Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 29th September 2016 11:59

Winners

Theo Walcott
Six Arsenal goals in 18 games in 2013/14; seven Arsenal goals in 21 games in 2014/15; nine Arsenal goals in 42 games in 2015/16; five Arsenal goals in seven games in 2016/17. This is still a small sample size, but Walcott is one of the form players in England. Against Basel on Tuesday, he was irresistible. The standing ovation he received from the Emirates crowd really did make me smile.

“I want to make my position on the right – that’s where I know where I am now,” began Walcott’s muddled pre-season message. “I’ve told the manager that I want to be known for playing on the right again, although I can play up front. I want to know where I want to play. The manager has said I can play up front. It depends on what game it is. I know I can do a job up front as well as on the right.”

The meaning was transparent: I just want to play. After 28 league starts in three seasons, owing to issues with both fitness and form, Walcott’s was a career entering a semi-permanent slump. His status as Arsenal’s longest-serving player was less a compliment to his own ability and more an indictment of his manager’s lack of cutting edge.

And play he has. The injury to Aaron Ramsey (who occasionally played in a wide role last season) and the continued dirge of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has removed Walcott’s serious competition; the winger has thrived since being handed added responsibility. After nine years of settling, this is the best form of his Arsenal career. He has started every game for which he has been available.

That is not to say that we can suddenly forget Walcott’s intensely frustrating patches, but nor too can we churlishly dwell on them while he is scoring so freely and smiling so often. Last season in the Premier League and Champions League, Walcott scored a goal every 241.9 minutes and had a shot on target every 56.4 minutes. This season, despite playing solely as a winger, those figures have dropped to 118.6 minutes and 45.6 minutes.

The most pleasing aspect of Walcott’s performance for Arsene Wenger is that it this is a collective success. It is a point that Adam Bate detailed excellently in this piece for Sky Sports, but Walcott’s return to goalscoring form is at least partly due to Alexis Sanchez’s new role in Arsenal’s attack. The Chilean was guilty of missing chances against Basel, but his versatility as a forward – certainly compared to Olivier Giroud – allows Arsenal to flourish. Less than a third of Sanchez’s touches were in the central third of the pitch, allowing Walcott to drift in and fill the space from the right, Mesut Ozil to do the same from deep and Alex Iwobi from the left. Arsenal are a front four in every sense of the phrase, far away from the rigid 4-2-3-1 when Giroud is playing.

In fact, it runs slightly deeper than that. Arsenal’s four forwards play beautifully as a unit, but also split into two distinct pairs. Iwobi’s tendency to cut in from the left reflects Ozil’s own characteristics, allowing them to interchange places easily. Walcott’s history as a striker and Sanchez’s as a right winger at Barcelona means each has experience of the other’s role. That’s important not just for swapping positions, but for the telepathic understanding that the pair currently seem to have.

When Sanchez ran down the left and chipped the ball back into the box after seven minutes against Basel, it could only have been Walcott – with a rare headed goal – knowing exactly what Sanchez would do. Arsenal’s form player was in the perfect place at the perfect time. He’s making a habit of it.

 

Walcott’s work rate
In 2014/15 and 2015/16 combined in the Premier League and Champions League, Walcott made 15 tackles in 2,182 minutes. In 2016/17 combined in the Premier League and Champions League, Walcott has made 14 tackles in 593 minutes. The boy is learning.

 

Arsenal
A victory more comprehensive than Sarah Winterburn’s knowledge of the forgotten gems of 2000s pop music, with enough left in the tank for Burnley on Sunday. 

 

Shkodran Mustafi
Another seriously assured performance alongside Laurent Koscielny, and another evening on which Per Mertesacker would have been forgiven for feeling slightly nervous about his future. Remember when Rob Holding and Calum Chambers was a thing?

 

Heung-Min Son
He was our early winner on Monday, and 36 hours later was scoring the winner in Russia. At this rate I’m going to run out of puns. Until then, let the Son shine in.

 

Mauricio Pochettino
Our early winner. Tottenham have now won four consecutive games since February, and gained their necessary victory in Moscow despite having to make five changes. They’re flying nicely under the radar once again.

 

Georges-Kevin N’Koudou
Tottenham fans would have been forgiven for doubting N’Koudou’s very existence for most of the last transfer window. The saga involving his quasi-swap deal with Clinton N’Jie threatened to become the most tedious story of the summer, and the Frenchman has been forced to wait for his chance since eventually arriving – 30 minutes against Gillingham, closer to 30 seconds against Middlesbrough.

On Tuesday, Spurs fans got a glimpse of what N’Koudou could be and what N’Jie never was. Brought on with 25 minutes remaining, he immediately moved onto the left wing and beat the right-back, winning a corner. His directness gave Pochettino’s team an added dimension and therefore impetus, but it also moved Son into a central role, with the winner forthcoming.

Given Vincent Janssen’s struggles up front – more on that later – Pochettino must be considering making this a permanent switch in the absence of Harry Kane, although maybe not for the visit of Manchester City on Sunday when Son’s industry will be cherished on the left. One other option would be Erik Lamela wide left and Son as a false nine.

For N’Koudou, a bright start. He could do nothing more to demonstrate his potential worth to his new manager, and his talent to supporters watching from home. As the only out-and-out winger in Tottenham’s squad, the worst he offers is an exciting Plan B.

 

Islam Slimani
Sometimes things just fall perfectly into place. All the pre-match previews for Leicester’s first ever Champions League home game focused on Slimani. Everyone discussed Slimani’s reputation for scoring against Porto, earning him the nickname the Dragon Slayer in Portugal. Claudio Ranieri admitted that he had not heard that particular moniker but hoped it would continue in England. And it did.

If Sporting were prepared for their old friend, it was futile. From the moment that the ball landed at Riyad Mahrez’s feet and he shifted it to the left, Slimani knew where the cross would be directed. It was the kind of delivery that makes scoring easier than missing.

Having scored against Porto in August for Sporting, Slimani did the same in September. Don’t bet against December bringing an identical result.

 

Leicester’s new fairytale
Any doubts over Ranieri’s priority this season was eliminated at half-time at Old Trafford on Saturday lunchtime, when he removed both Jamie Vardy and Mahrez with the game gone. Ranieri’s logic was clear: What on earth was the point in flogging a dead horse?

Premier League lightning might not – will not – strike twice, but it does not matter, Leicester have the opportunity to send their ripples across Europe. A favourable draw set the tone; Leicester faced the sixth-ranked second seeds of eight, the seventh-ranked third seeds and the seventh-ranked fourth seeds.

They have started in imposing fashion, too. After Tuesday, Leicester were the only side to have won both their matches, and they are yet to concede a goal (only Atletico Madrid can match that). They have soundly beaten the worst team in the group and squeezed past the best. Only an unlikely collapse will see them miss out on qualification for the last 16, and they are heavy favourites to finish top of the group. Domestic slump? Who cares.

 

Celtic
After a shambolic opening night threatened to sour their Champions League campaign, a wonderful evening to bring back the love. There are few better atmospheres in European football when Celtic Park is bouncing, and Brendan Rodgers’ team earned all the adoration they received. For anyone who doubts the logic of his move (and I was one), this was emphatic justification. Even watching from home, you got the feels.

 

Moussa Dembele
There was widespread surprise when Celtic managed to land the signing of Dembele in the summer. As every game goes by, it looks like plenty of elite clubs missed a trick. He’s already scored 12 times.

 

Javier Hernandez
Named as our European player of the week after his hat-trick against FC Mainz, and Leverkusen’s scorer in Monaco on Tuesday. Somehow still only 28, Hernandez is enjoying life in Westphalia. The Mexican has six goals for the season in all competitions having scored 26 in 2015/16.

There is no secret to Hernandez’s success – finally starting games regularly after fleeting appearances at Real Madrid and towards the end at Manchester United. “Javier Hernandez is a very important player for us because he scores goals,” Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt said after the game. It’s a statement of the bleeding obvious, but also explains the striker’s form. It’s crucial to feel needed. It’s important to feel loved.

 

Napoli
Maurizio Sarri’s team have not lost since April, have won both of their Champions League group stage games and sit four points clear at the top of Group B after just two games.

A strong Napoli is a strong Serie A. A strong Serie A is a strong European football. A strong European football and nothing can be truly wrong with the world. Sarri might just be good enough, whatever McFly try to tell you.

 

Arkadiusz Milik
Yeah cheers Arkadiusz. I picked you as a Golden Boot tip for the Euros, you deliberately let me down, and now you’re scoring for fun. No, it’s fine, I’m pleased for you. Dick.

 

Thorgan Hazard
In ten games (and 583 minutes) this season, Hazard has seven goals and three assists. Chelsea only have four months to activate their £12.8m buyback clause. They’d be bloody stupid not to, even if they loaned him straight back to Monchengladbach.

 

Atletico Madrid’s defence
On February 6, Keko of Eibar scored at the Vicente Calderon, a game Atletico would go on to win 3-1. Since then, Atleti have played 15 home games, in which they have conceded a consolation goal to Ruben Castro of Real Betis and a late equaliser to Alaves’ Manu Garcia. And that’s it.

 

Diego Godin
Godin missed one of those bloody games above. The most underrated player in world football? Perhaps.

 

Edinson Cavani
After the clusterf*ck against Arsenal, Cavani has scored seven times in four games. A VIP pass to the flat-track Bullingdon Club.

 

Paulo Dybala

Decent hit.

 

Thomas Delaney

Better hit.

 

FC Copenhagen
A hugely impressive home record in the Champions League group stage continues. During 2013/14’s Champions League campaign, Copenhagen beat Galatasaray, drew with Juventus and lost 2-0 to Real Madrid. In 2010/11, they beat Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos and drew with Barcelona. In 2006/07 they drew with Benfica and beat Manchester United and Celtic. Underestimate the Lions at your peril.

 

Juventus
Way to jump back up on your feet after disappointing home draw against Sevilla. Qualification is already virtually guaranteed, and victory in Spain will ensure top spot. Massimo Allegri’s team remain one of the key threats to Real Madrid’s throne.

 

Bryan Ruiz
In April 2015, Ruiz came off the bench for Fulham in a 2-2 draw against Wigan Athletic. Jermaine Pennant scored for the visitors. Seventeen months later, the same player was scoring the second goal in a Champions League victory. The life of Bryan.

 

Borussia Dortmund’s atmosphere
Do yourself a favour. Click on this link, turn the volume on your computer to the maximum, pop on some headphones and just listen to the noise. Hearing this yellow wall of sound must be at the top of everyone’s football bucket list.

 

Losers

Arsenal fun police
The response to Arsenal praise is predictable and immediate. ‘It’s only September’; ‘stop getting excited about Arsenal, they’ll only let you down’; ‘it’s only a few wins in a row’.

They’re all fair points, of course, but so what? Arsenal are a club – partly due to the extreme opinions of their own supporters – that attract intemperate views, but there is nothing wrong with being cheered by success. We’re only too ready to pile on the criticism when Arsenal shoot themselves in the foot, so we should also praise them when they put down the weapon, allow wounds to heal and start running again.

If that just sounds like an excuse for rampant hyperbole, it is not without reason. Arsenal’s own form tends to fluctuate between the extremes, subsequently leaving very little time for ‘wait and see’. Just as a crisis is never too far away, nor too is a run of exceptional form and even more exceptional football. Failing to enjoy the moment because of what might have been or what might yet be is a very dull existence indeed.

 

Olivier Giroud
Suspended on Tuesday after a red card as a substitute against Paris St Germain, Giroud is going to find it awfully hard to get back into Wenger’s starting XI. After years spent debating whether Arsenal needed two centre-forwards, we’re now nearing the conclusion that they didn’t even need any. My head hurts.

 

Aaron Ramsey
Theo Walcott is being wonderful on the right, Mesut Ozil is being brilliant as a No. 10, Santi Cazorla is being brilliant as the roaming central midfielder and Arsenal have at least three better fits to play the holding midfielder role. Ramsey’s injury might be annoying for Wenger, but it’s substantially more damaging for Ramsey himself. They’ve hardly missed you, fella.

 

Vincent Janssen
Please don’t be another Roberto Soldado. Please don’t be another Roberto Soldado. Please don’t be another Roberto Soldado. Please don’t be another Roberto Soldado. Please don’t be another Roberto Soldado. Please don’t be another Roberto Soldado.

It’s still early, but the comparisons are growing. Like Soldado, Janssen looks adept with his back to goal and bringing others into play, but lacking in front of goal. Tottenham had 22 shots against CSKA, but their striker only had one of them. He’s gone from missing chances to not even getting them. The difference from (an in-form) Harry Kane is vast.

Alan Shearer tells a story about Bobby Robson, who called in his struggling striker after taking over from Ruud Gullit. “The first thing Bobby said to me was you’ve got to start playing football with a smile on your face again and start getting defenders turned the other way and running towards their own goal,” Shearer recalls. He was spending too much time with his back to goal helping others, the team player actually harming his team’s fortunes with selflessness. Shearer promptly scored five goals against Sheffield Wednesday in Sir Bobby’s first game; Janssen could do with the same pep talk.

Janssen’s biggest problem is that Tottenham looked a better side after his withdrawal. N’Koudou went left, and Son played in a central role in which he did the buzzing and bustling bit that Janssen excels in, but also scored the winning goal. Son had seven shots to Janssen’s one; it is he, not the Dutchman, doing the best Kane impression.

 

Bayer Leverkusen’s defence
One clean sheet in all competitions since April, and leads thrown away in both of their Champions League group games. Such carelessness could be mighty annoying come December.

 

CSKA Moscow
The supposed cliche is that Russian clubs are an unpleasant Champions League opponent, principally due to their formidable home records.

In the case of CSKA, it just doesn’t work. Since beating Wolfsburg in November 2009, CSKA have played 18 home games, and won just four times. Sporting CP, Trabzonspor, Viktoria Plzen and PSV are the only defeated opponents. Against a Tottenham team under pressure and without five first-teamers, they managed two shots on target.

 

Club Brugge
Seven goals conceded in two games, and none scored. It’s not going well.

 

Dinamo Zagreb
Seven goals conceded in two games, and none scored. It’s not going well.

 

Legia Warsaw
Eight goals conceded in two games, and none scored. It’s not going well.

I’ll stop now, but it does raise a point about the growing quality gap between the Champions League haves and have nots. If we’re not careful – and it’s probably far, far too late – this will become a competition that effectively starts in February and ends in May.

 

Aleksandar Kolarov
Everyone give a big wave to Aleksandar. He’s our early loser, for performing worse in Glasgow than an organic greengrocer.

 

Carlo Ancelotti
Only three goals in three Bundesliga and Champions League away games? Something less than three victories? What black magic is this?

Ancelotti and his sensational eyebrows are quickly learning the problem of having expectations that were already touching the ceiling. Fail to finish top of their Champions League group and land a Barcelona or Real Madrid and Ancelotti’s job security falls through the floor. The return game against Atletico on December 6 might just be the biggest game in Bayern Munich’s season.

 

PSV
FK Rostov are far and away the lowest-ranked team in this season’s Champions League, but held a team who were only eliminated by Atletico Madrid on penalties last season. Already presented with a phenomenally hard task to progress out of the group, PSV have pulled up early in the race.

 

Penalty takers
Six penalties awarded in gameweek two, and five of them missed. As ever, thank goodness for Arkadiusz Milik.

 

 

Daniel Storey

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