Champions League winners & losers…

Date published: Thursday 17th September 2015 9:03

Louis van Gaal Ryan Giggs

It’s officially Winners & Losers, but it might as well be Losers & Winners as English clubs’ performance in the Champions League continues to fall short of expectation. Arsenal were the biggest culprits on a night soaked in Arsene Wenger…

 

Winners

Cristiano Ronaldo
He’s scored one fewer goal in his last 180 minutes than Wayne Rooney in 2015. Ronaldo’s hat-trick was also his 33rd for Real Madrid since his move in July 2009. Greedy guts.

 

Jose Mourinho
There were still weaknesses in Chelsea’s performance, and a better side than Maccabi Tel Aviv would surely have scored at least once at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. Yet this was a result to finally breathe some warmth back into a cold Chelsea dressing room.

It was also a personal victory for Mourinho, who dropped four senior players in Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa. The Portuguese must have gulped when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was booked after 55 seconds, and again when Eden Hazard missed a first-half penalty, but will have slept soundly in his bed.

“The team was more aggressive, with the ball, without the ball,” Mourinho said after the match. “The pressing much stronger, the lines more together.” There was an admission from the manager that Maccabi were one of the weaker teams in this competition but, right now, any win will do.

“I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to wake up tomorrow, ahead of a derby, after a defeat,” said Mourinho after the match. He must have smiled when he saw Arsenal’s result too. Suddenly Saturday’s game takes on a completely different complexion.

 

Sevilla
A home victory to blow away the cobwebs after two points from their opening three La Liga matches, and a winning return to the Champions League after a five-and-a-half-year absence. Sevilla brushed aside Borussia Monchengladbach 3-0, and it could easily have been more; Kevin Gameiro missed a first-half penalty.

“We have worked so hard to get here and we aren’t about to throw this opportunity away,” said winger Vitolo after the game. “We’re going to try and get through the group. We have a very good team and if we all run our hearts out and play together, we’re going to have a great year.”

Manchester City should consider themselves warned.

 

Hulk
Now 29, it is unlikely that we will ever see Hulk in the Premier League, and that’s a great shame. Instead, his club career reads like an odd gap year: Brazil – Japan – Portugal – Russia.

Hulk’s two goals in Valencia not only gave Zenit and Andre Villas-Boas a surprise victory, it also made it seven goals in nine matches this season for the Brazilian. Both goals were hit with his customary nod to power over placement. The last one hit the net at approximately 1200mph.

 

Paul Pogba
Without Carlos Tevez and Andrea Pirlo, there is suddenly an awful lot more pressure and focus on a player already crowned as the best player of the next generation.

Pogba answered that in fabulous style. His pass for Mario Mandzukic’s equaliser was so sexy it made you want to skip dessert and take it straight back to the hotel room.

 

Dinamo Zagreb
Their recent record in all competitions: Played 44, Won 28, Drew 16, Lost 0.

In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t worth increasing their resolve by making six changes after all.

 

Alessandro Florenzi
Yeah, we like that one.

 

Losers

English clubs
Won’t somebody thing of the coefficients?

Seriously though, this is a mightily long blip for English teams in the Champions League. Take out Chelsea and the record since the beginning of last season is eight wins from 25 matches.

A reminder too that since Chelsea won the Champions league in 2012, on only two occasions (out of 11 attempts) has an English team won a knock-out tie in this competition. That ‘Best league in the world’ tag is beginning to look like a sarcastic epitaph on the gravestone of our clubs in Europe.

 

Arsenal and Arsene Wenger
“I knew since I [found out] our schedule that I have a squad of 20 players, all experienced and every decision I make is very difficult,” said Wenger in pre-match press conference. “It is quite easy to change two or three players, more than it was in years before because they are all at a very good level.”

Ah, here we are again. So lovely to see you, take a seat. You’re right, this event is a little earlier than normal this year, but go with it.

Any Arsenal supporters filing out of the Stadion Maksimir on Wednesday night would be forgiven for shouting “f**k cohesion” at the empty stadium, continuing the fine tradition of football supporters screaming obscenities at inanimate objects. If this was Arsenal’s first step along the road to Champions League success, they tripped over their own lace and smashed their face on the gravel.

Arsenal are not losers because their Champions League campaign is in tatters (because it obviously isn’t), but due to the message this defeat sends out. If Arsene Wenger’s decision not to buy a single outfield player (the only club in Europe’s top five leagues, remember) was because he thought he had adequate cover in vital positions, he was wrong.

Individually, this squad is good enough. If all are fit and all are gelling together they are among the most capable sides in Europe. But that is so rare that it barely bears mentioning. It’s something we’ve said before, and will no doubt say again: If this is the performance of the team which will be needed through the cold winter months, a title challenge looks a laughable prospect.

This has been a fortnight so utterly Arsenal that it may as well be christened Thierry Gunnersaurus Adams-Chapman. A silent deadline day was followed by serious injury to Danny Welbeck and another to Jack Wilshere, both suffering setbacks in their recoveries from existing knocks. On both occasions Wenger issued a ‘let’s wait and see’ message but, within days, three months was issued as the hopeful estimate for both. Then, on the first occasion Wenger was permitted to display Arsenal’s strength in depth, they fell woefully short.

Each one of Arsenal’s changes failed in their bid to impress. Mathieu Debuchy has regressed badly from his Newcastle days, Mikel Arteta offered a dire impression of a holding midfielder and David Ospina looked like a rusty reserve goalkeeper. Olivier Giroud went one step further, missing a presentable chance before being sent off for two yellow cards even before half-time. To add a red bow to a night soaked in pure Arsenal, their inability to defend set-pieces again reared its ugly head.

Unexpected failure is hard to take, but there is nothing as frustrating as predictable, and avoidable, downfall. Take one step back, respond impressively, fall short of top spot, get knocked out in the last 16 – it’s Arsenal’s Champions League Groundhog Season. Supporters used to worry that they would never achieve European glory with Wenger in charge. Now even the quarter-finals seem a distant dream.

Wenger this week aimed to curb expectation on Arsenal’s chances in this competition, urging realism through the poetic insistence that “we are not dreamers”. Here’s a list of clubs to have reached the last eight since Arsenal did: Shakhtar Donetsk, Tottenham, Schalke, Internazionale, APOEL Nicosia, Marseille, Benfica, Milan, Malaga, Dortmund, Galatasaray, Atletico Madrid, Porto and Monaco. In this competition, Arsenal have not just been overtaken by the best, but the rest too. And that’s not a dream.

The manager will stress that this is just one defeat, neither catastrophic nor indicative of a terminal decline. Wenger is right on that point, but there now follows a run of games which will truly test Arsenal’s credentials, and put their summer inaction into a more relevant context. Chelsea (a), Spurs (a), Leicester (a), Olympiacos (h), Manchester United (h). Gulp.

 

Luke Shaw
Only on Saturday I wrote in 16 Conclusions that Shaw had been both England’s most impressive performer during the international break and Manchester United’s best player this season, so to see a young, thriving, English player suffer such a destructive injury is enough to make you feel a little sick.

We had a couple of (unpublished) mails to the inbox on Wednesday asking why there was an outpouring of sympathy for a footballer who earns a huge amount of money, to which there seemed two obvious replies:

1) Because not everyone is a d*ck like you, and

2) Because the amount of money you earn does not act as an emotional blanket, a protector against the potentially devastating psychological effects of serious injury. One second your career is ahead of you, the next it will never be the same again.

The early signs for Shaw are good. He has already undergone surgery in Eindhoven, where he will stay during the first days of his recovery. The operation was a success, and cautiously optimistic estimates suggest that he could be back in action by mid-March.

However, the emotional healing can take far longer. While Aaron Ramsey was able to come back stronger (and Eduardo sadly not), Arsene Wenger describes how it took him three years to overcome the mental scars of a similar injury.

“When you have a big injury before the age of 20, you come back and redevelop completely normally, once the psychological damage is out of your head,” Wenger said. “So I was not too much worried but you never know how big, how deep the impact is psychologically. It took him a long time to get completely over that, especially in the duels, in the fights. He had a little resistance to go into the fights for a long time.”

The three key words are lodged in the middle of that paragraph: “You never know.” In last week’s England Ladder, Sarah Winterburn wrote how Shaw could be England’s left-back for the next 12-13 years. Let’s just bloody hope that’s true.

 

Manchester City
If Manchester City’s domestic form has taken our breath away, this was a European performance that smacked of familiarity. Manuel Pellegrini’s side finally revealed their soft underbelly just when they needed to be tough. Juventus may be struggling for form in Serie A, but they are too good not to take advantage of such generosity.

Like neighbours United, this was a 2-1 defeat which actually contained reasons for meaningful positivity for City. The home side were dominant for large periods of the match, stopping Juve even having a shot on target before half-time. Yet they were again undone by their double Champions League Achilles heel, a failure to convert their chances and making their own defensive mistakes. At the top level, you get punished for such errors. City allowed last year’s finalists to have three shots on target, and they scored two goals. The home side converted none of their own efforts.

Pellegrini was quick to point the finger of blame after the game, despite insisting that City had been the better team.

“When we have chances we must score because this is the Champions League,” he said. “If you have clear chances and don’t score … the differences are very slight, especially against a strong team like Juventus. Maybe Juventus didn’t create so many chances as us but they had strong finishes.”

Those are the dangers of having Sergio Aguero as the only striker you’d really want starting in the Champions League. And on that note…

 

Wilfried Bony
When Bony joined Manchester City, I wrote a piece (now lost to the ether) in which I questioned whether he was an upgrade on Edin Dzeko, the man he seemed set to replace. I’ll be generous to the City striker and say I’m yet to be convinced.

Bony has played 17 matches for City since his move, and scored two goals from 24 shots. He is far from a poor striker, but thrived upon regular starts at Swansea. As a back-up striker, he is offering far less than Dzeko did.

Pellegrini must hope that he has magic powers to make Aguero’s hamstring muscles stay strong. It’s like trying to build a tower out of sweet wrappers and sawdust.

 

Manchester United
Losers because they lost, without that sounding patronisingly self-explanatory. Yet as Matt Stead wrote after the game, there were reasons for United supporters to be happy with their performance.

Firstly, we often overlook the impact that a serious injury to one of your close friends can have on a team’s performance. Daley Blind described how, whilst an injury should not affect you, it finds its way into the subconscious. Once again we are guilty of treating our footballers as robots. Would you be able to jump straight into challenges if one of your team-mates on a Sunday morning had had his leg badly broken? Then stop treating others differently.

Furthermore, United did look dangerous going forward. They bettered their Tuesday night total of 17 shots only once in the Premier League last season (the home game against Sunderland), and having Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay on the pitch at the same time will make the hearts and stomachs of many United fans do funny somersaults. Even some of the sluggish first-half procession, so typical throughout Van Gaal’s tenure, was eliminated.

Another possible inadvertent positive result of Tuesday’s defeat could be the end of the ‘Marouane Fellaini as a forward’ experiment. United switched to a direct approach upon the Belgian’s introduction, and it hindered rather than helped their chances. Surely James Wilson or Andreas Pereira would be a more forward-thinking option in the future?

Defeat is never a cause for celebration whatever the manner of the performance. Van Gaal described a draw as “a good result” away from home in Europe in the build-up to the game, and there is no doubt that this is a setback following the victory over Liverpool. Yet English clubs suffered more damaging 2-1 defeats this week. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

United’s Champions League campaign has taken a hit, but it is far from terminal. Beat PSV, Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow at home and draw both of their remaining away games and Van Gaal will be confident of topping the group. The important thing is that the manager builds on those signs of attacking cohesion, rather than taking United again back into their shell.

 

Borussia Monchengladbach
Just what on earth is going on at Monchengladbach?

Last season Lucien Favre’s side were the darlings of the Bundesliga, finishing third and only 13 points behind Bayern Munich. Now they cannot buy a win, bottom of the table having lost all four matches so far. Losing 3-0 at home to Hamburg is the type of result that should lead to automatic relegation.

If Favre thought that the Champions League would provide some light relief for Die Fohlen, he was mistaken. Monchengladbach were crushed in Seville, their hopes of progression already seriously dented given the other opponents in Group D.

Max Kruse and Christoph Kramer may have left the club, but even their departures fail to fully explain this extreme reversal of fortunes. This was meant to be the season that Monchengladbach consolidated their place among German football’s elite. Even in mid-September, that aim looks lost.

 

Valencia
During a period in which Spanish teams have enjoyed huge success in Europe’s premier tournament, Valencia’s setback at home to Zenit was perhaps the biggest surprise of the Champions League gameweek.

Nuno Santo’s side have lost just two of their last 28 La Liga matches, but were defeated by a team six points behind CSKA Moscow with only eight games played in Russia. They were only saved by a late missed penalty by Alexandre Lacazette, meaning Lyon and Gent shared the points in Group H.

 

Mikel Arteta
Picked in the Francis Coquelin role to give the youngster a break, Mikel demonstrated what we already knew; he’s not up to the task.

At 33, Arteta is comfortable when playing short passes at the Emirates with Arsenal 2-0 up. He is not the man to enforce a midfield in a tight match against a determined opposition. Coquelin has been averaging 5.2 tackles per game in the Premier League this season. Arteta managed one in 64 minutes before the Frenchman was called upon.

This is why we were screaming all summer about buying support for Coquelin. It’s not that he is of insufficient quality, but he cannot be expected to play every minute in four competitions. On this evidence, he might bloody have to.

 

Petr Cech
Cech came to Arsenal to be the first-choice goalkeeper, and one would presume that included the Champions League. After 21 club starts since April 2014 Cech was in no need of a rest, so Wenger’s decision to rotate his goalkeepers is unfathomable. Silly, silly man.

 

Eden Hazard
I can’t remember the last time I saw Eden Hazard hit a penalty off the floor, let alone over the bar. A kid living near the Fulham Road woke up to a wonderful present in his back garden.

 

Tal Ben Haim (the defending one)
One of Ben Haim’s worst ever performances at Stamford Bridge. And that’s saying something.

 

Hector Moreno
“I think not [it was a foul]. I think I played the ball, but in this kind of situation I don’t care if it was a foul,” said PSV’s Moreno after the challenge that ruled Shaw out for at least six months. Sorry, Hector, but you didn’t get the ball. We’ve seen the replay.

It is an unhappy coincidence that Moreno also suffered a bad leg break at the 2014 World Cup but, again, that fails to address the unfairness of the situation. That Moreno also scored in PSV’s victory added literal insult to injury for Manchester United.

 

Taras Stepanenko
When you’re on a yellow card, you need to take care with your tackles. You can’t just go around jumping int… Oh for f**k’s sake Taras, I hadn’t even finished talking.

 

Daniel Storey

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