Solskjaer tops Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 22nd October 2020 12:38

Champions League winners

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Returning to the scene of where he secured the Manchester United job on a permanent basis, Solskjaer inspired a victory which could go a long way to ensuring he keeps that job.

This victory over PSG, though, was different to the last. In March last year, with United in flying form domestically, they went to France and carried out the perfect smash-and-grab job. On Tuesday night, back at the Parc des Princes after a wretched start to the Premier League season, United went toe-to-toe with their hosts, with Solskjaer striking the perfect balance between sitting back and flying forward.

The Red Devils, missing their two most senior centre-backs, opted for a three-man defence, a system which worked so well for them last season against Chelsea and Manchester City, and one which has a proven record of success when the mighty Manchester United become the underdogs. The tactical plan was carried out almost to perfection. The visitors soaked up whatever Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Angel Di Maria could muster while penetrating PSG’s patchy rearguard, most often with balls played over the top into the channels for Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to hare after.

It is hardly the most imaginative or sophisticated plan, but sometimes these things don’t require overthinking. It is easier when there is already a blueprint to follow, but Solskjaer still needed to organise what for much of this season could be described as a rabble into a cohesive unit efficient at both ends.

While it was a victory for the collective, individual performances cannot be ignored and United, to a man, were hugely impressive. The back six were outstanding, with David De Gea and Victor Lindelof putting behind them some ropey recent contributions, while Axel Tuanzebe had no recent body of work whatsoever. Either side of the back three, Alex Telles looked extremely assured on his United debut, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka was very much at home focusing on what he does best: tackling.

Solskjaer shielded them with Fred and Scott McTominay, planning to supplement Bruno Fernandes’ creativity with Paul Pogba for the last quarter. That paid off too, with Pogba playing his part in the winning goal, another stunning late intervention from Rashford, who had been running tirelessly once more without anything ever quite coming off. Not that that bothered him if his 87th-minute touch and strike is anything to go by.

Of course, the concern with United is always what comes next. So often they put in performances like this, sometimes in consecutive games, but so rarely is it three or four on the bounce. Which is what is required now, with Chelsea, RB Leipzig and Arsenal next up and memories of this, this and this still lingering.

But Solskjaer can at least relax, just briefly, having shown himself again to be the man for a certain occasion when United need organisation and discipline.


Axel Tuanzebe

The 22-year-old’s timing is impeccable. With United in dire need of a competent partner for Harry Maguire, Tuanzebe returned from 10 months on the sidelines and pocketed Mbappe on his first appearance since facing Colchester in the Carabao Cup before last Christmas.

For the love of God, just stay fit now…

Liverpool’s Van Dijk-less defence

After a wretched couple of weeks which have seen Liverpool concede nine goals in two games and their best defender for a prolonged period – perhaps even longer than was initially thought – what Jurgen Klopp really needed was a sedate evening in Amsterdam, which Fabinho did more than anyone to deliver.

Without one of his two remaining senior centre-backs, Klopp had no choice but to pair the holding midfielder with Joe Gomez for the first time, but Fabinho ensured that rarely did their unfamiliarity show.

The holding midfielder was flawless in a first half which Ajax sought to drive at Klopp’s patchwork rearguard, but Fabinho absorbed everything at the Johan Cruyff Arena. Neither Dusan Tadic’s passes and flicks, nor the pace and skill of David Neres and Quincy Promes, could flummox Fabinho and on the one occasion it seemed that Ajax had him and Adrian beaten, Van Dijk’s stand-in rescued Liverpool with a spectacular goal-line clearance to keep out Tadic’s chip.

There was some evidence of Fabinho and Gomez needing to become better acquainted in the second half but the pair still delivered only a second clean sheet of the season, even if the Liverpool boss says he won’t “hang the clean sheet too high” because of a couple of mis-steps from a makeshift pairing. But this was Fabinho’s fourth clean sheet in five games as a starting centre-back which, on this evidence, he is destined to remain.


Chelsea’s new stoppers

A Chelsea clean sheet? This season really is full of surprises…

The 0-0 draw with Europa League winners Sevilla on Tuesday night was notable for little else, but Frank Lampard has to be satisfied since his side have looked so porous this season. Kepa’s absence was perhaps no coincidence but the Blues’ defensive problems extend far beyond their shaky Spanish stopper.

So Thiago Silva’s return was as welcome as Edouard Mendy’s in the sticks. Both brought some calm where Lampard has seen little but chaos this term.

But Lampard can’t have it all yet. In this goalless draw, the first of the manager’s reign, Chelsea looked a shadow of the force they can be going forward. So still the Blues look for balance. But Lampard will take encouragement from the way in which his defence restricted a dangerous Sevilla side to just two attempts on Mendy’s goal in open play.




Ferran Torres

Pep Guardiola praised a ‘perfect performance’ from Manchester City in their win over Porto. But the most gushing praise was reserved for two players who sat on the sidelines until the last quarter.

“It was an incredible combination from Phil Foden and Ferran,” said Guardiola after the youngsters came off the bench to see City home. They were introduced just after Ilkay Gundogan had nudged City ahead and both combined wonderfully for Torres to net a fine third within five minutes of his entrance.

It has been a comfortable introduction to English football for Torres, who has shown glimpses of providing the directness that City too often lacked in Leroy Sane’s absence last season. Even on Wednesday, after initially going behind, City passed with their usual intensity but Porto were often content to allow their hosts to keep the ball moving so long as it wasn’t being carried through them.

With the game still in the balance, off the bench came Torres and a different threat, one which Guardiola will relish as an addition to City’s arsenal this term.


Ciro Immobile

Lazio’s anonymous goal machine…


Barcelona’s old and new threats

Lionel Messi ‘could be better’, apparently. That was the claim of Ronald Koeman earlier this week and the Barcelona genius proved the manager’s point with glimpses of his old self in the 5-1 win over Ferencvaros.

Messi won and converted the penalty to get Barca going at the Nou Camp, before Ansu Fati doubled their lead. Messi’s strike makes it 16 consecutive seasons in which the Argentina star has scored in the Champions League. Fati’s makes him the first player to score more than once in the competition before his 18th birthday.

Messi and Fati combined dangerously with Francisco Trincao in perhaps the most threatening attacking performance of Koeman’s reign so far. Just in time too with Real Madrid and Juventus to come in the next week.


Romelu Lukaku

A brace, including a 90th-minute leveller, means Lukaku has now scored in nine straight European matches – ten in total – for Inter Milan, who badly needed the Belgian’s intervention to avoid another defeat in the wake of losing the Milan derby.


Bayern Munich

The reigning champions of, well, everything put ‘the thugs of Europe’ in their place on the 20th occasion they have scored four or more goals under Hansi Flick. He has been in charge less than a year.

As the only natural wide player in Flick’s side, Kingsley Coman again did the business in the Champions League…


Aiming to prove that last season’s run to the quarter-finals was no fluke, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side got back on track after the weekend’s big defeat to Napoli thanks to their customary hatful of goals – 18 in five games so far this term – with Duvan Zapata scoring one and making two in the 4-0 victory over Group D whipping boys Midtjylland.


Alvaro Morata

The Spanish striker is back in the only place he ever seemed truly happy and his early form for Juventus suggests he is thriving being among friends once more.

His brace to give Andrea Pirlo’s side a 2-0 win at Dynamo Kiev summed up what Morata can offer but rarely has he offered that anywhere but Juve.

His first, a predatory tap-in pouncing on a rebound, was followed by a near-post header. That’s three goals in four days for the on-loan centre-forward.

Aaron Ramsey too deserves a mention for making his 50th Champions League appearance, highlighting it with a backheel to help set up Morata’s opener.


Shakhtar Donetsk

The Ukrainians overcame the ‘nightmare’ of losing TEN players because of Covid to humiliate Real Madrid on their own turf by racing into a three-goal half-time lead.

Mateus Tete took centre-stage, scoring the first and creating the third. Real never got to grips with Brazilian’s forays off the right flank and had the 20-year-old been more clinical in the second period, the scoreline would have remained as resounding as it was at half-time, even allowing for Real’s two goals in the second period when they belatedly showed some back bone.

Sergio Ramos

Real have lost seven of their last eight matches which have not featured Ramos. Which will come in very useful in contract negotiations.



Champions League losers

Real Madrid

“This is a negative night for us but we have to change things… this is football, one day everything is grey and the next the sun comes out.”

Zinedine Zidane offered a half-hearted rallying call after Real’s humiliating home defeat but with El Classico on the horizon, the forecast doesn’t look that great.

‘Every day it’s worse’ was Marca‘s assessment after Real followed the weekend’s home defeat to Cadiz with further humiliation to plummet to a 34-year low. Zidane’s side, not long ago the Champions League specialists, have now lost three consecutive matches in the competition for the first time since September 1986.

Zidane and Modric both pointed to a lack of confidence but that is too simple an explanation to explain Real’s miserable form. The need for change is clear but Zidane, after keeping his players in the dressing room for an hour after the game, seemed unsure how he might achieve that before going to the Nou Camp on Saturday.

Zidane can point to some defensive injuries, especially on the right, which saw Marcelo start and proceed to have a shocker. A similarly careless display at the Nou Camp will surely be more ruthlessly punished by Barca’s front three than even Shakhtar’s second string achieved on Wednesday.


Proof, if proof were needed, that money can’t buy happiness


Travel-sick Borussia Dortmund

The Germans got their Champions League campaign off to a woefully sloppy start. they were slack at the back, and punished with two goals inside the opening quarter of the game, and though they had chances to claw their way back, Lucian Favre’s men were wasteful in front of goal.

“It was a desolate performance… we made a lot of mistakes and absolutely deserved to lose,” said Sebastian Kehl. It is becoming a habit when Dortmund leave Germany.

Defeat in Rome was Dortmund’s sixth defeat in nine European away games under Favre and they have lost their last four on the road, their worst run in 62 years.


Atletico Madrid

Diego Simeone was left with a ‘bad taste’ after Atletico managed just a single shot on target in their joint-worst defeat in the Champions League.

But El Cholo was willing to consider the size of the challenge before Atletico and instead he looked for the positives, with Hector Herrera, Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente picked out for praise, despite the resounding defeat.

“I do not know if we made too many mistakes or if it was the quality of the opponent,” Simeone said and Herrera agreed: “We played the champions face to face, the best team in the world.”

With Lokomotiv Moscow and RB Salzburg drawing in the other Group A encounter, the sour taste is unlikely to linger.


Antonio Conte

“I have nothing to reproach the lads for,” said Conte, perhaps sensing that his Inter players were feeling a little delicate after being rescued once more by Lukaku.

But privately, Conte will be stewing. Inter took a lead which they subsequently blew through individual errors on the parts of Stefan De Vrij and Arturo Vidal. Were it not for Lukaku, Conte might not have been in the mood to be so forgiving.

Defeat in their Champions League opener would have compounded Conte’s worst start to a season as a manager. Never before has he collected a tally as low as seven points from his teams’ opening four games. Neither has he conceded as many goals quite so quickly – it took twice the number of games to ship the same number last term.


AVB’s Greek tragedy

Andre Villas-Boas was similarly protective of his players on Wednesday night. Marseille fell to defeat in added time at Olympiacos but Villas-Boas was willing to take the blame.

“I have no criticism of my players, I was chasing the win,” he said. “If my players aren’t capable of performing at the top level then I am responsible for that, and it’s down to me to get them up to Champions League standard, to make them improve still further.”

Defeat wasn’t made any easier to swallow by the fact that Hassan Maghoub’s last-gasp winner was set up by former Marseille star Mathieu Valbuena. AVB has less than a week to get Marseille up to scratch for the visit of Guardiola and Manchester City next Tuesday.


Ian Watson

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