Champions League winners & losers

Date published: Thursday 1st October 2015 8:45

Arsene Wenger

Arsenal’s ‘one in a hundred’ seems to happen at least once every couple of months. If Arsenal exit the group stages, what then for Wenger? And why Mourinho put his balls on the line and had them crushed….

 

Winners

Juan Mata
Another brilliant display from a player at the peak of his powers. It seems ludicrous that Wednesday’s game against Wolfsburg was Mata’s first at Old Trafford in the Champions League.

With Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial seeing plenty of the ball (the less said about Rooney the better), Mata was able to dictate United’s attacking play without being responsible for injecting pace, emphatically not his strength. Pulling the strings from the right but frequently drifting infield, he was the focal point of United’s endeavour. Their first-half sluggishness has been obvious in recent months, but – as with Club Brugge and Southampton – the conceding of an early goal forced them onto the front foot. It’s the new way to get them playing.

Mata created five chances against Wolfsburg, the same as every other United player combined, and gave the ball away once all evening. The lovely people at Opta also say that he has had a hand in 14 goals in his last 21 games for Manchester United in all competitions (eight goals, six assists).

Now let’s stop talking about statistics and deal in art. Mata’s backheel assist to Chris Smalling. It was flair at its most perfect, flamboyant but effective. If people can marry fences, dolphins and the Eiffel Tower, I can marry that flick.

 

Joe Hart
So many times Hart has been left exposed by his defence in the Champions League. So many times he has bailed them out. When Nicolas Otamendi fell over and caused Raffael to do the same, Hart made his second consecutive penalty save in Europe. When the same player was robbed of the ball after half an hour, again Hart rescued his team-mate. Chance after chance City allowed Monchengladbach, all bar one were repelled.

England’s best player? On recent evidence, you’d have to agree.

 

Manchester City
Given their misfortune during the group stage draws for the Champions League, Manuel Pellegrini and his bosses may consider themselves deserving of some good luck, but they might have used it all up during one night in North Rhine-Westphalia.

During the first-half it seemed like the Chilean had told his players to effect a version of footballing Blitzkrieg. Players piled forward, creating chances and leaving the defence and Fernandinho horribly exposed. At one end of the pitch Sergio Aguero missed his chances, whilst at the other Nicolas Otamandi and Martin Demichelis gave an impression of two people who had never met rather than occasional international team-mates. Only Joe Hart’s majesty kept City from another damaging European defeat.

Yet after criticising City for their last of resilience against Spurs on Saturday, I must congratulate them for their comeback victory, even if the late penalty award seemed awfully similar to one not given to the home side.

As I say, Pellegrini will welcome some overdue good fortune. Beat a weak Sevilla side at the Etihad on October 21st and they will already have one foot in the last-16.

 

Robert Lewandowski
For so long Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the only two for whom goal records should be judged by a higher measure than the mere mortal. Lewandowski is clambering up onto the podium to make it a trio.

Ten goals in three matches is an astonishing record from a striker who must now be considered one of the world’s best, if he wasn’t already. To think that only the pesky Eyjafjallajökull volcano kept him from the bright lights of Blackburn.

“He seems to have taken over my fine form. If he goes on like this it’s very good for the team,” Thomas Muller told reporters with award-winning understatement. “We only have to make sure that we keep getting him in dangerous positions and that we get the ball to him.”

With Muller, Mario Gotze, Douglas Costa, Javi Martinez, Xabi Alonso and Thiago Alcantara playing behind Lewandowski, you don’t imagine they’ll struggle to do so.

 

BATE Borisov
It should have been the greatest result in the club’s history, but BATE Borisov have a habit of pulling off the extraordinary. In their five Champions League seasons they have beaten Bayern Munich, beaten Lille way and Athletic Bilbao at home and drawn against Juventus (twice) and Milan. They are Europe’s giant-killers, Roma another notch upon the bedpost.

They are also the Champions League’s over-achievers. BATE may have lost five of their group games last season by scores of 6-0, 7-0, 5-0, 3-0 and 2-0, but twelve of the eighteen players in their squad against Roma hail from Belarus, a country ranked directly below Malawi in 97th in FIFA’s rankings.

The Belarusian league is ranked 22nd in Europe. Its champions beating Roma is an exceptional achievement.

 

Benfica
Only the second club other than Real Madrid and Barcelona to win in the Vicente Calderon since April 2013. The first was lovely Villarreal, which makes this my new favourite statistic.

 

Bayern Munich
It seems cheap to praise them for a victory over a club such as Dinamo Zagreb, but the dominance of this Bayern side is something to behold. They have now won their last ten competitive matches in succession, scoring 34 goals and conceding four. A second Champions League title in four seasons would be no surprise.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo
Five hundred career goals. Sheesh.

 

Luis Suarez
When Barcelona needed a hero, they found one. Having trailed for 58 minutes against Bayer Leverkusen in the Camp Nou, Suarez followed up Sergi Roberto’s equaliser with a finish that he made look disgustingly easy. With the ball played slightly behind him, level with the right-hand post and 25 yards out, it was anything but.

 

FC Astana

Well played, chaps.

 

UEFA Coefficients
Three decimal places have never been so sexy.

 

Losers

English clubs and competition
Until Manchester vs Germany on Wednesday evening, Chelsea’s victory over a dire Maccabi Tel-Aviv side represents the only points taken in six Champions League matches by English clubs this season. The list of opponents wasn’t a complete European football’s who’s who – Juventus, PSV, Porto, Olympiacos, Dinamo Zagreb, Maccabi Tel-Aviv.

Since 2011-12, 11 La Liga teams have reached the Champions League quarter-finals, six from the Bundesliga, five from France’s Ligue 1 and three each from Serie A and the Premier League. There is no one reason for the demise, but I think we can all agree that this constitutes more than a ‘blip’, the term used so readily until last season. I’ll detail just one of the possible factors.

A great deal has been said about the rise of the Premier League ‘rest’. The clubs below the elite – terms of finances at least – have never had so much disposable income, and fuller pockets make for happier shoppers. Shinji Okazaki and Gokhan Inler to Leicester, Jordan Amavi to Aston Villa, Dimitri Payet to West Ham, Max Gradel to Bournemouth, Yohan Cabaye to Crystal Palace, Ibrahim Afellay to Stoke, Andre Ayew to Swansea; the list goes on.

The financial capability to buy better players allows for a greater spread of talent across the Premier League, and therefore increased competition. This is exacerbated by the current inability of English clubs to attract the best players in the world. In football’s ever-changing food chain, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich now sit in an echelon above Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Paris St Germain. You can cry foul about that, but it’s true. The likes of Neymar, Thomas Muller and Luis Suarez can be mooted for moves to English clubs from that elite three, but they only actually happen when one of Bayern, Real or Barca allow it. See Bastian Schweinsteiger, Angel Di Maria and Alexis Sanchez for details.

The Premier League, for so long criticised for its lack of competition, now has it in spades, particularly in comparison with Spain and Germany. Of the 70 matches played so far this season, none have been won by a margin of four or more goals. La Liga and the Bundesliga have already had seven between them, and Real and Barca haven’t really got going yet.

This could be considered good for the neutral spectator of Premier League football (so long as the quality stays high, which is another piece entirely), but not for those elite clubs who must combine tough domestic fixtures with Champions League assignments.

It’s a point both Van Gaal and Wenger alluded to in the build-up to this round of matches. “Olympiacos dominates their league, they are a team with a big advantage – they dominate their league easily, so they can prepare for these kinds of games,” Arsenal’s manager said.

While the Olympiacos point is weakened substantially by the gap in resources and financial muscle between the two clubs, the point itself is valid. Last season’s four Champions League semi-finalists have won 36 domestic league games by four or more goals since the start of last season. The figure for all 20 Premier League clubs combined is just 13, while the four current English CL representatives did so on only five occasions.

The logic is clear. If you have to only play at full intensity for 60-70 minutes in a match, the effects of fatigue are likely to be much lower. Crucially, key players can also be removed prior to full-time for vital rest. Neymar only completed 90 minutes in 20 of Barcelona’s 38 games La Liga games last season. In the last calendar year, Thomas Muller has completed 90 minutes just 21 times for Bayern Munich in all competitions. Alexis Sanchez has done so 36 times for Arsenal, plus 11 more for Chile.

The cliche of ‘there are no easy games’ finally has its place in time and its right on our own doorstep. It’s a slightly inadvertent result of increased broadcasting deals, but the vast swathes of money given to the Premier League’s biggest clubs has actually made their task in Europe harder.

You’ll forgive me for not shedding a tear for their struggles, however. Having had their cake and gorged upon it greedily, now comes the indigestion.

 

Arsenal’s ‘1/100’
“I believe we had a bit of bad luck as well because they had four shots on target and scored three goals and that happens once in 100 Champions League games” – Arsene Wenger.

It was a defence weaker than that displayed by Arsenal during an evening on which their hopes of Champions League progression took a hammer blow. To suggest that Arsenal were unfortunate because they only allowed four shots on target is as one-eyed an assessment of shambolic defeat as it is possible to find.

Firstly, it ignores the fact that this sort of thing always seems to happen to Arsenal. Last season they conceded six times from 12 shots on target against Monaco and Anderlecht, two other European heavyweights who were able to leave the Emirates undefeated. Since the start of last season in the Premier League, Arsenal have conceded three goals from four shots on target against Stoke, two goals from two shots on target against Manchester United and Everton, and one from their only shot on target faced against Hull.

It’s not the number of chances Arsenal are allowing, but the type. It is still too easy for a good – but not great – attacking midfield to weave a way through their defence, as evidenced again on Tuesday. (Wenger’s assessment also ignores that one of Olympiacos’ goals didn’t even come from a shot but from the ineptitude of David Ospina).

The principal reason for this occurrence is Arsenal’s regular lapses of defensive concentration, a trait that will continue to hamper any attempts at progress. That was a point even Wenger conceded after the match:

“I thought we lacked quality defensive concentration,” he said. “The turning point was 2-2 and after a difficult start at 2-2 we gave them a goal and that was the turning point of the game.”

But how can that be? How can a side go into a must-not-lose match in the Champions League at home and just switch off so appallingly as they did for Olympiacos’ third goal? These are not poor defenders, and this has been occurring for some time, so therefore it must be indicative of a wider malaise. A malaise that Wenger has repeated shown an inability to address. If you’re repeatedly having to blame things on misfortune, perhaps you’re not rolling the dice properly.

 

Arsene Wenger
As a general rule, if supporters don’t know whether to laugh, cry or punch the wall, something’s going seriously wrong. Arsenal may have eliminated some of their attacking doubts at the King Power stadium on Saturday, but by Tuesday 10pm they had again fallen back into mini-crisis. Take one step back and two more forward, two more back and one more forward – Arsenal are close to creating their own line dance.

This was another night on which to expose the flaws in Wenger’s talk of titles, both domestically and in Europe. For 15 straight seasons Arsenal have made the knockout stage of the Champions League, five times in succession they have been knocked out in the last-16. The growing suspicion was that such a run would change not with progression to the quarter or semi-finals, but with group stage exit. That suspicion now looks valid.

The argument for Arsenal’s supposed improvement was the calibre of player the club has attracted in recent seasons, but that generates its own pressures. If Wenger was so happy with his squad that he felt it in need of no outfield investment, the fallout of failure will inevitably be piled upon him and him alone.

In its simplest form, the role of a football manager is to make the squad greater than the sum of its parts. Is Wenger doing that with Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Petr Cech, Mesut Ozil, Laurent Koscielny et al? In the Champions League at least, Arsenal are performing exactly the same or worse with an improved squad. So who is to blame but Wenger?

The wider point here is an open-ended question: What is Wenger’s current forte? For his first decade in England he was an innovator, a genuinely exciting new breed of manager intent on taking a club out of the 20th century and into the 21st. His methods, knowledge and scouting network allowed for the creation of a truly great Arsenal side.

Now Wenger is no longer an innovator. Whereas once his training methods were considered ground-breaking, now they are the standard. Whereas once he would recruit unearthed gems from abroad and turn them into stars, now scouting networks have grown to assist clubs across Europe and caused the tap to run dry. Now Wenger buys established performers from top clubs, resorting to regular statements about how Arsenal ‘came close’ to signing X, Y and Z. Whereas once Wenger would inspire a group of players to be the best they could be, now that ability looks… actually, I’m not completely sure of that yet. But it’s getting closer with every passing lurch into parody. Peak Arsenal has become SuperArsenal has become the purest form of Arsenal ever seen.

Whereas once Arsenal did, now they come close. That’s a tenable situation if things are moving in the right direction, but less so if things are regressing, not progressing. It’s on that point that so many Arsenal supporters disagree, but nights like Tuesday provides piles of evidence for the prosecution.

 

Petr Cech
Cech’s first public appearance since joining Arsenal came on Petrin Hill in Prague, a press conference in which he explained his decision:

“Last season I realised how much I love playing football on a regular basis, how much I love being part of a team week, week out,” Cech said. “My commitment and approach to football is the same as it was at the beginning of my career and I realised that this is not the time for me to go and sit on the bench.

“When I did play I proved that I am still at the level required to play in the Premier League, the Champions League and the best games. I decided to make this move purely on football grounds.”

In something approaching irony, that interview was published in full on UEFA’s Champions League website; Cech is still waiting for his first European appearance for Arsenal. Wenger may claim that it is a ‘farce’ to blame David Ospina for a mistake that Petr Cech ‘could have made’, but the salient point is that Wenger did not pick his best goalkeeper. The response below the line on Sarah Winterburn’s piece was that the goalkeeper shouldn’t have mattered; the obvious retort is that, well, it did.

“Why did I make the decision?” Wenger asked rhetorically after questions from the medis. “I don’t give you why. I do not have to sit here and give you any explanation about every decision I make.”

Wenger is right that he has no obligation to explain his decisions, but a lack of first-hand evidence allows others to draw their own conclusions. One of those to do so might be Cech himself, sat powerless on the bench as his new team fell close to Champions League collapse.

 

Changing demands
“We missed our opening game last year in Dortmund and straight away it put us under pressure. After that, we had our backs to the wall and had to really focus. So it is important that we go to Zagreb and realise what is at stake here before out next game against Bayern” – Wenger, September 13.

“You have to win your home games if you want to qualify. It’s as simple as that. We can’t afford to drop points against anybody at home” – Wenger after defeat in Zagreb.

“It leaves us in a bad position but we are still in it. We have to get a result in our next game against Bayern Munich” – Wenger after defeat at home to Olympiacos.

Pumped for what he says after losing 3-1 in Munich.

 

Jose Mourinho
Miguel Delaney’s pre-match tweet summed up the wider feeling: ‘Your star dropped, your captain dropped, your main midfielder dropped, no key link-man on bench in Oscar, and no sub strikers. Er…’

This felt like an important team selection from Jose Mourinho. This was him expressing his displeasure at the performance of some of his key players, adding to the words of disappointment he expressed following the draw at Newcastle. This was a manager demanding an improvement, telling those picked to show him, and the watching world, what they were made of.

It went spectacularly badly. Mourinho claimed after the game that Chelsea were the better team but simply punished by two bad errors, but that’s completely untrue. We watched it remember, Jose. At times during the second half, Chelsea were a rabble, a disorganised mess of players not even warranting the term ‘team’. Asmir Begovic was their best player, with only Willian deserving of honourable mention. If this was Mourinho putting his balls on the line, his old club stamped down hard on them.

Losing to Porto is not a catastrophe for Chelsea. Maccabi Tel-Aviv should be soundly beaten away from home, and a victory at home to Dynamo Kiev at Stamford Bridge should probably ensure qualification. Beat Porto at home and they might even nick top spot.

For Mourinho, however, catastrophic is an appropriate word. The victory over Arsenal exists as the only meaningful positive of this season, and even that is laced with caveats. This temporary lull in their general performance, lack of defensive discipline and bluntness in the final third are becoming the trend.

Chelsea performing poorly is becoming rule, not exception. Mourinho now has a job on in his hands to alter that reputation.

 

Antonio Valencia
If you’re proven to not be a good enough right winger for Manchester United, it means you’re not good enough to be a right winger for Manchester United. It does not mean that you should be right-back for Manchester United. Why will no United manager understand that?

No defender covered themselves in glory for Diego Caligiuri’s early goal, but Valencia’s positioning was beyond terrible. It would be a surprise if it didn’t happen 20% of the time he plays there. It’s almost like he’s just a right winger who was proven not to be good enough for Manchester United. I might have mentioned that.

Valencia’s presence in United’s defence due to injuries reminds me of something Brian Clough said on the subject of playing players out of position. I’m paraphrasing here, but: “If my right-back is injured, I play the reserve. If the reserve’s injured, I play the youth team right-back. If he’s not good enough, he shouldn’t be at the club.” Quite.

 

Branislav Ivanovic
We outlined here the kicking that Ivanovic got in the media after his latest failure, and all of it was deserved. It’s incredible to think he was named in the PFA Team of the Year in May.

Ivanovic is genuinely one of the Premier League’s worst right-backs on current form. If this feels like a witch-hunt, that’s because the Serbian is wearing a black hat and stirring a cauldron with his black cat.

 

Cesc Fabregas
Last season’s assist master has become the jack of no trades, pushed into a midfield no man’s land by his manager. He’s not strong enough in the tackle to be a holding player, and is too far from the final third to demonstrate the creativity which is so clearly is forte. A waste, basically.

 

Wayne Rooney
One shot, off target. At least it’s getting to the stage now where I forget he’s playing, so can’t tell how bad he is.

 

Nicolas Otamendi
Struggling to settle in Manchester City’s central defence after costing over £30m. At least Eliaquim Mangala will be able to offer advice.

 

Borussia Monchengladbach
If you concede seven penalties in five matches, things won’t go well.

 

Dinamo Zagreb
The 45-match unbeaten run is over. That’s what playing Bayern Munich does.

 

Robbie Savage
I lasted nine minutes. I deserve a f**king medal.

 

Daniel Storey

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