Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 23rd November 2017 11:31


PSG’s front three, and their efficiency
Paris Saint-Germain have now set a record for goals scored in the Champions League group stage, two ahead of the previous best with one game still remaining. They have scored as many goals as every team in Barcelona’s group.

The most ridiculous aspect of this wondrous front three is their efficiency. PSG have a shot conversion rate this season of 27.6%, way ahead of Besiktas (20%) in second place. In fact, the gap between first and second on that list is greater than the gap between second and Roma in 17th.

Not only does PSG’s strikeforce contain the perfect blend of pace, skill and power, but all three forwards have proven themselves as exceptional finishers. That creates mind-blowing statistics, like the fact that Atletico Madrid have had more shots than PSG and yet PSG have scored 20 more goals.

Just as impressive is that we are only in November of their first season playing together, and Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe have already all scored in the same game on five different occasions. PSG’s owners wanted a strikeforce that could take this club to previously unforeseen places. They might just have done exactly that.


Having lost in Donetsk and twice suffered defeats against Manchester City despite adding plenty to two absorbing contests, Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli only had one route into the knock-out stages. They had to beat Shakhtar by a margin of two goals or more, hope City beat the same opponents in the final week and do themselves a favour by winning in Feyenoord.

Stage one of that tightrope walk is complete. Pure aesthetics does not guarantee any team access through to the knock-out stages, but it really would be a bloody shame if we didn’t get to see this Napoli side in Europe’s premier competition beyond Christmas.


Remember all that guff about England’s coefficient suffering to the extent that we lost a Champions League place? We are now firmly in second place, above both Italy and Germany, and have taken more coefficient points than any other country this season. Vive la Premier League.


Igor Akinfeev
When Akinfeev last kept a clean sheet, Saddam Hussein was still alive, Wembley Stadium hadn’t yet been opened, there were no such things as iPhones, only 400,000 tweets were sent on Twitter every three months and Bolton and Portsmouth were in the top four of the Premier League. Forty-four games later, Akinfeev did it again. P-A-R-T-Y.


Raheem Sterling
The usual accusation when players score surprisingly regularly is that they are fairweather goalscorers, adding the finishing touches to a four or five-goal victory. It is what we might label Theowalcott-itis, and for a while the same accusation was suggested about Sterling. For all his good form, was he not simply benefiting from the excellence of those around him?

Well, yes and no. Just as important as how many goals Sterling has scored this is when they have come. The winner against Feyenoord, the winner against Bournemouth, the winner against West Brom, the equaliser against Everton, the opening goal against Napoli; these are vital contributions. That five of Sterling’s 11 goals have come in the 88th minute or later indicates his stamina and willingness to fight until the final breaths.

There is no doubt that any attacking player would be improved from playing with Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane, but Sterling is no longer a bit-part player in this Manchester City machine. He now has 11 goals in all competitions. No player for the Premier League favourites and the Champions League second favourites has more.


In coefficient terms, Besiktas were ranked 24th of the 32 teams in the Champions League group stage. Of the eight teams below them, four are currently last in their group and four are third. Besiktas haven’t just qualified from the Group of Death containing Porto, RB Leipzig and Monaco, they’ve won it. Tebrik ederim!


Phil Foden
A senior debut, and hopefully evidence that Pep Guardiola will look to give opportunities to a wonderful prospect as and when he can. I’m offering no apology for being dead excited about this one.


Dele Alli
‘The prosecution would point out that this is the fourth or fifth league game this season in which Alli has been virtually anonymous. This is the first slump of his career. Now the hard work starts to regain his majestic form of last season’ – Winners and Losers, November 21.

The point of inconsistency is that highs often follow lows, but this was still an excellent response from Alli. More chances created than any other player on the pitch, two assists and noticeably less frustrated than against Arsenal on Saturday. Now to keep it up and dissuade our doubts.


Mauricio Pochettino
Our early winner, for not taking the easy way out and making a raft of changes for a game that Tottenham didn’t need to win. Had Pochettino picked a reserve side and lost in Germany, nobody could have criticised; beat APOEL and top spot was sorted. Instead, he stuck with Harry Kane, Alli, Christian Eriksen et al and came from behind to beat Dortmund.

Laying down the challenge to his key players to start righting the wrongs of Saturday was the gamble. Winning 2-1 to give his squad a dead rubber against APOEL was the vindication.


Eden Hazard
Three goals in his last three Champions League games, and 17 goals and assists in 15 games for club and country this season. If Chelsea are indeed labouring, there is an obvious exception to that rule. Hazard remains majestic.

We’ll leave the rest to Steven Gerrard: “He is Chelsea’s catalyst. Playing against them, he was always a nuisance, a nightmare. He picked up really clever positions, he’s strong, very quick, robust. Normally you can bully small players but you can’t with him.”


Liverpool’s attack
Hey, look on the bright side. At least plenty of teams will need to score three goals just to get a draw.


Timo Werner
The next big thing in German football. He’s 21, he already has seven goals in ten caps for Germany, has somehow already played 136 Bundesliga games and on Wednesday scored his second and third Champions League goals on just his third start in the competition. Elite clubs should form a queue.


A third away Champions League draw in their history, to match the historic victory at Dynamo Kiev in 1999/00. Avoiding defeat home and away to Spartak Moscow is a superb achievement, despite their thrashings in other fixtures.


Antoine Griezmann
A goal that was desperately required to keep the doubters at bay. Griezmann’s goals between now and next May might be useful to Atletico only in increasing his price tag rather than helping them win trophies, but at least the drought is over. It might be worth enquiring on a price for Atletico to win the Europa League this season.



Last season’s quarter-finalists
Barcelona: Group leaders
Bayern Munich: Second in their group
Real Madrid: Second in their group
Juventus: Second in their group
Borussia Dortmund: Eliminated
Monaco: Eliminated
Atletico Madrid: Virtually eliminated
Leicester City: Ahem

It is a wretched record for last season’s European elite. For only one of the 2016/17 quarter-finalists to win their group is outrageous.


Alberto Moreno
“I never had something like this,” said Jurgen Klopp on Monday. “I never had it to be honest. This season is not a surprise, the surprise is how he [Moreno] dealt with last season. There was not one bad word in the whole season.

“Yes, he was in my office. Yes, he asked what he could do better, and we spoke about the things he had to do better. How he reacted on last year is really, really good. He’s now a much better defender. That’s how it is; he’s a brilliant footballer. When you see him shooting here, you think he cannot shoot – he shoots like crazy. It’s unbelievable how good he is.”

If the secret to good comedy is timing, Klopp might as well start booking theatres in provincial towns across the land. Having poured praise on Moreno for his return to form, his left-back promptly made his manager look foolish. Three years after leaving Sevilla, Moreno was their best player again.

That should be that for Moreno. For all the improvement on last season, 2016/17 set such an outrageously low bar that almost anybody could have stepped over it. Moreno remains a ‘roll the dice’ defender, who might give you a six but is equally likely to throw in a one that costs you the game.

Given the competitiveness of the Premier League and Champions League, a manager must demand consistency. There’s no point being excellent in four games and dreadful in the fifth. I’m still wondering quite what Andrew Robertson is supposed to have done wrong.


Jurgen Klopp
There is something in those quotes on Moreno that reveal plenty about Jurgen Klopp: “When you see him shooting here, you think he cannot shoot – he shoots like crazy. It’s unbelievable how good he is.”

That is the type of assessment that might make Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher spit in fury. So your left-back gives away needless free-kicks and penalties, regularly wanders out of position or fails to track his man and has brainfades so often that they almost become the norm rather than exception, but at least he can shoot?

Perhaps that is the problem, Jurgen. Attacking full-backs are hardly anything new, but even the most modern wing-back doesn’t base his reputation around shooting. Moreno is being picked as a left-back, and the ability to defend should be his principal priority.

For what it’s worth, since Klopp joined Liverpool, Moreno has had 74 shots in the Premier League and in European competition combined, and scored one goal. Perhaps ‘shooting like crazy’ wasn’t intended as a compliment.


Manchester United
When does defeat not matter?

The answer to that question surely lies in what happens next. Should Manchester United brush aside Brighton on Saturday and, far more importantly, take seven or more points from fixtures against Watford (a), Arsenal (a) and Manchester City (h), the results of this and the next Champions League match will not matter.

As Roy Keane rightly pointed out, United’s form in their early Champions League games afforded them this wiggle room. In the Guardian, the first two words of Jamie Jackson’s match report were ‘disaster struck’, but it is hard to think of two more inappropriate words for the situation. Only a massive defeat (and we’re talking four or more goals) at home to CSKA would stop them topping the group. This is not going to happen.

Yet this was still a wretched performance, however long-lasting (or otherwise) its impact. Jose Mourinho talked of wasted first-half chances, and was right to feel aggrieved, but in the second half United were miserable and deserved their defeat. This was as soporific as competitive football gets.

After brighter spells on Saturday following the return of Paul Pogba, was it not in United’s and Mourinho’s interest to ensure that this surge of positivity continued? Instead it was lost into the Swiss night, compounded by Michael Lang’s late winner but engineered by United’s own performance. Two steps forward, one more back.

In Wednesday’s Daily Mirror, David Anderson lambasted Manchester City for their own tepid performance, albeit this time in a dead rubber. City had made seven changes, and won the game. This was proof, Anderson said, that City relied too much on their key players.

Twenty-four hours after that victory, Mourinho also made seven changes but still used Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Nemanja Matic, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford and welcomed back Marcos Rojo. If City’s laboured victory proved that City are fallible, what does United’s lacklustre defeat indicate?

To repeat, the answer to that question may be ‘nothing at all’, but it would be a mistake to say that nothing about Wednesday mattered. If United are going to seriously challenge their city rivals this season, momentum is key. If nothing else, that was given up in Switzerland.


Borussia Dortmund and Peter Bosz
The only victory in their last nine matches came against third tier FC Magdeburg in the DFB Pokal, and Peter Bosz’s side have lost four and drawn one of their last five home games. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

A small piece of advice based on this season: Think twice before appointing Marcel Keizer. It has not been a good season for former Ajax coaches.


Brendan Rodgers
‘Celtic: Brendan Rodgers says his side ‘will not be intimidated’ against PSG’ – BBC Sport, September 11.

Having conceded goals at a rate of one every 15 minutes over their two matches, it appears that Rodgers was all talk. Who could have predicted that?


Celtic, a club in purgatory
Dominant in their domestic league to the point of parody, outclassed in the Champions League to the point of embarrassment. Celtic are caught in suspension, with the space between the glass ceiling and floor barely visible to the human eye.

Not only is it difficult to see how this purgatory period ends, it’s easy to see it turning off all but the most committed supporters. Without meaningful competition, football is nothing.


This is what happens when you sell the spine of your team and react by investing around €10m in your playing squad. Ederson left for Manchester City, Victor Lindelof left for Benfica, Nelson Semedo left for Barcelona and Kostas Mitroglou left for Marseille. Benfica are third in the Primeira Liga and have endured a (literally) pointless Champions League campaign.


Spartak Moscow
Failed to beat Maribor home or away and yet beat Sevilla 5-1. Working that one out will give you a migraine.


Our early losers. 2016/17 was a season of wonder, but goodwill and joy has been lost on the wind. What a damn shame.


Chris Smalling
“I was surprised,” said Smalling in his pre-match press conference on his absence from England’s latest squad. “But you don’t play for one of the biggest clubs in the world for as long as I have and win every trophy bar the Champions League without being able to do everything a top defender needs to do, be it playing or defending.”

We might beg to differ. With all eyes on Smalling on Wednesday, he again looked uncomfortable on the ball, taking precious moments to get his body into the perfect position to pass it with his right foot. Perhaps it is only a question of aesthetics, but there is something definitively clunky about Smalling’s style. Gareth Southgate was more vindicated than Smalling by events in Basel.

Smalling might boast of his presence in Manchester United’s team, but he is not first choice. There are valid reasons for that, and those reasons are demonstrated in almost every game he plays.


Luke Shaw
Slip slidin’ away from view. He’s now barely visible in the rear-view mirror.


Daniel Storey


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