Between 2012 and 2018, no Champions League season has seen more than three sides win a knockout tie having lost the first leg. But so far in 2018/19, we have already seen the first-leg losers progress four times in eight attempts.
Ajax’s humbling of Real Madrid. Manchester United’s incredible turnaround in Paris. Cristiano Ronaldo’s wondershow in Turin. Porto progressing in extra-time against Roma. If the Champions League is to regain some of the interest that it has lost following its departure from terrestrial television in the UK, the competition needs to produce these landmark nights that can live long in the memory. It’s been a cracking Champions League season so far.
The Premier League
The notion of shared pride between rival clubs may only exist in the Premier League’s headquarters (you can’t honestly tell me that Manchester United fans are happy to be joined by Liverpool in the last eight), but it does provoke pride in us neutrals (and freelancers looking to go to home legs, natch).
For the first time since 2008/09, England will have four teams in the Champions League quarter-finals. If that wasn’t enough to puff out chests, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool beat Bundesliga clubs by an aggregate scoreline of 17-3.
Liverpool, competing on both fronts
In the build-up to Liverpool’s trip to Munich, there had been plenty of talk about Jurgen Klopp’s side prioritising the Premier League over Europe. Mohamed Salah had even given an interview in which he said he was happy to sacrifice his Champions League “dream” to focus on what he believed supporters most wanted.
But this seemed a fairly transparent method of self-preservation. Lose in Munich, and the excuse was pre-written and could be waved in the face of anyone who attempted to scrutinise Liverpool’s appetite for lasting the course. There certainly weren’t any supporters in the Allianz moaning about fatigue and fixture scheduling at full-time.
In Klopp’s defence, he has never attempted to play down the importance of the Champions League, instead insisting that Liverpool can cope with both competitions. In fact, he went beyond that: if Liverpool are to get to where Klopp believes they belong, they must learn to cope with both. He treated the domestic cup competitions with plenty of disdain, but on this issue he has been clear. The fact that Manchester City also have Champions League commitments (and FA Cup duty) clearly helps.
And Liverpool can win both; they really can. The most astonishing thing about Wednesday evening’s victory was not the scoreline but the ease with which Liverpool brushed past a legitimate European giant in their own backyard. They were never put under any concerted pressure, and never forced to defend with backs against the wall bar a ten-minute spell in the second half that only came because Liverpool invited their opponents onto them.
Liverpool are now fourth favourites for this competition, behind only Barcelona, Manchester City and Juventus. But that should give them no fear. A reminder: they are the only semi-finalist from last season that has even made the final eight a year later.
Sadio Mane, goalscorer not creator
If a player’s character is sculpted when the pressure is on, Mane is veering very close to meriting discussion in the PFA Player of the Year reckoning. Despite his wonderful pass for the third goal, Mohamed Salah is still not his usual self. The reason that hasn’t become such a big deal for Liverpool is Mane.
He has changed his reputation over the course of a season. As a wide forward, we might expect him to play the role of creator. But Mane has not assisted a goal since November. Instead, he is scoring more and more regularly and so drifting more and more into central areas. That has culminated in his most recent run of form, ten goals in his last ten games and six in his last four.
Virgil van Dijk
The leader of the gang. No longer is Van Dijk content to dominate in one penalty area; he has three goals and an assist in his last four matches. He also ranks third for goals and assists during Liverpool’s Champions League campaign.
If you were to choose the one thing that Ronaldo is best at, it’s making doubters look foolish. When he went to Juventus last summer with the sole intention of being their Champions League difference maker, we thought it might be beyond him. It might still be beyond him. But do not underestimate the power of his sheer will to take a team over the line.
Like Lionel Messi, Ronaldo has had to adapt with the rigours of ageing. Messi now plays games in two gears: first and sixth. Ronaldo has changed his game entirely, from winger to complete centre-forward to target-man striker. It’s not exactly the same, but it reminds of Alan Shearer’s deliberate shift in style and role to deal with the lasting effects of serious injury. Like Shearer, Ronaldo has excelled at every stage.
Even by Ronaldo’s sky-high standards, Tuesday was exceptional. You are not supposed to win this many headers against Jose Giménez and Diego Godin, two of the best in the business at helping their side protect a lead. But then Ronaldo is used to doing things you falsely assumed were impossible. His Champions League knockout stage record is, and surely always will be, unrivalled: 63 goals, 23 ahead of Messi and more than double the players joint-fourth in that list.
“This is why they bought me,” said Ronaldo after the game, and of course he’s absolutely right. Barcelona are geared up to win Messi a Champions League title that would move him back level with Ronaldo; his great rival is geared up to extend his lead. Even if that threatens to reduce team sport to individual pursuit, Juventus aren’t complaining.
Anything you can do…
Messi’s task against Lyon was far easier than Ronaldo’s against Atletico, but it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Argentinean was Barcelona’s leading man the night after the Portuguese had wowed the Champions League once again.
There is a demand at the Camp Nou to win Messi another Champions League. It is fuelled by the belief that one European Cup final in the last seven years just isn’t enough for a club with this pedigree. They may still be second favourites behind Manchester City, but discount La Liga’s last representatives at your peril.
Massimiliano Allegri, who changed his plan
This was the Ronaldo Show, but it was made possible by Allegri altering his tactics significantly. Ronaldo deserves to be showered with praise, but so too does Juventus’ manager.
In the first leg in Madrid, Juventus attempted just eight crosses from open play. In the second leg in Turin, they attempted 32. Allegri worked on the law of averages, that the best striker in the world at finding space, leaping high and winning headers would win his battles if not the aerial war. The only option was to try, try and try again.
That approach takes some courage. Ronaldo might be Juventus’ best player, but had Allegri’s plan failed teammates might have cried foul at being asked to play such an emphatic second fiddle.
Now, Allegri might just have a plan for the rest of the competition. It might not be pretty, but if the cross, cross, cross strategy can work so brilliantly against Atletico Madrid then it work against most others. And whilst they have Ronaldo, they have a chance.
Manchester City’s thrashings
The four-pronged investigation into Manchester City’s financial dealings should be kept in mind. Some City fans might see this as some sort of conspiracy, but that’s a nonsense and they only double down on their tribalism by putting forward such theories.
But as a neutral, it is possible to separate the football being played and the means used to get there. There is an aesthetic beauty to watching City attack that must be admired: Sergio Aguero drops deep and drags out a central defender; wide midfielders overlap; a central midfielder plays the ball through the lines to find that winger in space; he either shoots or picks one of two or three onrushing options in the penalty area. City have perfected this art, and it is virtually impossible to stop if they get it right.
After 85 minutes of the first leg in Gelsenkirchen, Pep Guardiola’s team trailed 2-1. In the next 100 or so minutes, they scored nine times without reply. Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan played crucial roles in that assault, but it is the organisation and structure into which they all fit that makes City so dangerous. Rafael Benitez and Eddie Howe copped flak for playing so ultra-defensively against City, but when you watch them destroy Schalke you can see both managers’ point. Is there anything else they can do?
This season, Manchester City have scored six or more goals on seven occasions in all competitions (three Premier League, two Champions League, one FA Cup, one EFL Cup). That’s more than Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich combined.
He is doing just fine, thank you.
Ronaldo and Allegri deserve great credit (if you’re reading this backwards because you choose hate over love then skip up a couple of sections), but Atleti really did f*** up. The demand to label losers as fraudulent is perhaps the most unpleasant element of modern football fandom, but Diego Simeone will agree that his side flunked their big test.
Simeone has garnered a reputation for monumental defensive displays. In 2013/14, they beat Barcelona 1-0 in their quarter-final second leg. In 2015/16, they beat Barcelona 2-0 in their second leg and held on against Bayern Munich’s second-leg onslaught to progress to the final on away goals. This is a club that has become defined by the defensive resilience that their manager preaches.
It is hard to be too strong on Simeone. We expected them to try and defend their two-goal lead and that’s exactly what they attempted in Turin. Asking Simeone to be more expansive in this scenario is faintly ludicrous. There is an argument that he failed to change things when it became clear that it wasn’t working, and that probably carries some weight.
But Atleti’s manager was badly let down by his players. In midfield they were far too careless in possession, unable to relieve pressure on a defence that ended up under siege. Alvaro Morata missed a headed chance that was easier than both of Ronaldo’s first two goals. These are the things that decide grudge matches.
There will be an understandable fallout to Atleti’s exit, and questions asked as to whether this era of great European overperformance is coming to an end. Simeone’s team tumbled out of the Champions League in the group stage last season, and thus needed a response in 2018/19. Finishing behind Borussia Dortmund in Group A before ceding a two-goal lead – even against Juventus – has sent no other message but ‘Oh, um, maybe you’re right’.
Bayern Munich and Niko Kovac
We thought he might have clawed back the goodwill. Bayern’s return to the top of the Bundesliga has been fuelled by Borussia Dortmund’s stumbles as much as their own excellence, but they had won 11 of their last 13 matches in all competitions. For most of this season, Kovac has looked out of his depth in such auspicious circumstances. The Champions League was his chance to prove he belonged.
It could not have gone worse. Bayern were not just eliminated from the Champions League by Liverpool, they beat themselves. The team was almost entirely devoid of intensity and energy, and it failed spectacularly to service Robert Lewandowski. He spent the first leg trying to win headers and hold the ball up while teammates ran from deep to try and help, and the second leg was exactly the same. I lost count of the number of times Kingsley Coman picked up the ball level with his own penalty area.
Unsurprisingly, Lewandowski wasn’t best pleased. “In the first game we didn’t make a good risk to play forward and try to score the goal,” he told beIN SPORTS. “Today also I think we didn’t try to play offensive and try to score the goal because we didn’t have a lot of chances also and that was our problem today. I’m not happy, I’m angry because we know we should do better but we didn’t.”
Having missed out on the quarter-finals for the first time since 2010/11, Kovac should be in trouble. But the upturn in Bundesliga form is likely to save his position for now. Given that Bayern surely need an overhaul in the next 18 months, it’s a heck of a risk to give him the responsibility to oversee it.
Let’s beware revisionism. You don’t have to like the way in which Neuer was championed as a goalkeeping revolutionary, but for a few years he was a truly supreme keeper who was crucial to the success of Bayern Munich and Germany. This is a man who has won the Champions League and the World Cup and been named third in the Ballon d’Or behind two of the top five players to have ever played the game.
But those days have now gone. At the age of 32, there are strong signs that Neuer no longer deserves to be Germany No. 1 and that Bayern Munich will soon have to look to the future. The decision-making is awry, positioning inexact and even the shot-stopping slightly unreliable. Mane’s first goal was the perfect example. Three years ago, Neuer gets out quicker and mops that up.
Going out of the Champions League to Manchester City is no disgrace. The achievement in reaching the knockout stages should not be downplayed. But there are ways and means of exiting a competition.
Domenico Tedesco’s tenure is very quickly turning sour in a haze of dreadful defending. Since drawing 0-0 at home to Freiburg on February 16, Schalke have played five matches. During those games, they have conceded goals at a rate of one every 21.4 minutes. Tedesco doesn’t need anyone to tell him that isn’t sustainable.
Twice beaten at his near post, with one goal squeezed through his legs. Once danced around by Phil Foden. Once got a touch to a shot but only succeeded in palming it in. Once Panenka’d. Schalke’s goalkeeper and captain will have better nights.
“I want to go to a club like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain or Bayern Munich,” said Depay on the eve of Lyon’s second leg in the Camp Nou. “I want to go to a city that suits me and a club that suits me, to a team that really wants to play football.”
Cue Depay being invisible against Barcelona as Lyon went out. He is the king of pride before a fall.