Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 8th November 2018 12:39

Winners

Manchester United, doing it again
If not the best performance of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United tenure, certainly the best result. Comeback victories over Bournemouth and Newcastle United proved that United still had some fighting spirit, but repeating the same trick against Juventus is a great deal more impressive.

“I think Juventus, we started the game a bit in awe, we were off the pace and they were on the front foot but the second half we showed we could give them a game,” said Chris Smalling when asked about where United had gone wrong in the 1-0 defeat in Manchester.

Smalling was merely giving an honest answer to a fairly predictable question, but it was perhaps more revealing than the defender may have realised. During Alex Ferguson’s dynastical reign, Juventus were the European club with whom United had the most intense rivalry.

Between 1996 and 2003, these two giants of their domestic leagues played each other eight times. Juventus won three of the first four, United three of the next four. In many ways, their improved performance against The Old Lady represented United’s improvement from European Cup also-ran to contender.

Now, in Smalling’s mind, Juventus operate on such a different plane to United that one of their longest-serving players felt that the team were in awe of their opposition. There may be nothing that more accurately highlights United’s slide into comparative mediocrity, the wheels greased by the incompetence of the club’s hierarchy.

But a fortnight later, United were no longer in awe. They matched Juventus’ away win. Of course they rode their luck, and could easily have been three or four goals down before Juan Mata’s equaliser. Juventus hit the post in the first half and the bar in the second, while Paulo Dybala, Juan Cuadrado and Miralem Pjanic were all guilty of missing presentable chances to extend a 1-0 lead.

But you see if Jose Mourinho cares, cupping his ear to the Turin crowd at full-time like a wrestling old-timer who uses hate as his fuel. There is no manager who changes quite as much in victory and defeat as Mourinho. In his post-match interview, joking about the Football Association’s farcical appeal over his lack of charge, United’s manager suddenly looked ten years younger.

The mood has not entirely shifted, and could easily lurch again after Sunday’s derby, but Champions League qualification has been virtually secured. Slowly but surely, Mourinho is clawing back his goodwill. Winning in Turin, the site of so many Manchester United memories, can only be good for the soul.

 

Harry Kane
Oh Harry, you little bloody gem.

It has been a difficult start to the season for Kane. He is taking shots in the Premier League at a rate of one every 27 minutes compared to every 17 minutes last campaign, so shots on target are also well down (one per 52 mins vs 41 mins). The suspicion is that he is fatigued, and how could he not be given the workload. But this is Kane – he doesn’t particularly benefit from being rested.

Even a Harry Kane stymied by tiredness can still be Tottenham’s saviour. Tottenham may well still fail to qualify from Group B, Inter’s late equaliser against Barcelona meaning they will probably have to beat both to have a chance of making it through. But in a Wembley littered with empty seats and with storm clouds threatening to form over this season, Kane reversed the headlines. There is still a chance.

It says something about his typical excellence that Kane has now scored ten times in 14 matches this season and yet the focus is on where his form is lacking. He is now the eighth top English goalscorer in Champions League history, and he has played only 14 matches in the competition. Anyone who scores at almost a goal a game at this level deserves only respect. If Kane can somehow manufacture Tottenham’s path past Inter in the final two gameweeks, he might as well be knighted.

 

Mauro Icardi
‘Maurinter’ read the front-page headline on Gazzetta dello Sport on Wednesday morning, a tribute to the importance of Inter’s talisman. If this club is to claw its way back to the top of the summit following a spectacular fall from grace, it is Icardi who will lead them there. If Radja Nainggolan, Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic offer support, Icardi is the one world-class talent Inter currently possess.

The goal record is astounding, both by Serie A standard and considering that Icardi is playing for a club who fought gamely merely to finish in the top four last season. Since August 2017, Icardi has played 46 Serie A and Champions League matches and scored 38 goals. Watch him make a succession of runs without being found, challenge for aerial duels and keep two central defenders busy and you quickly become convinced that Icardi is the perfect central striker. He also has enough passion for Inter’s entire squad to share between them.

At the age of 25, now is the time for Icardi to grace Europe’s biggest stage. If it seemed likely that it might take him leaving Inter to make that a reality, qualification for the knockout stages for the first time since 2012 might persuade him otherwise.

 

Marouane Fellaini
The game turned on its head as soon as he came on, and that’s no coincidence. Fellaini’s threat is as much a latent one as direct. His mere presence on the pitch gives defenders something to think about, and makes them panic. He is Manchester United: hated, adored but never ignored.

 

Atletico Madrid
Heavy defeat in Dortmund means that Atletico are still hoping for a slip-up from their Group A rivals to finish top, but any chance that Club Brugge had of causing an unthinkable shock have evaporated. This was a night to showcase Diego Simeone’s Atletico in their most distilled form: 31% possession that equated to 15 shots and Dortmund failing to even manage a shot on target. There is plenty of life in the old dogs yet.

 

Santiago Solari
Baby steps, but the first steps away from crisis can be the hardest and most important. Real Madrid have won three straight matches against mediocre opposition – at best – in three different competitions, but they have done so by scoring 11 times and not conceding a goal. If this is Solari’s long audition for the job on a full-time basis, he has not yet put a foot wrong.

 

Roma
Three consecutive Champions League wins for the first time since 2008, and now one foot and four toes in the knockout stages. I can’t just keep picking Edin Dzeko here every week, so his club will have to do this time.

 

Manchester City’s punishing form
If shock home defeat to Lyon instantly killed Manchester City’s complacency, that was bad news for every team who would have the subsequent misfortune to cross their path. If the 0-0 draw at Anfield was a result of Pep Guardiola’s fear of being counter-attacked to death and Riyad Mahrez’s late missed penalty, it was the only fly in the luxurious ointment. Since Lyon, City have scored 33 goals in 11 matches and conceded only twice.

This was proof too that Guardiola was not fibbing when he insisted that the off-field allegations against City would cause no distractions to the team on the pitch. While a PR storm engulfs the Etihad, Guardiola is far too smart to create an excuse for underperformance. Not with a Manchester derby on Sunday afternoon.

 

Club Brugge
A first Champions League group-stage win since 2005, achieved in the style that befitted their glitzy surroundings. Having won the league in his first full season in charge, Ivan Leko is making a name for himself in Europe and has surely earned his club an unlikely post-Christmas European campaign. Just pray those investigations into money laundering and match-fixing don’t turn up anything unpleasant.

 

Harry Winks
104 touches, a passing accuracy of 91% and four tackles in central midfield are all lovely things, but on Tuesday evening Winks created seven chances. Only four times has that been bettered in a Champions League game since the start of last season. Stay free from injury and he really can be a bloody star.

 

Schalke
No club in the Champions League has a better defensive record than the team who sit 14th in the Bundesliga. If a lack of goals is killing Schalke’s domestic form, four in four games has been plenty enough in Europe. Barring a disaster, they will be playing knockout Champions League football for the first time in four years.

 

Napoli
They knew that matching Liverpool’s result was the only way to make qualification more likely than not, and they ended up bettering it. More impressive was their total of 20 shots and the manner in which Paris Saint-Germain were put under considerable pressure. Carlo ‘the eyebrow’ Ancelotti can mastermind something special here; Liverpool beware.

 

Losers

Thierry Henry and Monaco
Everything is crumbling
. Monaco may play in surroundings where everything drips in gold, but this a club where the shiny surface has been scratched away to reveal something dull and uninspiring.

On Tuesday evening, Monaco were humbled 4-0 at home to Club Brugge. It was a disastrous result that leaves them likely to exit European competition entirely in December. But even that pales into insignificance against the backdrop of Monaco’s potentially irreversible decline. They have not won in 15 matches in all competitions, are 19th in Ligue Un, are in the midst of an injury crisis and their billionaire owner has been arrested as part of an investigation into corruption.

For Henry, whose new-manager bounce is nowhere to be seen, a coaching career already looks bleak less than a month after taking over. Having been reportedly given the choice between Aston Villa and Monaco and opting for his former club, the clever option might have been neither. An inexperienced manager needs a solid platform to find his feet. Henry has the opposite. Failure will tarnish his reputation.

As an aside, can someone take Jamie Carragher to one side and tell him to think very carefully about going into coaching? After Gary Neville’s troubles in Valencia and Henry’s Monaco travails, the jump from Sky Sports to elite level management has not proved easy.

 

Liverpool, allowing complacency to creep in
If defeat in Naples should have rid Liverpool of any complacency brought on by the victory over Paris Saint-Germain, Jurgen Klopp’s side did not learn their lessons. Liverpool were embarrassingly dominant during the home fixture against Crvena Zvezda, but allowed any momentum gained to slip away in Belgrade.

Klopp must take his share of the blame. Roberto Firmino, Joe Gomez and Naby Keita were all rested, and Sturridge’s early miss cost Liverpool dear. More importantly than that, Sturridge’s link-up play with the other forwards is far below Firmino’s level. They did create enough chances to warrant victory, but only three of their 22 shots were on target. As the game wore on, Liverpool became desperate and shot from range.

But the team Klopp picked should have been good enough. There was a sloppiness to Liverpool’s attacking and defending that angered their manager. Asked after the game if he could put his fingers on what went awry, Klopp joked that he only had ten fingers. But he was not smiling.

Liverpool are now in serious danger of suffering a self-inflicted demise in the Champions League’s group of death, ludicrous given their win against PSG at Anfield. The likelihood is that four points from two matches will do, but can we trust them to avoid defeat in Paris having lost in Belgrade and Naples? Carlo Ancelotti will be masterminding an Anfield rearguard action.

If serene qualification without being tested can often undermine a team heading into the knockout stages, Liverpool have certainly avoided that fate. Klopp will hammer home to his players that Liverpool’s overperformance last season has made them a target for other clubs. In such circumstances, complacency is a killer.

 

Virgil van Dijk and Alisson
There’s no doubt that an expensive new central defender and goalkeeper have improved Liverpool beyond measure, but this was not the time to suffer a dip at the hands of Milan Pavkov. Van Dijk lost his man for the first goal, and Alisson went with his wrong hand for the second.

 

Paul Pogba
A brilliant result for his team, but a night on which Pogba again laboured in Manchester United’s midfield back at the place he calls “home”. If the Juventus fans who roared his name in appreciation before the game had their way then Pogba would be back in black and white next summer, but the likely reality is that the Frenchman will stay in Manchester. Jose Mourinho cannot trust his club to spend the potential proceeds wisely.

Playing in this stadium did Pogba no favours. It evokes memories of him dominating matches through his presence and persona, even despite his tender years. As Pogba has grown older, that ability has mysteriously disappeared. If the previous accusation was that Manchester United’s formation needed to be built around him, Mourinho has now tried several different combinations. None of them have really worked.

It’s not that Pogba is in desperately poor form, or that he isn’t involved in some of United’s best moments. But we’’e still waiting for him to click on a consistent basis, to the extent that even our expectations of such a magnificent player have dropped to meet his level.

 

Lyon
An unfathomable collapse when on the verge of securing qualification. After an hour in France, Lyon were two goals up against third-placed Hoffenheim and had an extra man on the field following the red card shown to Nuhu Kasim. They were through.

Thirty minutes later, Lyon had conceded twice to a ten-man team including a last-minute equaliser. They are not through just yet.

 

Galatasaray
Four points off the top in the Super Lig after taking two points from their last three matches, and now tumbling out of the Champions League despite comfortable victory in their first game. Galatasaray haven’t even scored in their last three European games.

A more long-term issue is Galatasaray’s miserable away record in the Champions League. The only point they have taken in their last 11 away matches was at Astana of Kazakhstan. In that run they have lost to Porto, Benfica, Anderlecht, FC Copenhagen and now Schalke.

Daniel Storey

 

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