Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Friday 17th February 2017 9:20

Winners

Zinedine Zidane
It is impossible to separate the two. They may be two different managers of two different nationalities with two different styles at two different stages of their managerial careers, but the clubs they manage make the comparison so easy it is inevitable. If Luis Enrique succeeds, Zidane fails. If Enrique fails, Zidane succeeds.

Real Madrid might have endured a slightly sticky patch by their own regal standards, but Zidane’s team are now firmly back on track. Barcelona’s dismal defeat on Tuesday only adds to Zidane’s worth, and only increases the satisfaction felt by Real’s supporters.

Like Enrique, Zidane’s success always carries an asterisk – the strength of the squad at his disposal. Yet it would be foolish to underestimate the job the Frenchman has done in his first top-flight role. We’ve said it before, but managing an elite club isn’t easy. Just because you don’t have to clean dog muck from the training pitch and ring around the players to make sure everybody is available for Saturday doesn’t mean that the job is any less tough, just different.

Despite the expectation of success that acts as a sword of Damocles over Zidane, he really could achieve something new this season. Bayern Munich’s thrashing of Arsenal saw them installed as favourites for the Champions League, but Real Madrid come next. If Zidane became the first manager to win successive Champions League titles, he truly would demand respect.

There is actually another statistical anomaly that Zidane could achieve this season. The last eight times that Real Madrid have won the European Cup – a run stretching back to 1958 – they have failed to win the La Liga title in the same season, an unusual gap in the honours list of such a stellar club. For their part, Barcelona have won five European Cups and each one has coincided with winning the La Liga title, that majestic double. The contrast between the two great rivals is one of football’s curios, and one which Zidane has a chance to consign to the past.

There is no doubt that Zidane’s job is aided and abetted by the talent within his squad, but those who think it is as easy as picking the team and expecting them to win matches are guilty of wilful bias. Or, as Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said after the match, “he is a very capable manager but he’s also very lucky”. It’s a handy combination.

 

The Spanish itch
The last calendar year in which none of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico Madrid changed their manager was 1972. I don’t think 2017 is going to be any different.

 

Thiago Alcantara
In July 2013, Thiago signed for Bayern Munich after a move to Manchester United fell through. The story goes that David Moyes wasn’t sure if the midfielder’s style of football would work in the Premier League, and so dallied over agreeing to the deal. In the meantime, Pep Guardiola and Bayern made Thiago feel all special, and so a deal was done.

It’s weird how David Moyes got sacked by United and Real Sociedad and is now bottom of the league with Sunderland, isn’t it?

 

Casemiro
The type of goal you write home about, and then immediately send a follow-up letter just to make sure they got the first one. Zidane found his own miraculous volley replicated by an unlikely source; there’s nothing quite like the feeling of striking through the ball with such supreme timing.

 

Arjen Robben
Now up to 25 career Champions League goals, how many of those have been scored by running down the right wing, dipping inside and sending an arrowing shot into the roof of the net?

He’s 33, his career has been blighted by niggling injuries and yet Robben just keeps on being brilliant. He’s like a footballing Benjamin Button, but with an even balder head.

 

Marco Verratti and Paris St Germain
Our early winners, for a performance and result that should send shockwaves through European football’s established elite.

 

Angel di Maria
Manchester United supporters have enjoyed Di Maria’s mediocre form since joining Paris St Germain, but on Tuesday night he clawed back some revenge. Enjoy your Thursday evening, guys.

 

Edinson Cavani
He continues to be the most famous current exponent of the Andy Cole rule of chance-taking thumb but, as with Cole, you cannot doubt the goalscoring record. In 32 club matches this season, Cavani has 34 goals. Only 17 more to go to match Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s total from last season.

 

Alexis Sanchez
A dreadful night for Arsenal, but a successful one for Sanchez. He is their best player and their most valuable asset, someone who holds all of the cards in any contract negotiations. At the moment, even getting the Chilean round the table looks a long shot.

This was not a game in which Sanchez played to his full potential, but football is a team sport and he was relying on some seriously underperforming actors. Watching him charge around the pitch in an attempt to be Arsenal’s scorer, creator and leader by example, it was hard not to wonder how effective he might be at a club where he isn’t asked to do it all by himself.

 

Benfica
Having laboured through the group stage, blowing a three-goal lead and taking only two points from four games against Besiktas and Napoli, Benfica turned up when it mattered. Score in the Westfalenstadion in a fortnight’s time and Rui Vitoria will be confident of Benfica’s second successive quarter-final place for the first time since 1969. Given that Vitoria has Kostas Mitroglou rather than Eusebio, he merits huge praise for even coming this close.

 

Kostas Mitroglou
Forty-five goals in his last 72 league games, and now a scorer in the knock-out stages of the Champions League for the first time. Mitroglou was still a Fulham player nine months ago, which is mad.

 

Presnel Kimpembe and Adrien Rabiot
For all the gold-plating and rich mahogany, it is Kimpembe and Rabiot who are the leaders of a new Paris St Germain. Both are 21, both are French, both are academy graduates and both were sodding brilliant against Barcelona.

 

Losers

Arsene Wenger
I am a man that likes routine. I write a list each night for the following day, because it helps me sleep better. I get my clothes out for the morning, because it saves unnecessary decision-making when in a state of semi-slumber. I brush my teeth in the shower to save time. I even used to get the breakfast pots out in an evening before my partner politely informed me that if I “kept shit like this up I’d be making breakfast for one”. Routine can be reassuring.

However, routine is like surprises, only enjoyable in small doses. Were you forced to eat the same meals every day, at the same times, wearing the same clothes and talking about the same topics, you’d quickly go insane and run out into the countryside and roll naked in the grass just to feel something different. As with everything in life – apart from laboured metaphors, it seems – it’s all a question of balance. Which brings us to Arsene Wenger.

The argument against Wenger leaving is that Arsenal might – and the ‘might’ is important there – miss out on Champions League qualification, in the same way that Manchester United have ‘suffered’ post-Alex Ferguson. That is the one persuasive argument: That Arsenal may fall back into the pack.

Firstly, and most obviously, they also might not. Even the staunchest defender of Wenger must concede that he has made mistakes and that his own flaws are irrevocably reflected in Arsenal’s players, the inevitable consequence of being at the same club for over 20 years. Just as we only realised fully in hindsight how positive the Ferguson effect was on United’s players, could the same principle be spun a different way at Arsenal? Might a new coach not add the freshness this squad so palpably needs?

Even more pertinent after the crushing defeat to Bayern Munich is whether the potential risk of temporarily slipping out of the Champions League is any great disaster in comparison with the possible reward, given Arsenal’s performance in the competition. After seven successive exits at the last-16 stage, let’s not pretend that supporters would be missing out on glory for any time it took to regroup. That glory is as far away now as it ever was. All the Champions League has provided Arsenal with over the last seven years is a wad of cash (and Arsenal are doing pretty well for that), plenty of false hope and continued disappointment. Anyone confident that this same cycle will be broken under Wenger is optimistic to the point of delusion.

On Tuesday evening, Eurosport’s Tom Adams tweeted that even the references to Groundhog Day are becoming their own Groundhog Day, and he’s right. Perhaps we have entered Arsenal-ception, or perhaps this is a club that has strayed too close to the extreme end in the balance between routine and surprise.

The only thing that will change that, sadly, is their manager’s departure. Like many others, I just wish Wenger had been able to leave at a time when his head could be held high in the present rather than in memory of the past.

 

Arsenal
Despite all of the above, you cannot blame Wenger for staying. He could have left Arsenal in 2013, but it never truly seemed likely. This is what Wenger knows; this is what Wenger loves. Expecting him to walk away is to ask him to risk having regrets for what wasn’t achieved rather than gratitude for what was.

Which is why clubs have directors, board members and majority shareholders. At a time when Arsenal needed to show that the club could be stronger and bigger than one man, when it needed leaders, it has shown itself to be leaderless. Allowing Wenger to choose his departure date, and leave the club waiting on that decision, may be a fine mark of respect but it hardly screams long-term planning or effective management. Other clubs have a structure; Arsenal have a fiefdom.

Allowing Wenger to choose his own future has allowed a subconscious complacency to fester. By now, senior players know which of them are Wenger’s favourites, and their manager is loyal to the point of parody. To repeat the line from Wednesday evening’s piece: ‘No pressure applied by board to manager, no pressure applied by manager to star players, no pressure applied by first-teamers to those in reserve’. Don’t be surprised when that ends in institutionalised lethargy.

 

Kieran Gibbs
Speaking of players afforded too much loyalty, I woke at around 4am on Thursday wondering how old Gibbs was. Not only is that a sad indictment of my own mind, but also how absurd it is that Gibbs has become part of Arsenal’s furniture.

This is not intended as a slur on him per se. Gibbs is a perfectly adequate back-up left-back for a top-six team. But Gibbs is now 27. He wasn’t good enough to start high-profile matches at 22, 23, 24, 25 and 26, and he still isn’t good enough now.

In the Champions League alone since 2011, Gibbs has started in a 4-0 defeat to Milan, a 2-1 defeat to Dortmund, a 2-0 defeat to Bayern Munich, a 2-0 defeat to Dortmund, a 3-1 defeat to Monaco, a 2-1 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb, a 3-2 defeat to Olympiakos and a 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich. That includes three of Arsenal’s most humbling last-16 performances.

Gibbs is far from the only guilty party, but he is a poster boy for Wenger’s damaging lack of ruthlessness with his fringe players. For all their faults, does anyone honestly think Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola, those who Wenger would wish to call his peers, would stick by Gibbs for an enitre decade?

 

Francis Coquelin
Two tackles in 77 minutes from your most defensive midfielder against a team who had all the ball and were attacking for almost the entire match – how is that even possible? Still, at least Coquelin now knows that Robben is left-footed and quite likes dipping inside to take a shot.

 

Granit Xhaka
Don’t you get comfortable, sunshine. You only made three tackles in 90 minutes, and the last guy didn’t cost £35-sodding-million.

 

Sarah Winterburn
She tried so bloody hard to be positive, and this is how they repay her?

 

Luis Enrique
Our early loser. When they said Arsenal needed to match Barcelona in the Champions League, they didn’t mean this.

 

Maurizio Sarri
Having squandered a lead, albeit it against the pre-round favourites for the competition, Sarri was probably fairly low on cheer as he wandered into his post-match press conference in Madrid. It was at that point he discovered that his boss, Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, had ranted to Italian television about Sarri’s tactics, the attitude and mentality of the players and a lack of personality in the team. Cheers boss.

“I wish the president would say things to me and not to the television,” said Sarri, with the perma-weary voice of a wife whose husband has a tendency to get his member out late in the evening at social events.

 

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
It is often asked why more penalty takers don’t shoot down the middle, given that goalkeepers typically dive one way or the other. The answer lies in Aubameyang’s penalty miss on Tuesday: It makes you look bloody stupid when the goalkeeper stands still.

 

Andres Iniesta
Just as Barcelona’s European dynasty may have reached its final throes, there will be questions whether that is replicated in their great midfielder. Messi’s performance confused you, but Iniesta’s inability to match Rabiot and Verratti just made you incredibly sad. The greatest representation of what Barcelona do may just becoming the greatest representation of what Barcelona were.

 

Lionel Messi
Even superheroes have days where they put their capes on backwards and fly straight into buildings before dropping the damsel in distress.

 

Daniel Storey


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