Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 22nd October 2015 7:30

Wayne Rooney Moscow

Winners

Kevin de Bruyne
There were initial concerns about how Manuel Pellegrini would fit De Bruyne into his Manchester City team, but there is a level of form and ability where the honest response is a shrug of the shoulders and “it doesn’t really matter when he’s playing like this”. The Belgian has already reached that level.

‘What are we to make of Wolfsburg’s demand of £46m for Kevin De Bruyne, a player who was given his chance and could not stay in the team at Chelsea?’ wrote Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail as City announced the signing. ‘Mourinho has proved to be a considerably better judge of players suited to English conditions than the recruitment arm of Manchester City in recent years — and £46m is an awful lot of money to bet on reversing the form.’

What we’re to make of it is that City bought one of the finest players in world football at the age of 24. The price was far less important than the difference he could – and has – made.

De Bruyne has started six games for Manchester City in the Premier League and Champions League. Two as a right winger, one as a left winger, one in a more reserved left midfield role and two in a No. 10 position. If Pellegrini wanted versatility, he has his wish. If he wanted one of Europe’s star players, he has that too.

This is a player at the very top of his game, any seam between De Bruyne’s form in Germany and England invisible to the naked eye. He has already contributed five goals and four assists in all competitions, his latest vital contribution a calculated left-footed winner belying the chaos around him. The Belgian’s coolness in front of goal is startling for a midfielder.

If the common logic is that nobody can replace David Silva’s majesty, De Bruyne is certainly doing a more than passable impression. Last season in the Premier League and Champions League Silva created a chance every 29.1 minutes, the country’s creator extraordinaire. So far this season, De Bruyne is doing so at a rate of one every 24.8 minutes. He’s already halfway to Silva’s goal total too. Swoon.

 

Manchester City and late goals
Five of City’s last six Champions League victories:
4-2 vs Viktoria Plzen – goals scored in 78th and 86th minutes.
3-2 vs Bayern Munich – goals scored in 85th and 90th minutes.
2-0 vs Roma – goal scored in 86th minute.
2-1 vs Borussia Monchengladbach – goal scored in 90th minute.
2-1 vs Sevilla – goal scored in 90th minute.

In the last two years alone, City have scored eight goals in the last five minutes of Champions League games. He who laughs last, laughs longest (or at least until the last-16 stage).

 

Hector Bellerin
It’s not the mistakes you make, it’s the steps you then take. That could be a lyric from a 911 song, but is an important lesson for young footballers, and particularly full-backs. Bad games will come along. Good wingers might have your number.

During the first half against Bayern, Douglas Costa victimised Bellerin. There was one particular skill that left the right-back with twisted blood, but the entire half was a struggle. Arsene Wenger must have considered substituting him at half-time.

Bellerin could have been forgiven for going into his shell during the second half – not a bit of it. Aided by Douglas roaming onto the right wing for lengthy spells, the right-back was arguably the player of the second period. His phenomenal run to assist Mesut Ozil’s clincher was the karmic ending to a near-instant redemption.

“I think Costa is a top-class player, what I like is two top-level players; in the end Hector found the resources in the last 10-15 minutes to get on top of him, and that is fantastic to see from a boy of 20,” purred Wenger after the match. “Of course he will learn from this, he was top-level. I like the fact that he has that desire to get on top of his opponent until the last minute.”

Bellerin’s pace is the headline-maker, but his place in Arsenal’s side ahead of Mathieu Debuchy owes more to his defensive resolve than anything else. Many young full-backs show tendencies to be caught out of position or dive into challenges, yet these are precisely the areas in which Bellerin excels. He’s the seventh-youngest defender to start a Premier League game this season, remember.

Now for the best bit. Bellerin’s performances have predictably brought whispers of a possible return to former club Barcelona, but the defender says he has no thoughts of ‘doing a Cesc’.

‘I have played 38 games already and I am only 20. There are not many players who can say that,’ he told Marca this week. ‘I came to Arsenal to stay. I am not thinking about going back. I am in my fifth season now and I feel very much at home. It would be difficult for me to leave.’

This could be Arsenal’s right-back for the next seven or eight years. On current evidence, that should make them very happy.

 

Petr Cech
Arsene Wenger waved away the predictable question in his post-match press conference, but Cech’s recall to Arsenal’s Champions League side gave away the answer. David Ospina shouldn’t have played a minute in this competition.

Cech did not make a save against Bayern that you would not expect him to make, but that is precisely the point. He offers a calmness that Ospina fails to provide. Cech makes defending easier, and Wenger will not make the same mistake for a third time.

 

Olivier Giroud the super-sub
In the Winners list for scoring Arsenal’s first goal (via his hand, it must be said), but whether Giroud will welcome his new tag is debatable.

In truth it doesn’t matter what the Frenchman thinks, as long as the plan works. Theo Walcott dovetailing with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil stretches and tires a defence, softening them up for the introduction of Giroud. Rio Ferdinand alluded to how difficult it is for a central defender to adjust to a different type of forward mid-game, and Giroud has been the beneficiary of that. He scored against Leicester from the bench, he scored against Watford from the bench and he scored against Bayern Munich from the bench.

“I have seen that in the last two weeks that he is coming back to his best but the focus he brings and the spirit he shows is he is a winner,” Wenger said of his striker. “He gives us a different option, when it does not work on the ground he gives us options in the air and both Walcott and Giroud I like.”

The question is whether it persuades Wenger to start Giroud. Those quotes above – “when it does not work on the ground” – suggests that he is now firmly Arsenal’s Plan B, the back-up yang to Walcott’s yin.

It’s a difficult dilemma for a striker. You want to score to impress your manager, but the more goals you score from the bench (and the more your side win), the greater the risk of establishing an unwanted reputation.

 

Zenit and Andre Villas-Boas
Having announced last month that he would be leaving Zenit at the end of the season, the rest of this campaign became an extended exercise in CV-bulking for Villas-Boas. Things are going very well indeed.

The reigning Russian champions may be sat third in the Premier League, but their Champions League form is something else. Having beaten Gent at home and won away in Valencia, Zenit beat Lyon 3-1 to become the only team with a 100% record after three matches. Remarkable.

Villas-Boas’ side have maximised the opportunity afforded to them by UEFA’s alterations to group stage seeding. The most points they’ve ever managed in their six group games is nine. That total has been equalled after half their matches.

For AVB, it continues a necessary redemption after his spells at Chelsea and Tottenham. He may not head back to England after leaving Russia, but what price a big job in Spain? Atletico when Simeone gets tempted to move on?

 

Olympiakos
Match or better Arsenal’s result in Gameweek 4 (and they have a far, far easier task), and Olympiakos will able to celebrate qualification with a draw against the Gunners at home. That should make Arsenal supporters gulp a little.

 

Chelsea
Winners not for the result, which keeps them third in Group D, but the manner of the performance. If the victory over Aston Villa was achieved in spite of themselves, we saw signs of Chelsea life on Tuesday.

At one end Chelsea were more effervescent, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas interchanging passes like they did last season. Sixteen times the ball went between the two in 75 minutes, eight apiece. Finally there is a spark between two of the club’s best players last season.

Mourinho’s side should have had the lead by half-time, too. Hazard struck a post, Matic prodded wide after good build-up play and Fabregas felt aggrieved not to be awarded a penalty. Willian hit the bar with a free-kick after half-time. Jose must have wondered if it was to be another sob story in a season of sorrow.

But it was Chelsea’s defence that was the most impressive. Cesar Azpilicueta marshalled Andriy Yarmolenko expertly, and there was a certainty to their defending that has been missing in action unacceptably often this season.

Jose Mourinho targeted four points from the double header against Dynamo Kiev, so the draw in Ukraine represents a job half done. More pleasing will be consecutive clean sheets for only the second time since April.

 

Anthony Martial
‘Erm, what on earth was that fella? If you were looking for the dictionary definition of ‘hands in an unnatural position’, that’s it.’

Those are the notes I wrote when including Martial in the losers section at half-time on Wednesday evening. By full-time, the Frenchman had scored with a diving header. It was his fifth goal for Manchester United and his first in the Champions League proper. Into the Winners you come. Have a seat.

 

Ideye Brown
Couldn’t score for toffee at West Brom, but Brown has already scored in an Athens derby victory, a win against rivals PAOK Salonika and the winner against Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday. Looks like Olympiakos have the right Ideye.

 

Jackson Martinez
Having your time on the pitch split with Fernando Torres isn’t a great trend for any €35m signing, and Martinez was desperate for a goal against Astana. The idea was that the Colombian would be an upgrade on Mario Mandzukic, but one goal in ten appearances was an inauspicious start.

It was bobbly, it was ugly and it was fortunate, but Diego Simeone and his players did not care a jot. The outpouring of joy towards Martinez after his first-half finishes indicates the huge goodwill for him to succeed.

 

Eden Hazard
Still not back to his best, but better. He’s back in the team, for starters.

 

Ivan Rakitic
Left on the bench by Luis Enrique, Rakitic was introduced after Barcelona suffered yet another injury in midfield. Sergi Roberto’s loss was Barca’s gain – Rakitic scored his first goals since the Champions League final to keep his side at the top of Group E.

There is an argument for Rakitic being European football’s most underrated player, despite being a fixture in Barcelona’s midfield. His first goal was driven high into the top corner after being afforded too much space on the edge of the box, the second a nonchalant dink over the onrushing goalkeeper.

It will be interesting to see what Enrique does with the arrival (or at least registration) of Arda Turan in January, but it would be a bloody crime if it’s Rakitic who misses out.

 

Juan Mata
Conclusive evidence, if it was still needed, that if you take Mata out of this Manchester United team then a 19-year-old new signing is the only one capable of providing a spark. That’s a bloody sad state of affairs.

 

Miralem Pjanic
Scored with four of his last six free-kick attempts. No Pjanic.

 

Malmo
Only their second-ever victory in the Champions League proper since it changed from the European Cup, and a huge step towards cementing third place. With Real Madrid and PSG as the other two opponents in their group, that’s the best they can hope for.

 

BT Sport’s Champions League show
At first I wasn’t sure about BT Sport’s flagship Champions League programme. Watching 20-30 seconds of matches at a time left me a little cold, as if I was getting miniscule snippets of the action but never the whole picture of any one game.

It took some getting used to, but I’ve since changed my mind completely. This is like football tapas, tiny bites of flavour that come together to create a sumptuous meal. The pundits are informed and intelligible, the format is a dream and James Richardson is re-establishing his reputation as the finest presenter of televised football.

To me, watching a round-up show shouldn’t be better than watching a live game in full. This has made me rip up the rule book. I’m head over heels.

 

Losers

English teams away from home in the Champions League
Since November 2012, Manchester United have played nine away Champions League games. They’ve won one.
Since November 2013, Chelsea have played ten away Champions League games. They’ve won two.
Since December 2013, Manchester City have played six away Champions League games. They’ve won two.
Since November 2013, Arsenal have played eight away Champions League games. They’ve won three.

Thirty-three matches on the road played by England’s elite. Only eight of them victories.

 

Manuel Neuer
It’s through no fault of Neuer’s own that people wax lyrical about how he ‘revolutionised goalkeeping’, but it does cause a wry smile when the German then makes a hash of something simple.

After a save of truly world-class proportions from Theo Walcott, all the focus post-match was on the mistake that let Olivier Giroud bundle the ball home. It’s a tough gig being a goalkeeper.

 

Jose Mourinho
When will the bleating end?

Mourinho may consider it a worthwhile method of self-preservation, but this ‘woe is me’ schtick has passed the line of bearability. Choosing to use the same words as Arsene Wenger in calling the referee “weak” and “naive” may have been mere coincidence, but it would seem a stretch. Mourinho’s references to Wenger have become almost as regular as Chelsea’s below-par performances.

In the Daily Mirror, John Cross likened Mourinho’s current sulkiness to a five-year-old continuously asking “Are we nearly there yet?” and the comparison fits. The paranoia, manufactured or otherwise, is really galling, particularly given Mourinho’s obvious aptitude.

“It appears to us that increasing levels of fine are not on their own going to be a reliable deterrent for Mr Mourinho against improper comments to the media,” read the Football Association’s reasoning for his current suspended ban. You can’t blame them either. These continuous public displays of disaffection are becoming an unedifying hallmark of this season.

 

Roma
Threw away a two-goal lead with ten minutes left to leave them in a bit of trouble in Group E. Rudi Garcia would not have expected to be behind BATE Borisov after half of his side’s matches, particularly after drawing to Barcelona in their opening fixture.

 

Branislav Ivanovic
Chelsea’s defensive resilience returns to coincide with the Serbian’s absence through injury. There will be plenty of supporters recommending Felix Magath’s infamous cheese-rubbing as the appropriate treatment for Ivanovic. Don’t rush back, Bran.

 

Manchester United
I’m tentatively including United as losers despite their draw in Moscow. This was a night on which it felt Louis van Gaal’s side again took one step back after a flurry of forward steps against Everton.

United were lethargic and sluggish in possession once again, a performance reflected in the display from captain Wayne Rooney. Anthony Martial struggled to make an impact wide left, while Marouane Fellaini is still an effective but joyless Plan B. More issues are left unanswered than solved.

CSKA Moscow’s home record is impressive, but United are sleepwalking through this group. Missing out on top spot to Wolfsburg could cause a rude awakening in the last 16. Four points from three matches is a 5/10 achievement for a 7/10 team, on current evidence. 

 

Dinamo Zagreb
Their first defeat at home since November 2014, and a hammer blow to their hopes of progression. A campaign that started with sweet victory over Arsenal has soured before October is out.

 

Shahktar Donetsk
Having battled past Fenerbache and Rapid Vienna to get this far, it all feels for nought. Just like the goals for column: 0-4, 0-3, 0-1.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo
Scored with two of his last 89 free-kick shots. Maybe chance to change that silly stance, chap.

 

Daniel Storey

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