Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 21st February 2019 9:43


Diego Simeone
It’s happening again. There might well be better coaches in Europe at manufacturing a title challenge over the course of an entire league campaign. There are certainly coaches in Europe whose teams play better attacking football. But there is no coach in the world who you would rather have in the bruising, battling environment of a tight Champions League knockout tie.

Simeone’s teams make it indescribably hard for the opposition, eroding their spirit and then punching them in the gut just for good measure.

This was the most intriguing tie of the last 16. It pitched together the two great recent Champions League overachievers but two sides for whom exiting at this early stage might cause a significant fallout. We also expected it to be the most closely matched game of the round.

Winning 1-0 would have given Simeone’s team a foothold to help cling to the side of the mountain in Turin as Juventus huffed and puffed and tried to blow down their house. At times likes these, you become convinced that Simeone is playing only for a 1-0 win. But 2-0 was dreamland.

Group together all of the managers of those clubs who reach the quarter-finals and ask them to raise their hands if they want to face Atletico. Then watch as they all look at each other and try to avoid catching your eye as they sit on their hands.

Atletico have not just excelled through their resilience and glorious bastardry; they have perfected the art. Look at where this year’s final is being played. They couldn’t, could they?


Manchester City, despite themselves
You know the pattern by now. Manchester City take a first-half lead, and immediately look like they could score once or twice more very quickly. Then silly mistakes creep into their play, reaching a crescendo when the opposition equalise. By now, City have become locked into their sloppiness, and struggle to stamp their authority on the game. That sloppiness helps to energise the opposition.

Even by the standards of Southampton, Leicester City, Huddersfield, Arsenal et al., this was bad. Nicolas Otamendi is once more a liability after his excellent 2017/18. The disadvantage of playing Fernandinho as a central defender is that his tactical fouls are more likely to occur closer to City’s goal. The Brazilian has now given away penalties against Newcastle and Schalke in recent weeks.

But the difference between City in the Premier League and Champions League is their ability to respond to adversity. Since the start of 2018, City have taken only one point in the Premier League in matches during which they have fallen behind (Wolves in August 2018). In the Champions League, City have been behind in four of their last six matches and yet won three and drawn one of them. And so came a familiar response in Gelsenkirchen with ten men. That takes some guts to accompany fantastic attacking talent.

Even so, you can see why Guardiola might be angry having seen this same show on repeat over the last three months. After the game, Guardiola argued that City cannot win the Champions League if they continue to allow their opposition to wrestle back the initiative. Given the standard of opposition that City will likely face in the quarter-finals should they progress, it’s hard to argue.


Alvaro Morata
He has escaped his Premier League nightmare, and he’s joined a club and manager that are far more likely to play to his strengths than Chelsea ever were. Morata had already had a goal ruled out by VAR before he played an integral role in Atletico’s opener. He needed a home where he could rediscover his love for the game, and good luck to him.


Leroy Sane
Twitter is a cesspit, but it still infrequently has moments of glory. One of those moments is when a magical goal is scored in a high-profile game, and your timeline becomes a long list of messages that would not look out of place in the Beano or Dandy each one with comically extended vowels. Think ‘whoooooooosh’, ‘ooooooof’, ‘whaaaaat?’, ‘baaaaang’ and ‘wooooaaaaaah’.

Free-kicks that curl agonisingly beyond a goalkeeper’s reach are great, taunting the outstretched fingers of his glove. Free-kicks that are thriked home using the laces rather than instep are great too, with added points if they lift and are still rising when they hit the net. But for top-grade, pure, uncut free-kick excellence, you need a blend of the two. Enter Leroy Sane.


Jordan Henderson
If you wanted to be a little mean, you might conclude that Henderson being Liverpool’s best player says as much about the team’s performance as his own. Henderson is a midfield firefighter more than he is a creator, but you can only fight fires if someone has left the hob on or carelessly tossed aside a lit cigarette.

But Henderson cannot control the performance level of those around him. Liverpool’s captain used his programme notes to dismiss the notion that anyone was taking their eye off the ball and prioritising the Premier League over the Champions League. Henderson then spent the next 90 minutes proving that opinion while his teammates made the opposite case. The competition for places in Liverpool’s central midfield, higher than at almost every other club in Europe, is squeezing the best out of him.


Bayern Munich’s defence
Perhaps we underestimated Bayern Munich, just as we underestimated Paris Saint-Germain last week before they spent the last ten minutes of their first leg at Old Trafford playing countless passes while their supporters olé’d. We sometimes do get a little carried away with the perceived strength of English teams. Familiarity rules.

But then there was evidence that Bayern were broken, or at least breaking. Niko Kovac’s side are on course to drop more points this season than in any of the last seven Bundesliga campaigns, and to concede more goals than in all but one of the last 20.

That defensive vulnerability had been particularly apparent in the toughest away games: they had conceded three away at Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Bayer Leverkusen. In six matches in 2019, Bayern had not kept a clean sheet. The form of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng had left supporters concerned that both were irrevocably fading away.

But when Kovac really needed a mighty defensive effort, his call was answered. Hummels and Niklas Sule were positionally excellent against Liverpool’s front three, meaning that Bayern were not exposed even with David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich pushing forward from full-back. Having thwarted that plan, the pair dealt superbly with Liverpool’s Plan B – crossing. Trent Alexander-Arnold alone attempted 11 crosses from open play. That total has only been beaten twice in a Champions League game this season.

Both Liverpool and Bayern will believe that a first leg 0-0 is conducive to second-leg success, but Bayern will hold no fear. Stretching back to April 2014, Bayern have won 22 of their last 26 Champions League home games. They have scored at least three times in 16 of those 26. The defence has done their part. Now the attack must step up. The Champions League predictions ahead of the second leg suggest a 1-1 draw, and that seems a fair shout.


Still the clear underdogs given that they travel to a stadium in which Barcelona last failed to score almost a year ago and have scored at a rate of three goals a game in the Champions League over the last two years. But Lyon should go to the Camp Nou with a sense of hope and endeavour, knowing that they have scored in each of their Champions League away games this season.

More importantly, Lyon are a team firmly on an upward curve. Of the 13 outfield players used on Tuesday evening, 12 were aged 25 or under and 10 were aged 23 or under. This is a golden generation.


Serge Gnabry
Gnabry was not brilliant at Anfield (although he did skin Andrew Robertson more than once), but look at the progress he has made. His last two appearances in England were 56 minutes for Hoffenheim in a 4-2 defeat at Anfield in August 2017 and 68 minutes in a 3-0 League Cup defeat against Norwich City for West Brom in September 2015. Those are the benefits of moving from the Premier League to the Bundesliga before every bugger tried it.


Asked to do an unfamiliar job in difficult circumstances and, bar a couple of early flaps, looked very assured. Fabinho’s task was helped by Bayern’s contentment with a defensive 0-0 draw, but that doesn’t take away from his display. Precisely the type of performance that ingratiates a player to his manager.


It’s basically impossible to know whether Liverpool should be happy with their first leg result. On 22 of 31 occasions since the Champions League was formed in 1992, the team that drew the first leg away from home has progressed. But Liverpool should not be disheartened. They will travel to Munich with both Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren back, and know that an away goal will leave Bayern needing to score at least twice.

Liverpool have indeed failed to score twice away from home in the Champions League this season (Napoli and Crvena Zvezda), but they have scored in every other away game in all competitions since May 2018. So look on the bright side.



Cristiano Ronaldo
Just after half-time in the Wanda Metropolitano, having been taunted for the entirety of the first half, Cristiano Ronaldo opened his hand and stretched out five fingers to indicate how many Champions League titles he has won. An hour later, his hopes of getting his second hand involved had been severely dented. To make matters worse, Atleti delighted as the ball deflected off the Portuguese for their second goal.

Do not underestimate how much an early Champions League exit would hurt Ronaldo. In the last 12 seasons, he has won the competition five times and only failed to participate in the semi-finals once. Part of Ronaldo’s motivation for joining Juventus was to be their difference-maker in Europe. He wanted to win the Champions League with a third different club and join Francisco Gento on six European Cup wins.

Barring a dramatic second-leg turnaround (that he will surely need to inspire), Ronaldo’s dreams have been dashed in his first season at Juventus. That won’t go down well.


VAR for handball decisions
I am not totally against VAR as a concept. I can see why it was hugely helpful in Atletico’s game with Juventus on Wednesday, when a foul in the box was proven to have taken place outside the area and the issue was cleared up quickly. VAR can work for those in/out, on/off or yes/no decisions, entirely non-subjective and generally far easier to decide efficiently. In general I am happy with a flawed sport in which referees make mistakes, but can see why the clubs would prefer them to be eliminated.

But when you introduce VAR for subjective decisions, you invite trouble. Rather than an instant yes/no decision, you simply pass on the decision from a referee on the field to a referee watching a screen, who may take several minutes to make that call and in doing so frustrate those watching in the stadium. Different people will have different opinions, even those asked to make decisions according to the same set of rules. That has always happened in football, and always will.

In case of handball, the whole thing becomes a farce. The rules themselves are vague enough to leave decisions open to interpretation, but the nonsensical aspect comes in watching replays at slow-motion speed to make the call. Otamendi was so obviously trying to move his hand away from the ball. Was the intention of the handball law that players could effectively aim for a defender’s hand in hope of a penalty?

In slow-motion, everything looks like handball. By slowing the speed down to make the decision, you are falsifying the event. Rant over.


Liverpool’s front three
Coughed and spluttered their chances away. Liverpool’s front three either rushed their opportunities on Tuesday night, or lost them by trying to take one too many touches. This was a Goldilocks attacking display during which nothing was ever just right.

It seems ludicrous to criticise Mohamed Salah, given his goal output both this and last season, but he does endure periods of matches when he looks distinctly amateur, guilty of poor touches and even poorer decision making. Against Bayern, most of the match was spent in that odd haze.

Around Salah, Roberto Firmino plays a selfless role but on nights like these you can forget that he’s on the pitch. Sadio Mane is the opposite, constantly demanding the ball but lurching from the sublime to the ridiculous when he gets it. Mane should have scored the opening goal in the first half, and spent the rest of the match trying too hard to make amends.

During the games that Salah fails to fire, Mane is often Liverpool’s bellwether player. If he produces some magic then Liverpool click. If he fails, Liverpool flutter and flitter but lack attacking penetration.

Jurgen Klopp will play down any concerns of Liverpool’s misfiring attack, but this is not a new development. Since December, when they scored in all competition at a rate of almost three per game, they have scored more than once in two of their eight matches. Old Trafford would be a handy stadium to relight that fire.


Luis Suarez
I’m never shy of making the same mistake twice, so here goes. Last season, in this column, I wondered whether Luis Suarez’s era of majesty was coming to a close. He had scored three goals in all competitions by mid-November. He then scored 14 goals in 13 games from December onwards, making me look foolish. By the end of the season, Suarez had 31 goals in all competitions.

Now I’m wondering all over again. Suarez has not scored in a Champions League away game since September 2015, and not scored or assisted a goal in the competition for over 1,000 minutes. On Tuesday evening, he missed chance and slowed down play unhelpfully. He sticks out in this Barcelona team, and that isn’t a compliment. Suarez turned 32 last month, but his next match will be the 700th on his senior career. At some point, decline becomes inevitable.

But that doesn’t help Barcelona. Ernesto Valverde must be considering moving Lionel Messi central and bringing back Philippe Coutinho on the left with Ousmane Dembele on the right to give Suarez a rest. He has seven goals in all competitions since November 3; Messi has 18.


Memphis Depay
Our early loser
can talk the talk, but is too busy sprinting before even trying to walk the walk.


Domenico Tedesco
Has earned a reputation as a forward-thinking, courageous young manager, but Schalke are floundering badly in the Bundesliga. There is clearly no shame in losing to Manchester City over two legs, but when you’re winning the first leg 2-1 against ten men and you bring off a central midfielder for a striker and end up losing 3-2, questions will be asked. If that sounds unfair, welcome to the big leagues.

Daniel Storey


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