Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 15th February 2018 11:01


Mohamed Salah, scorer of 30 goals
We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and ignore the sheepish look towards the assistant referee, as if expecting to be flagged offside. Salah is owed that, given his extraordinary success this season. He is owed that, given the coolness in such a pressurised situation. He is owed that, given the impudence of it all. A control, a flick, a little header and a measured finish – four instinctive reactions in as many seconds.

Salah is enjoying the type of debut season that nobody even inside Anfield predicted. He has now scored a phenomenal 30 goals by mid-February, one shy of Luis Suarez’s highest total in a Liverpool shirt. Every one reveals something new, a different view of splendour. He can run, he can dribble, he can shoot, he can pass, he can hold off defenders.

The only reason that this sensational scoring streak is being undervalued is that Salah is not a striker. We judge centre forwards by their goalscoring totals, but don’t expect this from wide forwards. The same thing happened to Cristiano Ronaldo in his final season at Manchester United. We had rarely experienced such a run from this type of player, and so we assumed it was unsustainable. By way of comparison, Salah is 12 goals behind Ronaldo’s total from 2007/08. He has at least 14 matches left.

Perhaps Salah also suffers in comparison to Harry Kane, because the only player to score more goals than Salah in all competitions across Europe’s top five leagues also plays in England. Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain; all trail in the wake of a player bought as a wide forward for £35m during a summer when transfer fees went stratospheric.

In 1986/87, Ian Rush became the last Liverpool player to score 40 goals in a season. Rush was the master poacher, the archetypal fox in the box. If it seems extraordinary that his record is being broken at all, that it could go to a player signed to play out wide is unthinkable. Like Kane, nobody saw this coming. Like Kane, that’s what makes it so bloody great to watch.


Mousa Dembele
There is an excellent video doing the rounds, a collection of interviews from Soccer AM where bantz has been mercifully left at the door for a moment. Each interview is with a Tottenham player: Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Victor Wanyama, Harry Winks. Four different versions of central midfielders. Each player is asked who their best teammate is, and each time the reply is immediate: “It’s Mousa Dembele.”

While our headlines and attention are taken up with the very obvious excellence of Kane, Christian Eriksen, Alli et al, Tottenham’s players know who really makes them tick. They speak of a player who glides past opponents, but has the physicality to wrestle players off the ball. By any normal measure, these should be mutual exclusives.

In every game he plays, Dembele controls the pace of the game when with the ball. That is his standard. But when he is at his peak, Dembele manages to dictate the game’s tempo even when the opposition have possession. His movement is so exact and the latent threat of him winning the ball and starting a counter so great that it would be foolish to ignore him. The difference this makes to Tottenham’s performances as a whole cannot be overstated.

Tottenham are highly unusual in that they have three players with that rare characteristic: Understated dominance. Jan Vertonghen does it in defence, Eriksen in attack and Dembele in midfield. You don’t always see their control in the area of the pitch they call home, but it is always there. Keep all three fit, firing and under contract and there is no ceiling to this team’s potential.


Zinedine Zidane
Hoo boy. Before Ronaldo’s penalty, Zidane was a dead man walking. Real Madrid were losing the home leg of a Champions League tie against a team who have scored 65 goals in 16 home games this season. With La Liga lost, the chance to save the last dance was slipping away.

There is a quote from former Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano, made in 2016 after Real had ground out a 1-1 draw with Barcelona: “Madrid have an extraordinary competitive spirit. Nobody plays bad football as well as Madrid. Even on the day that they play badly, they beat you just the same.”

This season, that has looked wide off the mark as Real have slumped in La Liga, bad performance walking hand in hand with bad result. Yet against PSG, Valdano was proven spectacularly right again. Like a boxer taking punches but somehow still protecting themselves and thus gaining in energy, there are few better than Real at staying in the contest.

What followed was a bullish display of real Real, a team that for the last two years have managed to get things done in big games like no other football team in the world. They caught PSG napping with a shift into extra gear that never looked likely.

During the last ten minutes in the Bernabeu, Real played the wounded animal role perfectly. With ten minutes left to give their all, they steeled themselves and put the young upstarts in their place. Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Ronaldo; 29, 31, 32 and 33. All were magnificent.

Zidane lives to fight another day. Survive the second leg and they will start to believe again.


Cristiano Ronaldo
His game has changed as he has become increasingly immobile and so unable to drop deep to pick up the ball and run at defenders. But that only makes his continued goalscoring record in this competition more outrageous.

Goals number 115 and 116 in the Champions League, goals number 99 and 100 for Real Madrid in the Champions League and goals number 20 and 21 in his last 12 Champions League matches. As the formidable Duncan Alexander tweeted on Tuesday evening, Ronaldo has now scored more Champions League goals than 117 of the 137 teams to have played in it. He likes this competition.


Still the best left-back in the world. Still the left-back you would choose for every big game. Still the full-back who has best blended the demand to attack with the ability to be defensively secure.


Liverpool without Philippe Coutinho
Of course Liverpool miss Coutinho on occasion – who wouldn’t? This is not an attempt to besmirch his reputation in hindsight.

Yet watching Liverpool recently, it’s hard to say that they are lacking for any creativity. In their nine games without him, when the team could be forgiven for stalling and stumbling in Coutinho’s absence, they have scored 22 goals. That includes fixtures against Manchester City, Tottenham and a first knockout Champions League game in nine years.

This is not just a question of numbers, but style. For all Coutinho’s excellence, there was no natural place for him in Jurgen Klopp’s team. He thrived as either a No. 10 or a wide midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation, able to drift and duck inside to allow the left-back to overlap. In Klopp’s regulation 4-3-3, Coutinho was moved from a wide forward and cast as a central midfielder. It was hardly square peg in round hole – Coutinho is too good for that – but wasn’t the perfect fit.

Without him, Liverpool look more structured. Rather than a quasi-central-midfielder-cum-playmaker, they play with two definite ‘threes’ in midfield and attack. Any three of Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Georginio Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana and James Milner provide the stable platform from which the front three can do their wonderful thing. Roberto Firmino does enough work between the lines without further cluttering up that area.

This new midfield three also helps out the full-backs. Andrew Robertson is far better than Alberto Moreno anyway, but he and Trent Alexander-Arnold also benefit from the reassurance that their position can be covered if they overlap. Both provided crosses from high up the pitch that created clear-cut chances against Porto, and the pair account for 70% of Liverpool’s crosses over the last two games.

To repeat: there will be games where Liverpool miss Coutinho, perhaps even in this competition. But this team is more balanced without him and, for £140m, Liverpool should be mightily pleased with their lot. The response to his departure has been exceptional.


Liverpool’s counter-attacking
It took six seconds. And I wrote about them here.


Tottenham’s comeback
If you really learn about a team in times of adversity, Tottenham have passed another test.

In Wednesday morning’s Mailbox, someone emailed in saying that they were in their 40s and that this is the best Tottenham team they can remember. It’s memories like these that deserve to quieten the tedious talk of trophies. Of course they matter, but so do the moments of wonder. Mauricio Pochettino’s team are generating plenty of those.


Ilkay Gundogan
The scorer of five Champions League goals in his career. Two of those were for Manchester City in a 3-1 home win over Barcelona, and two were in the away leg of a last-16 tie against Basle. With Joachim Low watching from the stands, Gundogan might have earned himself a starting spot in Germany’s midfield for their next friendly.


Vincent Kompany
A first Champions League start since May 2016. Which is extraordinary for a club captain.


Manchester City
Again, it all just felt so very bloody easy. On Tuesday evening I got a message from Sarah Winterburn: ‘This could be the team we tell our children about.’ She’s right.

Except I don’t have any children.


Yuri Berchiche
On April 4, 2009, Yuri was playing for Cheltenham Town in a home defeat to Leyton Orient in League One. On Wednesday, he started for Paris Saint-Germain in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid. That’s quite the rise.



Unai Emery and PSG
Those who attended Emery’s pre-match press conference on Tuesday spoke of a man troubled by his past. Paris Saint-Germain’s coach was repeatedly asked questions about the calamity of Barcelona 2017, when the Camp Nou became Cape Fear. Those questions cannot have surprised him, but the answers were short and jerky.

That match may have been a year ago, and one of the key protagonists changed sides in the interim, but it might as well have been yesterday. PSG’s owners see league titles not as successes, but matching simple expectation. Given the club’s financial might, that is hardly unrealistic.

Like Manchester City’s hierarchy, QSI demand European glory in order to be sated. In four of the last five seasons, the quarter-final has been PSG’s ceiling. Last season came the exception, and Nasser Al-Khelaifi does not deal well with backward steps.

As PSG again capitulated during the final ten minutes in Spain, the mind wandered and wondered whether buying Champions League success is even possible at all. Manchester City may be about to offer a definitive answer, but PSG are an unusual case study of consistent European under-performance according to economic expectation. Emery might claim that PSG are continually dealt a bad hand. If they are eliminated by Real Madrid, their last five exits from this competition will have come at the hands of Real, Barcelona (twice), Manchester City and Chelsea. These are fellow diners at European football’s most exclusive table.

Yet those excuses will not wash with his bosses. Emery is now walking a tightrope, psychologically eroded by the cataclysmic defeat in Barcelona that still hangs over his team despite all the glittering additions. Like Zidane, his employment beyond this summer will surely depend on the result in Paris. It’s time for PSG to effect the comeback, not suffer it.


Massimo Allegri
By the time he had entered the post-match press conference, Allegri was in face-saving mode:

“Football gives and it takes from you. We shouldn’t be depressed. If somebody thought Juventus would win 4-0 then that was never in our thinking. We have to be respectful.We are going to London with a tie and we will play a final and they will probably be under more pressure than us.

“Juventus has never been favourite in the last 16, so we had 50 per cent possibilities before the match and 50 per cent after.”

Nice try, Massimo. But success in this (and other) competition relies on maximising your opportunities. Having gone 2-0 up inside nine minutes, Juventus had one foot in the quarter-finals. The 50/50 of which Allegri spoke was weighted far further in his side’s favour.

Juventus’ manager went on to criticise supporters who jeered his team’s performance in the final 80 minutes on Tuesday, pointing out that his side have overachieved in the Champions League. Winning the Scudetto is the priority. Again, he would say that now.

Allegri is right that some of the criticism of him has been over the top. Had Gonzalo Higuain converted the second penalty, this would have been a far different conversation. The absence of Paulo Dybala and Blaise Matuidi was also felt, and would be by any team. These are elite players.

Unfortunately, like Zidane, there has always been a suspicion that Allegri is a fortunate manager as much as a proficient one, in the right place at the right time. That leads to the knives being sharpened and left out on the side just in case. If that sounds uncharitable, welcome to the Italian media.

There are relevant concerns about this Juventus performance. It was the second game in succession (after the win in Florence ten days ago) where Juventus have sat on the back foot after taking the lead, and been dominated by their opposition. It worked against Fiorentina, when Juve eventually won 2-0, but it failed spectacularly against Tottenham. Eriksen delighted in the space he was afforded, and Kane is too good to miss more than one good chance without scoring.

In the second leg, Juventus cannot afford to sit back. They must score at least once and must surely score first if they are to progress. With Antonio Conte angling for a move back to Italy, now would not be a good time for Allegri to be eliminated in the Champions League last 16.


The old men of the old lady
Our early losers. Eight Juventus players over the age of 30 have played over 1,000 minutes of Serie A football this season. Chasing Tottenham shadows is no task for old men.


Serge Aurier
I’ve finally worked out the issue with Aurier at right-back: he can’t defend.

On Wednesday, Dani Alves and Marcelo offered the perfect demonstration of modern full-backery, surging forward up the wing but sprinting back to get into position. Not only does Aurier suffer in the latter, he combines it with occasionally wretched decision-making and tempestuousness. I never thought that Tottenham would end up with Danny Rose and Aurier as back-up full-backs, but that is where we now are.


Gareth Bale
The disappointment of not starting may have been eclipsed by the game and tie changing after his introduction, but it’s still worrying that Zidane continues to keep faith in the goal-shy Karim Benzema.


Simon Mignolet and Alberto Moreno
They should probably start a bridge club, or get into competitive knitting. Klopp has now settled on a goalkeeper and left-back, and both calls look spot on.


Edinson Cavani
Eleven touches of the ball in 66 minutes, while his two striking teammates managed 128 in their combined 180 minutes. Cavani might apply to FIFA for Neymar to have his own ball so that he can at least get a kick.


José Sá
Before Wednesday, Sa had played 45 senior career matches at the age of 25, forced to sit on the bench while Iker Casillas’ decline was played out in front of a wincing audience. They’re still wincing now.

Quite how Sa allowed Sadio Mane’s shot to squirm under him isn’t clear, but it allowed Liverpool to click into several higher gears. Nobody wants to be the catalyst for their own team’s collapse.


Taulant Xhaka
‘Leaden-footed up against fleet-footed attack’ read the Daily Mirror’s player ratings. Perhaps it runs in the family.


Daniel Storey


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