Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Friday 29th September 2017 1:25


Manchester United have their 3-2 victory against Juventus in 1999. Liverpool fans reminisce over their 1-0 win over Real Madrid a decade later. Arsenal supporters fondly recall their success over the same opposition with the same scoreline in 2006.

Chelsea finally have an away Champions League performance to match the very best their Premier League rivals have ever achieved. Even without Michy Batshuayi’s last-gasp winner against Atletico Madrid, England’s champions would have departed the Spanish capital with their heads held high. The Belgian applied the icing to an already delectable cake.

Antonio Conte was clear in the message to his players before the game. “I think we have to try to play our football,” said the Italian in his pre-match press conference. Away at Atletico, that is far easier said than done.

And yet this was a victory built not on a combination of defensive grit or luck like their run to the trophy in 2012. Chelsea were the better side in every respect against Diego Simeone’s men, and fully deserving of a crucial three points.

The Blues had most of the possession, had more shots, completed more dribbles, made more tackles, won more corners and displayed more heart and skill than an opponent who have punished teams from Barcelona to Real Madrid to Bayern Munich on home turf. This was only Atletico’s third game in their new Wanda Metropolitano stadium, but there is no such Wembley curse here.

Before Wednesday’s game, Atletico had played 23 home games in the Champions League since the 2013/14 season. They had won 18 and drawn four, conceding just six goals, and scoring 43. A 2-1 defeat to Benfica in the group stages in September 2015 was the solitary blotch on an incredible record.

Consider too that this Atletico side reached the semi-finals of this competition last season and were beaten finalists in two of the three campaigns before. Chelsea were not even in Europe in 2016/17.

Gary Cahill was phenomenal. Cesar Azpilicueta was typically brilliant. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso were excellent. Cesc Fabregas, Tiemoue Bakayoko and N’Golo Kante were diligent, disciplined and delightful. Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata combined to beautiful, devastating effect. David Luiz was the only poor performer, but this Chelsea family rallied around him to seal victory from a goal down.

When asked whether there had ever been a better performance from an English side in the Champions League after the game, Frank Lampard offered a simple and emphatic response: “Can’t think of one.” Nor can I.


Eden Hazard
Conte was not sure whether to start Eden Hazard against Atletico. The Belgian had started only one game since his return from injury, and with all due respect to Nottingham Forest, one would argue that La Liga’s third-best side are slightly better.

The Chelsea manager needn’t have worried. Atletico have repelled and thwarted most of the best attackers in the world over the years, but had no answer for Hazard.

He created seven chances – just two fewer than every Atletico player combined – and completed six dribbles – equal to the home side’s output. Even less surprising is that no player was fouled more often (4). When the opposition did get near him, they were panicked into simply hauling him down.

Chelsea’s start to this season has been quietly positive, with talk of crisis and a threadbare squad now a distant memory. That was without their best player, and now he is back without missing a step, the Hazard warning has been sent out to the rest.


Michy Batshuayi
In 1,046 minutes of football since joining Chelsea, Michy Batshuayi has scored 14 goals – one every 74.7 minutes. That tally includes a Premier League title-winning goal, and now a stoppage-time winner away against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. The Belgian has scored two goals in two games in Europe’s elite competition for Chelsea; Diego Costa scored two in 15.


English clubs
Ten games, eight wins, two draws, 30 goals scored, six goals conceded. Bloody Liverpool.

Remember when the Premier League was in danger of losing its fourth Champions League place because of a poor coefficient?


Harry Kane
He has scored more goals in 2017 than seven Premier League sides. He has as many club hat-tricks in 2017 as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski combined (6). He has as many club hat-tricks in 2017 as Robin van Persie throughout his career.

While the tiresome argument rages on as to whether he is world class or in the same echelon as Europe’s very, very best players, Harry Kane is just minding his own business. And he is doing a mighty fine job.


Moussa Sissoko
The most striking aspect of Mauricio Pochettino’s management is his ability to coax the very best out of players, regardless of their previous issues or apparent unsuitability for the role.

Gary Neville touched on this in an article for the Daily Telegraph in 2015. ‘I loved what Pochettino did at Southampton because he affected the mentality of how they played, with the high-pressure, high-energy approach,’ he wrote, naming the Argentinean as his favourite coach. ‘He caused those Southampton players to play differently.

‘They now arrive prepared for the battle, ready to play, ready to work. Pochettino is not taking ready-baked cakes. He is moulding people. He can change their positions.’

Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier are often cited as Pochettino’s success stories in this respect – clear triumphs of coaching. The trio might have enjoyed fine careers without the manager’s input, but it is undeniable that he has taken them to another level at such early stages of their development.

It is why the signing of Moussa Sissoko in summer 2016 seemed so out of place. Here was a midfielder in his mid-20s, an established France international and Premier League talent, whose bad habits were seemingly ensconced in his game. His first season at the club suggested as much.

Dismissive laughter had to be smothered when the 28-year-old stated that this campaign would be “totally different”. Sissoko needed no time to settle in England, and made no secret of his desire to leave Newcastle in order to play for a club competing for trophies. His performances said otherwise.

Yet nine games into the new season, and the effect of Pochettino’s coaching has become clear. Sissoko looks fitter, more agile, more committed. His three best performances in a Tottenham shirt have all come since August, and he is finally making a difference in games.

Sissoko was by no means spectacular against APOEL Nicosia, but he floundered on the Champions League stage last season. A clever assist for Kane crowned his latest encouraging performance, and after acquitting himself well in defensive midfield and on either wing, he was quietly impressive in a midfield three. Pegs and holes have no fixed shape in Pochettino’s system.


Manchester United
“He hardly moves, but because he’s so big and powerful, he just barges people out of the way.”

Silly Michael Owen. Really, really silly Michael Owen. But sexy Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial.


Gareth Bale
“I’m happy for him. It hasn’t been an easy time,” said Zinedine Zidane after Real Madrid dispatched Borussia Dortmund with an accomplished 3-1 win on Tuesday. It was quite the understatement from the Frenchman.

Gareth Bale himself will admit that his form this season has not been quite at the level he would expect. The forward’s struggles with injury over the summer harmed his preparation, and it has shown. Three assists and one goal in his first six games is not a terrible return by normal standards, but then Real Madrid players are never held to normal standards.

The Welshman has previously insisted that the boos which often cascade onto him courtesy of his own supporters mean little; that they can be shrugged off as easily as an opposing full-back. But a vocal minority of fans at the Santiago Bernabeu must feel like a demanding majority everywhere else. To be affected would only be human.

The finish for his goal against Dortmund was as emphatic a response as anyone could ask for. Technique, grace and poise were all combined in one neat package, the sort Zidane often delivered during his playing days. And that is not the worst bar to try and raise.

The 28-year-old will perhaps never be accepted by those supporters who suffer from terrible short-term memory loss, but the signs are that he is approaching his devastating best. The boots of Cristiano Ronaldo are impossible to fill, but Bale has scored or assisted more goals than any other Real Madrid player this season (7).


Cristiano Ronaldo
He has now scored in 70 different Champions League matches. Raul, the third-top goalscorer in the competition’s history, scored 71 goals overall.


Fabian Delph
Our early winner, because who doesn’t love a kind boy who is willing to listen and learn? Benjamin Mendy will be a huge miss at left-back, but City are still in rude Delph.


The script was pretty much written just 40 minutes into Ederson’s first appearance in a Manchester City shirt. In a Manchester derby played in the Houston sun in June, Pep Guardiola’s expensive new keeper was culpable for both goals in a 2-0 defeat.

Making assumptions based on pre-season friendlies is quite something, but many read the opening paragraph, skipped the whole middle part and jumped straight to the conclusion that the Brazilian was not good enough. The narrative was set.

That little has been said of Ederson in the subsequent months suggests that the critics have been thoroughly silenced. Those who lambasted a couple of mistakes in pre-season have offered little in the way of praise for a goalkeeper who has settled in England and in a demanding way of playing rather seamlessly.

In recent years, City would have toiled against an opponent the level of Shakhtar. They would have panicked, been caught on the counter and ended the game with a disappointing result. But with Ederson in goal instead of Claudio Bravo, Willy Caballero or Joe Hart, a calmness was channeled through the players from the back. Guardiola’s style often demands that moves start with the goalkeeper, and Ederson’s 92.6% passing accuracy tells its own story.

A keeper will always be judged on his ability to save shots of course, and in keeping out solid efforts from Marlos and Taison, Ederson provided the platform for City to secure a crucial three points. The Brazilian now has six clean sheets in nine games; Bravo kept nine in the entirety of last season.


Brendan Rodgers
Level on points with Bayern Munich after two games? Outstanding, one might say.

The odds are that Celtic will still struggle to emerge victorious from this unlikely battle with the German champions, but the fact they are even in contention is a victory in itself. A first away win in the Champions League in five years – and a first away clean sheet in their history – was sealed in dominant fashion against Anderlecht.

Celtic had 63.5% possession in Belgium, finally able to treat a European encounter as if it were a league game against a typically lesser opponent. Anderlecht were poor, but only because Celtic made them so. The move that preceded their opening goal was comprised of 28 passes.

It is easy to overlook Rodgers’ achievements in Scotland, such is the comparative lack of quality provided by the opposition. But a victory this impressive on European soil shows clear signs of progress. Third place and a route into the Europa League is the very worst-case scenario Celtic fans should entertain now.


Kylian Mbappe
It can often be rather awkward when two of your colleagues argue. You can be left feeling uncomfortable, stranded in a sensitive, unpleasant situation between a rock and a hard place. But only if the rock cost £198million and the hard place was equally unwilling to meet halfway.

In Kylian Mbappe, Paris Saint-Germain have the perfect individual to pierce the tension with a perfectly-timed inappropriate joke. The Frenchman will not pick sides in the ongoing battle between Neymar and Edinson Cavani; he will choose to maintain working relationships with both.

Cavani, Neymar and Dani Alves scored the goals in a wave of counter-attacking glory against Bayern Munich, but an 18-year-old was pulling the strings at the Parc des Princes. Mbappe completed just nine passes in 78 minutes of football, but he ended the game with two assists and a police caution for doing unlawful things to David Alaba and his poor ankles.


Before this season, Besiktas had won just two of their last 12 Champions League games. To match that record in the first two fixtures of this campaign is a wonderful. To do so having played the Primeira Liga and Bundesliga runners-up is brilliant. To have Ryan Babel as their joint-top goalscorer is surreal. That Ryan Babel is still only 30 is worth a few minutes of your time to simply sit and ponder.


A biggest ever Champions League win against last season’s Portuguese champions? Don’t mind if they do.


The last time Porto beat Monaco 3-0 they won the Champions League. It was in the final in 2004, and not the second game of the group stages, but still. Good omens and all that.


Gonzalo Higuain
Benched for two consecutive games, but the substitute saviour for Juventus against Olympiakos. The Old Lady was struggling to breathe against tough Greek opposition, but a goal within nine minutes of his introduction was a timely reminder of Higuain’s talents.


Eight consecutive home wins in all competitions. Twenty-seven goals scored in that run, and just six conceded. Goals for Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon, who now have 18 goals between them in 10 games. Napoli’s three tenors are just warming up.

But what was Maurizio Sarri’s message to his players after the 3-1 win over Feyenoord? “I’m pissed off about the goal we conceded.”

You just can’t please some people.


Spartak Moscow
‘Win or Die’ read the banner that Spartak Moscow fans unfurled ahead of the game against Liverpool. Will a draw after having four times fewer shots than their opponents do?



Liverpool’s attack
No club in Europe’s top five leagues has had more shots than Liverpool in all competitions this season (215). Their tally of 21 goals can be beaten by Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Napoli, Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco and Porto.

Let’s not pretend it’s only the Liverpool defence.


Roberto Firmino
No one individual is more culpable in those attacking failings than any other. Against Spartak Moscow, Mohamed Salah had six shots, Philippe Coutinho, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Daniel Sturridge all had two, and Sadio Mane had one. Eight players created goalscoring chances, yet only one was converted.

Roberto Firmino had three shots, and continued his recent run of underwhelming displays. At his best, the Brazilian is almost unplayable, the planet around which Liverpool’s forward line gravitates. If he plays well, the Reds invariably do.

If he plays poorly, it shows. His 100th appearance for the club was perhaps his most disappointing yet, toiling in Russia and squandering at least two opportunities to rescue a valuable three points.

Had Jurgen Klopp not played a more cautious hand, removing Mane just after the hour with the Senegalese building back to match fitness ahead of his domestic return from suspension, Firmino would almost certainly have been the fall guy. He has now had 11 shots since his last goal.

Perhaps the only saving grace for Firmino is that Sturridge did not take his opportunity when called upon, although the England international is in a difficult position. As a late substitute in most games, he knows he has a limited chance to make an impression. That can only breed nervousness.

Looking enviously at Manchester United, Tottenham or Chelsea as Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane and Alvaro Morata rack up goal after goal is a pointless exercise. A striker of their ilk does not simply slot into Klopp’s system. But familiar questions will be asked of Firmino as long as these performances continue. The answer might well be to give Sturridge an extended chance.


Bayern Munich
“What we saw today was not FC Bayern, I think we can all agree on that,” said Bayern Munich executive chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge on Wednesday. “It’s important that we bounce back quickly and demonstrate that we are the team that has been sensational in Europe and the Bundesliga in recent years.”

Uphill battle or downward slope: take your pick. Both describe what Bayern face in their imminent future. A 3-0 defeat to PSG was a humbling experience, and the pressure is mounting on Carlo Ancelotti. “Are the players still behind the manager?” Arjen Robben was asked after the game. “I will say nothing about it. Every word in this case would be one too many,” was his telling response.

Much to the chagrin of Robert Lewandowski, Bayern changed their transfer methods somewhat this summer. Rather than cherry-pick the very best the Bundesliga has to offer, they signed just three players from fellow German sides. Only two, defenders Niklas Süle and Sebastian Rudy, were first-teamers. Having lost Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm to retirement at the end of last season, these were never going to be sufficient replacements.

“Bayern will have to come up with something and be creative if the club wants to keep bringing world-class players to Munich,” Robert Lewandowski said in an unauthorised interview earlier this month. “To this day, Bayern Munich have never spent more than around €40million for a player. In international football that has long since been more of an average than a peak price.”

In PSG, Bayern had the perfect opponent to prove the benefits of their method against the new influx of money in the game. They failed miserably.

Lewandowski was chastised for his critical comments by Rummenigge, but they stand to reason. Yet Rummenigge was unmoved. “We’ve had a serious and successful philosophy for a long time and enjoyed great success with that,” was his response. “Clearly Robert has been affected by the PSG transfers.”

If he wasn’t before, he certainly is now. PSG are leading the line in the new world of football transfers; Bayern’s resistance to that is endearing in a way, but futile. Combine this European setback with a stuttering start in the Bundesliga, and there is a chance that Germany’s perennial predator is going to be left behind.


Borussia Dortmund
Dominant domestically, but found wanting on the European stage. Borussia Dortmund have conceded one goal in six Bundesliga games, and six goals in two Champions League games so far.

In truth, little can be read into a loss against Real Madrid; the Spaniards have been beaten just twice in their last 28 games in this competition. But it does further underline the gap between Dortmund and the continent’s elite. They are not in an unsalvageable position in their group, but they are in an unenviable one.


German clubs
Six games, one win, one draw, four defeats, six goals scored, 12 goals conceded. It’s not gone well.


Monaco and RB Leipzig
One team is setting off on a new adventure and the other is still learning lessons; both are in trouble early on.


Benjamin Mendy
Although, thinking about it, can one really be a ‘loser’ when he takes on the might of Duncan Castles and emerges victorious?


Atletico Madrid
Their Champions League fate is still in their hands, but their grip has certainly been loosened. A 2-1 defeat in their new home will hurt the confidence as much as their European prospects. A double header with Qarabag is the ideal remedy, but one eye will be kept on November 22, when Roma visit the Spanish capital.


CSKA Moscow
“This is the best CSKA Moscow team I have faced,” said Jose Mourinho both in the build-up to this game and in his pre-match interview. I hope he was being sarcastic.


Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Napoli, Monaco and Borussia Dortmund are currently on course to finish third in their Champions League groups. And Arsenal thought the Europa League might be a free shot at winning a European trophy.


Only Barcelona, Chelsea, Monaco and Borussia Dortmund generated more money in player sales than Benfica this summer, yet the Portuguese champions spent around £8million replacing over £100m worth of outgoing talent. And that is the result.

Béla Guttmann did die for this, as it happens. The curse continues.


Matt Stead

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