Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Friday 26th February 2021 7:39 - Ian Watson

Winners

Thomas Tuchel
The new-ish Chelsea manager passed the toughest test of his reign so far. The Blues’ only win against top-eight opposition in the Premier League this season came against West Ham but Tuchel’s side did a number on the La Liga leaders. Frank Lampard would not have won that game 1-0.

A victory and a clean sheet earned by depriving the ‘hosts’ a single shot on target was no less than Chelsea deserved and puts them in the driving seat to progress through a round-of-16 tie in which they started as underdogs.

There was certainly no hangover from the weekend. Tuchel’s first power play came with the hooking of Callum Hudson-Odoi during the 1-1 draw with Southampton and the manager was warned by Joe Cole that he faced ‘a big 24 hours’ with a squad as notoriously sensitive as Chelsea’s.

But Tuchel demonstrated that he isn’t one for grudges and Hudson-Odoi responded positively with a performance on the right that showcased all the ‘attitude’ and ‘energy’ apparently missing from his St Mary’s cameo.

Much of Chelsea’s intensity was invested in stopping Atletico from breaking on the counter-attack and Hudson-Odoi, as part of the Blues’ organised press, demonstrated his willingness to graft and squeeze the life out of Diego Simone’s off-colour side in their own half.

Atletico thrive on being the wounded animal, but Tuchel showed he knows how to neuter Simeone’s side.

 


READ MORE: Chelsea: Ingenuity by Giroud, structure by Tuchel


 

Olivier Giroud
Tuchel’s faith in Giroud was apparent before the game when the manager said: “It’s clear, Oli is the guy for the last 20 metres, for sure.”

The veteran is Chelsea’s best centre-forward and when their formation requires the presence of a true No.9, Giroud certainly is the man.

Didier Deschamps has known that, yet so many others have remained wary of investing their faith in the striker who is second only to Thierry Henry in France’s all-time goalscorers list. To Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri and Lampard, Giroud was always ever only a reluctant Plan B.

With Tuchel’s trust, perhaps Giroud’s future won’t be the annual drawn-out saga. The striker is 34, which in the modern game dumps him in the ‘knackered’ bracket, but Giroud is hardly slowing down. He’s getting better.

“He trains like a 20-year-old, like a 24-year-old,” Tuchel said this week. Giroud netted 10 in 25 games last season. His acrobatic bicycle-kick, which perhaps surprisingly to some did not lead to a broken hip, was Giroud’s 11th goal in 22 matches so far this term.

Should he become a free agent, Giroud will have offers aplenty. But he has always made clear his contentment at Chelsea and the Blues really should move quickly to keep him that way.

 

Cesar Azpilicueta
The old dog, on his way to ‘the farm’, has returned to remind Chelsea fans what love for Chelsea looks like.

 

Bayern Munich
So that’s why they’re champions of, well, everything and everywhere.

Bayern haven’t been in their best form of late. Since adding the FIFA Club World Cup to their five other titles, the Bavarians have been held at home by relegation-threatened Arminia Bielefeld and lost to Eintracht Frankfurt.

When they rocked up in Rome, apparently fatigued, their party was missing the injured Serge Gnabry, Douglas Costa and Corentin Tolisso while Thomas Muller and Benjamin Pavard were absent due to Covid.

Then they blew Lazio away with a stunning first half, at the end of which Hansi Flick’s men were perhaps disappointed only to be 3-0 up. When Niklas Sule danced down the right wing in the 36th minute, like a wardrobe performing step-overs, the game was up.

Lazio presented them with a fourth immediately after the break, unable to keep pace with Leroy Sane and Alfonso Davies. Who can?

Flick is yet to lose in the Champions League, winning 14 of his 15 games in charge, while Bayern set a new record of 17 away games unbeaten in the competition. City and PSG may well be feeling pretty chipper about their prospects of winning their first European crown. But the holders will take some shifting.

 

Robert Lewandowski
The Bayern goal machine bagged his 73rd goal to overtake Raul and move into third place in the list of the European Cup’s all-time goalscorers. Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have notched more.

Lewandowksi now has 32 goals in 31 matches this season, and eight more than his closest challenger across Europe’s top five leagues, after scoring 42, 43, 41, 40 and 55 times in the previous five campaigns.

Ridiculous statistics.

 

Jamal Musiala
Musiala started for the European champions against Lazio on Tuesday night and scored the opener in a 4-1 win. On Wednesday, he announced the victor in the scrap between Germany and England for his allegiance. On Friday, he will celebrate his 18th birthday and sign a long-term contract with Bayern Munich.

What have you been up to this week?

 

Manchester City
Nineteen consecutive wins now for City and another new record.

And it was all very easy for Pep Guardiola’s side in Budapest. City spent most of the evening jabbing away at Marco Rose’s side, who looked punch drunk even before Bernardo Silva’s knockdown blow in the first half. Gabriel Jesus wasted one glorious opportunity to bag a second before he stabbed home Silva’s knockdown just after the hour. But both sides played out the remaining half hour seemingly equally content with the outcome.

When Ederson was forced to parry a shot from Hannes Wolf which served as the game’s final kick, it drew to a close a two-hour 21-minute spell in the Champions League in which the City keeper had not had to make a save. It is now 916 minutes since they last conceded in Europe.

Obviously the screw will turn on City as the later stages approach. But across all competitions, City are in cruise control, with Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne back should they need to put their foot on the gas before the quarter-finals in six weeks.

 

Joao Cancelo
*googles ‘Can you shag a cross?’*

City’s dominance did not convert to clear-cut opportunities but, once again, in De Bruyne’s absence, left-back-cum-central midfielder Cancelo stepped up to fill the creative void.

He claimed the assist for Silva, and the pre-assist for Silva’s assist, both deliveries from deep on the left, perfectly flighted – especially the first – to the far post.

Guardiola’s mission to Lahm-ify Cancelo has been one of the season’s great successes. Can the Portuguese continue to cover so many bases when City come up against similarly ambitious opposition beyond the next phase?

 

Ferland Mendy
A similarly adventurous left-back made all the difference in a stodgy performance for Real.

Mendy’s underlapping run drew Remo Freuler’s red card on 17 minutes but Zinedine Zidane’s depleted side toiled against 10 men. Atalanta, uncharacteristically but understandably, retreated and soaked up Real’s pressure, with the visitors mustering only three shots on target until Mendy received a short corner, via Luka Modric.

On his supposedly weaker right foot, the 25-year-old swung and set his curling effort outside the right-hand post before it curled comfortably back inside, well beyond the reach of ex-Man Utd and Aston Villa keeper Pierluigi Gollini.

It was Mendy’s second goal in four games with his swinger. With Lucas Hernandez set to take one of the left-back spots in France’s European Championships squad, the battle between Mendy and Lucas Digne for the other will be fascinating to watch through the remainder of the season.

 

Isco
The Real Madrid playmaker has been heading for the Bernabeu exit for as long as we can remember. Just at the start of this month came fresh reports of a total breakdown in the relationship between Isco and Zidane. But the Real coach, who could not fill his bench, gave the 28-year-old a surprise chance to shine in Bergamo.

With Karim Benzema still sidelined, Isco played as a false striker in only his second start since November. He was involved in the game’s pivotal moment, combining with Mendy to provoke Freuler’s rash tackle, and in the first half, most of Real’s most promising play flowed through Isco.

It was a reminder that the 38-cap Spain star still has something to offer – most likely to a club other than Real Madrid.

 

 

Losers

Diego Simone
That’s one win in five now for Atletico after three days which saw their lead at the top of La Liga slashed to three points (with a game in hand) and left their Champions League hopes dangling by a thread. It’s time for Simone to check again for those cojones.

Atletico seemed far more hesitant and cautious than they have through much of the season, especially since Simeone switched to a back three. After the tactical shift in November, Atletico won 12 out of 13 league games, losing only one in 16 prior to the weekend defeat to Levante. But without Kieran Trippier, Yannick Carrasco and Jose Gimenez on Tuesday, Simeone reverted to a back four. Or a back six as it transpired.

The Spanish Burnley endured only 37% of the ball, where this season in La Liga they have enjoyed a possessional advantage, averaging 52.4%. With what little of the ball they had, they created nothing. Not a single shot on target for the first time in the Champions League for two years.

Simeone wasn’t in the mood to castigate his players for surrendering the initiative to Chelsea. “If you’d said to me in September that we’d lose this first leg 1-0 and be top of the league, I’d have taken it for sure,” he said in a transparent attempt to keep the jitters at bay.

Atletico have four huge La Liga games before they face Chelsea again, with the first-versus-second Madrid derby a week on Sunday. Simeone needs to re-conjure the spirit which saw Atletico fightback brilliantly against English opposition a year ago.

 


Early losers: England missing out on record-breaking Musiala


 

England
Musiala became the youngest Englishman to score in the Champions League on Tuesday night. What a wild 12 hours that was, before the teenager pledged his allegiance to Germany, the country of his birth.

Our loss.

 

Lazio
Lazio waited 21 years to reach the Champions League knockout stages only for them to come up against Bayern’s  unstoppable force.

Still, the Italians had no need to be quite so generous with their gifts. “They definitely did not need our mistakes to make it even easier for them,” admitted Simone Inzaghi.

“Unfortunately, we’d said this week with the lads that we should play our game. We felt the occasion too much, we were tense against the world champions, but we basically scored three of the four goals for them.”

Lazio’s errors spread throughout the team, with Inzaghi’s forwards mistiming their runs or making the wrong choice on the occasions they sprung the Bayern press.

But, as Simone put it: “It’s already an achievement for us to be here… the round of 16 was our target.” Their next one is to refresh and refocus for the scrap for top four in Serie A, with sixth-placed Lazio only two points off Juve in third ahead of their meeting next week.

 

Atalanta and anyone tuning in
“The game was ruined,” said Gian Piero Gasperini and the Atalanta coach made a fair point. Anyone watching at home was treated to 16 minutes before the waft of a red card ended the contest as it was intended.

Was Tobias Stieler right to send off Freuler for halting Mendy’s charge in the general direction of the hosts’ goal? Mendy would have been in a position to attempt a shot on goal but the angle would certainly not have made for a sitter.

Gasperini felt compelled to make a wider point. “Last season, after absolute chaos, the handball rule was sorted out. Now we have the temptation to remove any form of contact in football and that is suicide for the sport,” he said.

“You wait so long for this event and then it gets ruined. We might’ve lost anyway, I am not complaining about the result, but we at least could’ve played our game.”

As it was, a man light, Atalanta were unable to swarm Real as they planned. They mustered just two shots, their lowest in any Champions League game, with neither on target, which was also a first for the Italians in this competition.

Some hope for Gasperini: Atalanta’s away record should send them to the Bernabeu in a more positive frame of mind. They have yet to win at home in the Champions League this term, but they are also yet to lose on their travels.

 

Borussia Monchengladbach
It would be harsh to be too critical of Gladbach. But Rose’s side looked every bit the Bundesliga’s eighth-placed side, making their debut in the Champions League knockout phases, taking on the Premier League’s all-conquering fixture of the last eight for the last eight years.

It took Gladbach 53 minutes just to win a free-kick in the City half and, in keeping with the pattern of all that had gone before, it went backwards. Which almost instantly led to a glorious opportunity which Gabriel Jesus dallied over.

It wasn’t as though Yann Sommer’s goal was peppered with City shots. Only once in City’s 19-game winning run have Guardiola’s side recorded fewer shots on target than the four they mustered last night. City’s xG was 1.60. But they were utterly dominant, with Gladbach’s only threat coming with literally the last kick of the game.

Gladbach’s greater concern than the return leg next month is finding their way back into next season’s Champions League. Winless in three before tonight and nine points off the top four, they face RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen in their next three Bundesliga games.

 

Pep’s stylist
The worst clobber since Michael Owen’s Texas tuxedo.

 

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