Manchester City and Manuel Pellegrini
“Our game plan was perfect today,” said Vincent Kompany after City’s supreme victory over Sevilla. “We defended solidly, won our aerial battles and were spot on all over the pitch. This was probably the best performance we’ve given in the Champions League so far.”
Kompany is right; City’s plan was indeed spot on. Pellegrini has not always demonstrated a tactical flexibility during his time in charge, but did so in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan to wonderful effect. Gone was the gung-ho attitude that has regularly left City looking like they were plucky competitors on Bullseye – “I’ve had a lovely evening Jim, and was only here to have a right good go at the darts.” Instead, Pellegrini found the perfect balance.
Combining Fernando with Fernandinho as a central midfield screen may not sound sexy, but that is precisely because it is not intended to be. Instead, dynamism and tackling created the canvas on which Raheem Sterling, Jesus Navas and Yaya Toure could demonstrate their artistry. Fernandinho in particular was magnificent, the presence of his fellow Brazilian allowing him to be proactive rather than adopt his normal role as City’s reactive firefighter. It suited him perfectly.
“I’m very happy with the way we played,” Pellegrini said. “We defended well. I changed the system because I was not happy with the way we’re playing.” Broad smiles should spread across City faces as they enjoy qualification with two games to spare. Few expected that after the home defeat to Juventus.
However, it is Kompany’s final message that is most important: “Now we go on – we need to make sure we end as group winners.”
The captain is right. City are no longer a club satisfied by individual results, nor one that celebrates qualification. These last three European victories may be the height of their Champions League achievements, but there are still many further peaks to climb. Avoid defeat in Turin and City will truly believe that they can, finally, go deep into this competition.
When Sterling made the decision to engineer a move away from Liverpool to Manchester City, the Champions League was at the forefront of his mind. He would have dreamed of match-winning performances in foreign stadia, cheered by the away fans and applauded by the home supporters, the true appreciation of quality. On Tuesday in Seville, that dream became reality.
Sterling was superb in City’s 3-1 victory. He created five chances – more than any other player – and scored his sixth goal of the season. Only Sergio Aguero has more for the club. Furthermore, Sterling displayed the confidence to demand the ball from Toure and Fernandinho, running at his full-back with great success but never gave up if at first he failed to succeed. Sevilla right-back Coke was substituted after 56 minutes, and probably thanked his manager.
Sterling has not been perfect this season. He has been hampered slightly by inconsistency, an inability to produce three or four consecutive displays of note. But he’s also 20 years old, the fourth youngest scorer in this season’s Champions League. Expecting robotic consistency is ludicrous from someone so young.
Besides, what were you doing aged 20? Were you completely developed, both physically and emotionally? Did you ever do or say things you look back on with regret? Did you have mood swings, and times when you felt unmotivated? Did you have concerns about yourself, others and the world around you?
Now, last question – were you forced to deal with all of these issues in the glare of the brightest spotlight, a media capturing your every breath in little glass bottles before selling it to the world? Rather than focusing on what Sterling isn’t – or isn’t yet – how about we concentrate on what he is: One of world football’s most exciting young players.
I hope those who criticised him at length for his summer move feel bloody foolish. How dare a young player show some ambition? How dare he leave Liverpool? How dare he want to shine on the biggest stage?
Rodwell Sinclair………….sterling !! Should always be carful what you wish for #bench
— Jason MCATEER (@MCATEER4) July 12, 2015
If Sterling is City’s difference-maker in the club’s Champions League progress, his price tag will already have been vindicated. The absence of David Silva was supposed to limit City’s attacking creativity. Instead, it has simply allowed Sterling to step out of the shadows and into the light.
When Fernandinho plays well, Manchester City play well. It really is becoming that simple.
Total football, the perfect harmony of aesthetics and athletics. If Arsenal were excellent in their defeat of Bayern Munich at the Emirates, this was the reaction of an angered behemoth, the best Champions League performance in a long, long time. Arsenal have designs on being England’s top team, but they were blown away by the best the Bundesliga has to offer. If a lack of domestic competition makes it harder for Bayern in the biggest European matches, it really didn’t show.
What was fascinating about Bayern’s dominance is that it was so transparent. There was no magic formula, merely a game plan to press Arsenal high up the pitch, forcing them into mistakes and starving the supply line to Santi Cazorla. That then isolates Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, as defenders look long to Olivier Giroud to ease the pressure.
Pep Guardiola even said as much the day before the game: “Arsenal want to attack and build up but when you press Mertesacker and Koscielny, they don’t want to play. They play long balls to Giroud. Also, if they lose the ball and we make two or three passes, Mertesacker doesn’t want to stay high up, so they go back in their box and defend there.”
Knowing about Bayern’s plan and stopping it are two very different things, however. Thomas Muller, David Alaba, Thiago Alcantara, Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman swarmed around Arsenal’s players on the ball, rarely tackling but regularly forcing the mistake. The propensity of Bayern’s players to interchange positions makes it impossible to know from which direction the pressure is going to come next. That makes picking the right pass a mightily difficult task.
The danger Bayern then present when turning over the ball, with Coman and Costa streaming forward on the overlap and Thomas Muller ghosting into space, is almost impossible to counteract. Both summer signings were met with raised eyebrows in Germany, but Guardiola should always be given the benefit of any doubt. He has earned that right.
There were two particularly striking aspects of this Bayern performance. The first was their ability to switch straight from fifth gear to second when the game was won, playing at 80% for the last hour of the match. Having won 10 of their 15 Bundesliga and Champions League matches this season by three or more goals, the potential for coasting is clear. Guardiola’s side should still be fresh in late spring.
The other noteworthy observation is Bayern’s strength in depth. Last season, they were dismantled by Barcelona in the semi-finals principally because Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben were missing. Bayern’s midfield (Thiago, Philipp Lahm, Xabi Alonso, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juan Bernat) had no counter-attacking explosion, meaning Barcelona could commit players forward without the fear of being caught out. The signings of Costa and Coman address that issue, while none of Mario Gotze, Arturo Vidal, Bernat, Robben, Ribery, Mehdi Benatia or Holger Badstuber started for the home side against Arsenal.
The questions of last season answered, Bayern are in ruder health than ever before. With the domestic title already assured, Guardiola will know that anything less than a third Champions League trophy as a manager will be viewed as a disappointment. Play like they did against Arsenal in the latter stages, and surely only Real Madrid and Barcelona can stop them.
Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski
In eight home games this season they’ve scored 24 goals between them. Bugger me.
The type of performance to make Barcelona’s hierarchy wince. Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets are very happy doing their thing, but there surely should have been space for Thiago.
Against Arsenal, Thiago was majestic. He created more chances than any other player on the pitch, completed 113 passes (most on the pitch) and managed 147 touches of the ball. That’s 21 more than any other player in the Champions League this week. Add in three more tackles than any other player on the pitch and you have the complete midfield performance.
If moving away from Spain was difficult for a young midfielder, playing again under Pep Guardiola has made Munich a home from home. Still only 24, and having overcome serious injury successfully, he has a chance to establish himself as a mainstay of this Bayern side.
Four consecutive European victories to further cement Villas-Boas’ managerial revival. It’s now 13 games without defeat in all competitions. Having already announced his departure next summer, Villas-Boas is peaking at the just right time.
Only six coaches in Champions League history have overseen a perfect group stage campaign, and only Real Madrid and Barcelona have managed it since 1996. Beat Valencia at home and Gent away and Zenit will have accomplished the most startling of achievements.
A striker who was nearing comedy figure status due to his ‘power only’ approach and stocky frame, Hulk is finally proving (or should that be re-proving?) that he is worthy of so much more than a million Vines.
Hulk’s ability for delicate passing and superb vision may come as some surprise, but you won’t be waiting long for evidence. In 17 Russian Premier League and Champions League matches this season, the Brazilian has 15 assists. He added two more in the Stade de Gerland on Wednesday to take Zenit into the knock-out stages.
In this form, Hulk is unplayable. He has ten goals in 17 games, at least six achieved by beating the goalkeeper with sheer power. Yet he is the uncompromising heavy elephant with the cherished pet mouse, exquisite grace made more striking by his frame.
Add in the versatility to operate effectively in any position in the final third, and you have something approaching the complete forward. Now 29, I’d love a final Hulk hurrah in England.
Louis van Gaal
As one newspaper put it, Van Gaal played a game of Russian roulette and dodged the bullet. The mutinous reaction to Marouane Fellaini’s second-half introduction made victory imperative, not just for Manchester United’s chances of qualification but Van Gaal’s own future. The Dutchman will have been a relieved man to hear the final whistle.
Many questions to answer, but victories are the perfect silencer.
A goal to end the drought, both personal and that of his club, yet I’ll admit to laughing at the ‘zero to hero’ headlines on Wednesday morning. ‘Man finally does his job after failing to do job’ probably wasn’t quite as catchy.
Let’s just hope United don’t have to spend almost £1m on Rooney’s wages before the next one.
There was never any doubt that Mourinho would stick to his principles on Wednesday night, but leaving Eden Hazard on the bench was a huge call. Had Chelsea failed to beat Dynamo Kiev, their Champions League qualification would have been in the balance. The sound of nails being hammered into coffins would have been enough to keep Chelsea’s manager up at night.
Victory was indeed achieved, though not with any great swagger. Aleksandar Dragovic threatened to provide the now-familiar second-half angst with his equaliser, but Chelsea found a way. Everyone at Stamford Bridge was happy to take a win, any win.
The biggest boost for Mourinho came not on the pitch, therefore, but from the stands. Chelsea supporters repeatedly reiterated their love and support for their manager. Perhaps it was a message to Roman Abramovich that their faith has not wavered and so neither should his. Perhaps it was a reaction to Jose’s rumoured short-term replacements. Or perhaps it was simply an attempt to urge their manager and themselves through the pain, the power of positive thinking.
Whatever the answer, Mourinho appreciated the gesture. “To have the whole stadium supporting me in a difficult time is an unforgettable moment in my career,” he said. “When I came back to the club and we played the first match at home against Hull City, the way the stadium welcomed me was amazing. But not comparable to today.
“Today came in a moment where the results have not been good. It comes in a moment where people are asking for my ‘end’. The fans read newspapers. They watch television. They listen to pundits, commentators, opinions, read blogs, and this was quite unbelievable what they tried to say today. They tried to say: ‘We want you here.’ And, probably, they want to say: ‘All of you, let him work. We want him. Let him work.’ It was fantastic.”
Even Mourinho’s emotional revelations are calculated, and he will be sure to remind his boss of the support of the crowd. Yet he will also know the fickle nature of both supporters and the game. This was a mere tiptoe forward in the right direction. Saturday’s fixture at the Britannia looms large on the horizon.
In the murky darkness of Chelsea’s season, the form of Willian stands out like a beacon. Given Mourinho’s love of commitment from his attacking players, it’s little wonder that it is his hardest worker who is enjoying a fruitful season. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Again.
Manchester City fans
Real Madrid’s defence
Some of the locals may be growing uneasy at Real Madrid’s safety-first approach in the big games this season, but while it works, grumbles will be kept to a low volume. Rafa Benitez’s side are yet to concede in the Champions League, and have conceded four goals in all competitions this season.
Took advantage of Atletico Madrid’s slip-up to consolidate their position on top of Group C. The Eagles’ second group stage qualification since 2006 looks assured.
Luuk de Jong
A Champions League goal to complement the 13 he’s scored in 13 domestic games this season. Yes, it’s the same De Jong that shuffled around St James’ Park with all the composure of Stig of the Dump.
Valbuena may have a few ‘other’ things going on in his life right now, but it fails to take his focus off being a gem of a midfielder. He created ten chances for his side on Wednesday. That’s two more than any other player has managed in a Champions League match since the start of last season.
Paul Pogba and Stephan Lichtsteiner
The finish was superb, but that pass from Pogba. That pass…
As I wrote here, this was not a defeat to inflict more bad news on Arsenal. The damage in this group was done in the opening two fixtures, and had you offered Arsene Wenger three points from two matches against Bayern Munich he would have been stupid to refuse.
Yet the margin of victory was at least alarming. In September, Wenger spoke of Arsenal’s drive to win the Champions League, but accepted that realism made it a tough task. This was the slap in the face, that realism in its purist and most painful form. If Bayern are the competition, Arsenal belong firmly in European football’s second tier.
Wenger was dismayed at his side’s defending in the Allianz Arena, offering unusual negativity in his post-match press conference. “We made things quite easy for them with our defensive performance,” he said. “We were extremely poor defensively. We were not at the races. When we went forward, we had chances but with a defensive performance like that, you go nowhere. I can’t tell you if it’s the worst of my tenure. It will not remain in my memory for anything positive.”
Wenger is right to be low, as the underlying issues in his squad were laid bare. Resources are stretched, back-up players are of insufficient quality and there are continuing doubts about Arsenal’s ability to defend as a unit against the best teams.
Nothing ever changes, many will remark, and there is no doubt that Wenger’s star has fallen during the mistakes of this campaign. Twice Arsenal underestimated their opposition, once they were blown away by a far better team. What’s worse, repeated complacency or a vast gap in quality?
If Arsenal are to exit the Champions League at the first hurdle for the first time since 2000, Wenger has an easy silver lining to point to, the assumption that the club’s Premier League title bid gains a shot in the arm from European exit. Did two extra games against Monaco last season really hamper their league form?
There will certainly be an awful lot of eggs placed in Arsenal’s Premier League basket, their probable last chance to make this a truly successful season. The positivity gained in recent weeks now hangs on their performance and result against Tottenham on Sunday.
Per Mertesacker, Nacho Monreal and Gabriel all struggled on Wednesday night against Bayern’s brilliance, but at least they have proved themselves capable before. For Debuchy, that isn’t the case. Hector Bellerin’s injury should have given the France international the chance to impress, but instead it’s confirming what we already suspected. Predicting him to still be at Arsenal a year from now is a ballsy call.
Manchester United’s style
In the Guardian on Wednesday, Daniel Taylor wrote an excellent piece about United’s style under Van Gaal, highlighting some striking statistics.
#MUFC Possession: second highest % in PL Backward passes: highest % Sideways: 2nd highest % Forward: lowest % Shots: lowest bar Sunderland
— Daniel Taylor (@DTguardian) November 4, 2015
For all the relief of victory on Tuesday, there was to be no celebration. It is difficult to remember the last time a Manchester United manager suffered such a widespread show of mutiny as Van Gaal did when removing Anthony Martial. The chants of “Attack, attack, attack” started before kick-off and continued into the match. In an age where football supporters pay more and more for their tickets, they expect to be heard.
Yet United fans must realise being heard and listened to are starkly different things. “I’m not deaf,” was Van Gaal’s reaction when asked about the Old Trafford discontent, but the Dutchman will not linger over the boos. He is too experienced, too old and too headstrong to let the dissenters sway his means. Particularly when the ends have hardly been disastrous.
Having been given three years to effect his plan, Van Gaal is not about to make compromises 18 months into that task. United fans effectively have two choices – like it or lump it. In fact, there’s a third way; cross your fingers and hope for some excitement. If Old Trafford is the Theatre of Dreams, plenty of supporters are shutting their eyes and daydreaming of more enjoyable times.
The character assassinations have started. I’m not about to start comparing Depay with Ravel Morrison, but the Dutchman could really do with a good performance or two. Even as a 21-year-old, at a club like Manchester United patience is hard to find.
It is a reflection of Ronaldo’s supremely high standards that the Champions League’s top scorer could be under scrutiny, but something is clearly not quite right. The Portuguese’s body language against Las Palmas on Saturday indicated his current frustrations – either with himself or others. Against Paris Saint-Germain, things did not improve.
Despite playing as a lone striker, Ronaldo failed to register a single touch of the ball in the PSG penalty area. Rafael Benitez will be delighted with his side’s progress in the competition, but there is no doubt that aesthetics have been sacrificed in favour of defensive solidity.
At any other club in the world that would be forgiven, but Real Madrid (and Ronaldo) demand more. Benitez has carte blanche while Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez are out injured, but their return must also ignite the return of the usual Ronaldo. Servicing him is an integral part of achieving success at the Bernabeu.
From a two-point lead at the top of Group B to third place in 90 minutes. All Wolfsburg needed to do to stay in control of their qualification was stop PSV matching their own 2-0 victory in the corresponding fixture last month. They couldn’t even do that.
Facing Manchester United in the final round of games, the likelihood is that Wolfsburg will need to win in Moscow to assure qualification. Wrap up warm.
Things started so well, with a 3-0 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach in September. Since then, Sevilla’s Champions League campaign has crumbled to the ground. Their group stage draw always promised to be tough, but three consecutive defeats has taken them from top to third and on the verge of exit.
Also sitting 13th in La Liga after a miserable autumn domestically, a third consecutive Europa League triumph might be the only thing to save Sevilla’s season.
Between 2004 and 2012, Lyon reached the knock-out stages of the Champions League in nine consecutive seasons. They were European football’s great overachievers, but that time has now passed.
Knocked out in the Europa League play-off round by Astra Giurgiu of Romania last season, Lyon qualified for the Champions League for the first time in three years. They might as well not have bothered. Having taken a single point in four games so far, Hubert Fournier’s side could even miss out on Europa League qualification to Gent.
With Valencia seventh in La Liga after a quarter of the season, serene Champions League qualification was the only thing that looked like keeping Nuno in a job. A victory over Gent on Wednesday and their passage would have been assured.
Instead, Valencia had one shot on target in a 1-0 defeat, Gent’s first ever win in the competition. Nuno might be as well to start putting the contents of his desk into a cardboard box.
“What we showed tonight is not the image we want to give of our club,” said the coach after the game. “It was a bad game for us – in the first half we couldn’t match Gent’s determination. We have to analyse the game and understand why this happened. It was a really bad performance. We do not want to represent our club this way.” It’s hardly fighting talk.