Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 3rd October 2019 12:33

Winners

Frank Lampard
It matters not how you get that dastardly monkey off your back, just that you do. Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham’s combination for the first goal was delightful, while Willian’s deflected winner was fortunate. But N’Golo Kante could have tapped one in off his hard-working arse and Lampard would have justifiably rejoiced.

It is another small step forward in a recent series. Beating France’s second-best team 2-1, Brighton 2-0 and Grimsby 7-1 are not career-defining, earth-shattering results on their own; they are encouraging chapters in a much longer story.

For Chelsea, these are three consecutive wins for the first time since early April. For Lampard, that wait somehow stretches all the way back to September 2018. And the absolute greatest managers in the history of the game will tell you that victories are self-fulfilling. They breed a certain mentality and character that positive performances without reward simply cannot.

The signs are that it is all coming together. Tomori has been a revelation at centre-half, while Reece James impressed on his European debut. Abraham scored but Willian was excellent; the conversation should not only be about the youngsters excelling in this new-look side, but of a potentially excellent team balancing youth and experience.

 

Club Brugge
How many other former Coventry midfielders have earned a Champions League point in the Bernabeu as a manager? No, really. I’m genuinely interested. Answers on a postcard.

Imagine if Pep Guardiola had taken over Liverpool in the summer, or Niko Kovac being parachuted into Borussia Dortmund. Philippe Clement guided Genk to the Belgian league championship in May and left for runners-up Club Brugge by July, tasked with normalising a service he himself disrupted.

It has started well: they are unbeaten after eight league games, winning six, drawing two and conceding just three goals. The addition of Simons Mignolet and Deli as well as Shakhtar loanee Eduard Sobol has helped solidify a defence that supplements Brighton forward Percy Tau and record signing David Okereke.

But this was the sort of result that defines and legitimises their improvement. For all Real Madrid’s foibles, they remain a superpower in a completely different financial realm to comparative Belgian minnows. Brugge bridged that gap through relatively fortuitous goals but also diligence and professionalism. Being disappointed with a draw away at Real Madrid is proof of their development.

 

Serge Gnabry
Not good enough for Tony Pulis
. Too good for Tottenham.

 

Bayern Munich
The last couple of teething seasons were the exceptions to a rule of Bayern Munich: perennial Champions League semi-finalists. They have the individual brilliance to complement an efficient, well-rounded team once more.

 

Achraf Hakimi
No-one is supposed to thrive after floundering at Real Madrid. Achraf Hakimi would be forgiven for taking plenty of pride in scoring as many Champions League goals against Slavia Prague on Wednesday as his former club all season.

Hakimi is credited as the first Moroccan to win the competition, but he himself would hardly describe it as an achievement. Zinedine Zidane gave the right-back two starts in their 2017/18 success, both against Tottenham and neither ending in victories. He was not part of the squad that beat Liverpool in the final, nor did he feature often in La Liga.

Zidane has his favourites, and Hakimi absolutely was not one of them. Dani Carvajal was understandably not for replacing. So, still a teenager, he took the remarkably brave step of seeking what was at first temporary solace in Germany, with his initial loan move soon made permanent.

It is that sort of hidden gem-hunting that Dortmund pride themselves on, and Hakimi shone in midweek. His two goals were pieces of counter-attacking beauty, the first featuring an almost full-pitch sprint with sumptuous skill and picturesque finish, and the second as clinical as they come. Both were scored within 15 seconds of Slavia losing the ball. Neither would have been possible without such rampaging brilliance from right-back.

 

Red Star at home
Before Vladan Milojevic was appointed manager of Red Star Belgrade in June 2017, the former European Cup winners had never competed in a Champions League group stage. The closest they came was in 2000, losing to Dynamo Kiev on away goals in the third qualifying round, and slipping into the UEFA Cup where they beat Leicester. Oh, those halcyon days.

Times have changed. Milokevic hardly timed his arrival impeccably, joining the Serbian League’s runners-up behind Partizan Belgrade. But a journey to the Europa League last 32 – navigating a group containing semi-finalists Arsenal – in his first season pointed to a time of new-found prosperity.

Their win over Olympiacos was far from convincing. The visitors took the lead through Ruben Semedo in the 37th minute and held it until the 62nd, with Yassine Benzia’s dismissal just before the hour proving fatal. A 3-1 win leaves them nestled below Bayern Munich in Group B, two points clear of a Tottenham side that have conceded more than twice as many goals.

It is another tick on Milojevic’s report card, and the latest example of his home comforts. Since he took over, Red Star have played 20 European games at the Rajko Mitic Stadium, scoring 29 goals and conceding just 12. They have won more than half (11), beating Liverpool, drawing with Napoli and Salzburg and losing only to Arsenal and PSG.

It might be enough to advance; it probably won’t be. But third place and progress to the Europa League has become a solid bare minimum. Draw in Greece and fate is in their own hands.

 

Marko Marin
Playing Champions League football, assisting two goals, creating seven chances and captaining his current club to a win against his former employers. Stop comparing him to Christian Pulisic and put some goddamn respect on his name.

 

Shakhtar Donetsk away
The pedants among us might justifiably suggest that ‘Shakhtar Donetsk away’ is something of a contradiction. After moving their operations to Lviv – almost 800 miles away from their home city – due to the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014, their 2017 switch to Kharkiv, only 188 miles or so from Donetsk, felt like something of a triumphant homecoming. For a club whose office headquarters and training facilities are located in Kiev, a short 461-mile trip, they are more used to being uprooted than a fidgety tree.

But the point stands: Shakhtar’s form in away games across Europe is underwhelming, particularly for a club rather accustomed to this stage. They have reached the Champions League group stage 14 times since 2000, beating only Benfica in 2007, Basel and an already qualified Barcelona in 2008, Braga and Partizan in 2010, APOEL in 2011, Nordsjælland in 2012, Real Sociedad in 2013, BATE in 2014, Feyenoord in 2017 and Hoffenheim in 2018. Their 11 wins and 49 goals scored away from home in the group stage is counteracted by 23 defeats and 82 conceded, much as their solitary knockout win at Roma in 2011 pales in comparison to heavy last-16 and quarter-final losses at Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.

It seems harsh; Shakhtar can and likely will never expect to compete with such luminaries. But progressing from the groups just four times leaves vast room for improvement. So beating Atalanta, third in Serie A with much expected of them this season, is more of a scalp than it seems. It is not often Luis Castro’s side can extol the virtues of experience on this stage; coming from behind to win away in second-half stoppage-time is huge in the grand scheme of Group C.

 

Liverpool
That will do. Just barely.

 

The Salzburg conveyor belt
Some teams take a certain pride in being something of a selling club. In Erling Braut Haaland, Hwang Hee-chan and Takumi Minamino in particular, Salzburg could cash in to fund a Derby team-building night out and have change left over.

 

Raheem Sterling
Never doubt his importance to the current Champions League favourites. A goal and an assist in 34 minutes after coming on at 0-0 ain’t bad going.

 

Joao Cancelo
He did a non-League Cup start! Now to either play more than a minute or be introduced before Manchester City are leading 6-0 in the Premier League.

 

PSG
Have they finally found the formula for success? Their lead atop Ligue Un is a minuscule two points, with their Champions League campaign including a thrashing of Real Madrid and a win away at Galatasaray. Being a bit more sh*t domestically to improve in Europe is a novel approach, but it clearly works and there is literally no other explanation for it so shut up.

 

Mauro Icardi
A third goal from open play since December. It’s enough to make you think he’s worth all the hassle.

 

Diego Simeone

Just bloody look at that (and ignore how it’s actually a grossly inefficient use of collective energy levels).

 

Ajax
For those who still suggest the Champions League group stage is a boring, pointless slog, only four teams have retained a perfect record after just two games. PSG, Bayern Munich and Manchester City might expect to keep such company, but even Ajax won’t have been carried away by their exploits last season.

If an unbeaten group stage last season was the precursor to an unexpectedly brilliant run to the semi-final – and they should have lasted even further – then what does two wins from two suggest? Dispatching an admittedly distracted Valencia in Spain by the same scoreline that Lille were beaten by in Amsterdam should not be overlooked.

They are unbeaten in the Eredivisie since March, have masked the departures of Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie De Jong, Kasper Dolberg, Daley Sinkgraven and Lasse Schone with the arrivals of Edson Alvarez, Razvan Marin, Lisandro Martinez and Quincy Promes and promotion of promising youth Sergino Dest. As with 2018/19, underestimate Ajax at your peril.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo
He’ll be annoyed if I don’t mention him edging past Iker Casillas for the most wins in Champions League history (102), or equalling Raul for most different opponents scored against (33).

The infernal debate concerning him and Lionel Messi will rage on long after earth has met its impending doom through asteroids, climate crises, World Wars or our vegan sausage roll overlords, but the Portuguese has no equal in this competition. When it comes to the Champions League, it’s not even particularly close as to who reigns supreme.

 

Lionel Messi
He’s still f**king good, mind. When Barcelona needed to be dragged from a potentially ruinous scenario in Group F, their captain – and Luis Suarez, to be fair – shouldered responsibility and made it look damn easy.

“I am still getting started,” he said after breaking Kwadwo Asamoah’s ankles and spirit. “This the first time that I have completed 90 minutes. As the season goes on I will gradually let loose.”

Jesus.

 

Losers

Tottenham
Even we, with our pro-Tottenham agenda, can see that their final curtain is approaching.

 

Tottenham, and the need for a hard reset
The contracts of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen expire at the end of the season. Those of Eric Dier, Danny Rose and Victor Wanyama run out in 2021. Hugo Lloris, Erik Lamela and Serge Aurier are among those who are scheduled to follow in 2022.

Of the players above, only two or, at most, three should play a part in Tottenham’s long-term future. Their service has varied from Aurier to awesome over the last few years, but time has taken its toll and familiarity has bred contempt.

Any other club would use this chance to refresh and reset, to rip it all up and start again. Either promise Pochettino the funds and backing to oversee a new cycle, or be brave enough to take that step now before they are forcibly pushed back into the Europa League abyss. Or worse.

 

Atalanta
It was supposed to be different. Atalanta’s distinct lack of Champions League experience was seen as more of a positive than a negative, with Gian Piero Gasperini’s side not dragged down by expectations or restricted by fear. When the draw was made, Pep Guardiola admitted that he “didn’t see a single match” of theirs in a season which saw them draw twice with Juventus and beat Napoli away en-route to finishing third. That they were an unknown quantity would surely be their most potent weapon.

The Dinamo Zagreb defeat, heavy as it was, could be excused by nerves. The same cannot be said for a 2-1 loss to Shakhtar that was born more from a lack of concentration than anything else. To leave yourselves in a two-versus-two defending situation against fresh substitutes in Dodo and Manor Solomon is cripplingly naive. Robin Gosens’ desperate but forlorn stretch to try and intercept the pass was compounded by Timothy Castagne’s flailing attempted tackle and Pierluigi Gollini’s subsequent indecision.

As admirable as such open, expansive football is, there is a time and a place. Atalanta could and should have settled for a point to get off the mark and provide a platform from which they could build. It seems obvious in hindsight, of course, but it still applies. A double header with Manchester City now awaits; Guardiola will like what he has finally seen.

 

Those lucky fourth-placers
La Liga, the Premier League and Serie A are the only countries fortunate enough to possess four Champions League places. Between them, Valencia, Tottenham and Inter Milan’s record reads: P6 W1 D2 L3 F7 A15. You can see why there is a clamour for the champions of less illustrious leagues to at least be given the chance to similarly struggle without needing to progress through an increasingly difficult qualification stage.

 

Antonio Conte
After draws in the first two games, the Champions League’s official 2019/20 Group of Death has been given life by two landscape-altering wins. Barcelona and Dortmund have three-point advantages over third and fourth that Inter might think should belong to them.

After Nicolo Barella’s stoppage-time equaliser against Slavia Prague, Lautaro Martinez’s third-minute opener at Barcelona was a welcome surprise. There was the foothold, the platform they needed to express themselves.

The comfort they showed under pressure at the Nou Camp was startling. And Antonio Conte was on course for the sort of result that would have instantly restored a reputation that was quite unfairly tarnished at Chelsea. A Premier League and FA Cup in two seasons should not erase his hard work in re-establishing a Juventus stranglehold he is now looking to weaken.

It is impossible to account for a talent such as Lionel Messi, of course. But Conte was too late to react to the similarly game-changing introduction of Arturo Vidal, and let first three unexpected points and then one crucial one slip through his fingers.

The first defeat of his reign would not look so damaging if Slavia had been beaten at home a fortnight ago. In isolation, a 2-1 defeat at Barcelona is far from damaging. Context tells us it could have been the moment Inter lost control of this group.

 

Alexis Sanchez
The Chilean’s Inter Milan career thus far includes four appearances, three red or yellow cards and two goals or assists. But at least he’s in love again.

 

RB Leipzig
One step forward is, as ever, soon accompanied by two or three back in Europe. Leipzig’s Champions League results in order across this season and their first in 2017/18 is draw, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Their kingdom for some consistency.

 

Napoli
A point, but a wasted opportunity to stamp their authority and strengthen their grip on Group E. Now for a pair of 6-6 draws against Salzburg.

 

Virgil van Dijk
Sh*te.

 

Real Madrid
To reiterate
: This is the first time in the history of Champions League group stages – first or second – that Real have had as little as one point from their opening two games. Zidane out.

 

Thibaut Courtois
Since Thibaut Courtois joined Real Madrid in summer 2018, he has kept fewer clean sheets (12) in more games (43) in all competitions than Vicente Guaita has managed at Crystal Palace (13 in 31). And the latter has never been substituted at half-time of a Champions League game after letting in two goals against Club Brugge.

It’s not gone well.

 

Benfica
Bela Guttmann holds a bloody grudge, doesn’t he?

 

Matt Stead

 

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