Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 19th September 2019 10:41

Winners

Manchester City
Another 3-0 win in Kharkiv, but this was a far more important victory than a year ago. City did not play with any great style, or at least only did so in short bursts, but what mattered is that they showed their teeth.

People like it when City lose and, back home, the defeat to Norwich is still a punchline. The schadenfreude has evidently tweaked Pep Guardiola, too, and he was irritated enough to call back to the media’s heckling of him during his first season. A little strange; it has been more than three years.

But that just underlines how important this was. To get off to a good start in the Champions League, of course, because that’s always useful, but also to change the conversation. With that in mind, this was precisely the right moment for City to effortlessly dominate a side on their own pitch and remind everyone of their power.

And what a terrific performance from Fernandinho. Yes, Guardiola can afford to be a bit experimental with his centre-backs, but don’t underestimate the challenge of occupying an unfamiliar position at this level of the game.

 

Valencia
Our early winners. despite the chaos.

 

Erling Haaland
How much fun was that to watch? Haaland had scored three hat-tricks in the Austrian Bundesliga already this season, but for most of us this was a first glimpse. He’s a spectacle, in the true, ‘who the f**k is that?’ sense? By all accounts he possesses a slightly alternative personality away from the game (Google the story about the Champions League anthem) and he seems very off-beat in front of the press. On the pitch, though, he plays like a PG monster from a child’s nightmare.

He shouldn’t be able to move like that. Does that make sense? He’s too big, he’s too square and he has that ever-so-slightly crouched posture when runs which makes it looks like he’s swimming. So: a vast body with disproportionate limbs and a big, friendly looking face. If he was chasing you, you’d definitely run away.

Soon, he’ll take up residence in the gossip columns. He’ll be seized by the have-a-go analysts and lavished by the kind of hyperbole that will make it impossible for him to surprise us ever again. For now, though, he’s just a big, goofy teenager doing amazing things at the summit of the game.

And he also looks like he could eat Roy Keane for breakfast, which his dad probably doesn’t hate.

 

Jesse Marsch
The only shame of Haaland’s hat-trick was that it overshadowed his manager’s own accomplishment. On Tuesday night, Jesse Marsch became the first American to coach a team in the Champions League. By half-time, after a staggering 45 minutes and with a 5-1 lead, he knew he was about to become the first American to win in the Champions League too.

It’s quite a story. Five years ago, Marsch was coaching at Princeton University, and even then just as an assistant. He did spend three years in charge of the New York Red Bulls and, obviously, has benefited from the club’s network and pathways, but this has still been jet-powered rise. And a challenge, too. When he was appointed by Salzburg, the home fans hung a banner behind one of the goals in protest. A couple of months later, his team have won their first seven league games of the season, a division record, and currently boast a goal-difference of +28.

Add six more goals and three Champions League to that growing CV.

 

Mats Hummels
What a performance. That Barcelona forward line obviously isn’t what it was, but Hummels was outstanding in that goalless draw and clearly the game’s best player.

Which might be of interest to Jogi Loew, who forcefully retired Hummels from international duty at the age of just 30. You suspect that it wasn’t an entirely sporting decision, because Hummels is no wallflower, but it doesn’t look like a particularly smart one, either – particularly given how poorly Germany defended in that recent lost to Holland.

It’s not just that Hummels remains an excellent player, it’s that he comprises the balance of attributes that Loew seems to need at the centre of his defence. On this evidence, none of those abilities are on the wane yet.

 

Adrian
Just for his save, because if he never makes another appearance in the Champions League, which he probably won’t, then that’s quite a memory to take away.

It was fortuitous, because when a cross is hung up to the back post like that, there’s only so much a goalkeeper can do. The coaching instruction is presumably for him to just put himself in position to hopefully be hit by the ball – the Schmeichel starfish technique, for instance, which was actually a very passive position.

But this wasn’t just that; Adrian wasn’t just hit by the ball. Dries Merten’s technique was perfect; it was a really well-struck shot and, no matter how many times you watch, it still seems unlikely that – 1) Adrian will be able to hang in the air long enough to make the save and 2) have the necessary finger strength to gain proper purchase on the ball.

Let’s not rank it. Who cares how it measures against other excellent saves? This was just brilliant, brilliant goalkeeping.

 

Losers

Tottenham
Back to where they were, then, because everything that was good about Spurs at the weekend dissipated during the flight to Greece. They played with no pace, no accuracy or control and, most concerningly, without any authority over the game even after finding themselves two goals ahead.

That’s one of the anomalies about Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino. No matter how long this group stays together and what they experience, they never seem to acquire the ability to properly protect leads. Sometimes that can be excused on account of the opposition or scenario. More often, though, it can be traced back to inexplicable errors which, really, have no justification.

As they didn’t on Wednesday, when Christian Eriksen’s cheap turnover and Jan Vertonghen’s rash challenge allowed Mathieu Valbuena to equalise from the penalty spot.

Just calling it ‘Spursy’ is irritating, because it implies that the players have no responsibility and that, ultimately, the club’s flawed DNA can always just be used as an excuse. It’s not a curse, it’s just rubbish defending and Tottenham are guilty of it far too often.

“It’s not about tactics or quality players but the level of fight. You need to match the opponent in aggressivity, excitement, motivation. That is the first demand – you need to work. It’s not only the responsibility of one person; it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

Mauricio Pochettino is correct in his diagnosis, but so what? Five years in and his team are still kicking themselves in the balls on a semi-regular basis. This is why they haven’t won anything. It’s not the absence of some elusive fortitude, it’s because – for all their very real, very substantial improvements – they remain a fundamentally sloppy football team, prone to wavering concentration and poor decisions. They can still be brilliant to watch and their fans rightly love them for that, but how precise are they? How much detail lies behind Pochettino’s approach?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions, it’s genuinely difficult to know the answers.

Let’s not lose sight of a bigger picture: it wasn’t important that Tottenham won in Greece, it was just essential that they didn’t lose. But that not withstanding, this was still a dreadful performance which will have to be their worst of the campaign if they’re to do anything of note in the Champions League this season.

 

Christian Eriksen
And that’s why nobody bought him. He’s regularly (and correctly) identified as the side’s most important component, but he still takes far too many games off to be worth the kind of fee that Daniel Levy was asking for.

It’s not intentional, Eriksen is far from lazy, he just doesn’t possess the mental appetite for the game that very best players all share. He doesn’t have the slightly sociopathic quality that instructs that sort of drive and that’s probably why, unfortunately, he’s prone to making the same mistakes so often.

Think back to the Champions League quarter-final last season and the pass he gave away in the build up to Raheem Sterling’s disallowed goal. How does a player not learn from that kind of mistake? How is that, four months later, he can find himself in a similar situation, leave the ball hopelessly unprotected, and then fail to react properly when it’s stolen from him?

 

Liverpool
No, it shouldn’t have been a penalty but, yes, Liverpool still deserved to lose.

More here on a sloppy first night which has made a simple group much harder than it should have been.

 

Chelsea
There isn’t much point in doing game-by-game analysis of Frank Lampard, because we know he’s still learning and we knew that these kind of games would be a feature of this season. No, the defeat to Valencia wasn’t good, but it didn’t feature any new concerns or present problems with Chelsea that hadn’t already been diagnosed.

One thing though: get those set-pieces sorted. Rodrigo scored from one and Kevin Gameiro might have scored from another. Liverpool aren’t Tony Pulis’s Stoke City,

  

Antonio Conte in Europe
Conte can’t really do European football. Last time we saw him, his Chelsea side were being dumped out of the Champions League by Barcelona at the Round of 16 stage in 2017. True, he was likely preoccupied by that redundancy-baiting sulk at the time, but his Serie A-dominating Juventus side were hardly a European power either, exiting meekly to Bayern Munich in 2013 and, more embarrassingly, in the group stage a year later.

Stranger still, Juventus went all the way to the final the very next year, in Max Allegri’s first season in charge.

So there’s a something here and, as a result, familiarity in seeing Conte’s Inter, who are currently top of Serie A, being outplayed by Slavia Prague. They salvaged a late point through a fortunate deflection, but that flattered a horribly disconnected performance which Slavia didn’t quite have the composure to punish properly.

Conte’s football could never be described as exhilarating. Actually, its greatest virtue is its repetitive nature and percussive attrition, but it’s concerning just how loose Inter were and how far away from his ideals they seem to be. It’s early in his reign, that’s only to fair, but they really were hopeless.

 

Mason Mount
The last time Francis Coquelin played at Stamford Bridge he left humiliated, having been rag-dolled by Eden Hazard. On his return, he was evidently determined to leave more of an impression.

And he did. Whether there was any malice in his first half follow-through on Mason Mount is debatable – almost certainly there wasn’t – but the effect will be that one of the stories of the season will now be placed on pause. At the time of writing it’s not clear how serious the ankle injury is (although a scan has precluded ligament damage), but it was bad enough to see Mount leave the field and, presumably, will cost him a place in the team which faces Liverpool at the weekend.

Urgh. He’s one of the reasons to watch the Premier League at the moment and who wasn’t intrigued by Mount’s first steps in European football?

 

VAR
The sentiment behind Clear & Obvious is right, because nobody wants endless interference or to see tiny parts of the game being refereed. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what makes VAR such a difficult sell. The problem with this ‘high bar’ is that incidents are occurring which should be reversed – the Callejon penalty, Marc-Andre ter Stegen leaving his line – but which invariably aren’t because of that determination not to interfere.

The more that happens, whatever the intention may be, the more antagonistic it will ultimately become.

 

Lyon
The draw with Zenit now makes it eight Champions League games without a win. Stranger still, the last time they did win in the competition was against Manchester City at the Etihad.

Lyon are obviously no longer the club that won eight straight Ligue 1 titles at the beginning of the Millennium. The nature of French football has changed and their place in the domestic and continental hierarchy has been permanently altered. But this is still a team capable of doing more than they are.

Dembele, Depay, Aouar and Tousart may not be Juninho, Benzema and Govou, but it’s not as if they’re without talent.

 

Real Madrid
Big clubs have suffered at Parc des Princes during the group stage before, but this defeat felt more instructive. Not least because it was inflicted by a Paris Saint-Germain side without Neymar and Kylian Mbappe and without the customary reliance on individual power.

They just looked like the better team and, given what PSG represent in the modern game, that’s absolutely damning. But still very fair, because Real are in a terrible muddle and this felt like an accurate portrayal of what they are.

And what is that? A head coach with a very tenuous relationship with a few of his key players. A midfield which now looks tired and imbalanced and improperly weighted with attacking players. And a forward line which, last night at least, was propped up a by a player who the club tried to sell to the Chinese Super League over the summer.

When Zinedine Zidane first resigned, he made an excellent decision. He had his European Cups and a reputation which, because of that success, was very difficult to argue with. What he identified, most likely, was that the squad he’d been managing was reaching the end of its lifespan and that whomever was in charge over the next few years would have to suffer through transition.

And, unfortunately, although turning Florentino Perez down must be difficult, Zidane has stumbled his way back into the situation he did so well to extricate himself from. Remember that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer jumps out of a car which is heading off the edge of a cliff but somehow, inadvertently, rolls back in? Yeah, that.

 

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

 

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