Liverpool lead Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 16th September 2021 10:31 - Matthew Stead

Divock Origi, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Thomas Muller

Liverpool used their depth to secure the greatest comeback win over AC Milan. Barcelona are a mess. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can’t manage ten men.

 

Liverpool’s squad depth
Perhaps the greatest three-goal comeback in the history of games between Liverpool and AC Milan, a fixture previously graced by Paolo Maldini, Steven Gerrard, Cafu, Kaka, Clarence Seedorf, Xabi Alonso, Rui Costa, Andrea Pirlo, Javier Mascherano and Andriy Shevchenko, but also Djimi Traore, Giuseppe Favalli, Djibril Cisse, Serginho, Harry Kewell, Jon Dahl Tomasson and Boudewijn Zenden. If that does not underline the eternal importance of squad depth, talent levels within squads and players able to maintain a certain standard while living on a strict diet of restricted minutes, Wednesday would certainly have helped.

Divock Origi started, toiled and provided a delightful assist for the equaliser. Joe Gomez returned and, 110 manic seconds aside, helped quell a strong attack. Naby Keita had 70 quietly impressive minutes – no starter for either side had a better pass-success rate.

James Milner’s time-wasting late cameo was wonderful. Curtis Jones actually looked promising as a left winger, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wide right and Sadio Mane through the middle. Liverpool needed Mo Salah but any win watched entirely from the bench by Virgil van Dijk is a sign of evolution from a team that collapsed without him and many of his injured contemporaries last season.

The setback suffered by Harvey Elliott might have been accompanied by a familiar sense of doom at Anfield but this was proof that players are ready to step up. Origi had not been part of a Liverpool match-day squad since the opening victory over Norwich and while his limitations remain stark, the fact he can slot into the attack and still make a difference against strong opposition is testament to the mentality fostered by Jurgen Klopp.

He and Liverpool took a calculated risk in the summer. With Ibrahima Konate still to come in, Takumi Minamino fully acclimatised and other fringe players pushing for opportunities, the numbers are adding up right now.

 

Mo Salah
The goal was great but Salah’s standout moment came on the hour mark in his own half. The Egyptian had been unmarked on the right wing during a Liverpool attack but Diogo Jota instead found Trent Alexander-Arnold’s run through the centre. The defender was foiled on the edge of the Milan box by Theo Hernandez and a counter-attack was launched with the scores level. But as Ante Rebic strolled forward with the ball, the sight of Salah tracking back, sprinting with his head down to cover for his teammate caught the attention. One of the world’s best and most effective attackers had the foresight to cover the gaping hole at right-back, intercepting a pass to Rafael Leao and bringing a rare Milan surge to an abrupt end.

For such a selfish player it was a notably selfless act and evidence of his elite reading of the game. Liverpool were leading nine minutes later but Jordan Henderson might not have had his captain’s moment were it not for his fellow leader’s sacrifice.

 

Club Brugge
Philippe Clement had been in the dugout when Club Brugge last faced Paris Saint-Germain. He had watched his side lose 1-0 at the Parc des Princes a fortnight after Kylian Mbappe led a 5-0 dismantling of the Belgian champions, satisfied with the improvement in attitude and performance.

Two years later, Clement might be frustrated for contrasting reasons. Club Brugge did not hold PSG to a 1-1 draw at the Jan Breydel Stadium on Wednesday; they were the ones being held. Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar found no way through and Noa Lang was a constant threat from the left.

Clement has landed punches on the giants of the continent before. Club Brugge stunned the Bernabeu in October 2019 before their two-goal lead was extinguished by Real Madrid in a pulsating draw. But they had seven shots to 27 then in a phenomenal counter-attacking performance. Against PSG they had 16 efforts to nine and largely controlled the game.

In that group, a point could prove invaluable. As Leipzig and PSG lost their footing, Manchester City and Club Brugge found theirs.

 

Thomas Muller
Robert Lewandowski is the headline act in this criminally ignored festival of excellence, but Thomas Muller is perhaps a more fitting emblem of their apparent covert challenge for another European crown. While his teammate extended his lead as the third-highest goalscorer in Champions League history with two goals against Barcelona, Muller moved past Andriy Shevchenko and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to join Alfred Di Stefano on 49 with his opening strike against the Catalans.

Seven players have scored more goals in the history of the competition. None have scored more goals against Barcelona specifically. And as underwhelming as this iteration is, that should take nothing away from Muller’s evergreen brilliance.

Julian Nagelsmann recently echoed predecessor Hansi Flick’s sentiment of Muller being an exceptionally intelligent player, almost an extension of the coach on the pitch. It would be difficult to spend more than a decade at one of European football’s greatest clubs without possessing an elite mind but the beauty of Muller’s talent is in its timelessness. He could thrive in any era with his skill-set, not reliant on athletic prowess but perception and movement.

The only thing stagnant about his game is his age: pretty sure he has been 32 for the last six years and presumably the next four or so. Bayern’s Benjamin Button shows no signs of slowing down.

 

Thomas Tuchel
Sam Allardyce remains responsible for 27.7% of all the goals ever conceded by Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea. Borussia Dortmund kept three clean sheets in ten Champions League games (30%) under the German, which he then improved to ten in 24 at Paris Saint-Germain (41.6%) and now six in eight with his current club (75%). The bloke must bloody love fresh bedding.

 

Jack Grealish
There are two ways in which Pep Guardiola shows his appreciation for something or someone. If it is an opposition player or team he makes sure to praise them for being pliable enough to beat comfortably but exciting to watch. And if it is a member of his own team he will admonish them in the hope of moulding their attitude to befit their talent.

Leipzig might view Guardiola’s “good message to football” comment as slightly patronising but no amount of criticism was ever going to knock Grealish off his Champions League stride. He had waited long enough for this opportunity on this stage and nothing would stop him taking it.

Guardiola explained that “fights happen” when asked about his touchline anger at Grealish and Riyad Mahrez but it comes from a place of respect and fondness. It is born of his inherent need to stamp any imperfection out of a player, to round off all their edges. But Grealish will be mindful of losing what makes him so effective.

His genuine glee after the final whistle at his career finally taking him to a stage on which he seems to belong was palpable. Grealish was not just a passenger on the journey but he took the wheel and corrected Manchester City’s course just when Leipzig were at their most threatening. Leadership is never the first trait that comes to mind when watching him but those years as Aston Villa captain were not for nought.

Jack Grealish

 

Aleksey Kulbalkov
Ten yellow cards, one red, four penalties and a load of paperwork but few people had a better view than the referee of Erik Lamela coming on in the 57th minute and spending his half an hour or so on the pitch completing five dribbles, being fouled three times, making three tackles and creating two chances. It’s not the same without that glorious man.

 

Sebastien Haller
It turns out registering him to play in European competition is an idea worth considering. Sebastien Haller scored seven goals in each of his two seasons with West Ham; in the last 33 days he has struck eight times for Ajax.

 

Christopher Nkunku
Ah, the Roque Santa Cruz special. Scoring a Champions League hat-trick in defeat was good enough for Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Irfan Kahveci. Scoring a Champions League hat-trick against Pep Guardiola sufficed for Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi. Scoring a Champions League hat-trick against a defence containing Nathan Ake is an achievement only Christopher Nkunku can lay claim to.

 

Max Allegri
A first win in nine games and more than two years. For Juventus, a first clean sheet in any competition since early March 2021. The Old Lady is learning even older tricks again, slowly but surely.

 

Unai Emery
A draw with Atalanta leaves Villarreal third on alphabetical order and one game closer to where their manager actually wants to be: the Europa League.

 

Jude Bellingham
An English teenager is dominating games in the biggest tournament in world football and that bears repeating every so often.

 

 

Losers

Barcelona
Not since 1997 had Barcelona lost their opening game of a Champions League group. They overcame the shock of Faustino Asprilla and Newcastle then to win La Liga and the Copa del Rey but there will be neither magpies nor silver at Camp Nou this season.

There is no shame in losing to Bayern Munich, but the manner of defeat was stark. No shots on target and no apparent plan exposed against the backdrop of a crumbling stadium by a team they claim to share a seat at the top table with.

Only on name and history can Barcelona pretend to be part of that conversation any longer. As humbling and humiliating as the 8-2 was, a 3-0 defeat was perhaps more damaging. At least that capitulation by six goals came at the end of a cycle; this was at the start of one. Three of the substitutes were teenagers. Another, Philippe Coutinho, had two of their seven shots in his 25 minutes.

“Frankly we’re not among the favourites,” was the assessment of Gerard Pique, manager Ronald Koeman having claimed pre-match that “this will be an interesting game to draw conclusions about where we are”.

Benfica certainly have no reason to fear this team at the end of the month, before a double-header against the supposed whipping boys of the group in November and December. The only consolation for Barcelona is that this is not the Dynamo Kyiv vintage that thrashed them 7-0 on aggregate in that 1997/98 season. But it is genuinely difficult to say whether they will have enough to beat them in any event.

 

Mauricio Pochettino
“We need time,” was the plea from Mauricio Pochettino. “We need time to work for them to build an understanding.” But that is the one thing he cannot buy at Paris Saint-Germain, where an inability to get the best out of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in unison will not be accepted for too long.

The reality of such combinations rarely lives up the fantasy. There are often too many variables in play for the balance to be right and the team to thrive as individuals. But that will not matter for Pochettino. If he cannot figure out a way to make it work then the hope will be that his replacement can.

It was but one game, of course. Messi, Neymar and Mbappe do need longer than that to establish a greater understanding and arrive on the same wavelength. Manchester City will be cautious of that threat in a fortnight and Leipzig cannot possibly hope to survive on the basis of their showing at the Etihad. But after taking a step back from runners-up to sound defeat in the semi-finals last season, Pochettino has to work the equation out soon.

 

Ten-Man-chester United
The cliche is that it can be harder to play against ten men. A red card can galvanise and focus the punished team and put undue pressure on the opposition to make their numerical advantage count. Arsene Wenger once suggested a sending-off can affect the “flow” of the game and make it more difficult for the unaffected side. Young Boys did not seem to have that problem on Tuesday evening.

In fact, the 2-1 defeat from a 1-0 lead after Aaron Wan-Bisska’s 35th-minute dismissal continued a strange theme that can no longer be considered a coincidence at Manchester United: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer distinctly failing to manage the situation when reduced to ten men.

This was the seventh time a player had been sent off during the Norwegian’s reign. Manchester United have now played 196 minutes with ten men under Solskjaer, scoring no goals and conceding eight. It is a dreadful record that includes the 6-1 capitulation at home to Tottenham in October 2020, when Anthony Martial was removed after 28 minutes at 2-1, as well as a 2-1 defeat to Wolves in April 2019 after Ashley Young was banished on the hour mark with the scores level at 1-1.

The attempt to shift blame onto the “young referee” for collapsing in Switzerland is also a Solskjaer staple. “It’s not a foul. The referee made a mistake there but that’s allowed. He was unlucky with that decision by the referee,” he said after Fred received the most predictable second yellow card in football history against Paris Saint-Germain last December. “It’s never a sending off. For me, an absolute joke. It’s ironic really that he gets a yellow with his first foul, almost gets a yellow with his second foul, which isn’t even a foul,” was his reaction when Nemanja Matic’s red in similar circumstances ended any hope of an unlikely comeback against Manchester City in the 2020 League Cup semi-final.

Go even further back into Solskjaer’s history and one notes that Cardiff once lost 4-0 to Sunderland after Juan Cala was sent off at 1-0 in the 45th minute, while Molde spurned a 3-1 lead against Haugesund to draw 3-3 in May 2016 after an 82nd-minute red. Bjorn Sigurdarson’s stoppage-time goal to make it 3-1 against Stabaek in May 2017 is the only time a Solskjaer team has scored after being reduced to ten men.

That is not a cause for concern in isolation: red cards are not particularly commonplace and so learning how to coach with those in-game conditions is not a necessity. But having no shots, allowing 14 and ceding 69.4% possession to an inferior team because of a single red card is a damning indictment of a manager’s inability to change the course of a tide, as is conceding a goal every 24.5 minutes any time you are reduced to ten men.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

 

Jesse Lingard
Lovely ball, that.

 

Inter Milan
Exiting at the group stage in three consecutive seasons under two different managers meant Inter Milan needed a strong start to this campaign. A 0-0 home draw with Real Madrid would have represented a positive step in that regard, solid foundations to work from and finally secure a first place in the knockouts since 2012.

They should realistically still make it past Sheriff Tiraspol and Shakhtar Donetsk – to finish behind either would be disastrous. That will do little to raise Simone Inzaghi’s spirits at a resolute defensive performance being wasted by an 89th-minute winner.

 

Shakhtar Donetsk
They fought the law and the law won.

 

Three-man defences
Credit to Sporting Lisbon for proving that three-man defences do not necessarily make a team more table. Zouhair Feddal, Luis Neto and Goncalo Inacio – as well as replacement Ricardo Esgaio – had as many shots as tackles in losing 5-1 to Ajax.

 

Diego Simeone
Not the worst result but losing 6-3 on bookings with Porto further underlining their sh*thouse superiority with a stoppage-time red card will wind Diego Simeone up no end.

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