteria, Alan) Portsmouth 0
Heerenveen 1 (Pranjic PK) AC Milan (Jong-a-Pin OG, Gattuso, Inzaghi) 3
DID NOT PLAY: Wolfsburg
Standings: Braga (3 points) AC Milan (3), Wolfsburg (0), Heerenveen (0), Portsmouth (0)
Aston Villa 2 (Laursen, Barry) Ajax 1 (Vermaelen)
MSK Zilina 1 (Rilke) Hamburg 2 (Petric, Olic)
DID NOT PLAY: Slavia Prague
Standings:Aston Villa (3 points), Hamburg (3), Slavia Prague (0), Ajax (0), MSK Zilina (0)
FC Copenhagen 1 (Santin PK) St Etienne 3 (Gomis, Perrin, Payet)
Rosenborg 0 Club Brugge 0
DID NOT PLAY: Valencia
Standings:St. Etienne (3 points), Rosenborg (1), Club Brugge (1), Valencia (0), FC Copenhagen (0)
Nancy 3 (Zerka, Feret, Helder) Feyenoord 0
CSKA Moscow 3 (Dzagoev 2, Vagner Love) Deportivo la Coruna 0
DID NOT PLAY: Lech Poznan
Standings:Nancy (3 points), CSKA Moscow (3), Lech Poznan (0), Deportivo la Coruna (0), Feyenoord (0)
Format: Top three teams from each group qualify for next knockout round, together with the eight third-placed teams from the Champions League group phase.