Europe’s biggest leagues
It’s hardly an enlightening reveal, but money truly does make the Champions League world go round. The gap between the haves and have nots of European football is widening all the time, and it risks interest in the competition waning year on year, at least until the latter stages.
Of the 16 teams in pots one and two in the Champions League group stage, 15 qualified for the next round. CSKA Moscow, the lowest-ranked club in pot one, were the ones to miss out. The 16 clubs to qualify for the last 16 are represented by only six leagues for the first time. Porto and Benfica, the exceptions to the Big Five corral, are the two teams every group winner wants to draw.
UEFA’s proposals to ring-fence certain clubs may have gone down badly, but that is already a reality. Don’t expect any changing of the guard.
Forget for a second the clanging worry that they could still draw Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, and look on the bright side. Forget that their achievement came via a collapse from Paris St Germain. Forget that the central midfield conundrum in Santi Cazorla’s absence is no closer to being answered, or at least put it to the back of your mind for a moment. Arsenal have topped their Champions League group for the first time since 2011/12.
As soon as Arsenal had confirmed their place at the top of group A, the emails from supporters came in, joking about the likelihood of facing an elite club in the last 16. Of course they are a possibility, but so too are Benfica, Bayer Leverkusen, Porto and Sevilla. Have a little faith.
More important is what this means for Arsenal’s mental state, perennially referenced by Arsene Wenger with both positive and negative connotation. There’s nothing quite like unexpected good news to put a pep in the step, and nothing quite like scoring nine goals in two matches to give a team a boost. Even the famous November curse was more of a light headache. But…
Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez (but not Arsenal?)
When you watch Mesut Ozil flitter and flutter and Alexis Sanchez fight and flight, it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Strike partnerships have become a thing of the past, replaced by front threes and 4-2-3-1 formations, so the sight of two players dovetailing beautifully is incredibly alluring. Ozil and Sanchez draw you in, demanding your full attention. Take your eyes off them for a second and you run the risk of missing a skill, pass or run of breathtaking quality.
Against Basel on Tuesday, they were at their brilliant best. Dead rubbers can be the Kryptonite of entertainment, matches played at walking pace as players enjoy the rare opportunity to take their feet from the pedal. Yet for Ozil and Sanchez, it was a chance to play without pressure, and therefore with added insouciance that made them even more watchable. For the neutral, it was absorbing.
I use the word ‘neutral’ deliberately, because there is a growing unease at Arsenal about their best two attacking players. Not in their form, which has been majestic beyond even their high standards, but because of their contract issues. Welcome to ‘Sign Da Ting 2: Please, please, please sign the sodding ting’.
“These players have 18 months on their contracts and, no matter what happens, they will stay for 18 months. Hopefully they’ll stay for longer than that,” said Wenger on Thursday morning, promising that the players won’t leave for a fee but not that they won’t leave for nothing. He might have been better listening to Ronan Keating and ‘shaying nuthin’ at all’.
You can see why both players are holding out for the biggest offers. Arsenal have not yet provided either of the trophies they crave (sorry, FA Cup), and they would have huge earning potential, significantly aided by the lack of transfer fee. You can see too why Arsenal fans are desperate for the pair to sign on, but the club will not be held to ransom. An awkward 12 months of posturing awaits.
Wenger will know that the best way to persuade Sanchez and Ozil to stay is to succeed this season, both domestically and in Europe. If the pressure wasn’t piled upon Arsenal’s manager before, it is now…
A club that continues to lead the way in the hypothetical race for European football’s ‘doing it the right way’ award. This piece lambasted the Premier League’s lack of opportunities for teenagers, but Dortmund are proof that playing young players and competing on the highest stage doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. Of the 57 teenagers in Europe’s top five leagues to play five or more games this season, Dortmund account for four.
It’s not just the age of Dortmund’s players that is most impressive (they used players aged 18, 19, 19 and 21 in the draw against Real Madrid), but the way Thomas Tuchel has blended them into a team whose attacking play is among the most attractive in Europe. Their goals on Wednesday helped set a record for the most scored in the Champions League group stage (21). As Real Madrid can testify, Dortmund are the wildcard that no elite club wants to face.
Dortmund are not a club with the finances to be immune from worry. On Tuesday, Tuchel spoke about how the club can ill-afford to lose Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Real Madrid, but that move seems increasingly likely in summer 2017. “We cannot achieve our objectives without him. He’s an extraordinary player, he makes everyone better,” Tuchel said, and you cannot blame him for the plea to his owners.
Yet Dortmund are a club that makes the best of every situation, where setbacks are only ever temporary, never terminal. After a two-year hiatus from the Champions League’s latter stages, don’t bet against Tuchel’s band of young brothers going deep into this competition again.
Our early winner, for scoring the first three goals of his Champions League career on the same night. Suddenly Olivier Giroud has pressure from below as well as above.
Being a striker for Portugal has been the punchline to a joke for 20 years, and Cristiano Ronaldo became a central forward at least partly to fill the void in his national team. Pauleta, Nuno Gomes, Hélder Postiga; all good, none great.
Finally, Portugal might have found their man. Andre Silva is 21, has scored four times in five international appearances, scored 12 times for Porto in 2016/17 and now trails only Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski and Edinson Cavani for Champions League goals this season. His double against Leicester ensured his side’s qualification for the last 16, where he really does have a chance to impress. Another expensive Porto export?
A campaign that started with a 6-0 home defeat and saw 24 goals conceded in five games ended with a victory and clean sheet. That was Legia’s first Champions League proper win since beating Blackburn Rovers 1-0 in 1995. And they said I couldn’t get Jeff Kenna into Champions League Winners and Losers.
After injury ruined his hopes of Euro 2016 participation, the winter months finally bring some good news for an attacking midfielder in danger of being remembered as Herr Just Not Quite. Reus’ two goals against Legia on his first Champions League appearance of the season felt sweet, but his late equaliser in the Santiago Bernabeu to ensure top spot in Group F must have seemed like redemption. One to warm the cockles.
A European campaign saved in Lisbon by a team bruised by injuries. Napoli could have been eliminated from the Champions League on Tuesday, but victory over Benfica saw them top their group. Maurizio Sarri’s team now deserve to avoid Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
Nineteen senior goals for Manchester City, in less than 2,000 minutes of action. And now a few weeks to improve that total in the absence of Sergio Aguero.
Until now, Arda Turan’s Barcelona career was most notorious for the six months he spent in the stands after being signed but before his registration could be completed. That period of inactivity made the task of establishing himself in a wonderful midfield far more difficult.
Tuesday brought Turan’s first Champions League start for Barcelona, afforded an opportunity in a dead rubber. Like Lucas Perez at Arsenal, all you can do is score a hat-trick and hope it sticks in your manager’s mind.
As Matt Stead wrote, Tottenham should embrace the Europa League. With no high-profile casualties in the Champions League group stage it may be their best hope of Champions League qualification and a major trophy, but it also allows them to get more settled at Wembley. A 3-1 victory over a rotten CSKA Moscow will not assuage the disappointment of the exit, but a trip to Solna in May might. Spurs are the new second-favourites for the Europa behind Sunday’s opponents Manchester United.
Only Lucas Moura and Christian Eriksen created more chances in the Champions League this week, and no player had more shots. It’s now seven goals in six games since returning from injury. Well in, Harry.
Paris St Germain’s honourable exception. Moura created nine chances against Ludogorets, more than any other player in this gameweek.
Not quite a clusterf*ck of Kevin de Bruyne standards, but Cuadrado is flourishing again away from Chelsea. The Colombian created three chances and completed six dribbles on Wednesday evening. Just what were Chelsea’s coaches saying to all those attacking midfielders?
Losers for allowing a two-goal lead to slip, winners for extending their unbeaten record to equal the club record. Winners too for finishing second, bizarrely. Real Madrid’s potential last-16 opponents are Arsenal, Napoli, Monaco, Leicester and Juventus. Had they finished first, that list would have been Bayern Munich, Paris St Germain, Manchester City, Benfica, Porto or Leverkusen. Roughly speaking, they traded three clubs they would want to avoid for two.
The most emphatic Champions League collapse you could ever imagine. Besiktas travelled to Kiev on Tuesday knowing that victory over the bottom team in the group would ensure qualification to the knock-out stages for the first time in the Champions League era, and even a draw may have been enough. What followed was a sh*tshow of magnificent proportions.
Dynamo Kiev, who before Tuesday had been winless in Group B and scored twice in five matches, scored six times between the ninth and 77th minutes. Just for fun, Besiktas also had two players sent off and their goalkeeper burst into tears.
Still, I’ve heard the Europa is lovely this time of year.
Did losing 5-0 to Porto make any difference to Leicester’s qualification? No. Did losing 5-0 to Porto make any difference to Leicester finishing top of their group? No. Did losing 5-0 to Porto make any difference to Claudio Ranieri’s mood? Oh heck yes.
It’s all very well swatting away talk of crisis because of what came before, but Leicester are lurching closer to the time when serious questions are asked in even more serious voices. Ranieri made changes for the visit to Oporto, but this was no reserve side. Three summer signings in Ahmed Musa, Nampalys Mendy and Luis Hernandez started, as did Shinji Okazaki, Danny Drinkwater Demarai Gray and Wes Morgan. Leicester suffered the worst ever defeat by an English side in Champions League history. They were embarrassed.
“I decided to change the team – the result is my fault,” said Ranieri. “My players lost a very great chance to show me their best. I have no regrets because I wanted to give an opportunity to all my players.”
It’s an admirable admission of guilt, but the performance of his fringe players will have forced the Italian to swallow an extra paracetamol as he woke on Thursday morning. The first-choice players aren’t showing enough in the Premier League, and those who should be fighting to take their places were even worse in Europe.
At some Leicester will exit this competition; lightning will not strike twice. Their potential last-16 opponents include only Benfica who could be approached with any confidence, and even they sit four points and two places ahead of Porto in their domestic league. This has been a great run, but…well, there’s a ‘but’ now.
Until and after that last-16 tie, Ranieri must address Leicester’s Premier League form. Nobody expected Leicester to top their group even after the favourable draw, but 5-0 defeats can never be ignored. More worryingly, Champions League cheer has been the exception.
His first appearance for Leicester since January 2015, and he conceded five. Hamer is going to be a bloody difficult quiz question answer in two years’ time.
Remember when he was starring in a central midfield with N’Golo Kante? It now looks as if Kante was playing for two, and Drinkwater missed out on that big move.
The national team failed to qualify for an expanded Euro 2016, is doing its best to repeat that feat for World Cup 2018 and is ranked 22 in the world. The domestic league is now ranked 13th in Europe, behind Switzerland, Czech Republic and Belgium. Yet still Dutch football hadn’t found its lowest ebb – it has now.
PSV Eindhoven were the Eredivisie’s only representative in the Champions League, Ajax having lost to comparative minnows FC Rostov in the play-off round. Not only did PSV fail to qualify, they finished behind the same Russian club to miss out on Europa League participation. The future isn’t bright, and it might not be orange either.
An own goal is a wonderful way to end a night on which you clicked past ten years without a Champions League clean sheet. That run constitutes 39 matches.
Our early loser, because things have gone south very quickly since Emery moved north. Draw Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund or Juventus, and Emery might lose his job in February.
Qualified as runners-up, but a disappointing group stage campaign for last year’s quarter-finalists and the now-dominant team in Portugal. Benfica beat Dynamo Kiev home and away, but took only two points from four games against Besiktas and Napoli.
Having won one game in each of the last three years in the group stage of this competition, CSKA went one worse in 2016/17. No wins, no clean sheets and very little pride.
UEFA’s rule changes assisted the domestic champions and thus gave a shot in the arm to the Russian Premier League. CSKA didn’t so much look the gift horse in the mouth as leave it tied up outside a glue factory.
Became only the third club in the Champions League era to fail to score a single goal in the group stage. Anyone who knew Deportivo La Coruna and Maccabi Haifa were the other two is the kind of person I want to drink with, and the kind of person you probably want to avoid.
Club Brugge and Dinamo Zagreb
Became only the 18th and 19th clubs in the Champions League era to fail to take a point in the group stage. Anyone who knew Kosice, Fenerbahce, Spartak Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Anderlecht, Rapid Vienna, Levski Sofia, Dynamo Kiev, Maccabi Haifa, Debrecen, Partizan, MSK Zilina, Dinamo Zagreb, Villarreal, Otelul Galati, Marseille and Maccabi Tel Aviv were the other 17 is the kind of person even I don’t want to drink with.