Lee Dixon: Villas-Boas was brave, Arsène was bold, City were ambitious. It makes Europe so absorbing

The Weekend Dossier
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And they reckon that the Champions League is getting predictable? You certainly can't say that about the first week back in the competition, which was one of the most absorbing you could have asked for, with Arsène Wenger, Roberto Mancini and Andre Villas-Boas all making bold statements, in different ways. Arsène's was the one which came closest to backfiring and it did make my night in Dortmund a nervous one. It worked out OK in the end, of course, but it was the week when I watched Arsenal get within a couple of minutes of winning a match, fail to do so and I still thought: "I'd have taken that."

Arsène set his side out with a very attacking formation in Dortmund and, though I wouldn't exactly say that was a strange way of playing, it was certainly a brave one, coming off the back of that Manchester United result.

There's a nervousness about the club, still, and that's perfectly understandable. It takes more than an iffy 1-0 home win over Swansea to make them feel that they're back on the straight and narrow. It will take a while.

What was Arsène's thinking? I think he looked at Borussia Dortmund and how they play the same system as Arsenal, concluded it would be a footballing game and set a team out to say "we will outpass you". I can't say that what happened across the next 90 minutes panned out that way. If Robin van Persie had not scored that goal when he did – before half-time – I think it could have been a different story but, as always, it's results you're judged by. The scoreline has a way of rewriting the story.

Arsenal were hanging on in the first half and you have to say it did not make pleasant viewing at times. There were quite a few times when Dortmund opened them up completely through the middle, and the new central defensive partners – Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny – looked like two players who had not played much together. Then you had the 19-year-old Mario Gotze coming off his line, cutting inside, making diagonal runs and clever balls. You have to say that Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun, two of the other new players, were both quite quiet on the night because Dortmund dominated the possession. It was not a game that showed their qualities up. But they all stuck at it.

I didn't see the game going the other way, as it did when Van Persie scored. Dortmund paid for their own ambition – it only took one mistake – and the goal changed everything. If they had gone in at 0-0 it could have been a different outcome but instead things got easier. Gotze didn't look the same player when he was moved into the middle in the second half and Arsenal also played a bit deeper after the break and negated the threat.

It was an outstanding night for Alex Song. Mertesacker and Koscielny's partnership grew. It was a good night for Pat Rice, too. No one tends to talk about the manager's assistant when the boss gets a touchline ban but Arsène will have been pleased with the way Pat performed. He changed things around and apparently he gave them a real rollicking at half-time. It was good that he was vocal. So though Arsenal were so close to getting a win, the result was a good one in the circumstances.

The same goes for Manchester City, who have been producing irresistible football and played in such an ambitious way once again against Napoli. They would have been expected to win, of course, but I think it will have been good for them not to have everything their own way. It's a different type of football in Europe, a different type of opposition and a new experience for them as a team. They are a squad full of individual talents and I still expect them to flourish in the tournament.

Villas-Boas took a gamble of a different kind – in his team selection. It was a very brave thing to do, leaving out Frank Lampard and John Terry, and yet not hiding behind a position like "I need to rest them for Manchester United". Villas-Boas just said he wanted to give other players a chance and that's something that will gain him respect. It's not every young manager who'll have the courage to do a thing like that and it can bend a few noses out of shape. It helps that Terry and Lampard are the kind of players who will take it. They're used to their names always being there on the sheet but they're also good professionals, not kids. A move like that will help the squad, too, and give people a feeling that there's a chance marked down for them with the new manager. That'll make a big difference to a lot of players. These things can backfire and a goal can make an imaginative decision look like a foolish one. As with Arsène's gamble, the proof was in the result, which went comfortably with Chelsea. There was no shortage of boldness in Europe this week.

Five Asides

1. Bond with fans as strong as the bund

Monday was the charity trading day held by BGC Partners, the brokerage firm who lost 658 people in the 11 September attacks. Ever since that day, they've donated all their trades on the anniversary to charity. The idea is that people like me go on the floor and do some trading. The trader hands over the phone and suddenly you're haggling for a price. It's usually someone who's an Arsenal fan that you're haggling with, so before you get down to business they want to ask "what's happening to our club?" and to know all about Arsène. "What did he have for his breakfast this morning?" As if I live next door to him! It's a genuinely great day. I traded two million bund, apparently. I won't be giving up the day job!

2. What is the atmosphere like at Dortmund?

It blew me away, the way the fans get behind the team. And, as I think I said on my radio broadcast for 5 Live, the yellow toilet paper. Slightly unusual, that one! Not sure if the idea worked!

3. So, now I really am in the other camp

All those nights on European trips with Arsenal, sitting on the plane for the flight home, waiting for the press to get on, knowing they'd probably make us late. And there I was on Tuesday night in Dortmund, first off the media bus on to the plane – with all of them waiting for me! Slightly embarrassing! A word with Arsène, a nod at a few of the lads and that was it. I had crossed the line. I mean, do I honestly look like a press man?

4. Crazy that Germans were in pot four

Under the Champions League system, somehow the German champions were lowest seeds. I know it's based on experience in Europe but they've won the Bundesliga! Mario Gotze was a standout player, even though he's still young, and another talent is their centre-back Mats Hummels, who has an old head on his shoulders with his reading of the game, anticipation, last-ditch tackles, distribution. But pot four? Something's not right!

5. United face their first real test

Everyone is saying United are way out ahead of Chelsea. But we were all talking this time last year about Chelsea walking the league and look what happened. I do think Chelsea are behind United as a squad. Both have signed new players but United's signings enter a generally settled environment while Chelsea's arrive at a club where everybody is getting to grips with a new manager, a new protocol. Juan Mata is going to add flair and taste to the side, I've also liked what I've seen of Daniel Sturridge and there's no doubt that Fernando Torres will start scoring at some point. United might be ahead but they're not bankers. Not just yet, anyway!

Lee Dixon's verdict on all the weekend action

Blackburn Rovers vs Arsenal

Odds: Home 10-11 Draw 12-5 Away 3-1

Kick-off Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Junior Hoilett has been passed fit, despite suffering con-cussion last week. Thomas Vermaelen, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey miss out for Arsenal, but Alexandre Song and Gervinho return from suspension.

Aston Villa vs Newcastle United

Odds: Home 10-11 Draw 12-5 Away 3-1

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Jermaine Jenas (thigh) and Emile Heskey (hamstring) miss out for Aston Villa. Newcastle are without Davide Santon, with Ryan Taylor likely to deputise. Hatem Ben Arfa remains short of match fitness.

Bolton Wanderers vs Norwich City

Odds: Home 8-11 Draw 5-2 Away 4-1

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Strikers David Ngog and Tuncay are both pushing for debuts for Bolton, while Stuart Holden is nearing a return from injury. Norwich have John Ruddy back from a ban, while James Vaughan is available.

Everton vs Wigan Athletic

Odds: Home 4-7 Draw 14-5 Away 5-1

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Royston Drenthe is pushing for a first start for Everton, while Denis Stracqualursi may also feature. Emmerson Boyce (hamstring) is doubtful for Wigan, but Shaun Maloney could make an appearance.

Swansea City vs West Bromwich Albion

Odds: Home 7-4 Draw 23-10 Away 7-4

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Garry Monk (foot) could make a first appearance of the season for Swansea, with Steven Caulker (knee) out for four to six weeks. West Bromwich have Gabriel Tamas suspended for three games.

Wolverhampton Wdrs vs Queen’s Park Rangers

Odds: Home 5-6 Draw 5-2 Away 16-5

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Wolves may be without striker Steven Fletcher (groin), while Stephen Hunt and Kevin Foley are doubts. Queen's Park Rangers have no fresh injury worries, with Kieron Dyer, Jamie Mackie and Rob Hulse still out.

Tottenham Hotspur vs Liverpool

Odds: Home 6-4 Draw 11-5 Away 8-5

Kick-off Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news Rafael van der Vaart, Aaron Lennon and William Gallas are nearing returns for Spurs but Michael Dawson is out. Glen Johnson misses out for Liverpool, while Steven Gerrard (groin) may not be risked.

Fulham vs Manchester City

Odds: Home 11-2 Draw 14-5 Away 4-7

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news Brian Ruiz is likely to start on the bench for Martin Jol's side. James Milner has been ruled out for City, while Nigel de Jong also misses out. Aleksandar Kolarov is in the squad, despite a broken nose.

Sunderland vs Stoke City

Odds: Home 7-5 Draw 11-5 Away 21-10

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news: John O'Shea returns from a calf strain to take the place of the suspended Phil Bardsley for Sunderland, while Connor Wickham may start. Asmir Begovic replaces Thomas Sorensen in the Stoke goal.

Manchester United vs Chelsea

Odds: Home 5-6 Draw 5-2 Away 7-2

Kick-off Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news Didier Drogba (concussion) again misses out for Chelsea. Manchester United are without Tom Cleverley (foot) and Nemanja Vidic (calf), with Danny Welbeck also a week from returning.

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