Liverpool top Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 12th December 2019 9:56

Winners

Liverpool
The substantial lead they hold in the Premier League more than justifies the slightly off-key performances given in Europe. The loss in Napoli, Salzburg’s comeback at Anfield and then this, an exciting but loose showing in Austria.

But they’re through and that’s all that matters. To draw a further positive, this win featured another encouraging moment from Naby Keita (which Wednesday’s mailbox enjoyed) and an excellent performance from Alisson. If anyone needed further reassurance about the importance of good goalkeeping, then they can find it in this game: swap Alisson and Cican Stankovic around and Liverpool might now be out of the Champions League.

One of the wider observations about their season has been that, in spite of its obvious excellence, it hasn’t often featured Liverpool’s very best football in high concentration. Often, because – as Matt Stead wrote – Jurgen Klopp has to cope without important players.

That was true again on Tuesday night, but what seems increasingly valuable is their ability to come out on the right side of the small moments. Not to author a succession of exhilarating performances across 90 minutes, but to produce fleeting, joined-up class in a way which changes the balance of a game. Sometimes they’re just quite fortunate.

In Salzburg it was Keita’s header, Salah’s angled finish and two appalling decisions by Stankovic. It’s a pattern which has been on repeat for some time now and which, in this instance, fatally punctured Salsburg’s optimism.

Perhaps it’s also indicative of something else? It happens too often to be a coincidence, so maybe this is a vivid sign of Liverpool’s psychological growth under Klopp?

 

Chelsea
A ‘winner’ in the sense that they’re through, but it’s progress with a couple of asterisks. Sarah Winterburn has you covered.

 

Valencia
It’s just a shame they stopped playing halfway through. After 45 minutes, this had been a very accomplished away performance. A neat move finished by Rodrigo had given Valencia the lead and, just before the break, he was worked into a position at the back post from which he really should have added a second.

But they retreated. Still, in so doing they ended up producing a masterclass in cynical football. In time-wasting, in taking every cheap foul on offer and antagonising Ajax to the point where their neat triangles receded, their chance creation shrank to almost nil and their discipline and composure became increasingly tenuous.

Call it ugly and manipulative, but Valencia got over the line, got their win and will take their place in the knockout stages for the first time since 2013.

Put that into context. Marcelino was sacked less than a week before the first game of the group stage. The man who replaced him, Albert Celades, had no prior head-coaching experience in the Champions League or anywhere else. He’d been an assistant at Real Madrid and also with the Spanish national team, but the bulk of his coaching career had been spent with the RFEF’s age group sides.

Whatever the aesthetics, this has proved one of the stories of the group stage.

 

Jesse Marsch
RB Salzburg are out, but the first American to coach in the Champions League departs with his reputation very much enhanced.

The clamour around Erling Haaland has made it easier to miss the bigger picture with Salzburg and Marsch, but look closer at some of the Norwegian’s goals. Well-taken though they were, he was really the beneficiary of excellent build-up and, often, lightning quick counter-attacks which cut defences to ribbons. They were in evidence, again, against Liverpool – see the move which resulted in that 26th minute chance, for instance.

Credit Marsch with the construction, then. But also for his assimilation into European football, because that has been difficult for Americans in the past. They’ve struggled for credibility. Irrespective of what their talents may be, there’s something about their accent or even just the sporting culture they represent which, for whatever reason, has been prohibitive to their migration.

Remember the interview Bob Bradley did at Swansea during which he had to deny that he referred to penalties as ‘PKs’? It’s that – the suspicion. As if, left unsupervised, an American coach would soon be leading his players through the Lord’s Prayer in the dressing-room and wearing a Foam Dome in the technical area.

Marsch is challenging that caricature. He’s grown up in the Red Bull system – or Death Star, depending on your perspective – and that has made life easier this season, but his players evidently find him compelling and credible and, as has been proven before, that’s half the battle.

Third place takes him and them into the Europa League and having held Napoli away and roughed up Liverpool in both games, absolutely nobody will want that draw.

 

Takumi Minamino, Enock Mwepu and Hee-Chan Hwang
One advantage of the Haaland fever which seems to have struck every major club in Europe, from Salzburg’s perspective at least, is that perhaps nobody noticed quite how good these three are? Until now.

 

Ansu Fati
Now the youngest goalscorer in Champions League history – and the goal which gave him that title described exactly why Fati is prized.

Call it vision, perhaps. Not in the traditional, playmaking sense, but the way in which certainly players can see opportunity for themselves and plot a mental route through a defence. That’s what made his winning goal at San Siro so striking.

When he received the pass from Arturo Vidal, Fati was confronted by three midfielders screening and three defenders sitting. All six were between him and the goal, with no obvious passing option available. A quick pivot and twist and he’d wriggled free of the attention, exchanged passes with Luis Suarez, and manufactured a shooting angle. And even then, one with almost no margin for error, which needed a precise finish across one of the best goalkeepers in Europe.

That’s why people are excited by him: Fati is technically excellent, but he also understands how to prosper in the game’s nooks and crannies.

 

Phil Foden
Timely. Pep Guardiola must be desperate to infuse his side with some life, so Foden chose an opportune moment to prove that he can provide some energy. This wasn’t a perfect performance. Actually, at times his eagerness to take his chance led to some poor decisions. But – but – when City were behind and needed some momentum, Foden provided it with that run from his own half which eventually, after he’d somehow survived three dreadful tackles in a row, resulted in Gabriel Jesus’s opening goal.

It did him the power of good, too. If the first half showed him playing with a rather frantic intent, the second revealed his more measured abilities. Guardiola will hopefully have noted just how well he started to combine with Benjamin Mendy, sliding passes to the byline and pushing the full-back into space and crossing position, and also the quality of Foden’s decisions after he’d made an initial surge.

He knows when to take defenders on and he understands when to release a pass. Simple enough, but it still makes him rare and, in this instance, worth many more minutes in the Premier League.

 

Gabriel Jesus
This more or less was a perfect performance. A hat-trick, with each goal illustrating a different part of Jesus’s value. That unlikely heading ability for the first, the nerveless skill for the second and the excellent movement for third.

Right on time, because his reputation has been on the retreat for a while. On this basis, though, Sergio Aguero needn’t be hurried back and Jesus might be the forward he was thought to be at first glance.

 

Losers

Inter Milan
Who didn’t see this coming?

Whatever combining Antonio Conte and Inter Milan may yet produce, it was never going to be a success in Europe. Conte because he’s never been able to bend the Champions League to his will and Inter because they have such flair for these little catastrophes.

This was also a Barcelona team in name only. It wasn’t quite a reserve side, but it was as weak a proposition as Inter could have hoped to face in a situation – crucially – within which they were the only ones with anything to play for. Barcelona already had the group won, so out trotted:

Neto; Lenglet, Umtiti, Todibo; Wague, Firpo; Alena, Rakitic, Vidal; Griezmann, Carles.

To make this more of an anomaly, Inter have been excellent in Serie A. They rightly sit in first place and they’ve conceded just 13 goals in 15 games. That makes the very loose defending against Barcelona (for both goals) very difficult to explain. In fact, not just loose, but fearful and passive. That showed for Carles’ goal and more vividly for Ansu Fati’s, but also in the chance that Clement Lenglet screwed wide from a corner.

It was just hopeless at times and indicative of a side who didn’t have the nerve for an occasion which – really – should have been unsettling for their opposition instead.

 

Romelu Lukaku
He doesn’t deserve to be criticised, but he will be. Lukaku is doomed to this existence for the duration of his career. That Inter found a way back into their game on Tuesday owed a debt to his partnership with Lautaro Martinez and the excellent equaliser they foraged late in the second half was a measure of their combination’s potency.

But the tumble into the Europa League will draw an accusatory finger. Most likely, it will be pointing at Lukaku for the chance he lashed aimlessly at Neto. `

He gives and he takes away and he seems destined never to escape the perception which has built up around him. Part of the problem are the warring factions who fight over him; the world seems to be divided into people who think either he’s a phenomenon or that he’s absolute dross. The result being that he attracts these very binary assessments which can often co-exist within the same game.

As they did on Tuesday.

 

Ajax
There will be no redemption and no second act. Ajax were probably owed something in recompense for that shattering defeat to Tottenham last season, but they didn’t get it here – and they have themselves to blame for that.

Their 0-1 loss to Valencia was a failure of mentality. They let everything get to them: the referee (who was weak and petty), their opponents (who bought countless soft free-kicks), and ultimately the occasion itself. From the moment they fell behind to Rodrigo’s first-half goal, Ajax looked panicked and began to force the issue with an urgency that wasn’t required.

By full-time they had dominated possession, taken 16 shots on goal, but hit the target with just three of them. That in itself describes the issue. Their play was quick and rash, their chance creation seemed reliant on doing everything as fast and as desperately as possible, and they ultimately lacked the craft to find the goal they needed. By the end, they were just lumping long balls towards the 36-year-old Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

But are we surprised? After all, this is the same team who conspired to lose a three-goal lead to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, allowed Michy Batshuayi a cheap and avoidable winner in the reverse fixture, and who have been showing signs of being brittle all the way through this group campaign.

It makes sense: lose players of the calibre of Frenkie de Jong and the standing – and psychology worth – of Matthijs de Ligt and there’ll be a price to pay. In this case, that cost was a team which looked they should be too good for Valencia – and who were in the 3-0 win at the Mestalla – but who now haven’t the intangibles to stand up to pressure when it matters.

More on them here, from Matt.

 

Gabriel Paulista
…and somewhere in Madrid, Diego Costa smirked.

As red cards go, this came very close to delivering a perfect karma. Had Gabriel not tried to buy a cheap free-kick with a ludicrous dive, then he probably wouldn’t have found himself in an angry confrontation with Dusan Tadic. He probably wouldn’t have headbutted Tadic either, the Serbian might not have flopped to the floor as if uppercut by Anthony Joshua and the referee, possibly with a little burst of righteousness, definitely wouldn’t have sent him off.

But he did, he did, he did and he did.

The Premier League isn’t poorer for his absence, but it’s also not as funny.

 

Kyle Walker-Peters
This was probably a last chance for him at Tottenham. Needless to say, it’s one which has passed him by. He just no longer looks like he can cope at this level of the game.

Fans have a complex relationship with homegrown players and that’s true in this instance, too. Walker-Peters was a very fine youth prospect, that wasn’t an illusion, but the loyalty to him is now misplaced. His situation probably isn’t his fault, because he hasn’t been given the opportunities to stake a proper claim or even develop as a player. After all, nobody ever made a career out of 12 Premier League appearances in three years.

But whomever is to blame, the result is the same: a player with no confidence whatsoever, no feel for the team around him and, sad as it is to say, probably no future under Jose Mourinho. He needs a move.

 

Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose
Dead-rubber fixtures can actually be quite useful. They may not have consequences, but because they feature players outside the first team they can describe a squad’s overall health.

In that regard, this was a discouraging Tottenham performance. Not because they lost, that doesn’t matter, but because it featured so much apathy. Ryan Sessegnon had a good game, so did Juan Foyth and, briefly, so did Oliver Skipp. Other than that, nobody really made an overwhelming case to be included at Wolves on Sunday.

It’s also a shame that this is how two fine Spurs careers will ultimately end. Week to week, Christian Eriksen continues to be a pale imitation of what he was and give performances which would dissuade any major club from taking an interest in him.

Danny Rose, who was dismal again in Munich, has publicly confirmed his intention to see out his contract. Rose is a valuable part of the conversations which surround racism and mental health in football, he’s an important voice, but – from a pure footballing perspective – this past 18 months really haven’t flattered him.

So, yes, the first team has improved and the results under Mourinho reflect that, but it also seems that long-term progress can only really begin once both players have left the club.

These two are a malignancy. Eriksen because his focus and commitment are so poor. Rose because who knows when he’ll next spill club business across The Sun’s back page; his professed loyalty to Mauricio Pochettino makes him a natural liability in the Mourinho era.

 

VAR
Amer Gojek’s elbow on Rhodri just before half-time in Zagreb was a red card. That’s not debatable or subjective – you cannot look at an opponent and then very deliberately strike him in the face.

In a pre-VAR era, perhaps a referee could have been forgiven for missing the intent within the incident, but now, at a time when minutes are being taken over microscopic offside decisions and phantom handballs, it’s an unforgivable mistake.

It’s just yet another balls-up, isn’t it? Yet another contradiction that erodes at VAR’s credibility. If the systems can’t be relied upon to get these really easy – and major – decisions right, why do the pernickety intrusions have to be tolerated at all.

 

Felix Zwayer
Zwayer took charge of Shakhtar against Atalanta and, on this evidence, he’s one of those preening, performative referees who makes a lot of hand gestures and ‘authority’ faces.

Unfortunately for that sense of self, he also made the worst decision of this or many other nights. If you haven’t already, have a look at the tackle which didn’t result in a second yellow card for Luis Muriel. Atalanta scored the first of the three goals which took them through just a few minutes later so, with Shakhtar needing just a point to advance, that was the moment which decided the group.

Or, translated, a referee decided the group with an inexplicable error.

 

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

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