Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 29th November 2018 9:58

Winners

Marouane Fellaini
Jose Mourinho was quick to go on the offensive after Manchester United secured qualification to the knockout stages, pointing out that he had participated 14 times in the Champions League group stages and made it through every time.

The manager’s pay-off line – “Just a little curiosity for all my lovers to note” – smacked of an attempt to be cutting on social media that just leaves everyone thinking you’re a little bitter. Manchester United did make things hard for themselves in Group H, but there should be no surprise in finishing above Young Boys and a Valencia team that has won three of their 13 La Liga games this season.

Instead, let’s reserve praise for Fellaini, who is the true architect of Manchester United’s qualification. Two of their three group victories have been inspired by Fellaini-inspired carnage. He panicked Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in Turin, and scored the stoppage-time winner against Young Boys. He might well be Manchester United’s only midfielder or attacker in form.

Fellaini being so crucial to United is a sad indictment of the club’s performance level. Supporters would much prefer to see Anthony Martial and Alexis Sanchez dominating on their flanks and setting up chances for Romelu Lukaku to finish, with Paul Pogba as the creative force from central midfield.

But needs must, and that should not detract from Fellaini’s contributions. He may be awkward, but he causes panic. It may be worrying that Plan B often becomes Plan A as United get more and more sluggish in attack, but the plan often works. It may be sad that they needed him to save them at home to the worst team in the group, but save them he did.

 

Manchester United
As low as the bar was, they cleared it. Just about.

 

Paris Saint-Germain, finally delivering
Such is their financial dominance in Ligue Un, PSG will only ever be judged on their European performance. They had played eight Champions League matches in the past year and won only two, against Celtic and Crvena Zvezda. Six games against Napoli, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid produced four losses and two draws.

So this did feel like a breakout victory for Thomas Tuchel’s team, who overran last season’s finalists in the first 30 minutes. This was a mirror of the style that Liverpool themselves used under Klopp last season, an early salvo taking the game beyond the reach of their opponents.

Marco Verratti is a brilliant all-round central midfielder, albeit one who should have been sent off. Thiago Silva is a defensive leader. Angel Di Maria is far better than the ghost player we witnessed in the Premier League. Juan Bernat is an excellent left-back. Marquinhos performed superbly in a defensive midfield role.

But really, it’s all about that front three. Between them, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani have scored 126 times in all competitions for PSG since the start of last season. They have the skill, speed and power respectively that makes them the perfect attacking unit. Keep firing as they did on Wednesday, and PSG really can win this thing.

 

Tottenham
A Champions League lifeline. If it wasn’t quite mission impossible for Tottenham to reach the Champions League knockout stages with two matches remaining, highly improbable covers it. The first minimum requirement was to beat Inter by two clear goals or 1-0 and thus move ahead of the Italians on head-to-head record. The second half of the task is harder still: match Inter’s result in their easiest group game (PSV at home) in Tottenham’s most difficult, away in Barcelona in a fortnight’s time. But there is still a chance.

Just as important is the fact that victory over Inter maintains Tottenham’s brilliant run. They have won six straight games in all competitions since losing at home to Manchester City. Had they suffered Champions League exit, morale would have been pricked before the north London derby. Now, Mauricio Pochettino has led them to wins in their first two games of a massive eight-day period. Avoid defeat at the Emirates on Sunday, and this will have been another excellent week for the highest-performing manager in the Big Six.

 

Mauricio Pochettino…
…and a plan that was played out to pure perfection.

 

Moussa Sissoko
As I walked out of Wembley towards the interminable queue leading to Wembley Park, a chant started up and spread like wildfire in the manner that they tend to when a large mass of supporters are pleased with what they have just witnessed. “Wake me up, before you go, go. Who needs Bale when you’ve got Sissoko?” they sang. It has been a long time since that particular ditty has been heard.

Of course the lyrics are not intended to be taken entirely seriously, but it epitomises Sissoko’s redemption at Tottenham. If Saturday brought praise for his work as a midfield destroyer, it was a driving forward run into the penalty area that assisted Tottenham’s winner on Wednesday. Fair bloody play young man.

 

David de Gea
Stop the clocks and take the phones off the hook. Switch off all forms of communication to the outside world. Lure David de Gea into a dimly lit room and lock the door. Read him poetry, play him love songs and add as many digits to already large numbers until he agrees to stay.

De Gea has not been at his best this season, by which we mean he is performing like most other top goalkeepers. His save percentage in the Premier League is just 67.6%, 16th in the division. That is reflective of both Manchester United allowing their opponents clear chances, and his own form not quite matching previous brilliance.

But in the big moments of the big matches, De Gea is easily United’s most frequent saviour. The late save from Ulisses Garcia’s deflected shot was extraordinary. De Gea has an ability to react to a moving ball as if he is witnessing life pass at a slower speed to the rest of us.

“I know he is happy here, I know he wants to stay, and I know the board are working to make that happen,” said Mourinho after the match. If all three of those statements are true, United supporters can at least feel confident about one element of their uncertain future.

 

Jose Mourinho

Speechless at this.

 

Real Madrid
Suffering at home, but purring again in the Champions League. Nothing sums up Real Madrid’s ability to forget their La Liga strife when playing in Europe like losing to Eibar for the first time in their history on Saturday before swatting aside last season’s semi-finalists Roma in the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday.

In doing so, Real confirmed their place at the top of Group G with a game to spare. It’s happening again.

 

Lyon
It might sound a little patronising to praise any team for drawing at home, particularly when that team is the second best in the group. But it shouldn’t. Lyon sit 15 points behind Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue Un, but they have tested Manchester City like no other non-English club has managed since Monaco in March 2017. Maybe French football has some depth after all.

Maxwel Cornet has been Lyon’s star against City, with three goals across the two games, but the whole team merits praise. No team this season has made City look as uncomfortable in carrying out Pep Guardiola’s plan, but that largely stems from Bruno Génésio’s courage in leaving at least two or three players forward when City attacked. If that reduces the game to organised chaos, where both teams took turns to attack, that’s the best you can hope for against City in this form.

 

Lyon’s midfielders of the future
What a time for Houssem Aouar and Tanguy Ndombele to have the game of their lives against a team that could soon look to replace its ageing midfield.

 

Memphis Depay
Created six chances against City in 90 minutes on Tuesday. Manchester United’s entire team created four earlier this month against the same opponent. Just saying.

 

Mario Mandzukic
Cristiano Ronaldo is the superstar and Paulo Dybala the boy wonder, but don’t forget about old Mario. Mandzukic has only played a touch over 1,000 minutes in Serie A and Champions League combined this seaosn, but he has six league goals and on Tuesday scored the winner to secure Juventus top spot in Group H. Ignore him at your peril.

 

Ajax
Into the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2006, when they finished behind Arsenal and ahead of only FC Thun and Sparta Prague in a gloriously gentle group. No team in the competition has conceded fewer goals, and eight of the team that started in Athens were 22 or under. For those of us of a certain age, there’s a wonderful nostalgia in a young Ajax team making waves again.

 

Robert Lewandowski
His two goals on Tuesday took Lewandowski past Thierry Henry and into sixth place in the all-time list of European Cup goalscorers. Clearly the list is weighted towards the present day by the addition of group stages to its current format, but it’s still a wonderful record. Plan his career accordingly, and Lewandowski may retire behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in that list.

 

Arjen Robben
The year is 2058, and the world is a wasteland. The last remaining humans survive through victory in running battles against giant cockroaches that roam the earth. They can only be destroyed by being placed into incinerators that then funnel their toxic remains deep into the ground.

One morning, Arjen is on a patrol shift somewhere in the eternal desert that used to be central Europe. After 40 minutes of his regular route, Arjen spots antenna sticking out from behind a rock. The cockroach, usually such a resourceful beast, has exposed itself. It will pay for that mistake.

Arjen immediately gets to work. Running around the opposite side of the large rock, it catches the cockroach by surprise, kicking his prey from behind and sending it into a tailspin several yards in front of him. Catching up with the cockroach, Arjen pauses for a moment, shuffling it from one foot to the other to keep it stunned.

Twenty yards away stands the incinerator, small hatch open and waiting for any delivery. Arjen does not dare pick up the cockroach. He had never liked bringing such a thing closer to his face than was necessary. He had seen too many scars on too many faces for that.

Instead, Arjen performs his party trick. Dipping to one side, he kicks the cockroach to the side with his left foot, bringing the incinerator into view around another boulder. As the beast starts to stir, Arjen knows that he has his chance. Striking the cockroach with the inside of his left foot, he sends it curling through the air and into the incinerator hatch.

Arjen immediately breaks into celebration, as he always did. The rest of the nomadic tribe believed that he was merely celebrating his aim and ridding the earth of another toxic beast, but Arjen knew differently. He was not celebrating success; he was cherishing the past, when that left foot earned him the fame and glory that now accounted for nought. That trusty left foot had never let him down then. It never would now.

Oh yeah, Robben scored twice against Benfica. You already know what the goals looked like.

 

Losers

Liverpool
Not yet a disaster, but last year’s finalists are teetering on the edge of elimination. In all likelihood, Jurgen Klopp’s side must beat Napoli by two clear goals at home to reach the last 16. Their fate is still within their grasp, but it’s a big ask.

As he woke on Thursday morning, Klopp must have wondered just how his team have got themselves into such a pickle having beaten PSG at Anfield in their first game of this group stage. The answer lies in three away performances that range in quality from dismal to only slightly less dismal, and three away defeats in a Champions League group stage for the first time in their history.

Add in the semi-final second leg and final last season, and Liverpool have now lost five consecutive Champions League games away from Anfield. There is clearly a problem, and it lies in a passivity in central midfield and individual defensive mistakes.

Klopp foresaw the performance in Paris. He warned his Liverpool team that they must be prepared to play ugly, and they proved themselves incapable of doing so. PSG were guilty of some outrageous gamesmanship to run down the second half, but they gained that position of authority by being far too nimble for Liverpool.

If losing to one of the richest clubs in the world is hardly embarrassing, therein lies the problem with reducing your margin for error by losing in Belgrade and Naples. For the first time in a long while, Klopp is under some pressure to respond. Fail to win the Merseyside derby at Anfield on Sunday, and he will be fighting to ensure that grand ambitions for this season do not crumble before Christmas.

 

Jordan Henderson
Sent off on Saturday and humbled on Wednesday, it has not been a good week for Liverpool’s captain. When pitted against the best in the business, Henderson floundered badly. He was not the only one at fault as Liverpool struggled to cope with PSG’s remarkable front four, but he failed completely in protecting the defence. He will get Sunday off to watch from the stands.

 

Marcus Rashford
Started as a centre forward again and had six shots, but only one was on target. Most frustrating of all were the two missed chances that caused his manager to grimace and groan on the touchline. If playing the weakest team in the group afforded Rashford the chance to claw back some confidence at club level, he took further steps backwards.

You can reasonably argue that Rashford is playing under the wrong manager. Young players need time and patience to make mistakes without fear of being publicly harangued. The difference between Rashford’s form and confidence for Manchester United and England might well be explained by the pressure he is under to succeed, and how that manifests in his respective managers’ reactions.

Since scoring twice against Liverpool in March, Rashford has scored four times for England but three in 27 matches for Manchester United. Not good.

But Rashford has to make the best of this, and has to find a way. If Jose Mourinho isn’t going anywhere for now, then his only option is to dig in and hope this current goalscoring slump disappears to welcome in a fresh dawn.

 

Phil Foden
We were all sure that he would start, given Pep Guardiola’s effusive pre-match praise and Manchester City’s manager stating several times that Foden was ready to go from minute one. And there he sat, on the bench.

I get that it’s tough. Every match carries with it such pressure that playing a young kid at the very top is hard. When they do come in it’s usually because injuries have given the manager less free choice. Foden will start the final group game in the Champions League and probably the EFL Cup quarter-final against Leicester City.

But it’s the football that matters so much that most helps young players develop. Foden’s minutes in his seven Premier League appearances this season: 8, 21, 2, 15, 18, 1, 21. Foden’s minutes in his two Champions League appearances this season: 1, 3.  The score at the time of his introduction in the four matches when Foden has played more than 10 minutes: 4-0, 3-0, 5-1, 3-0.

Minutes in a high-pressure scenario are worth many times more than dead rubbers and fixtures in secondary competitions, and Foden is sadly lacking in those. Yes he’s only 18, but then every coach that works with Foden believes that he is ready. It’s a compliment to him that I’m including him in this section because everybody is so bloody excited about seeing him make a difference.

 

Isco
Oh dear
.

 

Christian Pulisic
Oh dear, oh dear
.

 

CSKA Moscow
After 55 minutes, CSKA had a 1-0 lead over Viktoria Plzen that kept their chances of reaching the knockout stages alive. By full-time, they had somehow managed to lose at home to one of the weakest teams in the competition and virtually guaranteed that they will not even play Europa League football in the spring. A special effort.

 

Hoffenheim
Winless, and almost certain to finish bottom of Group F after clawing their way back against Shakhtar only to lose the match for a second time. With Julian Nagelsmann leaving at the end of the season, there are concerns that this great period of overachievement is coming to a close.

 

Galatasaray
Gone is the chance of progression, but very real is the possibility of finishing bottom of Group D. That would be disastrous.

Daniel Storey

 

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