There are kind Champions League words reserved for Shakhtar and Richarlison but Chelsea and Leipzig may not be alone in sacking their manager.
“We played with our hearts,” said manager Igor Jovicevic. “When you play with your heart for the country, for Ukraine, then you have a result like today. I am proud of the team and can say that now I am the happiest coach in the world.”
The 48-year-old had never managed a single game in European competition. Left-back Yukhym Konoplya and Marian Shved were making their continental debuts. Lucas Taylor had never played in the Champions League before.
All but two members of the starting XI had eight or fewer career Champions League appearances. All but two members of the starting XI joined Shakhtar aged 16 or younger. More than half had not yet turned 24.
Shakhtar lost coach Roberto De Zerbi in the summer and of the 15 players who featured for 1,000 minutes or more in the 2021/22 season, 11 have either left permanently or on loan, including bona fide regulars in Tete, Marcos Antonio, Dodo, Marlos and Maycon. That Brazilian contingent, all of whom fled the country at the outbreak of the Russian invasion in March, was almost apologetic to the teammates they had to leave behind.
And it was not as if Shakhtar received millions in fees for those talents: the vast majority left after a FIFA ruling permitted players to depart Ukrainian clubs this year by temporarily suspending their contracts. This rebuild has required craft and invention, two facets characteristic of a breathtaking victory over RB Leipzig.
When Shakhtar started their Ukrainian league season on August 23, they were playing their first competitive game since December 11. Before even flying to Germany they had to drive to Poland and undergo extensive checks at the border. Many of these players had lost family or friends on the frontline, or knew that was where they remained stationed.
Yet above those challenges, physical and mental, Shakhtar rose. In doing so, they bridged a technical gap to the theoretically better side in Leipzig, who didn’t know what hit them. They did Ukraine incredibly proud.
Before this season, Ante Cacic had managed five games in the Champions League. They each came in the 2012/13 group stage, with the Croatian overseeing an aggregate defeat of 13-0 against Porto, Paris Saint-Germain and Dynamo Kyiv. He was not afforded the sixth and final match as he was sacked less than a year into his reign.
Cacic returned as interim Dinamo manager in April, his 21st different managerial post. The 68-year-old guided them to the title, through a Champions League qualifying route including Ludogorets and last season’s Europa League darlings Bodo/Glimt, and into a group from which anything more than a couple of draws would have represented success.
With London slayer Mislav Orsic (five goals in as many games against Chelsea, Spurs and West Ham), the phenomenal Robert Ljubicic and the rest of his Dinamo charges putting in a composed, controlled and committed performance, they exceeded those expectations on the first matchday.
Chelsea were the story then and that sense has only been solidified in the days since. But having previewed “the biggest match of my career” beforehand, the efforts of Cacic and his team made for an engrossing subplot.
It requires a certain set of attributes for a fanbase to take to a new signing so quickly.
Tangible effort is a prerequisite, as well as passion. Supporters yearn to see hard miles and mocked though you may be for celebrating a not actually decisive and later disallowed goal against a promoted team by removing one’s shirt, those kind of actions are crucial: it is endearing to fans of your new team, and it demands that they defend you against derision of scoffing rivals, thus indirectly forming an unbreakable bond.
But the final condition is perhaps the most overlooked when it comes to Richarlison: they have to actually be good, to pop up in the pivotal moments, to offer something different. Tottenham were geared for a disappointing opening draw at home to 10-man Marseille. Richarlison turned one point into three. He is a sh*thouse and precisely the kind of player only a mother could love, but he’s also really quite an impressive footballer.
So that’s what the fuss was all about.
There is a beautiful juxtaposition surrounding Jude Bellingham: as frenzied as the inevitable auction will be, the prize on offer remains tranquil and serene. He barely even broke stride for his goal, jogging to receive Youssoufa Moukoko’s pass and play it wide to Giovanni Reyna with the same one touch, then strolling unmarked into the area to stroke his finish into the far corner.
That degree of assured confidence from a teenager under such an intense microscope at the elite level is sickening. It will be a remarkably fortunate club that signs him next summer.
It is important to periodically remind ourselves that England have a laughably deep pool of talent operating at a remarkably high level. Phil Foden is not alone in being pushed slightly off centre stage by his new cyborg teammate but he continues to impress in the relative shadows.
When he and Erling Haaland shared a moment on the pitch after the first leg of Manchester City’s Champions League quarter-final win over Borussia Dortmund last April, in which Foden scored the winner, the Norwegian striker was said to have joked: “I’m the one who was supposed to score the goals.” That is the case now more than ever but Foden is no afterthought.
Not kidding about those English players. Gareth Southgate will hardly be frantically altering the seating plan for the flight to Qatar but it is an almost unique delight to see an academy graduate from a top Premier League club fail to make the first-team grade before finding their feet abroad. It has taken time but Marcus Edwards plugged away, got his move to Sporting Lisbon in January and is now a Champions League goalscorer.
In the last decade or so, Benfica have sold three centre-halves to Premier League clubs for considerable sums. David Luiz went to Chelsea for £21.5m. Victor Lindelof headed to Manchester United for £30.75m. Ruben Dias joined Manchester City for £65m.
Antonio Silva could well be the next cab off that rank. The 18-year-old didn’t miss a minute of Benfica’s charge to UEFA Youth League glory last season, during which those young Eagles kept seven clean sheets in 10 games. The step-up to seniority was relatively kind – a home game against Maccabi Haifa – but it was a challenge he nevertheless mastered with a spectacular display of accurate, varied passing and poised defending.
Losing your manager and seven players who made at least 30 appearances last season during a summer in which your net spend is -£100m or so might ordinarily unsettle a team but equally Ajax have won all five of their Eredivisie games and stuck four past the Europa League runners-up so they seem to have things under control really.
A teenage centre-half making his seventh senior career appearance and fifth start probably shouldn’t already be scoring winning goals in the Champions League but to each their own.
Not since October 2019 had Eden Hazard scored and assisted a goal in the same game for club or country. Not since October 2017 had Eden Hazard scored a Champions League goal in open play. Good for him.
Eden Hazard vs. Celtic:
▪️ Subbed on in the 30th minute for injured Benzema
▪️ Pass to Valverde who assisted Vinicius for Real Madrid’s first goal
▪️ Assisted Modrić’s goal
▪️ Scored Madrid’s third
Vintage performance ✨ pic.twitter.com/obs5fk6wFz
— B/R Football (@brfootball) September 6, 2022
Those glorious minutes played so far this season, in order: 28, 28, 26, 27, 29. And in that time Antoine Griezmann has still scored three times for Atletico Madrid since returning on loan, including the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Valencia, and the stoppage-time winner against Porto.
Stick your lever, Barca.
The first player to score a Champions League hat-trick for three different clubs. He is only two tournament trebles off the current record, jointly held by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, which is faintly ludicrous.
The last three Chelsea managers to vacate their posts mid-season did so after games in different competitions. Jose Mourinho was sacked following a Premier League defeat in December 2015. Frank Lampard was ushered out the door after an FA Cup game in January 2021. And his replacement, Thomas Tuchel, bid farewell after only his fourth loss in 18 Champions League matches for the club.
It neatly sums up the delicate plates a Blues boss is constantly required to spin.
Tuchel was expected to combine that rare pressure with roles as deputy sporting director this summer, crisis mediator before then and public face of a club whose very future was in significant doubt for the final months of last season.
His sacking is as regrettable as it was inevitable, the perhaps necessary victim of a new owner determined to herald a fresh chapter.
Results had turned. Performances, too. The display against Dinamo Zagreb was pathetic. But the timing of the decision is baffling.
Chelsea have just navigated their first post-Abramovich window, in which a record spend was sanctioned and some of those signed were done so specifically for Tuchel. And when not even three weeks have passed since the German confirmed he was in negotiations over a contract extension, the entire scenario feels like yet another avoidable mess at Stamford Bridge.
In their nascent existence, RB Leipzig have employed 10 different permanent managers. Only two have lasted as little as eight months. That it is both of the last two incumbents rather sums up the malaise in which Germany’s least popular club finds themselves.
Jesse Marsch was a failed experiment given little time. Domenico Tedesco was a stop-gap who ostensibly earned a longer stay. But it was never going to work and despite combining the club’s first trophy – the DFB-Pokal – with Champions League qualification last season, this union was never meant to be more than fleeting.
Marco Rose is expected to be next in line but applying yet more paper over the cracks with an unimaginative Bundesliga veteran appointment feels like the opposite of what Leipzig once strived for, even if Max Eberl will soon arrive to try and rekindle their Gladbach success.
Changing managers is easy but does nothing to address deep-lying issues. As CEO, Oliver Mintzlaff ought to be shuffling far more uncomfortably in his own seat due to poor recruitment and an increasing culture of player power.
Seven games into the season, Liverpool have only been leading for roughly 88 minutes. All but one of those came at home to Bournemouth but against Fulham, Crystal Palace, Manchester United, Newcastle and Everton, the Reds suffered and struggled.
Then came Napoli. Liverpool lost here at the height of their powers in the group stages of both 2018/19 and 2019/20. But this was no ordinary defeat. It exposed the human frailties of a once logic-defying team; the defending for that second goal in particular was genuinely worse than anything served up during the Souness and Hodgson years, or the final days of Benitez and Rodgers.
That ‘Klopp out?’ is a question that can no longer be summarily dismissed with a disbelieving snicker speaks volumes. This is veering towards something drastic.
The hat-trick of midweek managerial sackings was almost completed but Julen Lopetegui hangs on by a thread at Sevilla. It does still feel more like a case of when rather than if: one point from four La Liga games, a 4-0 home thrashing by Manchester City and a substandard summer transfer window will do that, especially after ending the previous campaign in atrocious form.
Not that Lopetegui should have sought solace in the Champions League, having now won just one of his last nine games in the competition. It turns out 36-year-old Jesus Navas at right-back and Isco as a false nine is not the answer. Nor is a pair of novice 20-year centre-halves against Erling Haaland.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst
Turning Ally McCoist into a less performative but equally as furious version of Roy Keane is a sackable offence in itself, leaving aside consecutive 4-0 defeats.
It was like when that one teacher everybody likes and gets along with at school lays into the class for underperformance. There is a feeling of shock but above all shame at letting them down.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst can claim that Rangers should not be expected to compete with their group-stage opponents but that does not excuse the lack of effort and care that underpinned an embarrassing defeat. The Europa League runners-up looked amateurish.
And when the manager makes one change to a team which lost 4-0 four days earlier, on their head be the same standard of shoddy performance. A half-time triple substitution which involves removing the captain yet still sees the scoreline deteriorate only seems likely to end one way.
It’s not a great time for a Bundesliga manager to start the campaign with four league losses from five, exit from the DFB-Pokal at the hands of third-tier opposition and defeat in the opening Champions League game against the poorest team in the group. Bayer Leverkusen are in a bit of a mess.
That’s what happens when you quite foolishly decide to make your Champions League debut against an attack of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi. Juventus might well be wondering whether the decimal point in his £34.8m fee was at least one place too far to the right.
Mbaybe think about not being the first player to get sent off in a Champions League season.
Maybe stop falling into Diego Simeone’s trap and getting players sent off against Atletico Madrid.