Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Friday 10th March 2017 10:20

Winners

Barcelona

“If a team can score four times against us, we can score six times against them.”

Luis Enrique will never deliver a more iconic, more historic message. The Barcelona manager’s words were treated as a typical display of bravado from a beaten, broken man on Tuesday. It was advised that they were to be taken with a vat of salt. Not even the most optimistic individual could expect any team – not even Barcelona – to overcome a 4-0 first-leg defeat.

Those quotes will now go down in history as a precursor to the most astonishing, remarkable and enthralling comeback in Champions League history. Liverpool’s triumph in the 2005 Champions League final was breathtaking, and some will argue that Manchester United’s feat in this very stadium in the 1999 showpiece was a greater accomplishment, but Barcelona were pronounced dead twice at the Nou Camp before staging the most miraculous of resurrections.

When a Luis Suarez header, a Layvin Kurzawa own goal and a Lionel Messi penalty put Barcelona within touching distance, the home fans believed. But the clue to the scenes that would unfold came in Enrique’s pre-match words. The manager spoke not of scoring four times or five times, but of having to score six times against PSG. He knew the French side boasted too much firepower to resist for 90 minutes. He knew Barcelona would concede.

So they did. And the timing of Edinson Cavani’s 65th-minute strike was crucial. What had looked impossible at the start of the evening had began to look merely improbable, then the Uruguayan snatched all hope away. Their task was impossible once more.

As late as the 88th minute, Barcelona needed three goals. Neymar scored a sublime free-kick, but it was too late. Suarez tumbled in the penalty area, allowing the Brazilian to net his second goal from the spot. The impossible looked improbable again. Then Sergi Roberto confirmed his place in Barcelona history with the sixth, a full five minutes into stoppage time.

And yet this was hardly Barcelona’s finest performance. Suarez and Lionel Messi were subdued, and their teammates somewhat panicked in possession, aware of the enormity of the task they faced. Cavani and Angel di Maria had opportunities to end the tie, while referee Deniz Aytekin was happy to play his part, overlooking dives which would make an Olympic swimming team blush.

But this was not an evening to concentrate on the how. It was an occasion to ponder the rhetorical: ‘How the f***?’ It was the sort of game the neutral could revel in and enjoy. It was a true ‘Where were you?’ moment. It was bloody brilliant.

 

Luis Enrique
Perhaps every manager should start announcing their imminent departure in mid-season. No boss has ever won two trebles featuring the Champions League, let alone in the space of three seasons. A much-derided individual stands on the edge of history.

 

Neymar
Amidst the madness, Barcelona needed a cool head. An experienced individual. A leader.

Lionel Messi has been relied upon countless times in similar situations, but he was nowhere to be seen. Luis Suarez has drawn superhuman performances from both himself and his teammates before, but not this time. Andres Iniesta is a supremely talented player, but this was beyond even his powers.

Neymar turned 25 only last month, but he is no stranger to shouldering such burdens. He carried the hopes of a whole nation at a home World Cup three years ago, and he dragged Barcelona into the quarter-finals with one of the best performances in recent memory.

His free-kick was sublime, and his penalty was the most pressurised moment of the whole game. Miss and the hope of a whole stadium, a whole fanbase, evaporates. Score and there is a chance.

Even when the Brazilian’s spot-kick caressed the net, Barca still needed one more, and inspiration from his error-strewn teammates was not forthcoming. He was forced to provide the inspiration once more. His deft chip into the box in the fifth minute of stoppage time was a display of extraordinary composure.

No player had more shots (6). No player had more shots on target (3). No player had more touches (109). No player completed more dribbles (4). No player was fouled more often (8). Barcelona needed a hero, and no player was more happy to oblige.

 

Samuel Umtiti
Barcelona have actually signed a decent centre-half!

 

Bayern Munich
When Bayern Munich beat RB Leipzig 3-0 in their final game before the winter break, it felt as though a corner had been turned. They had struggled for much of the season, transitioning from the iron rule of Pep Guardiola to the raised eyebrow of Carlo Ancelotti. Dismantling a Bundesliga title rival was a timely confidence boost, as well as a reminder of what they were capable of.

In the weeks since returning, Bayern’s form and results reverted to the disappointing norm that had typified their season. They beat Freiburg with a stoppage-time winner. They edged a 2-1 victory over Werder Bremen. They drew 1-1 with Schalke. They beat Ingolstadt 2-0 with goals in the 90th and 91st minutes.

The pressure was hardly mounting on Ancelotti and his players, but it was bubbling below the surface. A Champions League last-16 tie with Arsenal does wonders for the confidence, however. The 5-1 first-leg victory was followed by a typical 1-1 draw with Hertha Berlin, secured with an equaliser six minutes into stoppage time. But 8-0 and 3-0 Bundesliga victories served as a precursor to a second 5-1 win over the Gunners in the space of three weeks.

Question marks remain over Bayern, who were bettered by Arsenal for large swathes of their two-legged encounter, but a 10-2 aggregate win is proof of their killer instinct. They top the Bundesliga by seven points, are in the DFB-Pokal semi-finals, have already won the DFL-Supercup, and are now second favourites to win the Champions League. And that is Bayern Munich when they are struggling.

 

Thomas Tuchel
It was the kind of result which puts Thomas Tuchel in an envious position. The manager was reported to be considering his future at Borussia Dortmund back in October, having fallen out with a member of the club’s staff.

By February, Dortmund released a statement on the German’s future, saying that they will hold “talks” at the end of the season. “We will also have to see whether we agree on the strategic planning of the club, and on communication matters, and a thousand things,” they said.

A 4-0 win over Benfica puts the ball in Tuchel’s court, with Dortmund strolling into the quarter-finals of the Champions League for only the third time since 1999. The 43-year-old’s contract at the Westfalenstadion expires in 2018, and he is a man in demand. Arsenal?

 

Borussia Dortmund’s young guns
Christian Pulisic, 18, scored one and assisted another, and is now the third youngest goalscorer in the history of the Champions League knock-out stages.

Julian Weigl, 21, controlled the midfield, and is seen as the future of the club.

Ousmane Dembele, 19, actually endured one of his poorer performances, yet was still a constant threat.

 

Real Madrid
They have now scored in 47 consecutive games in all competitions – an all-time Spanish record. Zinedine Zidane has managed 69 games since being appointed manager in January 2016; Real have failed to score in just three of them.

 

Sergio Ramos
Of the 21 goals Sergio Ramos has scored since the 2014 Champions League final, 18 have been when Real Madrid are drawing or losing. He is a ruddy warrior, and a deserving early winner.

 

Alvaro Morata
A return to his boyhood club has hardly gone to plan – of his 31 appearances, just 13 have been starts – but he is maximising his opportunities, however scarce. His 13th goal of the season puts him behind only Cristiano Ronaldo (25) and Karim Benzema (15) in the goalscoring charts for Los Blancos.

 

Sergi Roberto
Someone timed their first goal since September 2015 to absolute perfection, didn’t they?

 

Laurent Koscielny
If any player can ever emerge from a 10-2 aggregate loss with any credit, Laurent Koscielny can. Arsenal were drawing 1-1 before his substitution due to injury in the first leg, and winning 1-0 before his contentious red card in the second. I’m sure that will console him.

 

Presnel Kimpembe
He looked brilliant in the first leg, subduing Barcelona’s fearsome front three, yet somehow looked better in the second leg. That’s what playing in a 4-0 win before being dropped for a 6-1 defeat will do.

 

Theo Walcott

Eurgh.

 

Losers

The general population. Again
In the aftermath of Manchester City’s 5-3 victory over Monaco in the first leg of their last-16 tie, Sarah Winterburn wrote about how we needed Champions League football back on our TVs. It was the perfect game, ‘wasted on a channel that almost nobody watches’.

Or, at least, it seemed like the perfect game. Then Barcelona beat PSG 6-1, and some of us cried because we didn’t watch it. What the f*** is BT Showcase anyway?

 

Arsene Wenger
“I am absolutely revolted and sorry to the people who pay a lot of money to see this kind of game,” said our early loser on Tuesday, trying to distract from the car crash by pointing to cows in a nearby field.

That Arsene Wenger was discussing the performance of the referee, and not of yet another Arsenal capitulation, was the final insult for many fans. They had just witnessed their side suffer a second 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich in the space of three weeks. A 10-2 aggregate defeat – the heaviest ever suffered by an English side – was secured.

At this stage, there is little more to add on the situation. But when fans of rival clubs are expressing the same anger and disappointment at yet another Arsenal failure as the club’s own fans, a line has been crossed. For many, Wenger is no longer a laughing stock, but a figure of pity. And for an increasing number of Arsenal fans, frustration has given way to apathy. There is only one way to go from there.

It feels almost as though the footballing world is watching Wenger, an elderly relative, die slowly. Many of us just want it to be over, for the pain to stop. Yet somehow, the patient has been put in control of his own life support machine.

 

Arsenal fans
The minority once again spoil it for the majority. Let us not tar every Arsenal ‘fan’ with the same brush, for it was only a couple hundred who chanted that Arsene Wenger was “killing our club” before the game with Bayern. Supporters of Blackburn, Coventry, Leyton Orient and numerous other sides up and down the country, in actual danger of liquidation or similarly grisly fates, must really envy the situation those Gunners fans find themselves in.

Unfortunately, Arsenal supporters are compartmentalised into two sections: Wenger In, and Wenger Out. If you preach the latter, you are typecast as a man on YouTube, dripping in club merchandise, dedicating his life to the ‘he who shouts loudest’ mantra. But there are many who admit that it is time for the Frenchman to step down, while simultaneously hoping that he can do so in a civilised manner befitting a club legend, not while being chastised and being accused of “killing” the club he loves.

 

Arsenal
Said Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis in the summer of 2013:

“We should be able to compete at a level like a club such as Bayern Munich. I’m not saying we are there by any means but this whole journey over the past 10 years really has been with that goal in mind.”

Arsenal have faced Bayern Munich six times since; the aggregate score is 18-6 in the German side’s favour.

“We are moving into a new phase where, if we make our decisions well, we can compete with any club in the world,” Gazidis would add in that interview. The board’s decision to hand complete autonomy to an increasingly struggling manager is perhaps not “making our decisions well”.

 

Arsenal’s game management
Said Mats Hummels:

“You just say: ‘OK, we take this 1-1 or we take maybe a 1-2.’ The 1-5 doesn’t look good. But maybe they felt that they could score again so it was OK for them to keep playing like this but, of course, then we played things really well.

“Arsenal wanted to keep being offensive. They tried to score another goal to win this game [on the night], because the way that they played, maybe they felt like they deserved it and I don’t think that’s wrong to think [that way]. But then, we have been very clever in the counterattacks. We had some very nice goals. They lost the ball sometimes too easy, and so I think this result can happen in a game that was clearly not a 5-1, if you see the whole 90 minutes.”

Said Theo Walcott:

“We should’ve been smart and just [opted for] damage limitation really.”

Two players of varying talents recognised the gravitas of the situation, yet the manager in question could not. If Theo Walcott displays more tactical nous, there is a problem.

 

Paris Saint-Germain
Before Thursday, the last time French newspaper L’Equipe used a front-page headline of ‘INQUALIFIABLE!’ was in relation to the country’s loss to Bulgaria in 1993, which ended their hopes of World Cup qualification.

That the same headline – ‘UNSPEAKABLE’ – was used in the aftermath of PSG’s defeat at the Nou Camp encapsulates just how embarrassing a loss this was. It is every bit of a national failure as that fateful day in 1993, if not more so.

PSG had one of Europe’s great superpowers at their knees. Barcelona were humbled in the first leg on Valentine’s Day in Paris, but the only massacre witnessed in the second leg was self-inflicted. Barca were hardly irresistible; PSG, even with a four-goal advantage, then 5-3 aggregate lead on away goals, froze.

When Barcelona needed inspiration, Neymar stepped up to the plate, pointed to the skies and hit home run after home run. PSG sought leadership from someone, anyone, but pointed fingers only at each other in the hope that someone would assume responsibility.

The performance of the referee aided Barcelona’s miracle. Both of the penalties he awarded were debatable, while Javier Mascherano admitted after the game that he had fouled Angel di Maria in the penalty area as his compatriot shaped to shoot. But PSG’s players loaded the gun and pointed it at their feet; the referee simply helped them pull the trigger.

 

Unai Emery
In June of 2016, Paris Saint-Germain sacked head coach Laurent Blanc. The French side won Ligue Un by 31 points, and had claimed the Trophée des Champions, Coupe de France and the Coupe de la Ligue to secure an unprecedented second quadruple in as many seasons.

Club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi was unimpressed despite such domestic dominance. “We need change,” he declared, describing exit at the Champions League quarter-final stage to Manchester City as “failure”.

Quite what Al-Khelaifi thinks now, only he could possibly know. But PSG trail Monaco in the Ligue Un table, and conspired to squander a four-goal first-leg advantage in the last 16 to Barcelona. Winning the Trophée des Champions might not spare Emery his job.

 

Lucas Perez
The final nail in the coffin of a bizarre spell. Arsene Wenger opted for a pacy front three of Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck against Bayern, before Welbeck was withdrawn through illness. The Frenchman then completely discarded his tactical set-up, starting Olivier Giroud while Lucas Perez reprised a familiar role on the bench. The £17million summer signing has scored or assisted a goal every 76.9 minutes in all competitions, yet the manager who bought him still does not trust him. That’s where being second choice to Jamie Vardy gets you.

 

Angel di Maria

The best way to truly ‘shush’ more than 90,000 people would be to score when put through one-on-one, pal.

 

Thiago Silva
The inverted Presnel Kimpembe. Thiago Silva missed the 4-0 first-leg victory over Barcelona through injury, but was restored to the starting line-up at the Nou Camp. The club captain did not make a single tackle in 95 minutes.

 

Dries Mertens
“When I go to bed tonight, I’ll see that ball coming off the post again,” said a despondent Dries Mertens on Tuesday evening. He had handed Napoli the lead and a burst of hope with his 23rd goal of the season, before coming within an inch of putting the Serie A side ahead in the tie on away goals against Real Madrid 12 minutes later. His misfortune was compounded with an own goal to give the visitors a second-half lead. The line between success and failure has rarely been so thin.

 

Thomas Muller
Before Tuesday, the last Champions League game Thomas Muller failed to play despite being available was in November 2014. The German has been part of the Bayern Munich furniture since making his debut in 2008, but Carlo Ancelotti has opted to keep him in storage for much of the season.

“Obviously I like to play in every game, particularly in knockout games,” the forward said in February, discussing his new role as squad member, not guaranteed first teamer. “I’m not happy with a place on the bench,” he added, but that is the new reality for the 27-year-old. He is simply not suited to Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 formation. Only four players played more minutes in all competitions in both 2015/16 and 2014/15, but nine players have featured more often so far this season.

So it continued against Arsenal, as Muller watched from the substitutes’ bench as his teammates enjoyed a second 5-1 rout of the Gunners in the space of three weeks. It was an unthinkable scenario as recently as this summer, but the vital cog has become a spare part.

 

Arjen Robben
Alexis Sanchez robbed the poor bairn of the chance to cut inside before scoring by passing it to him, so he simply had to make do without. It wasn’t the same.

 

Victor Lindelof
Way to impress Jose Mourinho.

 

Group A
The winners of Group A were knocked out in the last 16 after losing 10-2 on aggregate. The runners-up were knocked out in the last 16 after spurning a 4-0 first-leg lead and a 5-3 aggregate lead on away goals after 88 minutes of the second leg. Arsenal and PSG have given the Group of Death a whole new meaning.

 

Matt Stead

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