Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 7th November 2019 12:19 - Seb Stafford Bloor


Borussia Dortmund
One of the conversations which has surrounded Dortmund this season – and which has clearly started to irritate some of their players – has been about their mentality. They’ve conceded quite a few late goals, dropped a few points and, as a result, they’re portrayed as a pretty and attractive side, but also a soft one with little substance beneath their surface layers. Harsh, perhaps, given that they’re second in the Bundesliga and haven’t lost domestically since August.

Nevertheless, 45 minutes into their game with Inter, that characterisation had grown. Watch Marcelo Brozovic’s run at the beginning of the move which led to the second goal; those are the kind of limp tackles which invite such criticism.

So: two-nil down and Dortmund were absolutely nowhere against one of the most improved sides in Europe. Dan Storey – who wrote eloquently here about visiting Dortmund – got mocked for tweeting this at the break, but he was right – Antonio Conte has Inter playing productive and secure football, and nobody in the stadium would have seen a comeback coming.

One arrived, though, and while Achraf Hakimi’s two goals will be credited (he’s scored four of their five in total now), they were a symptom of a more general improvement. Dortmund pressed better after half-time, they moved the ball with much more purpose and speed, paying the iron price to find a way back into the game.

They still had to survive a late Inter revival, they were actually a little fortunate to come through the final ten minutes, but this still felt like a significant moment – for their Champions League campaign, of course, but also their season as a whole, which will take them through Munich this weekend and to the Allianz Arena.


It’s important to characterise this correctly: Chelsea got completely outplayed by Ajax and even looked vulnerable against nine men at times. That they were able to find a way back to earn a point was almost entirely because of one of the strangest refereeing decisions of the season.

Gianlucha Rocchi would later give himself away with that little finger wag after disallowing Cesar Azpilicueta’s late goal: this was someone who was enjoying himself a bit too much. That decision was correct, infuriating as it was, but the double red card was a nonsense inflicted upon the game by, at a guess, an official who quite enjoys the spotlight.

Nevertheless, it was still an advantage which Chelsea had to exploit and they managed to do that. More importantly, it was a draw they had to find for the sake of their Champions League future – lose that game and they’d have gone into the final two rounds of matches in third position, with a trip to Spain still on the horizon.

A successful failure, then. A recovery with a big asterisk, but one which will likely prove an emboldening experience for Frank Lampard’s younger players. After all, it can’t exactly hurt for Reece James and Fikayo Tomori to have one of these on their CVs.


How they needed that. Their win in Belgrade came courtesy of a couple of odd moments, none stranger than that first goal (even if Davinson Sanchez’s chip onto his own crossbar ran it close), but that really doesn’t matter. This was a comfortable win away from home and, as such, a balm for the wounds suffered over the past few months.

There were flaws – clearly – but there was encouragement to be found in the function shown in every part of the pitch. The ball didn’t quite ping between the players and the football wasn’t convincingly fluid – Tottenham’s most impressive moments came after the game had been won and when the crowd’s focus had drifted – but this was a vast improvement on anything else they’ve offered away from home this season.


Tanguy Ndombele
Slowly, he’s starting to show the breadth of his ability. Ndombele is still prone to the occasional positioning faux pas, as he showed on Wednesday night, but some of his touches were mesmerising.

He’s actually fascinating and the kind of midfielder who, as recently as 20 years ago, probably wouldn’t exist. He’d either have to be a ball-winner or a progressive central midfielder, but he wouldn’t be allowed to be both.

Ndombele is, though. The immediate context is a performance against a Red Star side who look to have regressed over the past 12 months, but he’s shown flecks of this quality all season – the little pirouettes between defenders, the ambition to carry the ball forward over many yards, and the ability to do actually something with it when he arrives at the crest of the opposition box.

It’s going to take some getting used to the way he runs – how does he not fall over? – but, goodness, what a footballer he might be.


Son Heung-min
The media has been a little clumsy about this, in both directions.

Of course, the front of Stan Collymore accusing someone else of feigning an emotional response to avoid responsibility was absolutely breathtaking and his article in the Daily Mirror, which Mediawatch did a fine job of torching, bears no scrutiny whatsoever.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that as real as the trauma was for Son – nobody with an ounce of empathy (or sense) would claim his response was contrived – Andre Gomes is the one in plaster. There doesn’t need to be a hero or a villain in this, but the road back for Gomes will be much, much harder.

So it’s possible to think highly of Son and to have enjoyed this obvious catharsis, but also not to forget that there was another party in that horrible accident. Most likely, that’s how Son himself would prefer this to be framed.


Red Bull Salzburg
More on them here, from Matt Stead.

Napoli being prisoners of their own training ground naturally makes them the story, but a point at San Paolo was something that even Liverpool couldn’t manage. Of course the reputations of these players are on the rise (Erling Haaland first amongst them), but what a memorable – and accomplished – Champions League debut Jesse Marsch is having, too.


Slavia Prague
It would be right to praise goalkeeper Ondraj Kolar, because he did make some excellent saves, but it would be wrong for that to imply that Slavia were reliant on him. They weren’t.

Actually, what made this performance so memorable was how bold and expressive Slavia were and what they might have achieved with a little more composure in attacking positions. Barcelona were dreadful, giving the kind of lifeless performance which suggested that there’s little point in Ernesto Valverde even continuing, but their inefficiencies were probably exaggerated by an opponent who didn’t just come to Camp Nou and curl up into a ball.

There’s a broader point there, about how teams aren’t really scared of this ground any more and don’t just brace for a battering, but save that for another think-piece and applaud an underdog that swung as if they had nothing to lose.


Lyon and Rudi Garcia
For context, it’s important to know just how unenthused Lyon’s fans were with Garcia’s appointment. After Sylvinho was dismissed, their club was connected with some very big names and, whether realistic or not, the distance between Laurent Blanc, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho (!) and what they eventually got is pretty substantial. Ask for a Playstation4, get a MegaDrive.

To further illustrate the acrimony, centre-half Marcelo had to be left out of this game with Benfica for his own safety, following a robust exchange of ideas with a battalion of Lyon ultras at the airport on the way back from this fixture’s reverse.

So this was important. It was a third win in a row, following two in Ligue1, and it featured excellent performances from Memphis Depay and, in particular, Houssem Aouar. Garcia may be a flawed coach and, yes, his Marseille team were dismal to the point of being frequently unwatchable last season, but he has a reputation for attacking football for good reason. Suddenly, Lyon are scoring goals, winning games and, possibly, close to a change in mood.

His work at Lille is a long time ago now. Almost a decade. But given what the strengths of that side were (Hazard, Digne, Gueye, Sow, Payet), perhaps Jean-Michel Aulas has been smarter than anybody realised in recognising what kind of coach this particular Lyon needed, with its exhilarating, but unrefined attacking parts. It’s obviously premature to call this appointment a masterstroke, but it certainly doesn’t look like a disaster.



Manchester City
Has anyone read a credible explanation for why City are still capable of being so reliably poor for long periods of a game? And, more importantly, why that seems to be the case so often?

Claudio Bravo’s red card lent the night some comedy, even if the injury to Ederson wasn’t nearly so funny, but that shouldn’t prevent any analysis of how bad City were in the second half. And, more to the point, how subservient they became to a side who have looked out of their depth in the Champions League, good Serie A team though they may be.

Perhaps this was a performance which can be attributed to the gravity of that Liverpool game at the weekend? Given how strong City’s position in their group is, that’s more than possible. But then that doesn’t explain why this is such a common condition or why Guardiola’s players are always – irrespective of the competition or the circumstances – capable of putting together a truly rotten 45 minutes.  They’re far, far superior to most of the opposition they face, meaning that they get away with it more often than not, but once noticed it’s a hard trend to ignore.


Antonio Conte
Read this.


There’s not much going on here. In one sense there is, because there’s an awful lot of uncertainty over Ernesto Valverde’s future, but there’s just no life in this team.

Or, to be more precise, it appears just in pulses and only ever from the same old place. Ansu Fati created a few incisions after coming on and Nelson Semedo adapted quite nicely to having to fill in at left-back, but for the most part Barca were entirely reliant on Leo Messi’s thrusts from deep. In fact, the longer the game remained scoreless, the more ridiculous his ambition had to become and the greater the number of defenders he was forced to take on simultaneously. At times, it just looked desperate.

And fragile. Slavia could have won this game.

Eras end, that’s inevitable, but Barcelona really don’t look well prepared for what comes next. Frenkie de Jong is clearly a fine player and Fati will presumably be very prominent too, but Valverde’s defence and midfield – and even parts of his attack – betray an organisational negligence or, at best, a profound naivety within the Camp Nou technical structure.

Maybe the most damning way of describing this side is actually to say that, in a different kit and framed by a different stadium, they would be in no way recognisable as Barcelona. In fact, as some Twitter wag put it, take Messi out of this starting lineup and they’d be Manchester United. Slow, predictable and reliant on catching their opposition over-committed.

Well done Slavia, but… ouch.


Aurelio de Laurentiis is no wallflower, we knew that already, but this is becoming an extraordinary situation even by his standards. Napoli recently fell 11 points behind leaders Juventus in Serie A, prompting de Laurentiis to order an improptu training camp – or ‘ritiro’ – sequestering the players at the training ground in an attempt to cure their poor form. It’s actually not that unusual in Italian football (he says, having just looked it up this morning).

Anyway, the 1-1 draw with Salzburg wasn’t improvement enough for de Laurentiis, because on hearing that Carlo Ancelotti and his players had returned to their homes on Tuesday the club issued the following statement:

“The club announces that, with reference to the behaviour of the players on Tuesday, it will proceed to protect its rights on an economic, capital, image and disciplinary levels in every competent jurisdiction.”

So he wasn’t hugely impressed. And with good reason, because despite a quick reaction to falling behind to a Haaland penalty, Napoli sputtered in their response, producing a listless second half during which they rarely threatened a winner. They’ll still advance from their group, the draw maintained their four-point lead over Salzburg, but with a visit to Anfield up next their qualification will likely depend on the group’s final game, when they face a Genk side who showed themselves capable of being stubborn during their narrow loss to Liverpool.


Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

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