Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 3rd November 2016 12:59

Winners

Ilkay Gundogan
‘Manchester City have their Frank Lampard’ was the comment I saw on social media on Tuesday evening. Gundogan’s going to have to score 25 goals a season until the age of 37 to match Lampard’s career total, but you get the point. Gundogan has scored 17% of his career club goals in just ten games since arriving in England. He is the country’s in-form midfielder.

He’s passing like David Silva, tackling like Fernandinho and surging from deep like Yaya Toure. In the last two games, Gundogan’s scoring like Sergio Aguero. Twenty bloody million pounds.

 

Mesut Ozil
There are three reasons why we at Football365 regularly bring up the ‘nicking a living’ accusation levelled against Mesut Ozil in March 2014.

Firstly, it passes comment on the sometines inflammatory nature of our tabloid media, where the only thing that provokes extreme reaction is extreme opinion. ‘Nicking a living’ was joined by ‘isn’t worth two-bob’; this is deliberate hyperbole purely for effect.

It also showcases the very English tendency to hype up what is ours and, sometimes only subconsciously, denigrate something alien. A player who glides around the pitch rather than one who charges about is seen not as someone who preserves energy effectively but one who is not pulling their weight – someone who is lazy or doesn’t care enough. We all judge players on their ability and output, but some award extra points for perspiration.

Finally, it highlights English football’s impatience with foreign imports, something we’re all guilty of to some extent. Those words were written not in isolation, but as part of a particularly aggressive column seven months after Ozil had arrived in English football, seven months after a player had moved from one country, culture, league and club to another in which he had never played before. Could you do that and be at 100% physically and emotionally straight away? Add in the pressure of a large transfer fee, injury setbacks and rampant criticism from an audience and media, of which some are gleefully urging you to fail. Could you cope now?

Not every player needs time to settle (see the section above for evidence), but that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Some players will hit the ground running, some will take time to settle and make friends. Some will be homesick, some will flourish immediately in new surroundings. Some will want to socialise, some will want to stay in with their family. That doesn’t make anyone better or worse a person or player – it makes them different.

Ozil’s goal against Ludogorets was crucial in the context of the game, with Arsenal struggling, but more important for his own reputation. Every Arsenal fan knows he possesses outrageous skill, the type that can make opponents far more illustrious than the Bulgarians look silly. The question from outside Arsenal was whether Ozil could produce that skill when Arsenal really needed it, in those clutch moments. Of course he bloody could.

The ‘it’s only Club X’ argument is valid here, and has been used on this site before, but this was not about the quality of the opposition. It was about Arsenal needing a hero, someone to claw victory from the jaws of a disappointing draw. Not all leaders have to run constantly, scream loudly and sweat profusely.

 

Robert Lewandowski
He’s scored 19 goals in his last 17 games. And you thought Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had a duopoly on superhuman statistics.

 

Raheem Sterling
Last season, Sterling’s brilliance was the exception to the rule. This season, it’s his moments of wastefulness that are the anomaly. There were widespread groans when the winger’s poor touch meant he lost his chance to give Manchester City a second-half lead, but he was excellent throughout.

When presented with the ball on the right edge of the area in the first half, Sterling slid the ball across the six-yard box to a waiting Gundogan. Last year, you’d have expected him to dally on the ball and risk wasting the opportunity. The power of confidence.

 

Kevin de Bruyne
Our early winner. Doubts about De Bruyne in the big games was the only thing left on the ‘Can he really do it all?’ list. Yes, yes he can.

 

Pep Guardiola
So you’re saying the man with six league titles and two Champions League trophies might not be a fraud after all? Sure.

 

Arsenal
A victory of which the importance became particularly obvious after Paris Saint-Germain’s late winner in Switzerland. Should Arsenal beat the French champions at the Emirates they will top their Champions League group for the first time since 2011/12. I’d like to think that Arsene Wenger was just f*cking with those morons at Arsenal FAN TV by going 2-0 down.

 

Maths fans
Should Arsenal beat Paris St Germain they will top Group A. Should they lose, they will finish second. Yet if Arsenal and PSG draw, things get very interesting. I’m potentially using that adjective quite erroneously.

Draw 0-0 – Arsenal likely to top the group by virtue of having scored more away goals in the two games between the two clubs.

Draw 2-2, 3-3 or higher – Arsenal likely to finish second in the group by virtue of having scored fewer away goals in the two games between the two clubs.

Draw 1-1 – Arsenal and PSG will be completely level on the head-to-head record. That would leave Arsenal leading by a goal difference of three in the matches as a whole heading into the last round of games. It would effectively lead to a shootout whereby PSG needed to win by three more goals at home to Ludogorets than Arsenal win by away at Basel.

Who said maths had to be boring eh, guys. Guys? GUYS?

PS: If you check the maths and the rules and find out the above is wrong, I’ve kind of already won.

 

Celtic
It won’t be enough to make the Europa League unless they beat one of Barcelona or Manchester City, but Brendan Rodgers will have been pleased to see his side avenge the dire performance of a fortnight ago. Now to focus on the SPL and the Scottish Cup, aka the real quiz.

 

Legia Warsaw
A point against Real Madrid, a bloody point! It could so easily have been three, but Jacek Magiera will probably take it. Having drawn against Dundalk at home in August, they drew against Real Madrid in November. Funny ol’ game, Saint.

 

Bundesliga
It’s an opportune time to revisit John Hartson’s quotes on Oliver Burke’s decision to join a Bundesliga club:

“He’s gone over to Germany and I can’t understand that, to be honest with you. I think that stinks of agents more than anything else. How much German football do we all see? We see highlights of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, and that’s about it. The Premier League is the place to be. I thought that was the next step for him. He’s gone to Leipzig, but what about a Burnley or a Sunderland or a West Brom? It’s only my opinion, but I think he is good enough for the Premier League.”

Three wins and a draw for the Bundesliga during this gameweek. While Bayern Munich are the second favourites to lift the trophy, Borussia Dortmund sit above Real Madrid in their Champions League group. In the battle of the third-place finishers last season, Bayer Leverkusen beat Tottenham and looked a far more accomplished side than their English counterparts. Leverkusen’s wage bill is approximately 40% of Tottenham’s.

Monchengladbach were given a dire hand with a group containing Barcelona and Manchester City, but look to have one foot in the Europa League. Speaking of which, Schalke top their group in that competition while FC Mainz are unbeaten in their group.

Going out on a limb here, but maybe Hartson was wrong to assume that the natural order is Championship – Bundesliga – Bottom-half Premier League club – Top-half Premier League club -Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – Elite Premier League club. Maybe.

 

Sevilla
The bad news is that the cycle will be broken; Sevilla will not win the Europa League for a fourth successive year. The good news is that the cycle will be broken; having flourished in the bridesmaid’s competition, Sevilla are finally making their mark on centre stage.

It seems illogical that a team who haven’t finished in La Liga’s top four since 2009/10 could be topping a Champions League group, but nothing about this Sevilla rise makes sense. Having lost the inspirational Unai Emery in the summer, many thought they might struggle. Jorge Sampaoli is making those predictions look silly. They’re two points ahead of Juventus in Group H, and three points from the summit of La Liga. In 14 league and Champions League games this season, Sampaoli’s side have lost once.

Even more impressive is Sevilla’s ability to achieve despite very obviously being a selling club. In the last four years, ten players have departed for £10m or more, and four of those at over £20m. In return, they have bought only two. Sevilla’s record transfer fee paid is just £14m.

If Emery received great praise, and finally got his ‘big’ job at Paris St Germain, Sampaoli deserves credit for continuing the story. Having lost Fernando Llorente, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Kévin Gameiro this summer as well as their manager, it looked a difficult task for the former Chile head coach. The astute signings of Franco Vazquez (Palermo), Joaquín Correa (Sampdoria) and Wissam ben Yedder (Toulouse) are indicative of a club that buys on utility, not name. The loan arrivals of Samir Nasri and Luciano Vietto have been revelatory.

The Champions League doesn’t do a strong line in fairytales outside of individual results, but in Andalusia something special is growing. Could this be the first time since 1958 that Sevilla finally win a European Cup knock-out tie?

 

Monaco
The current positions of the fourth seeds in the Champions League group stage draw are as follows: 4th, 3rd, 4th, 4th, 4th, 3rd, 4th and 1st. Monaco are the glorious exception, upsetting the odds to lead Tottenham and Bayer Leverkusen. A point against Spurs in a fortnight and qualification would be assured. That would continue an odd run for the French side, whereby they have only qualified for the Champions League group stage three times in the last 15 years, but reached the knock-out stages on each occasion.

The Stade Louis II might be the opposite of the “difficult place to go” cliche, but you can’t doubt the statistics. Monaco’s record in their last 12 Champions League home games is astounding: Won 9, Drawn 3, Lost 0, For 30, Against 6.

 

Kasper Schmeichel
I wonder what Schmeichel’s reaction would have been in November 2014 had you told him that in two years he’d be making a wonderful save two miles from his family home in Copenhagen to keep Leicester’s grip on first place in their Champions League group? I mean he’d have other questions too, sure, but still.

 

Leicester’s defence
Did we think Leicester would qualify from that favourable Champions League group? Yes. Did we think they’d be one of only two teams not to concede a goal after four games? No. Is question and answer a fun format? No.

 

Falcao
His first goals in the Champions League proper since scoring against Arsenal in February 2010.

 

 

Losers

Tottenham’s Wembley ‘adventure’
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Tottenham’s wonderful 2015/16 season afforded the club a chance to show the Champions League how far a young, vivacious squad could go, but the road signs are now pointing towards group-stage exit. For the second time in two European home games, Mauricio Pochettino’s side looked unable to leave more than a scratch on their opponents. On this evidence, they don’t deserve to progress to the knockout rounds.

After the game, Pochettino refused to blame Tottenham’s temporary home as the reason for their funk, but they can’t say they weren’t warned. The defeat to Bayer Leverkusen was the highest recorded ‘home’ attendance in English football history, but the reality is that Wembley feels like anything but. The move across north London allowed many more Spurs fans to see their team play at reasonable prices, but plenty would have substituted their experience for progression deep into this tournament. Progression of any kind would be a bonus now.

The idea of a ‘jinxed’ stadium or a Wembley ‘curse’ that some are seriously suggesting is as ludicrous as it sounds, but the change of stadium is clearly affecting Tottenham’s players. By losing the advantage of playing at their regular home, a team loses that familiarity of surroundings that helps to create vital on-pitch confidence and comfort. Strikers talk about ‘knowing’ their home penalty area, subconscious markers allowing them to gauge their exact position; pitch familiarity is no myth.

There is a reason why the requirement to play home matches at a neutral venue has been used as a punishment by UEFA for teams whose fans cause disturbances, and Tottenham are quickly learning that there really is no place like home. A reminder that they are scheduled to play their entire league campaign at Wembley next season.

 

Tottenham’s strength in depth
Whatever the impact of playing at Wembley, Wednesday’s performance was so bad that the stadium cannot solely be blamed for Tottenham ineptitude. After the game, Pochettino did not even pretend to hide his anger with his players.

“It is embarrassing for me,” Pochettino told BBC Sport. “After two games at Wembley, Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen, there is no excuse. We were poor and we need to find the answer in ourselves. We are very disappointed and we cannot show the performance that we have in recent weeks – that is the problem.”

Pochettino’s right, too. Matt Stead got some stick for his unfavourable piece on Tottenham earlier this week, but not all supporters are blinded by the ‘unbeaten’ tag. Of course it’s lovely not to lose, but of more importance to Pochettino is how his team respond when under pressure. So far this season, he has not seen the fight of last season.

Of greatest concern to Tottenham’s manager is just how reliant they are on Harry Kane and Toby Alderweireld. In the eight Premier League and Champions League games Kane has missed, Spurs have scored at a rate of less than a goal per game. In the four Premier League and Champions League games Alderweireld has missed, they’ve taken points at a rate of less than one per game.

It’s hardly groundbreaking to declare that a team such as Tottenham will miss their best players, but it underlines the fortune in last season’s achievements. Kane, Alderweireld, Hugo Lloris, Kyle Walker, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Dele Alli and Eric Dier played a combined 285 league games out of a possible 304. When Pochettino was forced to rely on his back-ups, it was on an individual basis rather than in twos and threes. Therein lies the difficulties of combining Champions League football with Premier League pressure following a tournament summer.

Are Ben Davies, Moussa Sissoko, Harry Winks and Vincent Janssen really good enough to help carry Tottenham’s season? We’ll find out in the next few months, but one competition might already have slipped through Spurs’ hands.

 

 

Moussa Sissoko
Our early loser, because he was sodding awful. After Sissoko’s previous statements of allegiance to Arsenal, Tottenham supporters were unconvinced that their club-record signing was anything other than a panic buy by Daniel Levy. Those suspicions are now even more entrenched.

 

Christian Eriksen and fatigue
Struggling to make an impact after a bright start to the season, could Eriksen be suffering from a lack of the same energy that is demanded by Pochettino’s system? Eriksen regularly covers more ground than any other Tottenham player, but has played an outrageous amount of football for someone so young.

Since the start of 2010/11, when Eriksen was just 17, he’s played 348 matches. That’s obscene even without considering that he’s playing in one of the most physically demanding systems in Europe. The poor sap must be knackered.

 

Barcelona
Unsurprisingly, people lined up after the defeat to Manchester City to declare just how much Barcelona had lost their lustre; who doesn’t love a crisis? Given their dominance over the same side a fortnight earlier that seems extremely hasty, but there is no doubt that Luis Enrique is fighting to keep the Catalan flag flying highest of all. Eight points dropped in ten league games is unusual, but failing to reach the Champions League semi-finals two years in succession would be considered a disaster.

 

Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Digne
There was little secret to Barcelona’s summer transfer strategy. Other than goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen, the pattern is easy to spot: Andre Gomes (22), Samuel Umtiti (22), Lucas Digne (22), Denis Suarez (22), Paco Alcacer (turned 23 on the day he was signed).

Unfortunately, Luis Enrique is discovering the conundrum with younger fringe players: The more they play the better they get; the less frequently they play the longer it takes for them to settle. Umtiti and Digne are both fine players (and signed for a combined £35m), but both only play regularly in the absence of Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba.

On his first European start for his new club, Digne struggled to cope with Sterling. On his third, Umtiti couldn’t handle Sergio Aguero and should have been penalised for a foul on Sterling in the box.

 

Basel
Between 2011 and 2014, Basel enjoyed an incredible run of success against English clubs in the Champions League: A win and a draw against Manchester United, two wins over Chelsea, and a win and a draw over Liverpool. If that made Arsenal supporters nervous when they drew the Swiss champions, they need not have worried. Basel may be able to win their domestic league with their eyes shut, but they have fallen away in Europe. Just another victim of the rich getting richer.

 

Competition
After only four of the six gameweeks, six clubs have qualified, another five are virtually certain to qualify and eight have been eliminated. As Sportingintelligence tweeted, in seven of the eight Champions League groups the clubs with the two highest wage bills are in the top two places. Sorry Tottenham fans, but yours is the exception.

 

Juventus
Last season, Juventus threw away top spot to Manchester City and were then promptly knocked out by Bayern Munich. After a 1-1 draw at home to Lyon, they’re in danger of making exactly the same mistake.

 

Gonzalo Higuain
That’s the problem with such a transfer fee. When you do things like this, it makes people wince.

 

Real Madrid
Almost cocked things up spectacularly, and losing to Legia Warsaw having been 2-0 up would be the kind of result that makes Florentino Perez itchy to sack a manager. Victory over Sporting in Lisbon and Dortmund in the Bernabeu will avert any crisis.

 

Borussia Dortmund
A great night on the pitch, with a home win over Sporting combined with Real Madrid dropping points. But it was the ‘internal incident’ that led to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang being suspended from the team that may live longer in the memory. Another sign that Dortmund are about to lose another star?

 

Legia Warsaw fans
One of the best results in your club’s history and you missed it, all because you behaved like d*cks at previous matches. That’ll learn yer.

 

Daniel Storey

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