Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 2nd November 2017 12:00

Winners

Dele Alli
This was a big night for Dele Alli. Having been suspended for Tottenham’s first three Champions League matches of the season, he had missed out on the positive coverage of the victory over Dortmund and the draw in the Bernabeu. Alli has too much talent to become the forgotten man, but given his own form had been patchy in the Premier League, he needed to use Wednesday to remind Tottenham supporters and the wider public of his worth.

And how. The coverage of Alli in recent weeks, months even, have been in regards to his temperament, questions repeated after his spat with Ashley Young this weekend, but Wednesday was the reminder that you accept the silly nonsense when the boy can play like this. You had to pinch yourself as a 21-year-old England international really did put the European champions to the sword.

There were two aspects to Alli’s night that were particularly pleasing and, perhaps bizarrely, neither were goals and both were negative. The midfielder began the match in sloppy fashion, misplacing the odd pass and too often being over-elaborate in possession, evidence of a young man trying too hard. Too often in that situation, English players retreat into a shell, haunted by a fear that they are letting down themselves and their side. Best to be in the wings and away from the spotlight than under its glare and sweating.

Yet Alli’s response was not to shy away, but to keep going. He grew into the game and eventually dominated it, scoring more than once in a Tottenham game for the first time since January. It was a glorious return to European football for a player who Mauricio Pochettino had been forced to defend on the eve of the game. That defence now looks superfluous.

The second most pleasing element of Alli’s night was his post-match interview. There was no arrogance or complacency, nor even satisfaction. Tottenham’s Man of the Match simply declared himself frustrated not to get a hat-trick after missing a late chance.

“I’m disappointed I didn’t get the hat-trick to be honest,” were his opening words. “I had an easy chance at the end from a great ball in by Kieran.”

These are little things, but hugely promising signs. There is something extremely un-English (at least in recent football terms) about young players on the biggest stage achieving and yet constantly striving for more. Thankfully we can focus on Alli’s talent rather than his temperament again.

 

Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham
This is why Pochettino’s priorities were and are the Premier League and Champions League. Only those two competitions can provide the type of result and performance that makes it feel like Tottenham are making meaningful progress. Carabao Cup glory would be celebrated by supporters, of course, but even comprehensive victory in the final of that competition would not send out a message like this.

Real Madrid may be in creaking form, and rival supporters will use that as another stick with which to batter down the positives, but Tottenham outplayed the European champions. They were handed a Group of Death that made every supporter wince and begin to sweat, and yet have qualified from it with a third of their fixtures remaining. Victory over APOEL Nicosia at Wembley will ensure that Pochettino’s side even top their group.

Now go and read a piece from a man who watched the game live.

 

England
We’re used to the negative press surrounding the lack of English players competing at the highest level, so reasons to be positive: Eleven different English players aged 24 or under played in Champions League wins this week, and ten of them started.

A list of the most-used nationalities of players aged 24 and under in Champions League this week:
France – 16
Portugal – 13
Germany – 12
England – 11
Brazil – 11
Spain – 7
Belgium – 7
Netherlands – 6
Russia – 5

Even two or three years ago, England would have been dwarfed by their peers. Now, you can pick an entire outfield of English players from Tuesday and Wednesday (Trippier, Stones, Cahill, Delph, Dier, Winks, Alli, Sterling, Rashford and Kane) and still have Henderson, Lingard, McTominay, Alexander-Arnold, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Drinkwater, Smalling and Sturridge on the bench.

 

Napoli vs Manchester City
Yes, the game itself. So often, the most anticipated fixtures tend to disappoint, the excellence of two teams cancelling each other out making for an intriguing spectacle, but not one that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Manchester City matches are the exception. Their game against Napoli on Wednesday put you into a footballing daydream, a warm fuzzy blur where you watched on as two supreme attacks took turns to assault two only slightly less supreme defences. It was as if the highlights for an entire Champions League season had been condensed into 90 minutes.

 

Sergio Aguero
Now the record goalscorer in Manchester City’s history. Such milestones mean more or less to different individuals depending on their personality, but Aguero can be rightly proud of his achievement. There will surely be many more goals to come.

 

Raheem Sterling
We knew he was good and we were desperate for him to show it, but none of us had Sterling down as Manchester City’s top scorer in November. My oh my.

 

Manchester United
It still isn’t pretty, but finishing top of the group is the only thing that matters until February. Manchester United need one point to secure that first place in Group A with two games remaining. What price them doing it with two more 2-0 wins?

 

Scott McTominay
Our early winner. It did feel in his post-match interview that Mourinho had just picked McTominay in order to make a point about his record of giving youth players a chance, but the midfielder took said chance nonetheless.

 

Paris Saint-Germain’s defence
Handed a group containing three league champions and including a staple Champions League semi-finalist and a traditional giant killer, Paris Saint-Germain have blitzed the competition. Not only have they won every game and scored 17 goals in the process, they’re the only team in the competition yet to concede a goal. Could they become the first team ever to keep six clean sheets in the group stage?

 

Eusebio Di Francesco
Europe’s most underrated manager? Di Francesco was manager of Sassuolo for five years between 2012 and 2017 (save a five-week period when he left and quickly returned), taking them from Serie B into the top flight and then into the Europa League after finishing sixth in Serie A.

If there were any doubts about Di Francesco’s ability to deal with the pressure of managing one of Italy’s elite clubs, they are being evaporated with each game. Having lost 3-1 at home to Inter in the second week of the season, Roma have won seven of their following eight league games, have now kept four straight clean sheets in all competitions and lead their Champions League group.

There’s no doubt that Chelsea’s abject defending was a huge part of their downfall on Tuesday, but Roma didn’t just beat their opponents; they battered them.

 

Dries Mertens and that touch
At the risk of over-analysing one moment of a match, go back and watch Napoli’s opening goal against Manchester City. The finish from Lorenzo Insigne is accomplished, but just watch the touch to set up the chance from Dries Mertens.

It was a moment that only the best players can pull off in the heat of battle, and even then only when in their best form. It was a no-look flick around the corner, but one that Mertens managed to put spin on so that it held up in the penalty area for his teammate to run onto.

That is the type of skill that you would send messages to everyone in your phone about had you pulled it off at a five-a-side kickabout. For Mertens, it’s becoming the norm. He is Europe’s in-form player. He is football Viagra.

 

CSKA Moscow
Before this season, CSKA had won one of their last 13 Champions League away games, losing against such luminaries as Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven and Viktoria Plzen. They have now won their last two, at Basel and Benfica, to haul themselves back into Group A.

 

Layvin Kurzawa
More than doubled his previous number of European goals in the space of 26 minutes. That’s what having the licence to get forward and having your chances created by Neymar, Angel di Maria and Julian Draxler will do.

 

Stephan El Shaarawy
It is five years since El Shaarawy’s breakout season with Milan and he had not scored a goal in the Champions League proper since November 2012, but he has found a regular home in Rome, if not yet consistent league starts.

“It was a special night, one I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” El Shaarawy told the official UEFA website after the game. “We’re growing, and we’ve got to carry on this way. We’ve got to keep these levels up and give continuity to our results, and not stop.”

If the Italian can take his own advice, Roma will have a truly special player on their hands. We have been waiting for too long.

 

Diego Perotti
I don’t know if he’s a winner or a loser for marking the celebration for El Shaarawy’s first goal by sticking his finger up his teammate’s arse, but the fact that El Shaarawy scored again swings it. Naughty.

 

James Richardson
“Real Madrid were like salami, sliced up on the counter by the Dele man.”

Find me anyone in this industry better at what they do and I’ll find you a liar.

 

Losers

The five pillars of the Champions League
Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich. The Premier League is a wonderful league, but English clubs have not merited a place at European football’s top table of late. Since 2011, those five clubs have made up at least three of the four semi-finalists in each season of the Champions League. These are the competition’s pillars.

Until now. In 20 combined group stage matches this season, those same five clubs have already dropped a total of 24 points. Real Madrid are struggling domestically, Bayern Munich are arguably still in their post-Pep Guardiola transition, this Juventus team have surely passed their peak and Atletico Madrid have been dismal in Europe this season. The times they are a changin’.

There is no secret to the identity of those clubs looking to take the place of of those pillars. The new money of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City has brought stellar names and happiness to those clubs. Their combined record in the Champions League this season is almost faultless: P8 W8 D0 L0. They have scored a combined 29 goals and conceded only three.

The credentials of PSG and City will not be proved in October and November, but March and April. Both clubs have suffered disappointing and even humbling exits at the hands of one of those pillar in the last few years. Yet one thing is clear: both mean business like never before.

This might be the first season in which the changing of the guard commences. The noisy neighbours of Spain, Italy and Germany are ready to gatecrash the party.

 

Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid
Our early losers, because it all feels like it is breaking up. Simeone and Griezmann to both leave next summer?

 

Real Madrid
Defensively shambolic, light in midfield despite Luka Modric and Toni Kroos facing Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko and Karim Benzema wretched again up front. Cristiano Ronaldo might be the Champions League’s top scorer again, but Real Madrid look like an old broken jukebox that can only play one tune. The European champions, and their coach, have their work cut out to save the season.

 

Antonio Conte
A terrible night in Italy. Conte attempted to shift the blame on to his players after abject defeat ceded top spot in the group, but as Sarah Winterburn wrote after the match, this one was on Conte. Defensive uncertainty comes from within.

 

Alvaro Morata
Hasn’t scored in any competition since September 27, and has been worryingly quiet in that time. Chelsea are reliant on the genius of Eden Hazard to make anything happen.

 

Monaco
Last season’s surprise semi-finalists have two points from their first four group stage games. Talk about after the Lord Mayor’s show.

 

Henrikh Mkhitaryan
If Romelu Lukaku is struggling for confidence, Mkhitaryan is just struggling. Lukaku will rely on Manchester United’s creative players servicing him if he is to be prolific, and the creativity is sadly lacking.

The fault for that lies with Mkhitaryan more than most. He failed to create a single chance against Benfica, and has made just five chances in his 284 minutes in the competition this season. The last time Mkhitaryan made more than two in a game was August 26. He doesn’t merit his place in the side right now.

 

Basel
The most baffling team in the competition. Followed up a 5-0 home win over Benfica and 2-0 away win in Moscow with home defeat against CSKA after taking the lead. They could have virtually sealed qualification with a win.

 

Juventus
An away draw is no disaster, but Juventus missed the chance to close the gap and capitalise on Barcelona’s draw against Olympiakos. They will now have to beat Ernesto Valverde’s team in order to top the group.

 

Sporting CP and missed opportunities
They were 3-0 up at half-time of their first match, took the lead in both games against Juventus and managed to stop any Barcelona player score against them, and yet Sporting somehow have only four points from their four matches and have a negative goal difference. It’s actually impressive.

 

Benfica
Had you told a Benfica supporter that his team would take fewer points from their first four Champions League games than Maribor, APOEL Nicosia and Qarabag, he’d probably have punched you in the face. Still, at least you’d have the moral victory.

 

Borussia Dortmund
Two measly points from four matches, both earned against APOEL Nicosia. Dortmund’s failure to beat the Cypriot champions over two matches should haunt them long into 2018. They have far from even sealed a Europa League place yet.

 

Napoli
A wonderful side to watch, but a side that might be wonderful to watch in the Europa League come February. Napoli must beat Shakhtar by a scoreline of greater than 2-1, beat Feyenoord away from home and hope that Manchester City do not take their foot off the gas in their final group game in Ukraine. It is a big ask for a team who should never be in such a position of desperation.

 

RB Leipzig
Their first Champions League campaign is likely to end in failure. If being drawn in the hyper-competitive Group G – with no standout favourite and no whipping boy – allowed Leipzig to prove themselves against their peers, they have looked daunted by that task.

Losing to Porto in Portugal was no disaster, but conceding a third goal in the last minute was. It gave Porto the advantage in the head-to-head against their opponents. Leipzig must now take three points more than Porto in their last two games to have a chance of reaching the knockout stages.

Daniel Storey

 

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