Before the game, Arsene Wenger described the trip to Greece as an attempt at the greatest escape of his reign. For Steve McQueen read Olivier Giroud, for James Garner read Mesut Ozil and for Richard Attenborough read Joel Campbell. All three (plus Petr Cech) starred as Arsenal got things done in style.
Even the most confident supporter predicted a nail-biting, nerve-shredding final few minutes in the Karaiskakis Stadium, with Arsenal either throwing everything forward in search of a goal or defending their honour and a two-goal lead. The greatest compliment to Wenger’s side is that it wasn’t even close. The final 25 minutes were spent managing the game, Olympiakos held at arm’s length. They knew they were beaten.
There is regular discussion over Peak Arsenal, but this was the opposite. They were calm, collected and calculated. Despite Wenger’s pre-match cinematic reference, this was less Great Escape and more ‘Oh look, they’ve left the cell door open. We could just walk out. Shall we just walk out? Yes, let’s walk out’. There is no doubt that Olympiakos disappointed, but Arsenal should be credited for quietening down a boisterous crowd after a jittery start.
Arsenal’s ease of victory in their last two Champions League matches makes a mockery of autumnal calamities against the same opponents. Wenger will point out that it’s where you finish, not how you start.
“We had a perfect performance on the mental side and tactical side too,” Wenger said after the game, beaming with pride. “It was a complete team performance. We needed great character tonight and these kinds of performances will only make the team stronger. It’s a fantastic achievement for us because we have lost players. Not many people gave us a chance but we are a real team. It is certainly one of my best European results.”
We’ve heard Wenger’s boasts of mental strength plenty of times before, and each time Arsenal have subsequently stumbled over themselves. After wriggling their way out of trouble, the players must avoid making their manager eat his words yet again.
What a time to score your first hat-trick for Arsenal, and join the likes of Nicklas Bendtner in doing so in the Champions League. Theo Walcott may have designs on regaining his place as a central striker, but he’ll be waiting a while.
Giroud is by no means a poacher, but there was a ‘fox in the box’ element to his three goals. The first was a near-post header that probably should have been saved, the third a penalty. The second displayed his true talent, finding space in the box and taking Joel Campbell’s pass in stride before firing past Roberto.
The doubts about Giroud’s ability to lead a team to the title will probably never go away, but nights like these will help to maintain Arsene Wenger’s faith. Having hauled Arsenal through, he must now continue that against Europe’s best in the knockout stage.
An evening that ended with Roman Abramovich’s beaming smile lighting up Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s Russian owner must wonder how his team can look so comfortable against Porto, yet so frail against Bournemouth.
Jose Mourinho spent part of his pre-match press conference insisting that his boss still considered him the right man for the job, but Champions League exit would have made his position almost untenable. With backs firmly pushed against the Stamford Bridge walls, Chelsea produced their best performance of the season.
Nothing is perfect, of course. Eden Hazard’s wait for a goal has now stretched to 26 games, but the Belgian was again demanding to get on the ball and create, unlucky to strike a post late on. Meanwhile, Diego Costa continued to spark controversy by standing on the feet of Iker Casillas, but it was his shot that ended in Ivan Marcano’s own goal. From that moment on, Chelsea powered through.
The Champions League will now be Mourinho’s firm priority, assuming they at least pull clear of relegation danger in the Premier League. This is the potential saviour of season, Chelsea aiming to repeat their 2012 trick of qualifying for next season’s competition by winning this.
“Every team finishing second wants to play us or Zenit St Petersburg,” said Mourinho after the victory. “Every team doesn’t want to play Barcelona, they don’t want to play Real Madrid, they don’t want to play Atletico, they don’t want to play Bayern Munich.
“A team which is struggling as we are is obviously not a candidate to win the Champions League because you have the best teams in Europe. But when we won it with Porto we were not candidates. When we won it with Inter we were not candidates. When we were candidates with Real Madrid we lost two semi-finals, and we lost two semi-finals with Chelsea as well. So let’s see, you never know.”
It’s all highly unlikely, but Mourinho at least still has his fighting talk. It’s when that disappears that his race at Chelsea is run.
Ronaldo might not have performed in Real Madrid’s biggest games this season, but there is nobody you’d rather have as your flat-track bully. Six goals in two games against Malmo and five goals against Shakhtar makes it 11 for the season in the group stage, a Champions League record. As modesty personified humbly admitted: “I don’t seek records, records seek me.”
Enjoyably, Ronaldo has now scored one, two, three, four and five in a game this season. Scoring by numbers.
The first Dutch side in nine years to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League. The advantage of being a top seed looked to have been nullified when they were drawn alongside Manchester United and Wolfsburg. Not a bit of it.
Many ex-internationals choose to take shortcuts into management, but Cocu spent five years between 2008 and 2013 as a youth team coach and assistant, both at PSV and the Dutch national team.
Having finally stepped up to the top job at the Philips Stadion, Cocu has won the Eredivisie title ahead of Ajax, the KNVB Beker and masterminded Champions League qualification. Continue like this and they’ll campaign for an extra ‘l’ and apostrophe to be inserted into the stadium name.
Put that in your “defensive” pipe and smoke it.
Alvaro Arbeloa & Rafa Benitez were involved in the biggest wins in Champions League history. Liverpool 8-0 Besiktas Real Madrid 8-0 Malmo
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 8, 2015
A meal with the now ex-girlfriend (why do they always leave?) on the Thursday, night out with old school friends on the Friday. Then a family party on the Saturday and back to university on the Sunday for another night out, each day spent with a hangover that got progressively worse. That’s how I celebrated my 21st birthday.
Raheem Sterling went for something a little more grand, scoring two and assisting another as he helped Manchester City to the top of their Champions League group. It’s those landmarks that reiterate just how bloody young he still is.
Sterling’s contributions on Tuesday make it eight goals and five assists during his first four months in Manchester. ‘Rodwell Sinclair…………. Sterling!! Should always be carful (sic) what you wish for #bench’ was the tweet from Jason McAteer when the deal was done. Only one of them now looks stupid.
“It is very important to finish top of the group, not just to avoid Barcelona, but to beat a big team like this in Turin,” said Pellegrini on November 24, but the Manchester City manager changed his tune after defeat to Juventus.
“If you do not finish at the top of your group, I do not think it is disappointing,” he said. “I do not think we have to be always pessimistic about the draw. Maybe if you finish top, you can have a draw against a big team that finished second in its group.” One suspects Pellegrini has suddenly re-realised the importance of top spot.
This column (and it’s Monday cousin) has criticised Pellegrini for the propensity of his City side to fall over in mid-sprint, but the reverse is also true. Following a dismal display at Stoke on Saturday, a Monchengladbach side who beat Bayern Munich on the same day were eventually dispatched with style.
Another criticism of Pellegrini’s side in the Premier League has been their lack of in-game resilience and negligible response to adversity. That hasn’t been a problem in Europe, where City gained nine of their 12 points from losing positions.
Pellegrini is being regularly visited by the ghost of managers future, with the club making little secret of flirtatious advances toward Pep Guardiola. On Tuesday, he at least laid to rest the spectre of managers past, the first City coach to top his Champions League group. Now time to pray for a more favourable draw.
Manchester City’s late goals
Having already gained four of their nine group points in stoppage time before Matchday 6, City continued their affinity with leaving it late to seal top spot in the group.
The trend is now well-established. Twelve of City’s last 31 Champions League goals (stretching back to November 2013) have been scored in the last 15 minutes of matches.
He may be the only one to star for Chelsea this season, but Willian is shining brightly enough for two or three. The Brazilian scored 38% of Chelsea’s group stage goals.
That pass. That bloody pass.
That pass. That bloody pass.
It may not be the big sell, but Gent are undoubtedly the story of the Champions League group stage.
“We are full of confidence and will do everything we can to grab the three points and qualification for the round of 16,” said coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck before the game. “We always try to take it a step further – you have never reached your limit – but I will be satisfied if my players bring what they have brought to their previous matches. I would have loved to be able to play in these kind of fixtures every week. This is what you do it for.”
Vanhaezebrouck’s confidence was admirable, but few gave Gent a chance against a Zenit team with maximum points so far; few have given them a chance all season. Aided by Andre Villas-Boas resting players with first place secured, the Buffalos won 2-1 to seal a memorable qualification.
Gent became the first Belgian side to qualify for the knockout stage since Anderlecht in 2000/01, yet this is only part of their story. Seven months after being crowned domestic champions for the first time in their 115-year history, Gent won three consecutive matches against Valencia, Lyon and Zenit to reach the knockout stage in their first ever Champions League campaign.
The graph below indicates the size of their achievement (and Manchester United’s failure):
As 9 out of the 10 richest teams in the CL group make it to R16, the standout over-achievement is GENT's. pic.twitter.com/9wQBmbrOdf
— sportingintelligence (@sportingintel) December 9, 2015
Serhiy Rebrov led the Dynamo Kiev attack the last time they reached the knockout stage in 1999/2000. This time he did so as their manager. Just don’t expect him to go to Tottenham straightaway.
There were Bayern Munich supporters worried that Lewandowski’s career could be over after he’d gone 11 club games without scoring more than once in a match. That wait is now over. Phew.
With 25 minutes of their group stage remaining, a live table of Group D had Sevilla trailing Borussia Monchengladbach by four points. Fast forward to full-time, and Unai Emery’s side had completed a remarkable qualification for the Europa League. You won’t see Emery bored.
Sevilla’s third place means they can still become only the fourth club to win a major European trophy three times in a row, and the first since Bayern Munich in 1976.
Dieter Hecking’s side might be 15 points behind Bayern Munich and fifth in the Bundesliga table, but they were still too strong for the Premier League’s fourth-placed team. Their response to losing Kevin de Bruyne in the summer has been hugely impressive.
Before Tuesday, Benfica had lost one home Champions League game since October 2012, and conceded one goal in their previous four. For Atleti to go to Lisbon and gain the win required to top Group C is a fine effort.
Two points behind Barcelona in La Liga and with seven straight wins in all competitions, Diego Simeone’s magic touch has not deserted him yet.
Twelve goals in his last 11 games. The decision to let him leave Manchester United may have been valid, but his response to that setback has been spectacular.
Malmo fans still singing after their 8-0 defeat to Real Madrid last night. Incredible support ??pic.twitter.com/QWvbOWHU8a
— BreatheSport (@BreatheSport) December 9, 2015
“Every club is wonderful, but I’m a fan of Barcelona,” the PSV defender said on Wednesday. “It would be nice to play against them, whether it’s this round, the next round or in the final. We will eat Messi, Suarez and Neymar alive.”
That’s the bloody spirit.
An inauspicious list
The following teams are a selection of those who have made it further than Manchester United in their last four Champions League campaigns:
2011/12: Marseille, Basel, APOEL Nicosia, CSKA Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg.
2012/13: Malaga, Galatasaray.
2014/15: Barcelona, Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich (so we’ll let them off).
2015/16: Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven, Dynamo Kiev, Gent, Zenit St Petersburg.
Which brings us nicely to…
Louis van Gaal
The lowest moment of Van Gaal’s reign, at a time when he was supposed to moving away from the troughs and climbing new peaks. Having spent time, effort and money getting back into the Champions League, Manchester United promptly tumbled out at the group stage. In the age of constant comparison, United ‘did a Liverpool’.
The defeat itself was damaging, of course, but it was the manner that was most destructive. Van Gaal has spent the last few months telling the media and supporters that it is only a matter of time until the goals come. Having ensured that the plug was firmly placed in the bath, the warm water was about to flow.
This was the opposite to Van Gaal’s missives. Having previously prioritised solidity, United went for a gung ho approach in Wolfsburg and looked flaky and porous at the back. It’s difficult not to imagine Van Gaal in a Laurel and Hardy-style slapstick routine, where covering up one hole only uncovers another. The idea is that a fluent defence and attack are not mutually exclusive.
This wasn’t a progression from their previous strategy, but a rulebook ripped up in a vital match. Having placed all his eggs in the defensive basket, Van Gaal turned them into a basket case.
United’s exit understandably provoked reaction from sections of the club’s support calling for Van Gaal’s sacking, but there has to be sufficient pull factor alongside push factor. If there is nobody willing to take the job who can be confidently predicted to do better than Van Gaal in the Premier League, there is no point sacking the Dutchman.
A new manager is not going to magic the club back into the Champions League, and they are only three points behind Leicester at the top. The upheaval of change could cause more harm than good, and Carlo Ancelotti recently ruled out taking over a club in mid-season.
Yet, as Matt Stead wrote here, that fails to temper the disappointment and frustration in Van Gaal’s current performance. The Dutchman makes no secret of his own self-confidence, faith seemingly shared by United’s hierarchy. That faith feels emphatically misplaced.
Whatever the initial outrage over Tuesday’s result, Van Gaal will not be sacked soon. Yet whether he survives beyond the end of the season depends on both his performance in the Premier League and the availability of more stellar options. That second caveat alone should be enough to deflate Van Gaal’s ego.
Exiting the Champions League at the group stage is not terminal to Van Gaal’s ambitions, but it has destroyed his relationship with some supporters. Where once there was trust and excitement, only suspicion and infuriation remains.
The weakest excuse
‘Louis van Gaal retains the support of Manchester United despite being knocked out of the Champions League, as the hierarchy believe the lucrative Premier League broadcast deal has significantly reduced English clubs’ hopes of winning Europe’s biggest prize,’ began the Guardian’s piece on Wednesday evening, published just as Chelsea and Arsenal were sailing through. Many struggled to stifle a laugh.
‘The view of the United board is that TV companies are reluctant to move games to Friday night to assist clubs by giving players more recovery time ahead of Tuesday evening matches in Europe, as is done in some other countries,’ the piece continued. They wanted Friday football, so Thursday is only a day away. Right guys?
The best teams find a way. The rest moan about the route.
Being substituted for Nick Powell caused a reaction that we never thought possible: Mata doing anger. Unfortunately for him, while the identity of his replacement was astonishing, his own withdrawal was not. Mata created three chances, including Anthony Martial’s opening goal, but was far less effective than we have grown to expect from that point on. It’s becoming a habit.
Mata can make similar claims as Ander Herrera, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial that Van Gaal’s style is doing him few favours, but the Spaniard has a price tag and reputation which demands he be more proactive in addressing United’s attacking lethargy. He is also a more senior player than those aforementioned three.
Juan Mata not a happy bunny after the game last night (and rightly so after that bizarre sub) and apparently let his feelings be known #mufc
— Barney @Red News (@barneyrednews) December 9, 2015
Interestingly, when Romelu Lukaku scored on Monday evening and drew the ‘Jose, what have you done?’ reaction, it was him and De Bruyne’s departures from Chelsea namechecked before Mata merited mention. He’s dropping from the radar slightly.
Mata’s early assist was his first in 14 United matches. He has created just 14 chances in his last 11 games, yet for the first two months of the season was going at over two per match. We await his next blog with a heavy heart.
As we said here, an odd loss of status in Van Gaal’s squad given that he hasn’t really done much wrong. From first-choice left winger in April to third-choice right back in December?
There are several Premier League managers who can be criticised for not trusting in youth, but Van Gaal is not one of them. Yet his unwillingness to give Pereira a chance is verging on bizarre, given United’s sluggishness in the final third.
The surprise at Powell’s introduction was shared amongst every United fan (and some of the players), but Pereira must have felt it hardest. Outside the League Cup, he’s managed just 52 minutes under Van Gaal.
His Valencia side was whistled from the stands as they lost 2-0 at home to Lyon, a side with one point from their five matches before Wednesday. Gent’s victory over Zenit St Petersburg dictated that even victory could not have taken Neville’s side through, but that failed to render the defeat meaningless.
“I think we had lead in our legs, as if we had played another game today,” Neville said after the game. “We were the better side in the first half, but in the second we conceded a lot of counter-attacks and conceded the second goal. Lyon have good attacking players but we should have done much better. They were better than us and there’s no excuse. We can’t be happy with how we played and we can’t blame anyone.”
A visit to Eibar on Sunday now approaches. Neville must hope for much, much more.
Responding after a woeful start in Serie A, last season’s finalists must do it the hard way in the Champions League after allowing Manchester City past them in Group E. To beat City home and away and yet still fail to finish ahead of Pellegrini’s side is almost impressive.
The Foals fell at the final hurdle. That’s What Went Down.
Manchester United’s injury crisis
The mitigating factor in this infuriating United season. One look toward the bench in Wolfsburg was enough to spell out the truth; they are down to the bare bones. Michael Owen’s suggestion that he could name 11 players Van Gaal has let go who would get into Tuesday’s side is utter cockwash, but all would have been welcome on the bench.
Morgan Schneiderlin, Marcos Rojo, Wayne Rooney, Ander Herrera, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw were all missing from the trip to Germany. After the match, Van Gaal admitted that both Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian were doubts for Saturday’s game at Bournemouth. Only Newcastle can ‘boast’ more injuries in the Premier League. It might get worse before it gets better.