Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 24th October 2019 10:03

Winners

Raheem Sterling
Goals eight, nine and ten of the season and goal four in Champions League, in a competition in which previously he’s never managed more than five in any one season.

The improvement in his finishing is spoken about often enough, but most commonly in reference to his composure. But while his pulse has very obviously dropped in the penalty box, the range of his finishes has also broadened dramatically and that’s something for which he probably isn’t credited enough.

Sterling has been woven into Manchester City’s fabric by Pep Guardiola and the nature of his goals often reflects that. That team has a patented goal and, more often than not, the last touch is applied by Sterling. But describing him as a system player is reductive and it ignores the growing flair within his goalscoring.

His first and third against Atalanta were standard enough, but his second was so cultured – the shimmy to keep the defender teetering on his heels, the drop of the shoulder to open the angle, the feint to disguise the shot. It’s not quite a private trademark yet, but it is becoming very normal to watch Sterling score goals with proper authority, and that’s probably not something anybody expected a few years ago.

How many players have done that in the past? Not just improved but turned a weakness in their game into an outright strength. It’s actually a very short list.

 

Paolo Dybala
Maurizio Sarri is incredibly fortunate that Dybala’s image rights are such an opaque mess.

More on him here.

 

Harry Kane
Tottenham’s win wasn’t inconsequential, but Red Star were poor enough to make it routine. It was important, they needed it, but its real value was in its component performances – and chief amongst those was Kane’s captain’s knock. A defiant, mood-setting effort from within the role he usually performs for England.

That’s Kane at his best, when he plays that position between 9 and 10 – the nine-and-a-half who finishes like an orthodox centre-forward (see goals one and five), but who has the craft to engineer attacking moves. His role in Erik Lamela’s goal, for instance, when he stole the ball in the Red Star half and then cut it between centre-half and full-back for Serge Aurier to run onto, was the real assist in that move.

And that’s what Kane is. At least, that’s what he’s allowed to be when he’s in form and Spurs are working as they should. It’s a long way back for this side – who knows if there really is a way back? –  but Tuesday did at least provide an interruption to the gloom.

 

Erik Lamela
A 200th appearance for Tottenham and one of his most productive. Two assists – the one for Son Heung-min was an absolute beauty – and a performance full of all the life that this side has been without for these last months.

There’s a reason why Lamela is such a Pochettino favourite. He feels that he can trust him. He has his flaws and he’s an habitually self-indulgent footballer, but he’ll never short-change anyone for effort. Over the years, that’s actually become a way of ridiculing him, with Lamela depicted as a sort of a merit badge member of the squad, who has to disguise what he can’t do by trying really, really hard.

It’s said in semi-jest, but it’s absolutely true. Lamela actually sees a game extremely well and closer attention to detail reveals that he often picks passes that nobody else in Pochettino’s squad can. More importantly, though, he’s a yappy, tireless pain, who must be extremely difficult to play against. However Lamela’s abilities are approximated and described, he is currently exactly what this Spurs team needs.

It’s a simple choice until Giovani Lo Celso is able to compete for a place.

 

Frank Lampard
There’s a bit on Ajax further down – they’re not quite what they were – but this was an excellent performance by Chelsea and a really, really encouraging waypoint for Lampard to reach.

First of all because his side inflicted the first defeat their hosts have suffered all season, in any competition, but also because it was achieved at a disadvantage. Lampard remains without Antonio Rudiger and N’Golo Kante, his two most important defensive players, and still his side managed to keep Ajax largely at arm’s length.

It spoke to Lampard’s growing acumen and ability to influence games, emphasised late on by the effect of his two substitutes. Michy Batshuayi was very fortunate to get a second good chance, he converted the harder of the two, but there’s no question that Christian Pulisic’s introduction probed the areas around Joel Veltman and gave Chelsea the momentum to chase the game late on.

We keep expecting Lampard to get found out. In fact, revisit every pre-season prediction column in the British press and, with very few exceptions, that was the theme. This was going to be a nice story and maybe it would turn into something more than that in time, but only after an initial period of chaos, instructed by all the things that Lampard didn’t know.

Well, not so far. Chelsea have given better performances this season, but few which carry such a healthy indication of where this side might be headed.

 

Cesar Azpilicueta
A superb performance. Marcos Alonso had a good game in the other half of the pitch, but Ajax were most threatening in the avenues around him. On the other side, Chelsea looked much more secure. Quincy Promes escaped to score a disallowed goal in the first half, but – that aside – it was a reassuring night’s work from Azpilicueta.

The knives have been out for him. When that happens, when a consensus exists that a player is finished, that his legs have gone and that his time in a side should come to an end, it’s very difficult to arrest that trend. Azpilicueta hasn’t quite done that yet, but this was a start.

 

Kylian Mbappe
Just the 22 minutes needed to complete a perfect hat-trick on his return from a hamstring injury and to break Lionel Messi’s record as the youngest player to score 15 goals in the Champions League.

That’s quite a strange record –  a bit arbitrary – but it’s instructive nonetheless. Mbappe is very, very special.

It’s such a shame that he plays for Paris Saint-Germain and that only rarely do we see him in genuinely big games – maybe a handful in Ligue 1 each year, and a couple more in Europe. It makes it easy to dismiss him as a flat-track bully when, really, he’s a terrifying centre-forward who could and should be destroying more competitive leagues.

 

Zinedine Zidane
Real Madrid managed 26 shots on Galatasaray’s goal on Tuesday night. Their performance wasn’t quite as fluid as that statistic suggests, but it was a big improvement on the dreadful weekend loss to Mallorca. And it was timely for Zidane, who can presumably smell Jose Mourinho’s cologne in every room he enters.

Marca may be overstating things a touch:

‘The truth is that Real Madrid saved a situation that was bordering on a total crisis. Had they have lost in Istanbul and looked like they were about to be eliminated in the Champions League group stages, that would be an unforgivable stain on the history of Europe’s most successful team.’

That’s one for El Mediawatch, perhaps, but there are certainly problems at the club and Zidane needed that win.

One other point of interest was the performance of Fede Valverde, which caught the eye of the Spanish press. As ever, politics are in play and the small armies will be mobilised around Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, but on the basis that Casemiro isn’t for dropping, Valverde’s rise looks likely to come at the cost of one of them.

 

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jurgen Klopp’s midfield
You have a hard heart if you didn’t enjoy that. It was April 2018 when Oxlade-Chamberlain last scored, in that Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City. It’s also just two months since he gave that terrible performance against Chelsea in the Super Cup, when he looked miles away from being a credible first-team option

Not so in Genk, where he looked like the player he was always supposed to be, scoring a precise first goal and a second which was as cute as football ever gets to look. If you can, find the angle which shows it head on. Look at the spin on the ball, look at the way it kisses the crossbar on the way in; look at Oxlade-Chamberlain’s smile.

This was always comfortable enough for Liverpool, because Genk are very much the minnow of the group. Still, Klopp will have food for thought on the flight home, because Naby Keita also had an excellent game, full of purposeful, forward passes, and with Jordan Henderson sitting out after his pulseless performance at Old Trafford, there are now decisions to make ahead of Tottenham on Sunday.

But that’s an indication of a good health. Suddenly, what has often been the forgotten middle of the Liverpool side in loaded with possibilities and options. There’s a great line in Matt Stead’s piece about brakes and accelerators, and that’s an excellent way of describing the range of the midfield.

Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Keita: there’s a lot to like about that in theory, particularly when Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lallana, Henderson and, if necessary, James Milner are on hand to alter its chemistry.

 

Marcel Sabitzer’s right foot
We’ve all tried this. Lean back, cut through the ball… fall over, watch it float harmlessly into a bush.

This is more what we had in mind.

That is… filthy.

 

Losers

Christian Eriksen
Matt Stead also covered his situation here. All of a sudden, Eriksen really is nowhere. He deserves to be, because he created this impasse by over-estimating his place in the market and making eyes at clubs who were never going to return his glances.

What a shame. After everything he’s given, this is how it ends. Or will do. The moral of the story is that you should get off the bridge before you burn it.

 

Ajax and windows of opportunity
Okay, they’re still Ajax and they’re still decorated with excellent players, but there’s something depressing in seeing their obvious drop-off. You just don’t get the chance to see teams develop anymore.

According to Transfermarkt.com, Ajax sold just over £205m in talent last summer alone, and while that accounts for a couple of fringe players (Sinkgraven, Schone, Wober) the bulk represents the sale of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, and also Kasper Dolberg’s £20m move to Nice.

Forgive the generalisation, but it does seem as if the chance to get to know these teams and to enjoy their players is now limited to a single season. The recruiting tendency is also to shop younger and to buy players when they’re at their most pliable age, meaning that De Ligt or De Jong types are almost on borrowed time from the moment they first appear.

The latest example is Erling Braut Haaland, he of the many goals and the friendly fairytale monster appearance. He’s scoring goals in the Champions League and so, at 19, he absolutely, positively, without any shadow of a doubt must, must, must move to Manchester United right this minute.

Because if he doesn’t… what?

And he will, because that’s how the game thinks now. Maybe not to Manchester United specifically, but there’s no chance of him being a Salzburg player this time next year and isn’t that a bit of a tedious realisation. All the talent, all the profitable combinations across all the most exciting teams in Europe, they’re all heading for the same few places eventually.

Anybody heard anything from Luka Jovic lately?

 

Bayer Leverkusen
October hasn’t been good to Peter Bosz’s Leverkusen. In fact, things haven’t really been right since they took that 4-0 thumping in Dortmund in the middle of September. A 3-0 loss to Eintracht at the weekend didn’t improve the mood and, unfortunately, after Tuesday’s loss to Atletico Madrid they’re effectively already playing for a place in the Europa League. They certainly will be if they can’t win the game’s reverse in two weeks’ time.

What a disappointment. They were always an outsider in their group, but the tone of their campaign has been off since the opening game, when Lukas Hradecky’s botched clearance allowed Lokomotiv Moscow to win in the BayArena.

Kai Havertz, Leon Bailey, Kevin Volland; this should have been more fun.

 

Phil Foden
What a shame. For the most part, Foden played really well against Atalanta, injecting himself neatly into the attacking moves and offering useful little prods and pokes. That was impressive, too, given how few opportunities he’s given within this side and how little chemistry he’s had a chance to develop with these players.

And he’ll have one fewer chance after running into a fussy little referee, whose performance was full of soft decisions and pedantry. Well done, a red card for your mantelpiece.

 

Lyon and Anthony Lopes
Actually, Lyon were the better side during the second half of their game in Portugal. They created better chances, had more of the ball, and had twice as many shots on goal. After 83 minutes, everyone had good reason to feel slightly better about Rudi Garcia taking over. After 84 minutes, not so much.

I’ve always loved watching goalkeepers’ reactions to their mistakes. Do they shout at a completely innocent teammate? Do they look at their studs or gloves? If it’s to be convincing, they have to commit to one and sell it properly.

If it’s a really bad mistake, though, then it’s none of the above. And that’s especially true if it’s bad and also a bit weird, which this very much was. Anthony Lopes – bless him – had nothing to offer beyond a thousand-yard stare.

Lopes’ mistake was bizarre, but it’s actually perfectly in keeping with a season which began with Lyon scoring nine times in two Ligue 1 games, but then failing to win any of their domestic fixtures in the following two-and-a-half months. Just to make things stranger, their sole Champions League victory came in Leipzig, in an excellent performance against one of the strongest side’s they’ll face all year.

 

VAR
Sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Lille against Valencia wasn’t a classic, but VAR ruined what should have been a compelling finish. The home side’s long search for an equaliser ended deep in stoppage time, when Jonathan Ikoné escaped in the box and thundered the ball into the top corner. It was a brilliant finish, with the perfect aesthetic of a goal well earned.

And what wonderful scenes it provoked…until the refereeing team spent two minutes checking for a phantom handball while the players stood around on the halfway line in redundant silence.

No. You have to do it better than that. At the very top of the game, with the money available and technical support on offer, that’s just not acceptable.

 

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.


Listen to episode one of Planet Football’s new 2000s football podcast, The Broken Metatarsal, featuring Alex Brooker and Graham Stack on the Arsenal Invincibles.

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