Since the start of 2012/13, the quarter-finalists in the Champions League have represented the following countries:
Spain – 18
Germany – 10
France – 6
England – 6
Italy – 5
Portugal – 2
Turkey – 1
If that indicates the strength at the top of La Liga, the argument from some is that the depth of quality in the league is lacking below Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. As if having three very good teams in a league is somehow unusual.
And yet that hardly plays out. Since the start of 2012/13, here are the number of different clubs represented in the Champions League quarter-finals by country:
Spain – 5
England – 5
Germany – 3
Italy – 2
France – 2
Portugal – 2
Turkey – 1
The same is true of the Europa League. Since the start of 2012/13, the quarter-finalists in the Champions League have represented the following countries (2017/18 omitted because last-16 ties still being played):
Spain – 7
England – 5
Italy – 4
Portugal – 4
Germany – 3
Belgium – 3
Ukraine – 3
Again, the number of clubs represented also plays out in Spain’s favour:
Spain – 5
England – 5
Italy – 4
Portugal – 3
Germany – 3
Belgium – 3
Ukraine – 3
For all the concern over the financial dominance of Spain’s Big Two (and there clearly are relevant issues there), this league continues to over-perform in continental competition. La Liga really is the King of European football.
Watching Messi as a neutral, you find yourself supporting him and him alone. Despite usually favouring the underdog against the best, Messi turns that principle on its head. You want him to embarrass opponents. You are begging him to do something magical, to create your own ‘I was there’ Messi moment.
You could ask 100 people for their favourite aspect of Messi and get 30 different answers, and ask me 100 times and probably get just as many, but I think the thing that attracts me most is his magnetism. To opposition players as well as neutrals.
Take Ousmane Dembele’s goal on Wednesday. Messi’s vision is exceptional, but it is his magnetism that makes the goal. One moment, four Chelsea players are within 20 yards of him. The next moment, they are all within ten yards. He has drawn them to him.
Messi’s skill level is all-powerful even when latent. The knowledge of what he can do in the penalty area is enough to force Chelsea’s defenders to swarm him, abandoning thoughts of other Barcelona players. That is what opens up the space for Dembele to run into. That is what makes the goal. That is what makes him the best team player in the world.
Premier League rejects
Juan Cuadrado and Wojciech Szczesny at Juventus. Edin Dzeko, Aleksandar Kolarov and Federico Fazio at Roma. Paulinho at Barcelona. Roque Mesa, Sandro Ramirez, Nolito and Jesus Navas at Sevilla. You could almost make up a team of Champions League quarter-finalists who were considered surplus to requirements by Premier League clubs. Good on them.
The most chances any player has created against Manchester United in the Premier League this season is eight, by Christian Eriksen. The most chances any player has created against Manchester United in the Champions League this season is 17, by Ever Banega. That’s absolutely bloody ridiculous.
Our early winner, who has reached the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in his career. Given his improvement in Serie A following the disappointment of being replaced by Wilfried Bony, we’re chuffed for him.
Of his last 55 matches in all competitions as a manager, Heynckes has won 51. Not bad.
Eusebio di Francesco, Massimo Allegri and Vincenzo Montella all in the final eight of the Champions League. After all the concern over the lack of coaching depth in Italy following the recent failure of the national team, this is a welcome good news story.
Wissam Ben Yedder
Scored with his first two touches after coming on as a substitute to win his team their Champions League tie, so you could understand the look of disbelief on Ben Yedder’s as the final whistle blew. Those of us who have seen more of Ben Yedder in the Champions League than La Liga are struggling to comprehend why he doesn’t start every game.
Released by Bayern Munich in 2008, only to be re-signed in January from Hoffenheim, Wagner finally scored his first European goal for his hometown club after playing in the Champions League for both Werder Bremen and Hoffenheim. Now 30, it has been a long journey to get here.
Jose Mourinho and his narrow margins
This is why the argument from some that elite club management is somehow easier than lower-league management is such a nonsense. It is not easier, just different.
Mourinho is right to assert that Manchester United’s squad needed improvement when he joined. There were gaps and flaws, and there are still gaps and flaws. But when you buy the two most expensive players in English football history over the course of your first two summers, those players will naturally come under the spotlight’s glare. When you add four other players for more than £30m and also recruit the highest-paid footballer in the country, the same applies.
Pep Guardiola has produced an extraordinarily good team this season, and even he is subject to criticisms that he is a chequebook manager. For Mourinho to have spent close to the same money and failed to even compete with Manchester City in the Premier League can only be classed as failure.
To have limped out of the Champions League in the manner they did should be considered calamity. Seven of the eight last-16 ties were won by the more financially powerful club. Manchester United are the exception.
This does not just matter for our assessment of Mourinho’s present and recent past, but the future too. Over the next three months (in fact, over the last three months too), he will leak information to the press that he requires certain players in certain positions in order to compete. He has become Mr One More Window.
That’s acceptable to an extent – United have given him a contract extension and there is money to spend – but we are permitted to ask questions of exactly when the performance level of this team is dragged up to meet that spending. At an elite club such as Manchester City or Manchester United, you will be applauded only for achieving style and substance in tandem. So far, only one manager in Manchester is nailing that demand.
Mourinho will claim that his manufactured personality is part of what makes his teams work. He is dedicated and obsessive in all aspects of his life, but saves his prickliness for his media persona.
Mourinho is clever enough to know how the media works. Give them a memorable soundbite and you get to write your own headlines. In taking ownership of this process, Mourinho creates a siege mentality around himself, and a bubble around his players. Do a pre-match press conference, and make sure the pressure is piled upon the manager rather than those on the pitch. React after the game, and again it is you who will be the focus of media attention.
Yet there is another reason for Mourinho’s media spikiness: he cannot abide criticism. To accept personal criticism is to accept weakness, and to accept weakness is to allow water to seep between the cracks. Cracks become opened up over time, and suddenly you’re drowning. This is a man allergic to three short words: I was wrong. Concede that, so his theory goes, and you have provided the rope with which the media can hang you.
When all is going well, that strategy is easy to maintain, but when things go awry, ignoring all criticism quickly begins to look like propaganda. When significant setback arrives, and criticism cannot be ignored, Mourinho switches up to his next level: pointing the finger at others. Referees, physiotherapists, key players, the media, injuries and supporters have all previously been subject to Mourinho’s blame game.
On Tuesday, Mourinho made a significant misstep. By pointing out that he had twice knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League, and so exit to Sevilla was no huge shock, he dramatically misjudged the mood. Having stifled his team against a lesser opponent, Manchester United supporters were not ready to hear about how successful their manager used to be. Mourinho was subject to ire that he has rarely encountered in his career.
Criticising referees for defeat is one thing, but blaming the entire recent history of your football club (and pointing to two exits under Alex Ferguson) is several bridges too far. After all, Mourinho was supposed to be the coach that altered this under-performance, not sustained it.
This is the reality of life under Mourinho. Such is the strength of his personality, he brings an entire club into his orbit. To support a Manchester United managed by Jose Mourinho is to support Jose Mourinho. Those who had previously frowned at the mention of his name were forced to buy into his vision. It’s him against the world, and so it’s you and your club against the world.
When that vision starts to crack, the fall-out is therefore messy. We saw it at Chelsea (twice) and at Real Madrid, and we’re beginning to see it now. Woe betide anyone who gets in the way of a smarting egotist. Mourinho is prepared to battle even his club’s own supporters for supremacy.
At his best, Mourinho is a pragmatist. That is occasionally mis-sold as Mourinho being a defensive coach, but that is unfair. Pragmatism is identifying the most likely strategy to achieve victory, and using the likelihood of victory as the basis for utilising said strategy. If that happens to be playing conservative football, so be it. If that means shutting down top-six opponents and only playing expansively against the rest, so be it. Last season, that is exactly what Mourinho did, and it worked in cup competitions.
Unfortunately, pragmatism is an increasingly difficult trick to pull off. With rising ticket prices, football sold as televisual spectacle and elite club managers given ever-growing piles of broadcast revenues to spend on new players, supporters (and the media) are expecting entertainment to complement success. Winning ugly is considered sufficient for the comparative underdog, but not the richest club in the world.
Mourinho’s problem here is two-fold: 1) He is managing the richest club in the world, and 2) his pragmatism is not working effectively. Manchester United have a fine group of exciting, attacking players (Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata), but Mourinho is failing to get a tune out of them as a collective. They are being suffocated by a safety-first approach that is really starting to grate.
Were one or two players not performing to their potential, we might question the individuals. When five or six are not, having done so at other clubs under other managers, we question the system. This is Mourinho’s problem, not theirs.
When pragmatism is harder to pull off, it narrows the margins. Were Manchester United in the quarter-finals of the Champions League and four points behind Manchester City while grinding out results and still playing with the handbrake applied, there would be far less cause for complaint. But the suspicion is that United would actually be far more effective in the hands of another, more expansive manager.
Like Guardiola, say. And that’s what will really smart the most.
Ray Wilkins (and those like him)
“I don’t think it’s tricky but I don’t think it’s anything that should really stand in the way is it?,’ Wilkins told talkSPORT before the first leg of Manchester United vs Sevilla. “You know, where would Sevilla be in the Premier League? Bottom six? Probably?”
It’s that final word that sticks in the throat most. It revealed more than Wilkins would like, namely that the pundit had precisely no idea how good Sevilla were, nor how they would get on in the Premier League.
Instead, he was working on hard-wired instinct. And that instinct was that foreign leagues were not as good as the Premier League. The rest of us knew that Sevilla were a strong team, albeit one in weak form and with an unreliable defence that Manchester United should look to exploit.
This is not just about Wilkins. He was merely the person to shout loudest this time. But the voices of the reasonable are continually ignored in favour of those prepared to talk loud and proud about things they know little about. And the home ground of this type of pundit is that British is best, while foreign leagues, players and managers are something to be either derogatory or suspicious of. It stinks.
Antonio Conte’s ‘can’t do’ attitude
A decent stab at second-leg redemption after conceding early, but you got the feeling that Conte never truly believed Chelsea could do it. But then he’s never really believed in anything this season. Now go read the piece that says as much.
At fault technically for the second goal, with his hands kept low and unable to react to the shot directed high. At fault mentally for the first goal, foxed by Messi into believing that a pull-back was coming and left looking foolish when the ball was played between his legs.
Fronting up after the game is always viewed positively, but is ultimately meaningless. Back in Spain and trying to impress Real Madrid (if reports are to be believed), making mistakes that allow Barcelona to win a match isn’t a particularly strong come-and-get-me strategy.
A nod to the wonderful slam in the Mailbox on Wednesday morning: ‘The £1.5m Sir Alex Ferguson got from Juventus for Pogba is starting to look like a good bit of business.’
Pogba’s confidence looks utterly shot, eroded by injuries, poor form and a perceived lack of trust from his manager. Mourinho’s famous siege mentality used to bring his clubs’ key players close to him, with the rest of the world looking in. Now those key players are on the outside, looking at a siege mentality of one. Still, happy 25th birthday fella.
Alexis Sanchez, ridiculously bad
Our early loser, and he deserves it too. Mourinho recently insisted that Sanchez was bought six months ahead of schedule and thus can be given a free pass until the summer, but that’s a nonsense argument when you continue to pick him for every match despite his form.
Sanchez was not recruited from South America or continental Europe, and thus required time to acclimatise. The reason for his extraordinarily high salary is that Manchester United were buying a ready-made star, one who knew the league and, at 29, would hit the ground running. So far, it has been a bloody disaster.
Topped their group, conceding five goals in six matches against Monaco, Porto and RB Leipzig, only to concede eight in 180 minutes to Bayern Munich. Bruised heads all round from banging them against the glass ceiling.