Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 5th April 2018 11:15 - Matthew Stead

Winners

Trent Alexander-Arnold
Liverpool’s starting XI cost £250.5million; Manchester City spent £376.5m on theirs. And yet the best player on the pitch at Anfield on Wednesday evening was not only the youngest, but the cheapest too.

Trent-Alexander Arnold might as well have arrived at the stadium with a target on his back. High-profile mistakes in successive games against Manchester United and Crystal Palace virtually assured that he would be the focus of City’s gameplan, that the best team in England would look to isolate him for 90 minutes. For Marcus Rashford and Wilfried Zaha, read Leroy Sane.

The issue with that tactic was two-fold. Gabriel Jesus does not provide the same inherent physical and aerial threat as either Romelu Lukaku or Christian Benteke, and Alexander-Arnold met the challenge head-on at full sprint. As noted in 16 Conclusions, he was faultless.

The mental strength required to not only withstand that pressure but thrive in it should not be underestimated. This is Alexander-Arnold’s first full season of professional first-team football, a 19-year-old expected to learn on the job in the deep stages of European competition. He braved the waters when most would have drowned under the expectation.

As the youngest English player to ever start in a Champions League quarter-final, the boy from West Derby already had reason enough to be proud. A potentially career-defining performance against all odds was simply the icing on the cake.

 

Jurgen Klopp
When the Liverpool manager promised both “tactics” and “fire”, few doubted their chances of seeing the latter. The delicate combination of a fabled ‘magical European night at Anfield’, Klopp’s infamous ‘heavy metal’ approach and a group of supporters seeing their side in a Champions League quarter-final for the first time since 2009 guaranteed fireworks, both literal and metaphorical.

As ever with the German, the caricature he curates masks a talented tactician. Klopp is an emotional coach who wears his heart on his sleeve and bears his whitened teeth as he kicks and heads every ball on the touchline, but behind the goofy smile and floppy hair is a man capable of outwitting the very best.

For every mistake Pep Guardiola made, Klopp ruthlessly exploited it. The Spaniard tried to congest the midfield to gain control, but that created a complacency and carelessness in possession. Kyle Walker was trusted to monitor the entire right flank, and the hosts exploited the inevitable gaps. Aymeric Laporte was brought in to provide defensive stability, but his lack of contribution in attack meant Liverpool could simply double up on his side. Liverpool’s energy perfectly juxtaposed City’s lethargy, and the hosts were lethal on the counter-attack.

With a 3-0 lead at half-time, the dynamic had changed and so too had Liverpool’s approach. Even when Mohamed Salah was substituted eight minutes into the second half, and any attacking impetus removed with him, Liverpool stood firm. City’s failure to register a single shot on target in a game for the first time since October 2016 was as much down to their own inefficiencies as it was Liverpool’s staunch, determined defending. This was a match of two halves, demanding first chaos then calm, and Klopp helped Liverpool win both.

“You cannot win without tactics, but emotions make the difference,” the German once said during his time at Dortmund. This was a perfect example of that blend.

 

James Milner
Has seven assists in the Champions League this season. Neymar (8, 2016/17) is the only player to ever register more in a single campaign. How boring.

 

Dejan Lovren
Managed to not sh*t himself despite conducting an interview responding to his critics in the build-up to a crucial match. The curse is lifted.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo

‘Written him off a little, hadn’t we? We saw Ronaldo had only scored twice in the Champions League this season and understandably assumed that, at 32, the talent was on the wane.’

Take last season’s edition of Champions League winners and losers from the first leg of the quarter-finals, replace ‘only scored twice in the Champions League this season’ to ‘only scored twice in his first ten La Liga games this season’, scribble out the number 32 and scrawl a 33 next to it, and the above is as true as it was 12 months ago. Cristiano Ronaldo has already proved to have more party tricks than most to have ever played the game, yet he continues to leave mouths agape and crowds wowed.

The statistics truly are ridiculous. In his first 24 club games in all competitions this season, Ronaldo scored 16 goals and assisted a further three. From August to January 13, he failed to score or assist in nine fixtures. In his subsequent 12 games, he has scored 23 goals and assisted a further five. From January 14 onwards, he has failed to score or assist in one fixture.

Ronaldo’s route to goalscoring greatness might have changed from sustained dominance to bursts of brilliance, but the destination remains the same. He is targeting his sixth Champions League final; Paolo Maldini is the only other player to have appeared in as many.

 

Isco
Our early winner
, for earning Zinedine Zidane’s trust, but also for completing all 54 of his passes. The last player to register a 100% passing accuracy in a Champions League game was Xavi in April 2014. That’s not bad company to keep.

 

Jupp Heynckes
Forty different managers have won the European Cup or Champions League. An extensive list neatly bookended by José Villalonga’s back-to-back victories as Real Madrid boss in 1956 and 1957 and Zinedine Zidane’s consecutive successes in 2016 and 2017 includes such luminaries as Bob Paisley, Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough, Arrigo Sacchi, Rinus Michels and Carlo Ancelotti. It is a who’s who of managerial masters over the years.

Jupp Heynckes might be the most underrated of all. Forty different managers might have lifted the famous trophy, but only one has ever won 12 successive games in the competition. Arsenal were the last team to beat a Heynckes-led team in the Champions League, all the way back in March 2013. In the subsequent five years, no-one has even been able to hold the German to a draw.

Not that Bayern were irresistible against Sevilla. Three days removed from their ruthless dismantling of Borussia Dortmund, the Bundesliga champions-elect stuttered in Spain, falling behind to Pablo Sarabia’s strike. They only went into half-time level thanks to a fortunate own goal from Jesús Navas.

“Jupp Heynckes wasn’t happy at half-time, nor were we,” noted Thomas Muller, revitalised since the manager’s return in October. “The coach addressed that at half-time,” said Franck Ribery – whose cross Navas converted – of Bayern’s disjointed attack. The 72-year-old may exude calm and patience on the touchline, but the respect and veneration he demands from his players in the dressing room is obvious.

Having witnessed his players fail to assume control of the first leg, Heynckes managed the situation. His two substitutes, James Rodriguez and Rafinha, provided more stability and a greater command of possession. They had ten shots in the second half, compared to four in the first.

Many managers would have been content with an away draw, hopeful that home advantage in the second leg would prove decisive. Perhaps Heynckes had the fate of Sevilla’s opponents in the last 16 in mind. From a position of potential disaster, he has Bayern on the brink of the final four.

 

James Rodriguez
To replace Arturo Vidal in the Bayern Munich midfield is a thankless task, never mind midway through a match in which you are a goal down. The Chilean is not as powerful and authoritative as he once was, but there are few better at combining attacking purpose with defensive necessity.

Yet Vidal was utterly ineffective against Sevilla. The game largely passed him by as the hosts crowded the midfield, rendering a player who plays box-to-box useless. There was no space to exploit, no vacant areas to run into. He was a peripheral figure.

His injury was a blessing in disguise, providing Bayern with an opportunity to change their approach and counteract Sevilla’s. James Rodriguez was introduced in the 36th minute, and burst forward to play in Ribery for Bayern’s equaliser in the 37th.

The misconception with Rodriguez is that he is a luxury player, but his discipline helped free Thiago to attack and Javi Martinez to sit in front of the back four. Rodriguez could then bring more variety to Bayern’s forward play, threading through the smallest cracks in a defence that Vidal had failed to break down with brute force.

“We made many mistakes in our build-up play, we often lost possession, we weren’t well-structured in defence and especially in midfield,” Heynckes said of Bayern’s opening half-hour, adding that “both of our substitutes reinvigorated us”. There are better sides left in the competition, but as Rodriguez’s presence on the bench proves, there are few better squads.

 

Nélson Semedo
Has not lost a match he has started at club level since March 8 of last year – a run stretching back 30 games. Has won his last two games for Barcelona by scores of 6-1 and 4-1. He has cemented himself as the club’s first-choice right-back despite injury. When Barcelona needed foundation for victory, they built upon Nelson’s column.

 

Sevilla
Hands up who saw the draw for the quarter-finals and expected Sevilla v Bayern Munich to be the only close tie heading into the second leg?

 

Losers

Pep Guardiola

‘”Lads, we all have experience of this kind of game. We’ve all played in Champions League knockout rounds and you know what they’re like and what they mean. You know how intense they are. Intense, complicated, aggressive and dangerous. I’m going to give you some very precise instructions.”

‘Pep stops for a moment. It’s a theatrical pause. ‘This is what I want: for the first 10 or 12 minutes I want you to kill the game, and shatter Arsenal’s confidence in the process. They’ll come out all guns blazing, ready to attack. I want you to kill the game dead. Keep passing the ball. For once, I want you to do exactly what I hate most, the thing I’ve told you is total shit. Tiquitaca.’

The above excerpt, from Martí Perarnau’s excellent Pep Confidential: Inside Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich, remains relevant to this day. The Spaniard built his approach to Bayern Munich’s Champions League last-16 first leg at Arsenal in February 2014 around “killing the game” in the first ten minutes. This would be done not by attacking in waves or by committing crunching tackles, but by quenching any potential uprising through sterile domination. The end result was a 2-0 victory, both goals scored in the second half after any potential sting was taken out of Arsenal’s tail.

Guardiola attempted to deploy the exact same tactic on Wednesday, four years on. Manchester City attempted 70 passes in the first ten minutes at Anfield, exactly double the number of Liverpool. He knew the hosts would “come out all guns blazing, ready to attack”. He hoped to “shatter their confidence”, to “kill the game dead”, to “keep passing the ball”.

He wanted his players to “do exactly what I hate most”, and thus he brought about City’s downfall. Eighteen points separate these two sides in the Premier League, but Guardiola levelled the playing field himself by trying to negate Liverpool’s strengths instead of accentuating those of his own players. That was his first mistake of many on a chastening evening.

 

Pep Guardiola’s blind spot
You can, should and absolutely will read more on the game in 16 Conclusions, but City’s defeat might not have surprised those familiar with Guardiola’s record in Europe. His record from 23 away Champions League knockout ties reads: P23 W5 D10 L8 F27 A31.

Since the aforementioned 2-0 win over Arsenal in February 2014, Guardiola has drawn with Manchester United, lost to Real Madrid, drawn with Shakhtar Donetsk, lost to Porto, lost to Barcelona, drawn with Juventus, drawn with Benfica, lost to Atletico Madrid, lost to Monaco and now lost to Liverpool. The victory over Basel in February is his only away win in a Champions League knock-out tie in the last four years.

 

Ilkay Gundogan
Correlation does not imply causation, and it could well be just a statistical quirk, but only one player has started all four games in which Manchester City have failed to score this season. Guardiola made one change to his starting line-up against Liverpool, but altered his entire system to bring in Ilkay Gundogan for Raheem Sterling. The gamble backfired, and there is likely to be only one victim out of the German, Fernandinho, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva.

 

Juventus and ‘experience’
“It’s the history of Tottenham,” said Giorgio Chiellini last month, treating north London’s finest to a lesson in “experience”. Juventus, Champions League runners-up in two of the last three seasons, had suffered more than a scare against Tottenham, but the Old Lady relied on their nous to carry them through.

It is a tactic that will work when bullying the younger kids, but when asked to pick on someone their own size, they will often give the stolen lunch money back to their victims and apologise profusely. It’s the history of Juventus, you see.

Tuesday’s first leg in Turin pitted the side that has won the competition the most times (12) against the team that has lost the most finals (7). And just as when the two sides met in June, one rose to the occasion while the other retreated. The sight and sound of the Juventus Stadium applauding Cristiano Ronaldo’s overhead kick was instructive: it was born of envy as much as anything.

 

Paulo Dybala
In the 12th minute of the 2017 Champions League final, Paulo Dybala was booked. Eight minutes later, he watched on as Dani Carvajal assisted a Cristiano Ronaldo goal. The 24-year-old had one shot in that game, and failed to create a single chance before he was substituted in the 77th minute.

A meeting with the same opponent ten months later was the belated opportunity for retribution, but Dybala fluffed his lines. He had four shots – none of which were on target – and created two chances, but was booked for diving and was sent off minutes before Real’s crucial second goal.

Our early loser disappeared in June’s final; he was clearly visible on Tuesday, but equally encumbering.

 

Alisson
In the battle between Lionel Messi and ‘the Messi of goalkeepers’, there was only ever likely to be one winner. On an evening where Liverpool had no difficulties in keeping a clean sheet against one of the best teams in Europe, their supposed target to replace Loris Karius conceded four times under the Nou Camp lights.

That is no crime, but Alisson will know he should have done better. The Brazilian was not at fault for either of the own goals, but his mistake in palming a tame effort out to the feet of Gerard Pique ended the tie as a contest. It was a harsh but necessary lesson for a keeper playing in only his ninth Champions League game.

 

Roma
“They are already good on their own, they don’t need help,” said head coach Eusebio Di Francesco after a match in which Roma more than held their own, were arguably the better team for the first 30 minutes, had 12 shots yet lost 4-1. They stood toe to toe with Barcelona before shooting themselves in the foot.

 

Matt Stead

 

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