Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 8th March 2018 11:39 - Daniel Storey


Zinedine Zidane
The kind of night that can save a job. With their La Liga season a shambles, it’s hardly any secret that the Champions League represents Zidane’s shot at salvation. To join Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti on three European Cups would be an extraordinary feat, but to do so in his first three seasons as a top-flight manager would make Zidane a managerial pillar of the modern game. And yet still there are doubts about him.

Tuesday was important not just because of the result, but because of Zidane’s integral role in it. Leaving Isco, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale, all with significant successful Champions League experience, on the bench took great courage. Instead, he opted for the pace of Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez and the energy of Casemiro. Those three were arguably Real’s three best players, although Sergio Ramos was magnificent in defence. it was a tactical masterstroke from a coach not renowned for them.

Zidane has been (perhaps unfairly) sold as a lucky manager, one who took on a group of players approaching their peak and with the hunger to finally win the Champions League again and rode that wave. The instant retort is that you make your own luck in sport, and that Zidane has achieved more than anyone thought likely. If they can beat Paris Saint-Germain with relative comfort over two legs, they can beat anyone. Again.


Giorgio Chiellini
The last 20 minutes at Wembley on Wednesday were the highlights of Chiellini’s career condensed. First comes the organisation, the innate ability to know where his defensive colleagues are at any given time that comes only from constant practice and effective communication.

Next comes the strength and stamina. This is a 33-year-old man who could so easily be jaded by the physical demands placed upon him and yet who relishes every tackle and aerial battle as if it were his first. Chiellini feeds off adversity and continuously comes out on top, as if it was his destiny to defend a one-goal lead.

Then come the moments of inspired brilliance, such as getting in front of Harry Kane when Ben Davies’ cross was delivered into the box and diverting the ball away from danger with a lunge and extension of his telescopic leg. If Chiellini always appears where danger is about to occur just in time to thwart it – like a psychic fireman – it is no coincidence. This is his calling.

That is immediately followed by the passion, epitomised by the screams into the face of Gianluigi Buffon. Just two old pros, overcome by joy in keeping the ball away from their goal. The tendency is for children to dream about scoring goals rather than saving them, but Chiellini – and Italy – is different. It is their love for defending that makes it an art form.

Finally, there is the emotion and humanity, Chiellini speaking eloquently in a foreign language about the devastating loss of his friend and colleague Davide Astori. Every great footballer should be a leader, either through personality or example. Chiellini leads Juventus through both.

In those characteristics, we have described the perfect centre-back. Chiellini’s age means that there are now small chips in the marble, but the statue still stands and gleams all the same. He is a monument to Italian defending.


Gonzalo Higuain
Another victim of the extremism within sports coverage in a saturated media market. There is room only for haves and have nots, and the accusation against Higuain is that he isn’t a big-game player. That quickly gets translated to ‘he isn’t an elite striker’.

The reputation reached a head before Juventus’s semi-final first leg against Monaco last season, when Higuain was involved in an altercation with a supporter who was jibing him about his record. Higuain had scored twice in 24 Champions League knock-out games. He promptly scored both goals as Juventus won the first leg 2-0.

“Sometimes you just say, ‘Mum, I don’t want you to keep suffering.'” said Higuain on the issue of considering international retirement due to the criticism he receives. It’s a vicious cycle: miss a chance, receive criticism and abuse, suffer from a lapse of confidence, miss more chances.

So it’s hard not to be chuffed for Higuain, a man whose apparent failure equates to four league titles, six other domestic trophies, being the scorer of the joint-most goals in a season in Serie A history, being the sixth top scorer in the history of the Argentinean national team, scoring 12 goals at major international tournaments and 22 in the Champions League and managing 74 goals in his last 96 Serie A games. It’s not all bad.

To that list you can now add three goals in two games against Tottenham, making it five his last five knock-out games in the Champions League. If Higuain is a bottler, we should all be happy to have what he’s drinking.


Cristiano Ronaldo
The holder of some truly ridiculous statistics, but the one that means most is Ronaldo’s goalscoring exploits in the latter stages of the Champions League. Since the start of 2011/12, Real Madrid have played 41 knock-out matches in this competition. In those 41 matches, Ronaldo has scored 44 goals BY HIMSELF.


Marco Asensio
Potentially the best bargain signing in Spanish football’s last 20 years, if he continues on this incline. Ronaldo understandably grabbed the headlines for his astonishing goal record, but Asensio used the biggest possible stage to underline why he is going to be a star. The €3.9m Real Madrid paid to Mallorca in 2014 looks a steal.

Asensio was one of the difference-makers in the first leg, helping to transform the tie after his late introduction in Madrid. Zidane trusted him to start in Paris, and he played like an experienced pro. The skill and turn to bamboozle Dani Alves in the build-up to Ronaldo’s goal should be played on loop to any young player worried about trying their full repertoire in big matches.

Asensio is 22, and doesn’t seem to have encountered the concepts of nerves or doubt. He could be David Silva’s heir apparent for Spain.


FC Basel
Finally we have seen how to beat Manchester City at the Etihad: Get humped in the first leg so that Pep Guardiola picks a reserve team. Last night was Guardiola’s fifth defeat in his last 100 home games as a manager.


Jordan Henderson
Little proved against a Porto side who actively played for a 5-0 aggregate defeat in the second leg, but signs in each of his last three matches that Jurgen Klopp has got through to Henderson the necessity to be more adventurous with his passing. The success of Liverpool’s attack, particularly after winning possession, relies on the quick transitions through midfield to the final third. Henderson has as crucial a role in that as anyone.



Unai Emery
First, the sympathy. When Paris Saint-Germain thumped Bayern Munich in the group stage and led Ligue 1 by a streak, the doubts about Emery were evaporating. No manager can account for drawing the defending champions, losing his best player through injury, having another struggling for fitness on the eve of the game and then getting a key player sent off at a key time. Fate transpired against Emery, or so he may insist.

But you know the drill when you are appointed coach of PSG. Winning the domestic title and domestic cup competitions are rightly viewed as expectation rather than ambition, given the financial doping at play. Nasser Al-Khelaifi has eyes only on continental dominance, and Emery knew that. He walked into this challenge, and is handsomely paid for the privilege.

After the defeat to Barcelona last season, Emery was afforded an unexpected stay of execution, a chance to redeem his own reputation within the corridors of power at the Parc des Princes. The club invested more heavily than it had ever done before, and Emery has now been gifted the two most expensive players in the game’s history. They have collapsed – he has collapsed – again.

As Sarah Winterburn wrote in her early loser, Emery’s other crime is that PSG never really looked likely to redress their first-leg deficit. There were irregular moments of individual skill to create chances, but from the moment Ronaldo made it 2-1 in the Bernabeu, PSG looked beaten. Gaining a reputation as a fair-weather manager, incapable of inspiring a response in times of adversity, is no way to impress your employers. It’s particularly disappointing given Emery’s Europa League successes at Sevilla.

Given the platform of investment, excuses were always going to fall on deaf ears this season. Emery was under no illusions that only semi-final participation would save his job. A second successive last-16 exit gives the impression that PSG are going backwards rather than charging forwards, and Emery will pay the price for that failure. The only question is whether Al-Khelaifi moves now, or waits until the summer.


Tottenham’s three minutes of madness
“I feel very proud, we dominated overall against a very good team like Juventus,” said Pochettino after the game. “In the two games we were much better, but at this level the tie went to Juventus in three minutes.

“I’m disappointed of course but the quality of the team was very good. We showed massive maturity. I’m relaxed and happy. I’m still a dreamer. When you compete in the Champions League with these clubs you can win or lose. Football is not a nightmare for me.”

There is strength in Pochettino’s argument. Tottenham were indeed the dominant team for the majority of this two-legged tie. When you compete against European superpowers as a non-financially elite club, you must make the most of that dominance. But that does not mean that defeat must spell disaster.

Tottenham were beaten by Juventus rather than beaten by themselves, but defeat is still defeat. Tottenham were undone by three minutes of madness, a failure to react to Juventus’ quickfire substitutions and the inability to stay close enough to two of Europe’s best strikers. When two excellent teams face each other in a knock-out competition and the match is played on the edge, it can go either way.

Inexperience was at least partly their undoing. No Tottenham starting outfielder has ever won a Champions League knock-out tie. The only member of Juventus’s match-day squad who hadn’t was 20-year-old Uruguayan Rodrigo Bentancur. They were competing on an unequal stage, the only crime making us believe that they could do it. ‘Could’ quickly becomes ‘should’, and so gallant effort is mis-sold as failure.

Nothing will stop the barbs from rival supporters, who believe that Tottenham are unduly praised by the media. Yet they should be taken as compliments, not insults. A team that were 10th in the Premier League in December 2014 have since become the only team to finish in the Premier League’s top three in each of the last two seasons. A team that were eliminated from the group stage last season beat Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund before going toe-to-toe with one of European football’s elite. If that’s a disaster, the average can’t be bad. After the understandable disappointment, time to look on the bright side. This team is at least heading in the right direction. Can the same be said of any other Premier League club in their city?


The luck of the draw
Only those who fall short blame misfortune, and to win the Champions League you have to beat the best. Even so, there will be fans, players and officials of Tottenham and PSG who woke on Wednesday and Thursday morning with a lingering sense of what might have been. Their reward for beating the top two ranked teams in Europe by UEFA’s coefficients and finishing above the top seeds in their group was to draw last season’s finalists in the last 16.

Basel, Sevilla, Shakhtar and Porto were all presents given to other guests at the party. That’s just the way it is.


Harry Kane
I know criticising Kane is equivalent to punching Bambi square on the nose, but with a reputation as the best centre forward in the world comes criticism. It would have been unfair to expect Kane to score the headed chance in stoppage time, but not the opportunity when he had rounded Buffon.

“When you assess the game, I think only Tottenham was better for more than 70 minutes,” Pochettino said after the game. “If Harry scored at the end or we scored twice in the first half, maybe we are talking differently. We conceded three chances and they scored twice. We had a lot of chances and only scored one.” Well if he gets to point it out, so do I.

Kane had 16 shots in four games against Juventus and Real Madrid this season, scoring once. In the Premier League he scores for fun through the sheer number of shots he takes. In the Champions League, when clear-cut chances are fewer and further between, he must find a greater exactness to his finishing. If it sounds like I’m being highly critical, those are the standards by which the best are judged.


Jan Vertonghen
His worst game of the season, at the worst possible time. If the tactical plan was for Ben Davies to push up the pitch and take advantage of Douglas Costa’s lack of tracking back, while Vertonghen covered wide with his history of playing at left-back, it didn’t really work. Douglas Costa was brought down by Vertonghen for a certain first-half penalty, earned the Belgian a yellow card when sliding in on the touchline and gave Tottenham’s best defender this season a fairly torrid evening.


Adam Lallana
Now having to take baby steps along his route back into Liverpool’s team. Jurgen Klopp admitted before the second leg against Porto that Lallana had been rushed back too quickly after injury in the autumn, which was now holding him back. Klopp stressed that Lallana is still key to Liverpool’s first team.

That’s all very well, but it doesn’t feel like it. Lallana has started one Premier League game this season and been on the bench since New Year’s Day. He looked busy enough against Porto, but was picked as a wide left forward rather than in his preferred position on the right of a midfield three. Needless to say Lallana has no chance of usurping Sadio Mane in that role in the Premier League.

Which all leaves Lallana in something of a quandary. England’s Player of the Year in 2016 is now scratching around for club starts 15 months later, through little fault of his own. Such is the pace of Liverpool’s improvement over that period, it rather feels like his club have learned to live and love without him. With a World Cup around the corner, that’s not ideal.


Marco Verratti
At what point do the excuses for Verratti’s lack of progress end? We have been told for the past six years that he has the brightest future of any central midfielder in Europe, but when you’ve reached 25 and people are still using the word ‘potential’, it should be taken as insult rather than compliment. The same applies when your agent is giving interviews to defend your performance.

The positives still outweigh the negatives, but even then the compliments to Verratti are qualified. His rashness in the challenge and tendency to blow hot and cold are traits that we could easily forgive in 2014. By 2018, patience is beginning to wear.


Angel di Maria
Asked to step up and fill the biggest boots in France, Di Maria barely slipped his big toe inside. The Argentinean is a hugely talented player, but another who has established a reputation for hiding when the going gets tough. You don’t win the Champions League with fair-weather players.


Injured when his club needed him most. Neymar can now spend the next two months fending off questions about whether he will join the club that knocked him out of the Champions League for the second season running.


John Stones
In the last eight matches Manchester City have played with Stones starting, they have not kept a single clean sheet and have conceded 13 goals.

In the last eight matches Manchester City have played with Stones not starting, they have kept six clean sheets and have conceded two goals.

There are mitigating factors to that choice statistic, but it’s hardly promising for City or England.


Yaya Toure
Looks so slow that you could put him on fast forward and watch him jog around the pitch. These are the last days of Toure the top-level footballer. Cherish the wonderful memories.


Daniel Storey


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