Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 22nd February 2018 11:21


David De Gea
The best goalkeeper in the world, bar none. Both the quality and quantity of De Gea’s best saves are extraordinary. Manchester United continue to be rescued by their best player.

De Gea’s greatest trick is making you believe that the thwarted opponent is at fault. “Head that low or into the corner and he scores,” is the usual riposte. That criticism is technically true, but underplays the De Gea factor. Like Manuel Neuer and Gianluigi Buffon, De Gea forces opponents to change their behaviour if they want to score.

The header from Luis Muriel on Wednesday wasn’t misplaced, because it would beat all but a select few goalkeepers. Every other week in Spain, Muriel scores it. It is De Gea who has changed the metaphorical goalposts, leaving Muriel to bang his head against the literal one in frustration.

There is a conundrum about wonderful goalkeepers who play for elite clubs. Would they prefer to be busy all the time, renowned as the hero of their team, or have more of a watching brief as their club eases its way to glory? Or, more relevantly, is De Gea jealous of the protection that Edwin Van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel were afforded?

The answer probably lies somewhere in between, but Manchester United would do well to provide De Gea with a little more competent cover. Real Madrid have people on constant look-out for cracks in the plaster.


Comfortably his best performance in a Chelsea shirt, as Matt Stead described here. Willian completed more dribbles than any other player in the Champions League this week, and did so up against one of the world’s best left-backs.

Antonio Conte will also be grateful for the manner in which Willian shut down Jordi Alba’s attacking endeavours. More of the same in the Camp Nou and Chelsea have a chance.


Ever Banega
The creator of ten chances against Manchester United, not only double the number managed by any other player in the Champions League this week, but the highest number managed by any player in a Champions League game this season. Or last season. Or the season before that. Or the one before that. And before that. And that. And that. Not quite ‘and happily Ever after’, but since April 2011.


Sergio Busquets
153 touches of the ball – the most in the Champions League this week.
139 passes – the most in the Champions League this week.
6 tackles – the most in the Champions League this week.

The man is an understated, underrated sensation. Barcelona’s second most important player, and when the fella ahead of you in the list is a deity…


Robert Lewandowski
The 18th and 19th Champions League knock-out goals of his career. And that’s why Real Madrid will come knocking this summer.


Facundo Ferreyra
In August 2014, Newcastle United signed Ferreyra on a season-long loan deal from Shakhtar Donetsk. So under-par was he considered by Newcastle’s coaching staff that he failed to play a single minute in England. Ferreyra made the match-day squad five times in all competitions.

To put that underperformance into context, Emmanuel Riviere and Adam Armstrong played 43 times for Newcastle that season. Armstrong was 18 at the time and is currently on loan at Blackburn Rovers, while Riviere scored three times in 28 matches.

On Wednesday, Ferreyra scored the equaliser against Roma in the last 16 of the Champions League. Football is weird.


We are hardwired to frown at massive potential transfer fees for players we haven’t seen a great deal of, and the £50m Manchester City will probably pay for Fred is no exception. “But who is he, Jeff?”

One way to increase your reputation is to score a thronking free-kick in the knock-out stages of the Champions League, the type that makes a goalkeeper stare at his gloves, the ball and the goal frame to work out what happened.


Jupp Heynckes
Our early winner. He has won 48 of his last 51 matches as a manager. No matter which club you are in charge of, that’s a phenomenal record.


Thomas Muller
An extraordinary ability to be in the right place at the right time when the ball comes close to goal. Did Muller’s mother gave birth to him in a six-yard box?


Cengiz Under
A Turkish midfielder signed by Roma two days after he turned 20, and has suddenly become a star. Under started only five games before January 24, but has since started each of Roma’s last six matches. He’s scored six times in his last four. Under appreciated.


And then there were five
Rubin Kazan, Inter, Xerez, Benfica and Liverpool. These are now the only clubs Lionel Messi has played against more than once and not scored.



Manchester United’s attack (and Alexis Sanchez)
The signing of Alexis Sanchez by Manchester United was not one of necessity, but opportunity. The instant availability of an established and high-performing Premier League player was too good to turn down. When Manchester City got cold feet, United trampled on in.

Signings of opportunity can work out wonderfully, but they can also be distracting. Get the chance to buy an antique vase for a knockdown price and you snap it up, but if the washing machine is also on the blink, you go to the auction house via Currys. These signings must not cause you to veer from the path of long-term planning.

Manchester United had attackers who could play on the left and centrally. They had their most expensive signing of the summer Romelu Lukaku, their boy wonder Marcus Rashford and European football’s Golden Boy from 2015 Anthony Martial for that, three first-teamers for two positions. What they needed was a right-sided attacker, a player adept at crossing the ball to provide for a striker who had thrived upon such service before arriving at Old Trafford. That and a central midfielder who would allow Paul Pogba to roam.

Juan Mata had started United’s seven games directly prior to Sanchez’s arrival, and he has started four of the six since. The only difference is that Martial has also started twice in that right-sided role, a young player forced out of natural position by circumstance. United have lost both of those matches without scoring.

That indicates both that United did not solve the problem they had, and that there is an awful lot of pressure piled upon Sanchez’s performances. Not only does he need to impress for his own sake, but for Manchester United’s for they have changed the system to accommodate him. Sanchez’s success or failure becomes United’s success or failure. If that sounds unfair, welcome to the world of elite football. It was easier to hide at Arsenal.

So far, there are significant teething problems. United have won three and lost two of their six games with Sanchez, but most worrying is that half the goals they have scored since his signing came in a 50-minute period against the team currently 17th in League Two. You don’t need me to tell you that the FA Cup was not the competition for which Sanchez was signed.


Jose Mourinho and the Champions League
“With Sevilla, I don’t think it’s possible to score many goals,” Mourinho told MUTV on Wednesday. “I think the game is going to be really competitive.

“For me, the word ‘favourite’ or ‘not favourite’ means nothing. They have good defensive organisation; they defend with everybody. Montella is Italian and Italian coaches know how to organise their teams very compact from the defensive point of view.”

You can’t say he didn’t warn us, but you do wonder whether saying before the game that a team packed with expensive attacking players won’t score many goals is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Furthermore, Sevilla’s good defensive organisation saw them concede 12 times in six Champions League group games and keep two clean sheets in seven La Liga games under Montella. They have conceded five times to Betis and Eibar in that period.

More pertinently, the goals scored by Jose Mourinho’s teams in away European knockout games:

Sevilla – 0
Celta Vigo – 1
Anderlecht – 1
Rostov – 1
St Etienne – 1
Paris Saint-Germain – 1
Atletico Madrid – 0
Paris Saint-Germain – 1
Galatasaray – 1
Borussia Dortmund – 1

The last time a Mourinho-managed team scored more than once in a European knock-out away game was April 9, 2013, when he was at Real Madrid.


Chelsea’s result
For all the plaudits, a dose of reality: Chelsea may have stymied and stunted Barcelona’s attacking ambitions, but Ernesto Valverde’s team have become adept in the art of getting it done. They got it done.

It virtually goes without saying that there is a seismic difference between a 1-0 first-leg win and 1-1 draw. Barcelona have conceded in five of their last 18 home games, but Chelsea cannot progress through defence alone. They must score in Spain. It could all have been so different.


Andreas Christensen
He’s a 21-year-old central defender, so of course he will make mistakes. John Stones was still being excused for his last season when a year older than Christensen, and Stones had a great deal more experience than Christensen. The Dane has started fewer than 120 senior matches.

That was why Conte staunchly defended his player on Tuesday evening. “I think Christensen’s performance was a very good performance, an incredible performance,” he said. “We are talking about a player who is only 21 years old here. It’s great that he is able to play this game with maturity and personality. I am very happy. He was one of the best players tonight.”

And yet, despite all that, Christensen will be gutted to have committed such a sloppy, basic error that threatens to alter the course of this tie. And so will his manager.


Chris Smalling
Still Andreas, it could be worse.


Alvaro Morata
Our early loser. Having been left on the bench, Morata was introduced with eight minutes to go. He still managed to get himself booked for dissent, despite Antonio Conte previously calling him out for such stupidity. When you are out of form, the least you can be is well-behaved.


Olivier Giroud
I foresaw Conte leaving Morata on the bench, but I didn’t predict that it would be Eden Hazard who got the nod over Giroud. Suddenly the Frenchman feels like third-choice again. A start against Manchester United on Sunday would help ease the frustration.


Marcus Rashford
We do keep saying it, but Rashford has now only started matches against Yeovil Town and Derby County in 2018. He has played 67 minutes in the Premier League and Champions League since Boxing Day last year. Manchester United supporters may insist that they aren’t worried (and one reporter says the same), but Rashford will be.


Luke Shaw
Left out of the squad for Manchester United’s first Champions League knock-out game in four years, two weeks after having been praised by his manager again. Man management, Jose-style.


A victim of misfortune as much as incompetence. Having topped their group against all expectation ahead of Porto, RB Leipzig and Monaco, Besiktas landed runner-up Bayern Munich and were promptly humped in Germany.

Besiktas were also the only domestic champions to face another league winner in the last 16. With their campaign effectively over 45 minutes into the knock-out stages, you do wonder whether some of the players might have preferred an extended Europa League run to Champions League knock-out participation.


Domagoj Vida
Vida’s red card was not unfortunate, but he must wish he could have his time again. The Croatian stretched for the ball but failed to make contact. Had Lewandowski been one step further on in his run, and in the penalty area, the punishment would have been yellow.


In control of the tie after 45 minutes, left hanging on after 90. Eusebio Di Francesco will insist that Roma’s away goal makes them clear favourites to qualify, but this was still a clumsy night’s work.


Daniel Storey

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