Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 19th October 2017 11:58

Good from Mourinho, Milner and Pochettino. Bad from Azpilicueta, Conte, Atletico and Rodgers.


Jose Mourinho
“Sometimes I feel that to be good defensively is a crime but it is not a crime,” said Jose Mourinho on Wednesday evening, and the Portuguese is absolutely correct in his assessment. Benfica had 11 shots to Manchester United’s 10, but David de Gea did not have a single save to make. The visitors recorded 64% possession; Mourinho’s boast of enjoying complete “control” was perfectly fair.

The performance against Liverpool at the weekend was abject, an overly defensive showing against a vulnerable side. But the display against Benfica was Mourinho veering more towards pragmatism, with United showing an actual willingness to advance beyond the half-way line. The football was not brilliant, mistakes continue to creep in and Nemanja Matic is the only player to truly emerge from the game with positive reviews, but the result is king.

Mourinho, to his credit, has navigated the group wonderfully. A crushing victory at home to Basel has been followed by wins in difficult circumstances in Russia and Portugal. The 54-year-old was employed as much for his nous in Europe as his track record on the domestic scene. A first Champions League knock-out berth in four seasons beckons.


English clubs
Fifteen games, 11 wins, four draws, no defeats, 44 goals scored, 11 conceded. Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham are all top of their respective groups. Hurrah, for the Premier League is good again.


After three games, five clubs can lay claim to a perfect record. Barcelona, Manchester City, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain have paid for and reserved seats at the top table for years, if not decades; Besiktas have crashed the party.

Few gave the Turkish side a realistic chance of progressing from their group. Monaco, RB Leipzig and Porto provided a unique blend of European experience and youthful exuberance to combat, two having over-achieved in their respective leagues last season, the other having established themselves as a long-standing threat in this competition. Besiktas were the odd one out.

Monaco may be almost unrecognisable from the side that swept through the continent last season, but a 2-1 away victory for Besiktas is a phenomenal result. Şenol Güneş has taken an eclectic squad containing Pepe, Gary Medel, Ricardo Quaresma, Ryan Babel, Jeremain Lens, Gökhan Töre and Alvaro Negredo to the brink of qualification.

To put that achievement into perspective, consider that Besiktas have never advanced past the group stages of the Champions League, and progressed past the first round of the European Cup only twice. They were handed a bye in the 1958/59 edition before being knocked out in the second round, and reached the quarter-finals of the 1986/87 tournament with the help of a first-round win over Dinamo Tirana and another bye. This is unfamiliar territory, yet Group G’s whipping boys are the only ones handing out punishments.


Spare a thought for the European apple cart, which has been upset so many times this week that it might well require counselling. The Davids of Besiktas, Spartak Moscow and Qarabag revelled in conquering the relative Goliaths of Monaco, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid.

No result was more impressive than APOEL’s hard-earned point against Borussia Dortmund. The Cypriots held the Bundesliga leaders at arm’s length, and even spurned opportunities to claim a famous victory. That ten of Giorgos Donis’ starting XI on Wednesday were signed as free transfers is testament to this particular underdog story.


James Milner
The argument is that impressing against Maribor is the equivalent of a father joining a kickabout with his son and promptly scoring a quadruple hat-trick. The counterclaim is that, while James Milner’s performance in Slovenia must be accompanied with a vat of salt, it is difficult to imagine Jordan Henderson ever imposing himself on any opponent in such a manner.

Liverpool’s captain was rested on Tuesday and, in his place, the vice-captain thrived. Milner was excellent, creating more chances (3) than everyone but Philippe Coutinho (6), and completing the most passes of any player in the opposition half (65). His 120 touches were more than double the number of Maribor’s next closest player.

It is in these games that the best central midfielders prove themselves a number of steps up from their opponents; they stand out from a crowd of mediocrity. One cannot recall the last time Henderson stamped his authority on an inferior opponent in the same way Milner did in midweek. The erstwhile left-back has placed himself back in midfield contention.


Liverpool’s attack
After eight goals in their previous eight games, Liverpool score seven in 90 minutes. Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino scored two goals and assisted one, Coutinho scored one and assisted two, and Maribor received both barrels from the double-barrelled pairing of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Trent Alexander-Arnold. It was not the most difficult of assignments, but do not underestimate the effect that such a thrashing will have on this group’s confidence.


Mauricio Pochettino
Tottenham had more shots on target in the opening 29 minutes at the Santiago Bernabeu than Manchester United had in the full 90 at Anfield. That was a real masterclass.


Harry Winks
Gillingham, West Ham, CSKA Moscow, Gent, Aston Villa, Wycombe, Fulham, Millwall, Burnley (twice), Barnsley, APOEL Nicosia, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, a Liverpool midfield containing Kevin Stewart and Ovie Ejaria, and a game against Monaco in which he was substituted 74 minutes into a defeat.

Winks’ previous 16 senior club starts could not possibly have prepared the 21-year-old for a full 90 minutes away at Real Madrid, and yet he did not look out of place in a midfield battle against Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. The only starters to record a higher passing accuracy on Tuesday were Kroos and Sergio Ramos.

This was Tottenham’s coming-of-age performance in the Champions League; it is only appropriate that their second-youngest player was the star.


Quincy Promes
“He’s not the only good player in the Spartak team but he’s a very good one,” said Jurgen Klopp in September, batting away rumours of interest in Quincy Promes. That speculation will only intensify after the Spartak Moscow winger scored twice and assisted a further two goals in a 5-1 victory over Sevilla. The Russians were electric on the counter-attack, claiming just 37.9% possession at home, but they showed plenty of Promes on Tuesday.


Paulo Fonseca
Timing is everything, and Paulo Fonseca proved himself a master of the craft in midweek. The 44-year-old has been heavily linked with the manager’s job at Everton, having guided Shakhtar Donetsk to an emphatic Ukrainian double last season.

“All coaches want to go to England and I am one,” Fonseca told the Daily Telegraph on Monday. “I have this dream and I believe this can happen.” By Tuesday, he was engineering an away victory over Feyenoord from behind and with ten men.

With Group F little more than a battle for a runners-up spot – City imposing their dominance over the rest – Shakhtar have established a three-point gap over third-placed Napoli. If Fonseca, as the rest of us, ensures to listen to Gabrielle at least once a day, he will know only too well that dreams can come true.


Raheem Sterling
Our early winner, if only for listening to his mum. Since Pep Guardiola was appointed Manchester City manager, Sterling has played the second-most games (58), scored the second-most goals (18) and recorded the second-most assists (23), behind Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and De Bruyne again.


Nicolas Otamendi
Whisper it quietly, but Nicolas Otamendi might actually be…good.


After recording just two wins in their first five Bundesliga games, many felt RB Leipzig would suffer from second-season syndrome. The Germans had avoided the same fate as Monaco in the summer, placing a ‘Not For Sale’ sign over a squad that they intended to build upon, not tear down and start again. They generated £20million from sales this summer, and spent just over £50m on new signings. But their allure was gone; the surprise package had been unwrapped, the contents clear for everyone to see.

A 3-2 win over Porto represents not only their third win in their last three games, but a first-ever victory in Europe. If an away win over Borussia Dortmund at the weekend was season-saving surgery, the rehabilitation came against Porto. Group G remains as close as ever, but the Bundesliga side have the slightest of advantages.

It is just a shame that Jean-Kévin Augustin is likely to be arrested for this first-half assault on two Porto defenders.


Since a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United in mid-September, Basel have kept six clean sheets in seven games. The defence is on a Swiss roll.


Jupp Henyckes
For some, football management is like riding a bike: once learned, it is difficult to forget.

It is safe to say that Jupp Heynckes does not require stabilisers or a safety helmet, even after four years in the wilderness of retirement. The 72-year-old marked his Bundesliga return with a 5-0 victory, and his first Champions League game since the 2013 final ended in a resounding 3-0 win over Celtic.

Heynckes has now won 17 of his last 18 games as a manager, with a goal difference of +50 in that time. His last defeat? To Arsenal in March 2013.


Kylian Mbappe
The highest-scoring teenager in Champions League history does not turn 19 until late December. He is a bit special.


Not only a first-ever Champions League point in their history, but a first-ever Champions League point for an Azerbaijani club. Atletico couldn’t fight their way out of Qarabag.

Edin Dzeko
“I don’t run? I don’t give my best? Come on! That is a joke,” Edin Dzeko told The Guardian in midweek. Two goals – one of which was utterly brilliant – against Chelsea was an emphatic punchline.


Lionel Messi
Good, isn’t he?



Eduardo Berizzo
They were not quite famous last words – Eduardo Berizzo will not pay for defeat to Spartak Moscow with his job – but the Sevilla manager’s pre-match words will live long in the memory. “We will play carefully,” the 47-year-old said, promising not to crash the car after being handed the keys.

Berizzo meant well, but Spartak were the equivalent of a speeding truck. Sevilla were lost in wave after wave of counter-attacks, and had absolutely no response.

The Spanish side had actually drawn level after 30 minutes and had a gilt-edged chance to take the lead through Wissam Ben Yedder early in the second half, but that miss seemed to disorientate the visitors in Russia. “When Ben Yedder missed a great opportunity 15 minutes into the second half, the game got out of hand and my players failed to have the capacity to react,” Berizzo said, and the manager was just as culpable.

Sevilla had more shots, more possession and more corners than Spartak, but return from Russia on the back of a 5-1 thrashing. They started the week top of Group E; they have now slipped down into third.


Cesar Azpilicueta
Eden Hazard is prone to brief lapses in form, Cesc Fabregas finds it difficult to impose himself in every game, and Alvaro Morata has struggled with injury. Even N’Golo Kante has not been his imperious self this season – although Chelsea’s recent slump and his absence is no coincidence.

Through it all, Cesar Azpilicueta is the club’s constant. Chelsea’s Mr. Reliable has missed just 15 minutes in the Premier and Champions League this season; he has featured more often than any other outfielder.

Antonio Conte must be worried about the form of his right-hand man. The Italian will have seen Azpilicueta’s own goal and poor performance against Crystal Palace as a mere blip, but the Spaniard’s defensive culpability against Roma will be harder to ignore and overlook. The Serie A side were a constant threat going forward, helped in no small part by a nervous display from the defender.

The potential reasons for Azpilicueta’s dip in form are two-fold. First, he is the one abiding member of a constantly changing defence. Andreas Christensen and Gary Cahill were his partners against Roma, while it was Cahill and David Luiz against Palace. Before that, he was shifted out to the right-hand side against Manchester City, and in came Antonio Rudiger. The unsettled nature of Chelsea’s defence is harming even its most resilient component.

Second, the 28-year-old has started 105 of the club’s 113 games in all competitions since the start of the 2015/16 season – at least 20 more than any other Chelsea player. Will Conte ever be brave enough to leave his comfort blanket at home, even in the midst of an injury crisis and a struggle for form?


Antonio Conte
The Chelsea manager did note that it was “good to draw”, the injury-hit Blues having fallen behind against Roma on Wednesday. But his assessment that a lacklustre performance was his “responsibility” was just as accurate.

“I tried, on the one hand, to protect my team and make us more solid, and to move David Luiz into central midfield,” the Italian said after the game at Stamford Bridge. “But on the other hand we lost totally our knowledge and style of football.”

Chelsea are still on course to finish top of Group C, and will likely only need a positive result in the return fixture in Italy to assure qualification. Their struggles with injuries have been well-documented, but more difficult to legislate for is their manager making poor tactical decisions. It was telling that Eden Hazard questioned Conte’s call to substitute him ten minutes before full-time.

Conte was a master of placing round pegs in square holes last season, chopping and changing where needed, and plugging gaps with the players he had. But the addition of European football has clearly taken its toll, and the 48-year-old is hardly a seasoned veteran when it comes to balancing league form with Champions League success. The Italian oversaw just two Champions League campaigns at Juventus, and while The Old Lady reached the quarter-finals in 2012/13, they failed to advance from the group stages in 2013/14.

The same fate will surely not befall Chelsea, but it is clear that Conte is having to learn on the job.


There are two mitigating factors in Feyenoord’s home defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk. The Dutch side’s entire match-day squad on Tuesday contained just two players over the age of 28; Giovanni van Bronckhorst is prioritising the development of youth at De Kuip. And Brad Jones, one of the two 30-somethings, was his goalkeeper. A manager can only do so much.

Pep Guardiola has spoken fondly of both Napoli and Shakhtar Donetsk this season, but there is a reason the Manchester City manager reserved his public opinions on Feyenoord. This is a club whose marquee summer signing was Steven Berghuis, he of Watford infamy.

But there is no disguising the disappointment of losing 2-1 at home to Shakhtar having led, and with the visitors being reduced to ten men with 15 minutes to play. As this young side will know only too well, every day is a school day, and this was a difficult learning curve.


No club has come quite so close to derailing the Manchester City freight train this season. Napoli had eight shots and 46.1% possession at the Etihad Stadium – both the highest of any visiting team – but it was not enough to knock Guardiola’s side off course.

The Serie A side emerge from Tuesday’s meeting with their reputation intact, if not augmented, but Shakhtar’s win away at Feyenoord weakens their position in Group F. By the time they host the Ukrainians in November, that gap to second could conceivably have increased to six points.


They were never going to emulate their remarkable achievements in reaching the Champions League semi-finals and winning Ligue Un last season, but only the most pessimistic of Monaco fans could have foreseen their current slump. One of Europe’s most exciting teams five months ago are now six points behind PSG on the domestic front, and are propping up Group G.

Monaco have lost three of their last four games, drawing the other, and the light at the end of the tunnel seems further away than ever. Leonardo Jardim has overseen something of a mini-collapse in the French principality, and seems unable to arrest the slide from the top of the mountain. It is a ruddy shame. Inevitable, but a ruddy shame.


Our early loser. Twelve months after topping a group containing Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund are almost certain to slip into the Europa League.


Henrikh Mkhitaryan
A not so fine performance from Mkhi. No player knows better the dangers of annoying Jose Mourinho. If the United manager stayed awake through the first half in Portugal, he would hardly have been impressed.


Serge Aurier
‘It is telling that the one player who is guilty of making rash decisions is one of the last men through the door; Serge Aurier is still a work in progress,’ wrote Sarah Winterburn. Pretty much.


Atletico Madrid’s strikers
“We forwards must improve and find the solution to score more goals,” said Antoine Griezmann on Wednesday. Half of the battle is figuring out the problem; now to rectify it.

Atletico Madrid have had more shots in the Champions League this season (44) than all but seven clubs, but only Anderlecht (0) have scored fewer goals than their one. A Griezmann penalty in the home defeat to Chelsea is the sum total of their offensive efforts.

In Diego Simeone, Atletico have a manager who can organise a defence better than perhaps any other coach in world football, but the attack inevitably suffers. Even against Qarabag the Spaniards toiled, struggling to create any opportunities of real note. Qualification is by no means beyond them – November’s home game with Roma is crucial – but this was an uncharacteristic stumble that could still turn into a collapse.

“We are still strong from the back, and making chances, but it is us,” Griezmann added. “Forwards can go on runs like this, but we must remain confident in ourselves.” The likely alternative is Europa League football.


Brendan Rodgers
Celtic knew what they were getting with Brendan Rodgers, and to complain about a manager who is yet to be beaten in any domestic competition since his appointment in summer 2016 seems mean-spirited. But the Northern Irishman’s stance over his approach in certain games continues to pose a problem.

“We decide how we play,” said Rodgers after being asked whether he is contemplating being more pragmatic in games against Europe’s heavyweights. “Myself and my staff and the players had a plan going into the game and there was lots of positives for us and something to look forward to.”

The 3-0 defeat to Bayern Munich follows a 5-0 reverse at home to PSG and a 7-0 thrashing against Barcelona last season. Rodgers’ insistence that Celtic must go toe-to-toe with more seasoned sides in Europe does look ambitious given they are wearing considerably smaller shoes.

Rodgers is absolutely right in pointing out that Celtic’s aim in Europe this season is to play in any competition beyond Christmas, and they are well-placed to brush Anderlecht aside in the race for a Europa League spot. There is also no guarantee that playing more defensively in Germany would have been rewarded with a result against a rejuvenated Bayern. It just feels as though this leopard could make at least an attempt to change his spots when required.


Sporting Lisbon
Jorge Jesus would not have earmarked a trip to Turin as a potential place for Sporting Lisbon to pick up crucial points when the Champions League group stage draw was made in August. Yet a 2-1 defeat to Juventus can only really be seen as a negative in the glare of hindsight.

This is not the all-conquering Juventus of old, last season’s runners-up having experienced a relatively slow start to this campaign. A 3-0 defeat to Barcelona was a knock to the confidence, a 3-2 loss against Lazio in the Supercoppa Italiana was a setback, and a draw with Atalanta and defeat to Lazio in their last two games was cause for concern.

Sporting looked to pour salt in the wounds on Wednesday by taking the lead through Alex Sandro’s own goal, but a spirited fightback from the hosts kept all three points in Italy. Jesus’ side still have a Sporting chance of qualification, but they let a vulnerable Juventus escape with merely a scratch.


Mile Svilar
We all did something eminently embarrassing when we were 18, but few of us had the displeasure of having our misfortune broadcast worldwide. Still, at least he got a hug from Romelu Lukaku.


Daniel Storey
A jealous man presumably sticking needles into a doll of Mile Svilar as we speak.


Matt Stead

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