There have remarkably few exceptions to the dire form of Chelsea’s squad. The drop in performance of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic et al. hints at a more general, and potentially more worrying, malaise. Yet there is one outfield player who deserves immense praise for his displays amid the dross; Willian has been superb. He is Jose Mourinho’s honourable exception.
It is the Brazilian’s free-kick statistics that will grab the headlines. WhoScored.com calculate that of the 459 players to attempt a shot at goal from direct free-kicks this season, only five have scored more than once. Willian has scored six, from only 11 attempts.
Yet his form goes far beyond set-pieces. While every other Chelsea attacker has declined and the club’s results fallen lower than any could have predicted, Willian is actually taking more shots per game, creating more chances, making more tackles and being fouled more often than during Chelsea’s title-winning season.
While all around him are losing their heads, Willian has kept his. A new £100,000-a-week contract offer comes as no surprise.
Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi
Barcelona’s three South American forwards have now scored 121 goals between them in 2015. By way of amusing comparison, Sunderland have scored 40.
There were questions asked about how Luis Enrique would manage to fit Neymar, Suarez and Messi into one side, but the trio have formed an irresistible understanding. Continue this form and they must surely be considered the best forward line in football history.
Bayern Munich’s home form
In 2015, Bayern have played six home Champions League matches. They have scored goals at a rate of one every 18 minutes.
A list of Bayern’s goals scored per home game is obscene: 5, 3, 2, 5, 5, 5, 4, 5, 4, 4.
Sensational. While Bayern’s home form makes them Champions League second favourites, the standard of domestic competition still raises a question about their ability to win this trophy. With Barcelona, there are no questions left. Ten goals scored in four days against Real Madrid and Roma silence any doubters.
We could discuss Barcelona’s style at length, but instead let’s just watch this video. If Pep Guardiola brought tiki-taka to the Nou Camp, Luis Enrique has taken the baton and sprinted off into the distance.
Barcelona are just at a different level to everyone else. Is this side better than Pep’s? pic.twitter.com/MMdKHWFk4o
— Renato (@th14Renato) November 25, 2015
All might not be well between superstar and manager, but the only thing stronger than Ronaldo’s love for the Champions League is his love of himself. Two goals and two assists against Shakhtar made it 69 goals in 68 matches in the competition.
Another reminder that we’re seeing two of the best footballers ever playing at the same time. You don’t need to pick sides when you can just sit back and enjoy.
Not a victory that will soothe the anger caused by Mathieu Flamini being Arsenal’s new go-to guy in defensive midfield, but a performance to blow away the cobwebs from Saturday’s defeat at the Hawthorns.
We were mainly left wondering quite how Arsenal managed to lose in Zagreb. They remain Dinamo’s only points of the group stage.
Matt Stead wrote about Arsenal’s reliance on Ozil and Alexis Sanchez after Tuesday’s game, but it’s worth reiterating just how rich Ozil’s vein of form is. “He is not just a provider now, he likes to get on the end of things,” was Arsene Wenger’s view in his press conference on Thursday. He’s doing both rather than either.
Since the start of the season, the German has contributed three goals and 11 assists, but even that undersells his creativity. He has created 56 chances in 13 league games, the gap between him and third is the same as between third and joint 35th. Only four players in the Champions League have created more, despite Arsenal’s underwhelming start to the group.
For all Wenger’s summer talk of cohesion over big-money signings, it is the three players in his squad (Ozil, Sanchez, Petr Cech) bought as premium products at premium prices who are the club’s three best players. If Arsenal are to realise their ambitions for the season, it is these three who will shine brightest. Plus another one in defensive midfield, supporters will plea.
The problems won’t go away any time soon, but small signs of progress. For only the second time this season Chelsea have won consecutive matches, and a draw against Porto in their final fixture will be enough to ensure qualification. If you’d have offered that to Jose Mourinho after defeat in Portugal in September, he’d have taken it greedily.
Another devastating performance from a player who isn’t yet close to peak age. Pogba sliced through City’s midfield during the first half as if he was playing in the garden with his young nephews. He has an ability to show just enough of the ball to the opposition to make a player commit. It’s at this point that Pogba nudges away the ball.
When on song, Pogba is already the world’s best midfielder at 22. If he goes to Barcelona to play with Messi, Neymar and Suarez, we might as well start playing a different sport.
Zenit St Petersburg and Andre Villas-Boas
Win away at Gent in their last game and Andre Villas-Boas will become only the seventh manager in Champions League history to win all six of his group games. A stunning effort.
As an aside, UEFA received great criticism for their alteration of the Champions League seedings, which put Russia’s champions in Pot 1. Zenit’s subsequent European form is emphatic vindication for that decision.
Such was the outcry when Dzyuba agreed to join Zenit from Spartak Moscow in the summer that Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said he would prefer the striker to stay at the club that developed him. He might just be the best free transfer in Europe this season.
Dzyuba has had quite a four months. He has scored ten domestic goals, five goals in 379 Champions League minutes and scored six times in his last three competitive games for Russia. Only Thomas Muller, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski scored more goals in Euro 2016 qualifying, and Dzyuba only started six games. It’s only a matter of time before he is linked with a move to Western Europe.
Experiencing the group stage of the Champions League for the first time, Gent were expected to be the whipping boys of Group H. One point from their opening two fixtures was not seen as a disaster, but Gent have since responded with victories over Valencia and Lyon to leave qualification in their own hands.
Match or better Valencia’s result in a fortnight’s time and Gent will be the first Belgian side to play a Champions League knock-out match since November 1993.
“It was beautiful to watch because we played against a team from another planet,” said the on-loan Arsenal goalkeeper after Roma lost 6-1 to Barcelona. “I was in goal playing for Roma but I appreciated what I saw from Barcelona. They were ridiculously good. As hard as it is to lose 6-1, it was beautiful to watch.”
Roma supporters might not be enamoured by Szczesny’s comments in embarrassing defeat, but we’re all for refreshing honesty.
— Jonathan Newiss (@JNewiss) November 25, 2015
Louis van Gaal
“I spoke to one player at United who told me he is half the player he can be due to the way they are playing,” the Daily Telegraph’s Jason Burt told BBC Radio 5Live on Wednesday evening. “He doesn’t feel it is fair on him or the fans that he can’t express himself properly and he finds it very difficult here.”
The most damning indictment of Manchester United’s style under Louis van Gaal is that you could pick five or six potential sources of that anonymous quote. Van Gaal’s middle-finger salute to aesthetics cannot be condemned when his side are winning, but it leaves very little goodwill banked when bad results come.
I wrote plenty about Wednesday night’s 0-0 draw here and will try not to repeat myself too much, but the pressure building on Van Gaal cannot be overstated. Against PSV, the Old Trafford crowd were so soporific that they couldn’t even be bothered with their recent “attack, attack, attack” chant. What’s the point?
Van Gaal can decry his side’s misfortune and missed chances, but he is directly contributing to their lack of success. Why move Memphis Depay from the centre after Saturday’s performance? Why bring on Marouane Fellaini and then leave him in midfield until the last ten minutes? Why curtail Ashley Young’s impact by moving him to right-back? Why have Wayne Rooney playing as a defensive midfielder?
Of most concern is Van Gaal’s attitude to his team’s lack of goals, apparently unaware that it is his job to address the situation. “I know also goals are coming and going. It’s not a consequence of good performances and bad performances,” he said after the game. “Also today we could have scored at least three goals. They were not the most difficult chances, but we didn’t score and the next game you can score out of nothing. That’s football.”
No Louis, that’s your Manchester United. The lack of goals is not an anomalous quirk of fate. Thirteen Champions League clubs have had more shots on target and 14 have created more chances. In the Premier League, only seven clubs have had fewer shots on target. Van Gaal talking about chances missed is a little rich when his side have the second-best shot conversion rate in the Premier League.
Eighteen months into his Old Trafford tenure, patience is wearing thin with Van Gaal. Results have been satisfactory, but Manchester United are a club that could attract almost any manager in the world; ‘satisfactory’ at most clubs is ‘insufficient’ there. United’s current style falls far short of both adjectives.
Manchester United’s blunt attack
Only six Champions League clubs have fewer goals this season than Manchester United and their expensively assembled attack: CSKA Moscow, Malmo, FC Astana, Dinamo Zagreb, Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Lyon.
The untouchable Wayne Rooney
Being moved into defensive midfield by your manager to accommodate Marouane Fellaini when your team desperately needs a goal is a whopping great hint that he no longer trusts your ability as a striker. Sorry Wayne.
‘Wayne Rooney was actually decent last night…this is a vendetta,’ is the obvious retort when Rooney is criticised. It’s not a vendetta, honestly – it’s the truth. Rooney’s wages make him the fifth highest earner in world football; United supporters should be expecting more than ‘decent’. Not only has Rooney earned £1.6m per Premier League and Champions League group stage goal this season, he’s getting £393,000 per shot on target.
If Rooney is no longer considered a central striker, what is he offering ahead of Juan Mata in a role behind the forward? Mata has created chances at a far quicker rate than Rooney this season (one per 44.7 minutes vs one per 81.9 minutes), while Rooney has contributed one league assist in 2015. Mata has the added advantage of seeing a pass, playing a pass and completing a pass without a period of deliberation over each. The Spaniard may lack the raw pace that Van Gaal keeps demanding, but he does at least offer a speed of thought lacking in Rooney’s current guise.
Perhaps Rooney should be included in the section above, therefore, such is his untouchable status. Memphis Depay, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera have been dropped, Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez sold, Adnan Januzaj sent out on loan, Andreas Pereira underused and Anthony Martial used out wide. Since Van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford in May 2014, Rooney has never started a Premier League or Champions League game on the bench.
It’s one thing being considered too slow to operate on the right wing by Van Gaal, but another entirely seeing Marouane Fellaini given half an hour to change the game when you’re given six minutes. We await Mata’s latest blog post with a heavy heart.
Manchester City and Manuel Pellegrini
Qualifying before the final two rounds of matches afforded City a chance to take things easy, but that was far from the party line. The club have twice been stung by unfavourable last-16 draws after finishing second in the group, and a draw in Turin would put them firmly in control in a bid to top Group D. That advantage was given away in defeat. If you lose home and away to the top seed in the group, you don’t deserve to finish above them.
The game also took on added importance after City’s diabolical display against Liverpool. “We played a very bad game, but that finished on Sunday morning,” Pellegrini claimed before the game. “This is a different competition and a different game and we hope to return to our normal performance.” A valiant performance ending in defeat might well be as close to a ‘normal’ City Champions League performance as it is possible to get. Presumably that’s not what Pellegrini meant.
The worst aspect of the defeat is that Juventus weren’t even at their best. City’s inability to summon up their finest displays for the biggest games is becoming a damaging habit. It creates an overwhelming sense of a club failing to match up to their obvious potential, regardless of the players missing through injury.
In 2015, City have played 13 matches against Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham. Their record reads: Won 2, Drew 2, Lost 9. Every time Pellegrini says it will be different. Every time brings less reason to keep faith in that promise.
With David Silva still not ready, Sergio Aguero not yet fully match-fit and Vincent Kompany still two weeks away from a return to action, Hart was the last remaining member of City’s spine. Watching him hobble off with muscle tightness will have made Pellegrini reach for the paracetamol.
Their last ever European match at the Stade de Gerland, and Lyon performed as they have all season in the Champions League. It has been a dismal campaign.
Only two teams are certain to finish bottom of their Champions League groups with one game remaining. Lyon join Maccabi Tel Aviv in that dishonour.
Draw at home to Dynamo Kiev and Porto would qualify. Beat them and top spot was all but assured. Dynamo had not won a Champions League away game for seven years, while Porto had won six and drawn one of their last seven home games in the competition, scoring 20 goals and conceding four. Easy.
What followed was one of the biggest shocks of this Champions League season. Not only did Porto miss the chance to qualify, they are now the third favourites in Group G. Solid effort.
“When you play against Barcelona, you know that they are going to have most of the possession. If you only go there to defend for the full match, then you are going to lose. We have also got some very talented players and, with these, we are going to have to be incisive when it matters. This means getting at Barcelona whenever it is possible. There is no such thing as an invincible side and that’s the beauty of football” – Roma coach Rudi Garcia on Monday.
“We needed a miracle to win tonight and we didn’t get one. Playing at top form this is an unbeatable machine. They are out of this world and you can’t play against them right now” – Garcia on Wednesday.
From “no such thing as invincible” to “an unbeatable machine” in two days. The power of a 6-1 defeat in between.
Real Madrid’s defence
The forward line might have clicked back into gear, but Real were given an almighty fright by three late Shakhtar Donetsk goals. For a manager who has a reputation for safety-first football, Rafa Benitez will be mightily concerned about his insecure defence.
Real have now leaked ten goals in their last three games. That’s six more than they had conceded in all their other games this season combined.
A goal against Norwich covered up another mediocre performance, but in Israel, Costa didn’t even have a silver lining to drape over the growing grey cloud.
Costa is still a pest and a nuisance, but now it’s Jose Mourinho getting upset. Insistence of “cuddles and kisses” between the pair from Mourinho are all well and good, but make-up only follows break-up. Tensions are simmering.
The striker’s half-time spat with his manager will do little to lighten a headache that only goals can cure. By Thursday morning, journalists with contacts at the club claimed that Chelsea would spent the next few weeks considering their options for the January window.
It’s unthinkable that Costa could be pushed down the striker queue at Stamford Bridge such was his instant success, but a record of seven club goals in ten months is testing Chelsea’s patience. Having been second best in most battles this season, a fight with Mourinho is another that Costa is unlikely to win.
Poor Massimo Taibi, always remembered at times like these.
Bernd Leno in presa sicura! La Roma ringrazia… pic.twitter.com/ZUMk3oZ6lg
— Calciatori Ignoranti (@CI_OfficialPage) November 24, 2015
Even by Akinfeev’s own high standards, his error against Wolfsburg was impressive. Andre Schurrle’s shot was not even going in and yet the Russian managed to divert the ball into his own net. Add it to the collection.
Without sounding too much like a grumpy old man, what Arias did after tussling with Jesse Lingard was blatant cheating. It was manufactured to waste time and try and get his opponent sent off, and he should be banned.
Maccabi Tel Aviv
A predictably difficult campaign for Maccabi, but also a huge disappointment after knocking FC Basel out in the play-off round. Five games played, five defeats and 15 goals conceded. Their only goal was a consolation penalty at home to Porto.