Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 28th November 2019 10:08

Winners

Robert Lewandowski and the ‘ageing’ striker
The best centre-forward in the world on current form, and it isn’t even close. Sorry Harry Kane, sorry Sergio Aguero, sorry Jamie Vardy, sorry Cristiano Ronaldo and sorry Karim Benzema. You can fight out the other positions between you.

The statistics are ludicrous. Since the start of the season, Lewandowski has scored 27 goals in 20 matches on his own. Of course it helps that Bayern Munich play in a league in which they are usually dominant, but that hardly applies this season because Bayern are third in the Bundesliga. It is only because of Lewandowski’s brilliance that they are still clear favourites for the title.

In the Champions League too, Lewandowski is the difference-maker. One of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been top scorer or joint-top scorer in the competition in each of the last 12 seasons, but that top scorer has managed an average of 11.8 goals per season. After five group stage matches, Lewandowski already has ten.

There’s no doubt Lewandowski has been assisted by facing some shambolic defences, but even that doesn’t account for scoring four times in 15 minutes on Tuesday evening. He’s averaging a goal at a rate of more than one per 45 minutes played. There are 23 clubs who have scored fewer goals, and that includes Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Napoli, Inter, Dortmund and Chelsea.

What is most interesting about Lewandowski’s purple patch is that he shows no sign of slowing down at the age of 31. Go back to that list in the first paragraph and note that four of the five are aged 31 and above. The rise in conditioning and nutrition, combined with a crop of young attackers who specialise as wide forwards, means that the shelf-life of a world-class striker is extending.

Whereas once their peak years might be between the ages of 24 and 28, that upper limit can now be as high as 32 or above. Long may it continue, if it means watching Lewandowski be magnificent for a few years yet. God I wish he would come to the Premier League for a swansong.

 

Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku
The best front two in Europe this season? Perhaps. While most teams now operate with a central striker flanked by two pacey wide forwards, Antonio Conte has switched his favoured 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2 to get the best out of Lukaku and Martinez. Conte allows them to drop deep and drift wide at will, and has watched on as the pair have flourished more than he could have ever envisaged. Between them they have 22 goals in Serie A and the Champions League.

Martinez is one of the breakout stars of this season. He only started 13 Serie A games last season having joined from Racing Club in the summer of 2018, but is now a fixture in Inter’s team. His dribbling and finishing are supreme – see the goal against Dortmund last month – but it is the manner in which he draws defenders to create space for Lukaku that is most effective. Several times this season Lukaku has been left one vs one against a defender on the wide edge of the penalty area, cut inside and scored.

For Lukaku, a rapid and necessary redemption after his Manchester United move went sour. The confidence and pace to round the goalkeeper on Wednesday was delightful, the thrashed finish an enjoyable main course and the cross with the outside of his boot for Martinez’s volley a sensation dessert. That’s the answer to the ‘pace and power’ mob.

There will forever be doubts – not without good reason – about Lukaku’s big-game performance until he puts them to bed, but you cannot doubt the stunning statistics. At the age of 26, he has now scored 250 senior career goals. By way of selective comparison, that’s 12 fewer than Michael Owen managed in his entire career.

More importantly after that Manchester United experience, Lukaku is enjoying his football again and making a difference in an elite team that is threatening to offer Juventus a stern challenge for the Scudetto. While United stutter and stumble after failing to replace him, Lukaku has moved on. Continue at his current rate, and he’ll score over 30 goals this season for the first time in his career.

 

Dele Alli
The biggest winner so far from Jose Mourinho’s arrival (though Lucas Moura comes close). If Tottenham were chaotic and careless for long periods of their 4-2 victory over Olympiakos and nobody came out of the first half safe from the manager’s sharp tongue, it was Alli who again ended the game as their best player. He had lost his spark under Mauricio Pochettino, and if the need for a new manager to get it back doesn’t reflect entirely positively on Alli, we are already seeing the benefits of a fresh start.

Mourinho has always enjoyed getting the best out of a No. 10 – see Mesut Ozil at Real Madrid for the most persuasive evidence – but there were questions about Alli’s discipline to play the role in a Mourinho team. The answer – in the first two games at least – seems to be meeting of minds: Alli is still permitted to drift left and allow Son Heung-Min to come infield, but he is picking up the ball higher up the pitch and getting closer to Harry Kane. Part of keeping Alli content and extracting his best work is allowing him to have as many touches of the ball in the final third as possible. That means 4-2-3-1 rather than 4-3-3.

That does create an issue of midfield balance without an in-form holding player – see the Eric Dier section for more on that – but it has certainly upped Tottenham’s attacking verve, albeit against two accommodating defences. It is going to be fascinating to see Alli at Old Trafford next week against a Manchester United team that has very few candidates to man-mark him.

 

Paris Saint-Germain
Anyone predicting that this could be PSG’s breakout Champions League season should remember that they finished above Liverpool and Bayern Munich in their last two group stage campaigns before tumbling out of the competition, but there does seem to be a little more resolve about them in Europe in 2019/20.

Before Tuesday, PSG hadn’t conceded a goal in their four Champions League matches. Having fallen 2-0 down thanks to two Benzema goals and a VAR farce surrounding Thibaut Courtois’ non-sending off, two late goals hauled them back level and confirmed PSG as convincing group winners. It was the first time that they had managed even a draw after falling behind away from home in the Champions League since a 2-2 draw at the Emirates in 2016. The previous four instances: 6-1 loss, 3-1 loss, 3-1 loss, 3-2 loss.

 

Bayern Munich and Hansi Flick
Since 1995, Barcelona and Real Madrid (twice) are the only clubs to have won all six group stage matches in a Champions League season. Bayern Munich now have the chance to beat Tottenham in their final game and join that exclusive club.

For Flick, a remarkable start as temporary manager that has seen Bayern already extend his stay until at least Christmas. Before Niko Kovac’s sacking, Bayern had not kept a clean sheet in eight games and conceded 17 goals over that period. They have won all four of his matches in charge, scored 16 times and not conceded once. Have they found their new Jupp Heynckes?

 

Chelsea chaos
In the winners list because it was a good result, somehow and some way. Beat Lille at home and Chelsea will come through a tricky group unscathed, albeit likely to finish second and thus face the prospect of a European giant in the last 16.

But this was an early evening on which our lingering doubts about Frank Lampard’s Chelsea were reiterated. Chelsea are far ahead of expected schedule under the new manager, but they remain open in midfield and too generous in defence. They were fortunate that Valencia missed chance after chance, including an open goal and a penalty. The midfield balance is still not quite there and allows Chelsea to be caught on the counter-attack, and a central defence of Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma has now failed to provide the necessary security on multiple occasions.

Then there’s the injury to Tammy Abraham, the focal point of Chelsea’s attacking endeavour who will be a huge miss if he is out for an extended period of time. Michy Batshuayi is clearly the next cab off the rank, but he simply does not have the same confidence or understanding with his teammates.

Watching Chelsea is wonderful; they are the new entertainers. Their last seven matches have contained 30 goals and at very few points in those seven matches has either team had total control. That matters to supporters, who grew tired of Maurizio Sarri’s football and are enjoying their team again.

But Lampard will understand the need for a little more balance. Get that right without curbing Chelsea’s attacking enthusiasm and they can rubber stamp their top four place and test better opposition in the Champions League. Now to cross their fingers that Abraham is indeed only bruised.

 

Barcelona
Though what are they without Lionel Messi?

 

Atalanta
Lose their first three matches of their debut group stage and hadn’t won until Tuesday, but Atalanta now improbably have a fair shot at qualifying on match-day six. Winning in Shakhtar won’t be easy, particularly given that Gian Piero Gasperini’s side have conceded nine goals in their two away games so far, but they would certainly have taken this when losing 4-0 in Zagreb.

 

Hat-tricks
The most hat-tricks in a Champions League season is nine, and there were none at all in 2001/02. We’ve only played 80 of the 145 matches in this season’s competition and we’re already up to seven, thanks largely to some wretched defending and a growing gap between Europe’s best and the rest.

 

Losers

Atletico Madrid away from home
On September 1, Atletico Madrid had a four-point cushion on Real Madrid and five on Barcelona. Both of Spain’s Big Two were in flux or stasis, depending on your viewpoint and bias. Diego Simeone and his team had a great chance to take advantage.

Almost three months later, Atleti are in an equally difficult position as the summer exit of Antoine Griezmann, Rodri, Diego Godin and Lucas Hernandez have left their mark. They have won three of their 11 league games and sit fourth in La Liga. One league defeat all season is hardly the cause for widespread panic, but their seven draws speak of a team struggling to find cohesion and having to rebuild on the job.

Nowhere are Atletico’s problems seen more emphatically than away from home in the Champions League, where they are suffering an extended slump. Stretching back to February 2017, they have two away wins from 14 away games, including defeats to Real Madrid, Juventus (twice), Bayer Leverkusen and Dortmund and draws against Qarabag, Roma, Club Brugge and Leicester. The win in Moscow in September was an exception; Atletico have kept two clean sheets in two years away from home in the Champions League.

Qualifying in second place behind Juventus is not something that will cause Simeone any lost sleep, but he will remember last season’s last-16 capitulation and be keen to avoid one of European football’s giants in the early knockout stages. A third straight season without a Champions League semi-final would give some credence to the suspicion that Europe’s great nose-bruisers are facing their own period of renovation.

 

Galatasaray
The group stage draw dictated that qualification was always going to be mighty difficult, but to not even make the last 32 of the Europa League would be a disaster. That is the prospect facing Gala after they conceded a late, late equaliser to Club Brugge. They must now win in Paris in a fortnight’s time to have any chance of finishing third in Group A. With his team down in eighth in the Turkish Super Lig, Fatih Terim might like to order a few cardboard boxes and give his landlord notice.

 

Eric Dier
The first one under the bus? Perhaps not. Mourinho apologised to Dier after substituting him after 28 minutes on Tuesday evening, unsurprising given that he is still on his charm offensive and will not want to unnecessarily alienate any senior players.

But it’s not a great start to life under a new manager. Dier was abject during the first half against West Ham on Saturday and didn’t even make the break against Olympiakos. Any number of Tottenham players could have been substituted, including the struggling Harry Winks, but Dier will be alarmed at how little he has been able to impress.

The good news for Dier is that he might well be given a fair crack of the whip. We know how much Mourinho cherishes a holding midfielder (Nemanja Matic at Chelsea and Manchester United, Sami Khedira at Real Madrid, Thiago Motta at Inter and Michael Essien and Claude Makelele at Chelsea) and it is a position that Tottenham have had very little strength in depth since Mousa Dembele left.

But Dier must know that early impressions usually count at least double under Mourinho’s management, particularly as he looks to decide where a limited transfer budget needs to be spent. Must do better, and must do better sharpish.

 

Lucien Favre
Not just in here because Dortmund lost in Barcelona, although in doing so they lost control of their own Champions league destiny. But because in their last 14 matches Dortmund have only beaten Borussia Monchengladbach, Slavia Prague, Wolfsburg and Inter in that mad game in Germany last month. Favre’s team have conceded 12 goals in their last four games. The locals are getting worried.

 

Liverpool, not through yet
Not a disastrous result, given that they were behind in the match and will qualify with a draw in Salzburg. But Liverpool had the chance to confirm their qualification at Anfield on Wednesday, and in doing so create some breathing room in a period of fixture congestion. With three games in five days after matchday six and three games in eight days before the game against Red Bull, the last thing Jurgen Klopp wanted was a final group game played on a knife edge.

 

Mohamed Salah
Every time someone criticises Salah, or says he’s not quite at his normal level, a Liverpool supporters pops up and points out that he’s scored nine goals this season and is therefore on track to score 25. Hardly a disaster, they say, and they’re right. Nobody is calling anyone a fraud or a failure or a flop.

But watch Salah play over the last two months and you notice that it’s not quite happening. All the hallmarks are there: heavy touches, snatched chances, blind alleys and that frustrated little jump he does when he misses an opportunity or misplaces a pass. Against Napoli, the calling card was keeping the ball far too long and then losing it.

That might not always matter to Liverpool. Salah is still playing well enough to produce moments of wonder and has teammates around him that have shouldered added responsibility to account for his dip. But it will still be nagging away at Klopp that his superstar forward is not quite on it. A couple of games rest might help, but can Klopp afford that over such a busy schedule?

 

Gabriel Jesus and Manchester City
Pep Guardiola praised Jesus (ha!) for his patience in waiting for an opportunity for a regular first-team chance, but he now needs to see an edge in his young Brazilian. Jesus hasn’t let Manchester City down during his time at the club, but Sergio Aguero might well have been rested a little more if Guardiola trusted Jesus to match the Argentinean’s work-rate and output. It’s hardly hyperbolic to suggest that the striker’s form while deputising might determine the success of City’s season.

 

Lokomotiv Moscow
Won their first game in Leverkusen, and since then it’s been a disaster. Yuri Semin’s team have lost their last four matches, have conceded two goals in each of them and will be doing the Lokomotion all the way out of Europe.

 

Valencia
“I’ve learned that opportunities are never lost; someone will take the ones you miss,” television writer Andy Rooney once said. Someone’s clearly never played in this Valencia team.

 

The fun police
Every amateur player knows the unbridled joy that comes in the moments immediately after scoring, both a shared and personal elation that lifts you off your feet. Now imagine you’ve scored a late equaliser in an away game, and that equaliser means that your team is likely to qualify for the Europa League rather than tumble out of Europe despite being the worst team in the group.

Of course there are reasonable rules to stop goal celebrations getting out of hand, particularly those that govern supporter safety and avoid crushes at the front of the stand. But quite why Krepin Diatta needs to be shown a second yellow card for removing his shirt has never truly been clear. Are we scared of players showing flesh?

I’m also desperate to know whether the second yellow card given to Clinton Mata for breaking the corner flag in the same celebration would have been given if the corner flag had stayed intact. Typical reactionary refereeing, judging the tackle on the injury rather than the intent.

 

Daniel Storey

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