The unfathomable Manchester United showed all their best and worst qualities, while Liverpool are making the group of death look a piece of p*ss…
What an infuriating headf*ck of a football team. And what a ride.
Even 12 hours after the event, it’s difficult to be too objective over another thrilling come-from-behind victory. At half-time, United were bottom of Group F. Within 45 minutes, they were top.
Understandably, the knives were out for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when United were booed off at the break. In the first half, they weren’t that bad. They certainly weren’t as wretched as they were at Leicester on Saturday. But evidently they hadn’t learned, even if their 4-1-5 formation from the weekend had been replaced by a more conservative yet equally dysfunctional 4-2-4.
They conceded two poor goals but should have been level – at least – at the break. And there was enough in their performance to make you think that United weren’t out of it if they just showed a bit of nous.
Bruno Fernandes was the architect of their fightback. The Portugal star dropped into the gaping void between United’s attack and their midfield and without that chasm in the middle, the hosts began to dominate. Fernandes’ pass for Marcus Rashford was a thing of beauty and with the deficit halved and momentum firmly in United’s favour, a leveller felt inevitable. As did a winner after Harry Maguire equalised with plenty of time remaining.
Of course it was Cristiano Ronaldo. More on him in a bit.
So what now? Christ knows. They are just as likely to get battered by Liverpool on Sunday as they are to become the first team to beat Jurgen Klopp’s side this season. Such unpredictability and inconsistency won’t silence Solskjaer’s critics, many of whom are by now too entrenched in their views to ever reconsider them. And he probably isn’t the man to lead this United team to the next step, but their flawed brilliance makes them one hell of an exhilarating watch.
8 – Bruno Fernandes created eight chances against Atalanta tonight, the most by a Manchester United player on record in a single Champions League game (since 2003-04). Ballin'. pic.twitter.com/C8i7IQro9v
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 20, 2021
“Some people said it was a signing for the league not United. Questioning that man… don’t make me laugh.”
Robbie Savage had it right. That there are people who view Ronaldo as a problem for United is genuinely amusing.
His thundering header to earn another late Champions League victory was his sixth goal in nine appearances. Sure, he doesn’t press like a greyhound on acid, but United were never any good at that anyway. That’s a collective flaw for Solskjaer to fix – whether he can is another matter – but one remedy Ronaldo offers is the guarantee of goals. Big, f***-off important ones too.
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) October 21, 2021
Our early winners have built another side to thrill the senses, spearheaded by another Premier League flop.
An easy win in which Jorginho became the first player since 1999 to score two penalties against different keepers in the same game came at a cost, with Thomas Tuchel’s front two both crocked.
But the holders but behind them their nightmare in Juventus with a clinical and controlled display to stay three points off Juve with Old Lady yet to visit the Bridge.
Manchester City made Club Brugge look like the Group A whipping boys that most expected them to be before the Belgians held PSG and beat Leipzig.
Brugge’s first two performances coupled with City’s defeat in Paris last time out made this appear a bigger test for last season’s finalists, but one they passed with flying colours.
It was a dominant performance from start to finish from Pep’s side, even if the opener took half an hour to arrive. And when it did, it had much to do with the brilliance of Phil Foden.
Having pulled England’s strings in Andorra from a deeper midfield position, so often picking out the runs of his left-back, Foden did the same in Belgium, dropping in to clip a glorious pass to the marauding Joao Cancelo.
Only this time he did it while playing as a false nine. But City don’t need a centre-forward if their full-backs bomb into the box like Cancelo and Kyle Walker in Bruges.
Both got on the scoresheet, with their bursts in between the hosts’ centre-backs and full-backs hinting at another tactical tweak by Guardiola to give opposition defences a different problem, especially with Foden’s laser-precise passing from deep.
The teenager bagged his first Champions League goal two minutes after coming off the bench, but Palmer shouldn’t expect increased involvement to immediately follow as a consequence.
“Cole has special quality in front of the box, a talent that is difficult to find,” said Guardiola, immediately before grounding the 19-year-old.
“His position is with the second team… people in this world want things immediately, quick, but everything takes time. You cannot cook a good dish if you don’t spend time in the kitchen.”
Try a Pot Noodle, Pep. It’ll change your life, fella.
Juve might have stumbled their way into the Serie A season but Dejan Kulusevski’s 86th-minute header helped them extend their perfect start in Europe.
The victory over Zenit set a Champions League record of seven consecutive away group-stage victories wins, easing past Chelsea and Manchester United’s benchmark of six.
The Reds continued to make a potential group of death look a piece of p*ss with a ‘dirty three points’ in Madrid.
It extended their unbeaten run in all competitions to 21, their longest such streak in the Premier League era.
Jurgen Klopp’s men can also secure a place in the knockout stages at the earliest possible opportunity when they host Atletico at Anfield next time out. They will have to defend better, but with his attack in this form, a few shaky moments shouldn’t overly concern Klopp, especially when his side are capable of digging in as they proved once again at the Wanda Metropolitana.
To Old Trafford they go, with their front three having scored 14 goals in their last four matches to meet a side incapable of keeping clean sheets at home.
Tuesday was also a night for personal milestones. Two goals against Atletico, including the winner from the penalty spot, takes Salah beyond Steven Gerrard as Liverpool’s top scorer in the Champions League.
While scoring his 11th and 12th goals in 11 matches, the Egyptian king also became the first Liverpool player to score in nine consecutive matches.
PSG were poor for large parts of their encounter with RB Leipzig and Messi anonymous. But still he bagged a brace, passed up the opportunity for a hat-trick to keep Kylian Mbappe happy, and the Parisians remain above Manchester City at the top of Group A. So that’ll do for now.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side remain similar to Manchester United: at the moment, far less than the sum of their parts.
The coach is quite obviously still working on the right formula to get the best of their ridiculous forward line while retaining an element of control in midfield. Which too often looks so overworked that the defence lacks the protection it still craves, even with those forwards.
Yet PSG celebrated a thrilling victory, sealed for them by Messi’s panenka. Many similar triumphs will follow but, in the meantime, Pochettino has plenty to do to perfect his blend if PSG are to win what they crave the most.
Cranky Ronald Koeman
A 1-0 win over Dynamo Kiev and their first points of the Champions League season keep Barca alive in Group E. But Koeman still wasn’t a happy bunny.
He felt Barca should have won more comfortably than by a single-goal scored by Gerard Pique to make him the club’s oldest ever scorer in the Champions League.
And Koeman is correct. It was hard to argue with this too: “When you have strikers who don’t possess the real quality, you can’t demand great finishing from them.”
But that doesn’t mean it was necessary to say it, with arse-covering his only motive.
Sunday: Bayern score four goals in a seven-minute span against Leverkusen
Wednesday: Bayern score four goals in a 12-minute span against Benfica
— B/R Football (@brfootball) October 20, 2021
No coach, no problem.
Julian Nagelsmann missed the trip to Benfica with what was later confirmed as a dose of the ‘rona. In his absence, it looked like being one of those nights for Bayern. Until it wasn’t.
They hit the woodwork three times and found Benfica keeper Odysseas Vlachodimos in ridiculous form. But even his resistance was broken by Leroy Sane’s free-kick and from there, the hosts caved in the face of Bayern’s brilliant relentlessness.
Sane was arguably Bayern’s most impressive individual in a fine collective performance which took their goal tally to 56 for the season – 20 more than Liverpool as the next highest scorers in Europe’s big leagues.
For all their dominance, Bayern still needed this frankly ludicrous save from their ludicrous goalkeeper…
Goalkeeper union tonight 🔝
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) October 20, 2021
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
If we must dissect United’s victory beyond the euphoria of a glorious fightback, then there are numerous aspects which again don’t paint Solskjaer in a good light.
It’s now a dozen games that United have failed to keep a clean sheet at home – their worst run since 1963-64. And that’s despite David De Gea suddenly remembering that he used to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
Structurally, United were once again a shambles in the first half. Solskjaer dropped Paul Pogba after trying him as part of a double pivot failed for the 427th time at the weekend, but even with McFred screening the back four, United were two teams within one: an offence and a defence, with a black hole in between. Fernandes filled that space in the second half, but we are at the stage now where it would come as no surprise if United’s players instigated that change, rather than their coaching staff, which includes a new set-piece coach who, evidently, has not got around yet to the defending side of his job.
In the first half, it is hard to decipher if United were instructed to be passive in their pressing or, again, they just couldn’t be arsed. Time and again, Atalanta played through them, in all areas of the field. The Italians really should have made more of that, even in the second half. Liverpool and Manchester City in the coming weeks surely will.
It was a night that will live long in the memory for anyone who was at Old Trafford to endure and enjoy it. But it had many echoes of David Moyes’ United fighting back from two down against Olympiacos in 2014 (albeit over two legs), or Jose Mourinho being bailed out by Alexis Sanchez when Newcastle led 2-0 with 20 minutes to go at Old Trafford shortly before Solskjaer arrived.
Thomas Tuchel’s attacking options
The win over Malmo came at the cost of two injuries that will keep Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner out for ‘some matches’.
At home against the Group H whipping boys, the temptation for Tuchel must have been to rest Lukaku, who has started every Premier League and Champions League game since joining Chelsea, as well as three matches for Belgium.
But Tuchel was more concerned with “mental fatigue” than physical tiredness, with the manager hoping that Malmo would offer Lukaku the opportunities to break his five-week, seven-game goalscoring drought. Instead, the centre-forward was crocked inside the first half, shortly before Werner suffered a similar fate.
In hindsight, it might have been wise to rest Lukaku, as Tuchel acknowledged after. Fortunately for Chelsea, they have a run of fixtures over the next month which should be simple enough to navigate without their ‘reference point’.
Ajax were so good, but Dortmund played their own part in their downfall in their biggest ever Champions League defeat.
Mats Hummels had his pants pulled down by Sebastien Haller; Axel Witsel; Jude Bellingham and Julian Brandt were given a chasing in midfield; while even Erling Haaland looked out of sorts when presented with three opportunities.
That keeper Gregor Kobel was Dortmund’s best player despite conceding four offers a damning insight into their performance.
At least Dortmund recognise their own shortcomings: “Ajax were sharper, more on it, and we were soft,” Hummels said after. This defeat in isolation shouldn’t dent too greatly their Champions League prospects but a swift refocus is required, with revenge available when Ajax go to Germany in a fortnight.
Our early losers waited seven years for another crack at the Champions League. But it’s gone all to sh*t inside three games.
The win over Atletico was Keita’s Liverpool career in microcosm: Scored a belter; struggled defensively; hooked.
For the third time in the last year Keita was replaced at half-time and only when Fabinho came on did Liverpool’s midfield begin to function properly.
Klopp has preached patience with the Guinean who has struggled with injuries too and the manager has also acknowledged the demands of playing in his midfield. He defended Keita again on Tuesday night.
About the substitution, Klopp said: “First and foremost, it was nothing to do with Naby – we just had to defend the right side a bit better.” Which sounds like it had a lot to do with Keita.
The Atletico boss spoke pre-match of his admiration for Liverpool’s defensive qualities, so the visitors’ fragility at the back took him somewhat by surprise, while being infuriated by his own side’s inability to punish them.
“I don’t know if Liverpool have defended like this before,” he said. “We had clear chances.”
The officiating didn’t help Simeone’s mood. Antoine Griezmann was sent off for unintentionally but obviously endangering Roberto Firmino’s pearly-whites, while Atletico fell to a late penalty before seeing their own rescinded after VAR’s intervention.
Simeone reacted poorly by storming down the tunnel at full-time. Klopp wasn’t happy with his own reaction either and both diffused the situation soon after. But his petulance purveyed his obvious frustration over an opportunity missed by Atletico.
Replacing Nagelsmann was always a tall order for the American coach, especially when Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer followed their old boss to Bayern and Ibrahima Konate departed for Anfield. But no points and 11 goals conceded is still below par for a Leipzig side who were thought capable of testing PSG and Man City in Group A.
Leipzig made the Parisiens sweat on Tuesday night, capitalising on sloppy defensive moments to come from behind and lead in the second half. But Marsch’s men suffered their own mishaps to let slip their advantage and remain pointless at the foot of the table.
Marsch’s task now is to ensure that Leipzig do not follow last season’s progression from an equally tough group to the round of 16 with an absence of even Europa League football in the New Year. Before then, Marsch faces a crucial run of fixtures that could determine his future.
Leipzig’s players are clearly still grafting for Marsch, but three wins from 11 games so far makes the scrutiny inevitable.