Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 20th April 2017 11:00

Winners

Juventus’ defence
A few ridiculous statistics:

– In their 15 previous home games before Wednesday, Barcelona had scored 61 times. They scored no goals against Juventus.

– Since Barcelona had last failed to score at home in the Champions League (May 2013, vs Bayern Munich), they had played 20 matches in the Camp Nou. Barca had scored 72 goals in those games. They failed to score against Juventus.

– Before Wednesday, Barcelona had managed 35 shots on target in their four Champions League home games. Against Juventus, they managed one.

If they can be kept apart in the semi-finals and manage to progress, Juventus facing Atletico Madrid really would be a fascinating final in Cardiff. These are surely the best two defences in world football.

 

Monaco’s goalscoring
This is only the second time Monaco have reached the knockout stages of this competition since 2005, but any suggestion they were here to make up the numbers has been emphatically disproved. Their attack is growing in strength, not stalling. They have scored 12 times in four knockout matches. Only Bayern Munich have more, and they got to play twice against Shkodran Mustafi.

Monaco have now played 54 matches in all competitions this season. They have scored three or more goals in 25 of those matches. Ludicrous.

 

Leonardo Jardim
– He’s 42.
– He has taken his team ahead of France’s financial heavyweight to the top of Ligue 1.
– He has developed a wonderful crop of young, exciting players.
– He has achieved progress despite selling key members of the squad for high fees, reinvesting that money in young players.
– He has advanced beyond on the Champions League quarter-finals.
– He prefers an attacking brand of football.

If that wasn’t enough, how about this:

“The Premier League is a very important championship, perhaps the most important in Europe. Everybody would one day like to have the opportunity to work there.”

You can get 20/1 on Jardim to be Arsenal’s next manager; that’s shorter than Brendan Rodgers. Just a thought.

 

Kylian Mpabbe and Cristiano Ronaldo
Two players have scored five knockout goals in this season’s Champions League. One is an 18-year-old potential superstar in his debut Champions League campaign, while the other is a 32-year-old sporting behemoth who has reinvented himself at least twice in his pursuit of collective glory and, yes, individual accolades. It would be a truly fascinating semi-final or final to see a shoot out between the two.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo, by himself
The 41st hat-trick of his Real Madrid career. Forty-one hat-tricks!

Tuesday was also the 13th time in his career that Ronaldo has scored more than once in a Champions League knockout game, for those who still ludicrously accuse him of being a flat-track bully. Lionel Messi is on 11, for those keeping count.

 

Zinedine Zidane
Three games away from becoming the first manager to win consecutive Champions League titles since the competition’s re-branding, in his first two seasons in first-team management. That is outrageous, whatever the resources at Zidane’s disposal.

 

Leicester City supporters
At first the pre-match pyro party felt a little forced. It was as if Leicester City were trying to atone for their shortfall in on-pitch quality with loud bangs and shiny foil flags, like a man with a badly receding hairline and small penis buying a sports car.

Yet as the second half wore on, and supporters in the King Power realised that this was a bridge too far for an overachieving team, they embraced the positive elements of Leicester’s Champions League exit. As I wrote after the game, an initial rush of disappointment is understandable, but the pervading, lasting mood must be one of pride.

Shortly after board was displayed to signal the amount of stoppage time that would be played, the King Power rose almost as one to applaud their heroes. Players fell to the turf as the final whistle blew, but there was no deflation in the stands. This was a carnival atmosphere, not because they could go no further but because they had come so far.

Leicester were never supposed to be here. Having gatecrashed the Champions League party, they danced longer into the night than any of the Premier League’s usual invitees, got drunk on the punch and made plenty of unlikely friends. It may be years, decades even, before they return to this stage, but that only makes enjoying the experience so crucial. You won’t find a Leicester fan who hasn’t had a blast.

 

Jamie Vardy
“He would fit in at the vast majority of teams in the world,” said Diego Godin. “He works, sacrifices himself for the team, and on top of that scores goals. Who wouldn’t want a striker who kills himself for you, then gives you attacking solutions?

“At the Calderón he was virtually alone and if he didn’t touch the ball often that doesn’t mean he’s not a great striker, quite the opposite. It’s because we paid him so much attention. We were focused on not giving him space, cutting off access to him.”

Those are significant compliments rather than throwaway lines from arguably the best central defender in the world. The following day Vardy would score Leicester’s equaliser. He may not have scored during the group stages of the Champions League, but goals against Sevilla and Atletico have left Vardy’s mark on this competition. At 30, was this his first and last taste?

 

Gianluigi Buffon
After the first leg results, we ran a poll asking which team you wanted to win the Champions League. Monaco came fifth, Borussia Dortmund fourth, Atletico Madrid third and Leicester City second, but Juventus were clear winners.

When we queried on social media why Juventus had won the vote (God, we’re so 21st-century), one answer and one answer alone came back: Gigi Buffon.

Buffon has won nine Serie A titles, three Coppa Italias, the UEFA Cup and the World Cup, but he has never lifted the Champions League. Were he to be the driving force behind a Juventus triumph at the age of 39, there is no football fan in Europe who would not consider it a fitting honour for such wonderful service.

 

Antoine Griezmann
No goal, no assist, no shot on target and no chances created; that is evidence enough of why statistics can only tell you so much.

Griezmann played the majority of the game at the King Power in second gear, deliberately slowing down play in the second half. Yet he also retains the ability to burst past three players as if they are statues, and is so damn difficult to dispossess that it’s worth giving him his own ball.

 

Diego Simeone
The easiest draw of the quarter-finals, of that there is no doubt. Yet Simeone is now one round away from a third Champions League final in four years. A reminder that at the latest count Atletico Madrid’s revenue was €228.6m. By way of comparison, Arsenal’s was €468.5m and Manchester United’s €689m.

 

Losers

The end of Leicester’s era
For all the appreciation of what came before, there is an inevitable ‘After the Lord Mayor’s show’ mood surrounding Leicester City, one that could last for years. Broadly speaking, supporting a football team is about enjoying the micro (individual moments, players and matches) but with an eye on the macro (the hope of glory).

Yet Leicester have achieved that macro goal. They are not a club who were ever likely to create a dynasty of dominance in the way Liverpool and Manchester United did and Chelsea and Manchester City would like to do. Last season, and during the campaign of Champions League football that followed, Leicester effectively ‘completed’ football by any reasonable measure.

Therein lies Leicester’s next challenge. They have accrued an enormous amount of goodwill among supporters, but it is impossible to shift the sense that whatever comes next will be a disappointment to everyone. How do you follow that when the only obvious answer is that you can’t?

It is this mood which hung around the King Power in the early months of 2016/17, only alleviated after the kick up the backside provided by Claudio Ranieri’s sacking, but even that was counteracted by a debut Champions League challenge. It is this mood too that Craig Shakespeare must battle against this summer, if he is given the job on a permanent basis. Having stayed for the after-party of Leicester’s title win, is this the window in which Riyad Mahrez engineers a move? Can they keep hold of Wilfred Ndidi?

Finally, it is this mood, and the management of it, that will define where Leicester go next. Better to have risen and fallen than never to have risen at all, but three years of Premier League consolidation will never have felt so tedious. When you’ve been used to dining on the finest foods, bread and butter can taste awfully plain.

 

Premier League
The following lists the number of Champions League semi-final competitors in the last five seasons:
Spain – 10
Germany – 5
Italy – 2
England – 2
France – 1

The quarter-finals list is even more bleak:
Spain – 15
Germany – 9
France – 6
England – 4
Italy – 3
Portugal – 2
Turkey – 1

For all the sarcastic Best League In The World™ accusations, the Premier League does remain one of the most exciting divisions in the world to watch, and one in which players from across the world aim to play.

Yet the failure of the Premier League clubs to make significant progress in the Champions League is a concern to those whose job it is to spread the gospel of English football across the world. There are mitigating reasons for the decline (Manchester United and Liverpool rebuilding, Arsenal stalling, Manchester City not yet fully embracing the competition), but the result is no less unedifying. We are playing catch-up, and have been for some time.

 

Borussia Dortmund
A horrible episode in a difficult season. Thomas Tuchel and his team will have had high hopes for the Champions League quarter-finals when the draw was made, but they were lost through a combination of under-performance, emotional strain and questionable administration on the part of UEFA. They must now put all focus on qualifying for next season’s competition, ahead of a summer during which it’s easy to see Dortmund’s playing and coaching staff being picked off by European football’s apex predators.

 

Luis Enrique and Barcelona
Whether this is the end of the dynasty, the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning or just a bad season can only be said with confidence in hindsight, but this weekend could effectively mark the end of Luis Enrique’s time in charge of Barcelona.

Should Real Madrid win El Clasico at the Bernabeu on Sunday, Barca will trail by six points and Real will have both a game in hand and the better head-to-head record. This would be the first time that Barcelona have failed to either win La Liga or reach the Champions League final since 2008. That was the season before Pep Guardiola took charge.

The problem is that, for the first time in their magical decade, tomorrow is not obvious. Ernesto Valverde is considered to be the likely replacement for Enrique, but is not a natural fit to extend this dynasty. Juan Carlos Unzué, the current assistant manager, is a more homegrown option, but would surely have already been groomed for the position if he was considered viable.

And then there is the squad. The XI that started against Juventus in the second leg contained seven key players aged 28 or over (Pique, Rakitic, Iniesta, Busquets, Alba, Suarez and Messi). The only La Masia graduate on the bench was 19-year-old Carles Alena, far from ready to take over the central midfield mantle having only made his first-team debut on April 2.

Barcelona have not reached their end game, but they are certainly at a crossroads. For the first time in a decade, this has been a season of abject failure. The last time that occurred, Guardiola has been primed to take the club back into the light. Can the same really happen again?

 

Carlo Ancelotti
Ancelotti can rightly protest that refereeing incompetence cost his team a place in the Champions League semi-finals, but Bayern Munich are not alleviated of all guilt. They were awarded a questionable penalty in each game, missing one, collapsed in extra-time in the Bernabeu and hardly merited victory over the two legs.

Ancelotti has earned his reputation over the last 20 years as a manager more successful in European competition than domestic, but is the latest to discover that bringing Champions League success to Munich is a damn difficult task. Did Jupp Heynckes put a Bela Guttmann-style curse on the Allianz?

 

Viktor Kassai and video technology
This was a landmark night in the argument for video technology. Anyone who watched the Champions League quarter-final second leg, and witnessed Real Madrid’s progression thanks to two clearly offside goals, could struggle to argue against the logic of officials being helped. When you can sit thousands of miles away in a comfy chair and know within 15 seconds that a goal should not have been awarded, so too should the referee in charge.

I understand the arguments about delays in play and fragmentation of the match, but that didn’t apply here. There was a natural break in play as Real Madrid’s players celebrated, and Bayern could have made an official complaint (using up a review, if you like) to have the incident looked at on screen.

At the highest level – and a Champions League semi-final is close to that – refereeing incompetence cannot be the deciding factor. Every other sport has embraced the benefit of technology in eliminating the most outrageous injustice. Even if football believes some of those sports have gone too far (and that is a fair accusation), to ignore the idea completely would be to throw out baby with bathwater. Like it or not, the time is now.

Daniel Storey

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