The manager of an elite club will only ever be judged on trophies and league progress. Given the annual outlay on new players and the high salaries commanded by those managers, it would be a little rich to expect anything else. Fail to match perceived expectation and pressure in the media creates a cycle that it is impossible for supporters and decision0makers within the club to ignore.
Yet football is also about moments, and enough of those moments can help shape the mood if not quite define it. Those ‘famous European nights at Anfield’ are a clanging cliche and may make supporters of rival clubs wince or deride, but they are a cliche for a reason. Liverpool supporters really do cherish European football. It has provided them with the greatest moments in their history.
On Wednesday, Jurgen Klopp’s side produced another of those nights. With Liverpool requiring victory to top Group E and knowing that defeat would probably see them eliminated from the competition, supporters streamed into Anfield with trepidation as well as hope in their hearts. Please, please could this be a time for the attack to fire and the defence to avoid calamity. Avoiding a repeat of the collapse in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan was a must.
Klopp’s team went far beyond hope and expectation, producing a performance of such verve that Liverpool went from mere knock-out stage qualifiers to dark horses for the competition. Finishing top of the group may not have removed the possibility of a tough last-16 draw (Bayern Munich, Juventus and Real Madrid represent half of Liverpool’s possible opponents), but none of those three teams will fancy facing Klopp’s side. They are the unquantifiables of this last-16 draw, and that is intended more as compliment than insult.
Nights like these have greater significance than the sum of their parts, because they show Liverpool supporters just what could be under Klopp. Registering the second highest total of group stage goals in Champions League history raises the reasonable ceiling of ambition on exactly the stage that Klopp’s predecessor lowered it.
Brendan Rodgers’ only Champions League campaign ended in weakened teams and meek elimination. It was to be the most significant nail in his coffin. Not so Klopp.
Since the 0-0 draw against Manchester United in October, Liverpool have scored 40 goals in 11 games. They have also produced extended periods of defensive incompetence (Tottenham and Sevilla) that creates doubt, but six weeks ago Klopp was under significant pressure. Liverpool have won seven games and drawn two since then.
Everything is owed to this magnificent attack that Klopp has designed. Before the game against Brighton on Saturday, Mohamed Salah was the astonishingly dominant member of a forward line that was scoring goals for fun, on track to score more league goals than Luis Suarez in 2013/14.
Salah has not taken his foot off the pedal in the 180 minutes since, but Liverpool’s other attackers have risen to join him. Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho (who has been given licence to make this a front four against vulnerable opposition) have scored at a rate of one goal every 20 minutes between them over the last two matches. This attack is getting even better.
The strategy of ‘we’ll score one more than you’ understandably attracts criticism; chaos theory is an unreliable bedfellow. But when you have such a sumptuous collection of attacking players, it becomes logical. Do you stymie their endeavour in order to protect the defence, or do you let them roam with wonderful abandon and back them to put a game out of sight before defensive inadequacies have been exposed?
Klopp has settled on the second option and, given his lack of defensive options, you can see his point. For Liverpool, magnificent attack truly is the best form of defence.
Never before have there been five clubs from the same country in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Of the 16 clubs to make it to this elite stage of European competition, 31% are English. The Premier League has more representatives than the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 combined. Of the eight group winners, half were English. Chelsea are the only exception. These are the facts that will make the Premier League bigwigs smile.
There is a simple explanation for this rise in Premier League performance after several years of lethargy, of course: money. English clubs have access to far greater resources than their foreign counterparts, and that has finally told. In the last year, Bournemouth have a higher net spend than Juventus.
Premier League clubs have therefore not passed the test, but postponed it. Pipping the likes of CSKA Moscow, Basel, Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, Shakhtar and even Borussia Dortmund to the knock-out stages cannot be seen as a roaring success.
Only qualification for the quarter-finals (and beyond) would constitute impressive progress, given the budgets enjoyed. It’s at that point that barriers to success such as heightened competition within the Premier League’s top six and the lack of domestic winter break may reduce the gap between English clubs and the rest.
For now, though, the Premier League is dominant. Our clubs took 69 points in the Champions League at an average of 13.8 per team. Spanish clubs collected points at an average of 10.8, French clubs 8.5, German clubs 8.0 and Russian clubs 7.5. Could this be the year that we can finally break the era of Spanish dominance?
Chelsea may have stumbled – a little more on that later – but Hazard remains blameless. He gets kicked and pulled in almost every game, but comes back every time to shake off the physical treatment and shine.
Only three players in the Champions League have completed more dribbles and only one has created more chances. That one is Cesc Fabregas, proof that opposition managers’ instructions to double up on Hazard creates space and time in which his teammates can delight.
Problems at home, but superb and serene progress in Europe. Having been drawn against Real Madrid and (an albeit creaking) Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham took more points than any other team in the Champions League group stage this season or last. That’s an extraordinary achievement. Now for the real quiz.
With an estimated worth of £3bn, owner Rinat Akhmetov’s wealth challenges the notion of Shakhtar Donetsk’s Champions League progress as a fairytale, as does the club’s collection of nine South Americans within the first-team squad.
Yet the Champions League is a competition in which even the fairytales are gold-plated. Due to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Shakhtar have been playing their home games in Lviv and now Kharkiv, 150 miles from home. Despite being drawn in a group with two of Europe’s most attractive footballing sides, Shakhtar beat Napoli and took advantage of Manchester City’s hasty qualification to reach the knock-out stages for the fourth time in eight seasons.
Having been Mr Monchengladbach, he is now Mr Bayern, and one of the most under-appreciated managers in world football to boot. Heynckes may be 72 and in the final throes of his footballing life, but he still has the resolve and man-management ability to coach at the very highest level. Over this spell and his last, Heynckes has won 35 of his last 40 matches as a manager. A win ratio better even than Tim Sherwood.
Daniele de Rossi
Our early winner. Antonio Rudiger and Mohamed Salah may have created a hole in Roma’s squad, but De Rossi’s passion and desire counts for two or three. Roma’s qualification as group winners means De Rossi has at least partly atoned for the stupid slap on Gianluca Lapadula.
Winners because they qualified for the Europa League despite losing at home to Anderlecht and, given the top two teams in Celtic’s group, they could not have expected anything more. Now Brendan Rodgers must take Celtic further in the Europa if this season is not to peter out just like all the others.
A start! A bloody start! Yes it was in a virtual dead rubber and yes there were signs of rustiness (as Ian Watson noted), but something is better than nothing and Shaw has been living off nothing for a long while. What chances him being left out of the match-day squad for the Manchester derby?
Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku
The former had gone nine Manchester United games without a goal. The other had scored one in his last 12 games. Both Rashford’s and Lukaku’s goals may not have made a huge difference to United topping their group, but they were timely ahead of this weekend’s Manchester derby. I’m already giggling in anticipation, and it’s Thursday morning.
Into the knock-out stages for the second time in six years. Just as Young Boys threaten to end Basel’s period of domestic dominance, the Swiss champions for the last eight seasons suddenly improve in the Champions League. Perhaps it’s no coincidence.
More group stage points than any other Turkish team in history, and the unlikeliest group winner in this season’s competition. Do you reckon Jeremain Lens wants to go back to Sunderland after his loan deal ends?
The top seeds
In 2014, UEFA announced significant changes to its seeding system in order to reward domestic champions rather than those clubs who had previously performed well in European competition. It removed the possibility of more than two teams from the same domestic league being in pot one, which had regularly occurred with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
Gianni Infantino, then general secretary of UEFA, explained the move: “The club committee felt that there should be somehow an additional award given to the winners of the different national competitions. People had difficulties in understanding how the champion of a country is in a lower pot than the third-ranked in that country.” Fair enough.
It has certainly given an added element of competition to a Champions League group stage that had become stale. Most of all, we have learned that winning your domestic league does not necessarily transfer into Champions League excellence.
Of the eight teams in pot one, none won their group, a remarkable statistic. Five teams finished second and thus qualified for the knock-out stages, but Juventus, Real Madrid and Shakhtar have hardly wowed their way through and look vulnerable. Spartak Moscow finished third in Group E having been hammered by Liverpool, while Monaco and Benfica finished bottom of their groups.
Of the eight group winners in this season’s group stage, four were second seeds and four were third seeds. Madness.
The low countries
Club Brugge lost to Istanbul Basaksehir in the third qualifying round. Ajax lost to Nice in the third qualifying round. Anderlecht finished bottom of their Champions League group. Feyenoord finished bottom of their Champions League group.
In the coefficient ranking of UEFA nations according to their European performance for this season alone, Belgium and Netherlands rank 33rd and 34th respectively. That’s below Albania, Moldova, Lithuania, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, amongst many others.
Bayern Munich ceding first place to Paris St Germain is no disaster, but Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig being eliminated by Tottenham and Besiktas/Porto is. The last time there was only one German team in the last 16 was 2008/09.
As ESPN’s Dale Johnson tweeted, the Bundesliga ranks ninth according to European performance this season, below Cyprus and Ukraine. Must do better.
Maurizio Sarri may feel aggrieved that Manchester City’s reserves surrendered in Kharkiv and thus allowed Shakhtar to qualify for the knockout stages, but the damage was largely self-inflicted. Napoli gave City significant headaches before eventual defeat, but their loss in Ukraine always created the possibility of final-day elimination.
For the neutral, it’s a great shame. Napoli are a wonderful team to watch, and Sarri has created an intensity within his squad that is almost unsurpassed in European football. Europa League qualification means we still get to watch Napoli in Europe, but it just isn’t the same.
Still, forget the neutral. For all Napoli’s clear talent, they should have been able to engineer a route through this group. Their failure to do so is a black mark on Sarri’s growing reputation.
Our early loser, because when you manage PSG every defeat is a crisis. Would even Champions League semi-final exit and Ligue 1 title be enough for Emery to keep his job?
It isn’t nice criticising a player who has suffered a serious of frustrating injuries, particularly when those injuries may well have lowered the ceiling of that player’s potential. But there used to be a spark in Gundogan that made you yearn for him to be fully fit and thus become a key cog in this Manchester City wheel.
Hopefully that spark can still be found, but Gundogan has managed only 169 league minutes this season and has looked rusty in both of his last two Champions League starts against Feyenoord and Shakhtar. On Sunday’s evidence, he is also behind Fabian Delph in the central midfield queue.
Had Chelsea finished first in Group C, they would have faced one of Basel, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Sevilla, Shakhtar, Porto and Real Madrid, with only three of the seven looking nasty. Chelsea finished second, and so will face Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain or Besiktas. Two of the three look nasty.
You can therefore see why Antonio Conte chose to pick a strong side to face Atletico Madrid, despite an away fixture at West Ham on Saturday lunchtime. You can also see why failure to beat Atletico and thus slip into second place must be regarded as a failure.
Draw Besiktas next Monday and all will be forgiven and forgotten, but it should not have come to this. Chelsea had enough opportunities to seal victory and top spot. Alvaro Morata was just one of those guilty of wasting Hazard’s wonderful creativity.
Not just out of form, but half-broken. Suarez scored against Celta at the weekend, but is a striker for whom only one in three or four things he attempts is coming off. Selected by Ernesto Valverde in the dead rubber against Sporting to try and play him into form, Suarez was wretched again.
Suarez has six goals in 19 Barcelona matches this season, while his all-round play has been way below par. Turning 31 next month, is this the beginning of the decline rather than merely a rut? And is Suarez missing Neymar more than Barcelona would care to concede?
If Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum can play as central defenders then they can play as a defensive central midfield pairing. Which isn’t great news for Jordan Henderson. There a plenty amongst us (*raises hand*) who have never considered him good enough for club or country.
You could have forgiven APOEL Nicosia, Maribor, Qarabag or even Feyenoord, but for Benfica to be the only team in this season’s group stage that failed to collect a single point (and only score one goal) is disgraceful. This team lost its spine in the summer (Ederson, Victor Lindelof, Nelson Semedo and Konstantinos Mitroglou) but could still have offered a little backbone.
Within the last three years, Benfica have beaten Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and drawn against Bayern Munich in this competition. Now they are the whipping boys for FC Basel and CSKA Moscow.
“We’re going to face great players with a great atmosphere inside the squad. We will face a very strong team, but we respect the opponent and the fans of Liverpool. We respect them, but we don’t fear them. We have good players of our own. It’s a big game for us tomorrow. We will see what happens” – Spartak coach Massimo Carrera.
Yeah, about that.
A wretched end to a wretched campaign. A Champions League semi-finalist being eliminated from the group stage the following year is unusual, but finishing bottom with only two points is alarming. Back to the drawing board for Leonardo Jardim.