Barca, Tuchel hammered in CL winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 30th September 2021 11:41 - Matthew Stead

Thomas Tuchel, Mo Salah and Eric Garcia

Real Madrid and Barcelona have had their egos indelibly dented. Thomas Tuchel has work to do at Chelsea. But Liverpool are back to their best.

 

Winners

Sheriff Tiraspol
Not even Eric Clapton could land a shot on the giants of Transnistria. Including every round of qualifying, Moldovan league clubs have played 104 games in the Champions League since Zimbru Chisinau became their first representatives in August 1993. This season alone, Sheriff Tiraspol account for 19.5% (eight) of their combined wins in those 18 years.

It matters now how weak or feeble this iteration of Real Madrid is; any version would dwarf a team of Sheriff’s natural limitations and restrictions. To bridge that in-built gap and at least chip away at the reinforced glass ceiling is remarkable.

 

The holy Liverpool trinity’s comeback gig
There was something familiar yet rare about Liverpool’s victory over Porto. Their record across nine games against the Portuguese giants is now W6 D3 L0 F23 A4, or an even more imposing W3 D1 L0 F16 A2 under Jurgen Klopp. But it was the identity of the goalscorers that triggered distant memories of an almost forgotten brilliance.

When Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino all scored in their first game together, a chaotic 3-3 draw with Watford in August 2017, Liverpool perhaps knew they had landed on something special. They each netted again at home to Arsenal a fortnight later, lighting up Anfield once more against Spartak Moscow before the year was out.

In 2017/18, Liverpool’s tremendous triumvirate all scored in eight games. By 2018/19 that was reduced to four matches as their influence was shared across the team, before 2019/20 went by without Salah, Mane and Firmino occupying the same scoresheet once. As much as the 7-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace around last Christmas finally got the band back together at the same time, this tune was entirely more fitting.

Liverpool at their European peak a couple of years ago were typified by overwhelming the opposition with their trademark forward line. Six of the 14 games in which Salah, Mane and Firmino have all scored came in the Champions League and the sheer panic which gripped Porto on Tuesday was palpable. Three goals in 21 minutes was the sort of flurry Klopp used to harness and teams used to fear. That imperious essence might be back.

 

Curtis Jones
Deserving of his own individual section, not only for his performance but in how he has effortlessly reminded those who might have forgotten just how good he is. The first-team emergence of Harvey Elliott forced Curtis Jones into the back of some minds, football’s short-term memory rendering many unable to even comprehend two young players simultaneously excelling in the same position. No longer will he be overlooked.

 

Paris Saint-Germain
Our early winners
 for being quite good.

 

Lionel Messi
He has scored more goals against Premier League opposition (27 in 35 games) than Tony Yeboah (26 in 52 games). Can’t hit a ball as hard, mind.

Lionel Messi and Marquinhos celebrate a win with the fans

 

Philippe Clement, the coefficient connoisseur
It turns out that Natasha Bedingfield was actually bragging when she claimed to Brugge easily. Paris Saint-Germain struggled and RB Leipzig downright failed where the greatest artist of the mid-2000s prospered.

Philippe Clement has already taken the Belgian champions halfway towards their best Champions League group-stage showing of eight points in 2003/04 – which he matched last season – after two games. As fourth seeds against Zenit Saint Petersburg, Borussia Dortmund and Lazio in 2020/21, they overachieved by coming third. The gap in quality to Manchester City, PSG and Leipzig was even more pronounced this campaign but they have acclimatised superbly once again.

Few people gave them a chance against last season’s runners-up, a team that has reached the final four in both of the last two years and a semi-finalist of 2019/20, yet Brugge have secured four points from losing positions and are in firm control of their own fate.

They are also valiantly maintaining Belgium’s position as a UEFA top ten ranking country, racking up seven coefficient points already this season. Their other representatives have managed just 11 points between them, owing mainly to some jobbing Europa Conference victories. Genk were eliminated at their first Champions League qualifying hurdle and needed a stoppage-time winner against Rapid Wien after falling into the Europa League.

While their contemporaries strive to find their level in Europe, Brugge are developing a habit and reputation for bloodying noses. To breathe life into a group of death is no small achievement, particularly on a fraction of the budget of their rivals. Clement’s first coaching job outside Belgium beckons but it will also be intriguing to see how far he can take this side on the continent. Their journey continues.

 

Manchester United’s fringe players
If nothing else, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can at least claim to have won the hearts and minds of his Manchester United players. Tools might slip out of hands far more often than they should at Old Trafford, but at no stage in his tenure have they been downed.

The manager will be encouraged by the response of certain players who were given the opportunity to impress. Diogo Dalot floundered and let the chance pass him by, Jadon Sancho was once more disappointing and Paul Pogba as a deep-lying midfielder remains thoroughly unconvincing. But Alex Telles fared well and Solskjaer’s four substitutes all showed up when required.

Nemanja Matic was an efficient and necessary introduction. Edinson Cavani ought to have scored but his chasing down of a lost cause at 1-1 was vital in inspiring the home support. Fred and Jesse Lingard combined to gift Cristiano Ronaldo headline treatment.

The key now is to reward those actions. Lingard in particular deserves a prolonged period in the first team, having provided two goals and an assist in little over an hour of Premier and Champions League football. That faith in his own ability has already been justified.

 

Borussia Dortmund
A first Champions League win without Erling Haaland either scoring or assisting a goal since December 2019; he joined in January 2020.

It was refreshing to see Dortmund actually play the game instead of mashing the buttons and activating their cheat code. Without being able to rely on that explosive generational brilliance up front, the hosts had to display more control and calm against Sporting. Donyell Malen took his first goal for the club wonderfully and Jude Bellingham’s assist was yet more evidence of his unerring influence at this level.

Marco Rose needed that after a disappointing weekend defeat to his former employer. The first meaningful clean sheet of his reign – with all due respect to DFB-Pokal fodder Wehen Wiesbaden – is something to build on for a team equipped to go far in this tournament.

Marco Rose embraces Donyell Malen

 

Sebastien Haller
His only previous season in European competition came with Eintracht Frankfurt in 2018/19, when he scored five goals in ten games en route to the semi-finals. Having already matched that tally in two Champions League games, Sebastien Haller might harbour hopes of taking Ajax just as far.

 

Karim Adeyemi
It might be time to simply not go near him in the penalty area.

 

Luis Suarez
A frankly ludicrous penalty considering the pressure.

 

Losers

Barcelona
From their competition debut in 1959/60 to the 2015/16 season, Barcelona lost seven European Cup games by three or more goals. Each left an indelible mark, from the semi-final deficit they had to overcome against Goteborg in 1986 to the 1994 final thrashing at the hands of Milan and those chastening meetings with Dynamo Kiev in 1997/98.

As bad as things seemed when losing to Valencia in the 1999/2000 semi-finals and Besiktas and Roma in the group stages of the early 2000s, they were never as bleak and hopeless as now.

From the 2016/17 campaign onwards, Barcelona have lost nine European Cup games by three or more goals. Their aura has been shattered. Their ego has been obliterated. To describe them as ordinary or mortal would be generous. They are a wounded giant incapable of defending themselves any longer. A name but not a team. No mes que un club.

The defeat to Bayern Munich emphasised how far behind the elite they are. The loss to Benfica showed they are not even close to the level directly below. This is a shell of a team, a shadow of a memory of a glimmer.

There is just nothing. The only argument to keep Ronald Koeman is the cost of sacking him, something a club so crippled by debt can ill afford. Those rays of hope in Ansu Fati and Pedri are so laughably obscured by the dross surrounding them that it is genuinely difficult to see signs of sustainable progress.

They have been here before. A hard reset was required at the start of the 21st century but Barcelona had the greatest player in the sport’s history in reserve to rely on. Luuk de Jong can win a few headers but he ain’t that.

 

Eric Garcia
Pep Guardiola has forgotten more than each of us have ever known about football combined. Luis Enrique is an accomplished Champions League-winning coach. It always feels preposterous to criticise their judgement but in the case of Eric Garcia it is difficult to figure out what either of them ever saw in the centre-half.

The baffling circumstances of mismanagement at Barcelona opened the door for his Nou Camp return this summer but he is playing like he tripped and stumbled straight into the frame. In six games he has accumulated more red cards than clean sheets. If Ronald Koeman was cold enough to take Oumar Niasse’s locker away then surely it is time to start hiding Garcia’s boots.

 

Thomas Tuchel
There is no suggestion of a Roberto Di Matteo repeat even being contemplated. Thomas Tuchel will make it past November as a reigning European champion and far beyond. But for the first time in his Chelsea tenure, legitimate questions must be asked of his approach, tactics and problem-solving ability.

They were passive and overrun against Manchester City, then blunt and sloppy at Juventus. Losing in the same manner would be worrying but consecutive losses in diametrically opposing ways is ultimately more panic-inducing. Tuchel has always struggled with the duvet paradox of ensuring both his feet and head are covered at Stamford Bridge; his attack continues to stall just as his impenetrable defence starts to falter.

As difficult as Mason Mount and N’Golo Kante are to replace, Tuchel must find a way. He has the resources, the squad at his disposal to ensure his system is not so susceptible to collapse upon injury or suspension. Saturday and Wednesday were not close to good enough.

This is no unique occurrence with the German either. The last time he lost consecutive games was in May, when Arsenal and Leicester both beat Chelsea 1-0 in the space of four days. Before then, there were successive 1-0 defeats to Bayern Munich, Lens and Marseille at the start of Paris Saint-Germain’s 2020/21 season.

Combine that with the fact Chelsea have come from behind to win just once under Tuchel, and the lustre of their nascent relationship has worn off. The Blues are starting to notice those annoying habits – leaving his undergarments lying around and not doing the washing up. It is on them to accept the imperfections, but only as long as he endeavours to work and improve instead of letting any residual resentment fester.

 

Jesse Marsch
Red Bull seems to have removed the wings of Jesse Marsch if anything. The American was always going have a difficult transition period despite a summer spend of more than £60m, such was the damage caused by the usual vultures. Bayern Munich and Liverpool took Leipzig’s manager, two best centre-halves and captain between them, with Real Sociedad, Wolves and Leicester picking the bones and further weakening that squad with a series of loans.

Even so, Leipzig’s start has been underwhelming. Their three wins this season have come at an aggregate score of 14-0 against Stuttgart and Hertha BSC in the Bundesliga, with a DFB-Pokal thrashing of SV Sandhausen. But they have also drawn one game and lost five – at the height of their powers in 2019/20, they were beaten just seven times all season.

Christopher Nkunku continues to shine but his light alone cannot guide them. His four goals have been rewarded with no points. The Leipzig model dictates that players of that calibre will be picked off by the elite and replaced at low cost by another unearthed talent. For it to work, that feeling also has to extend to the coach but no club across Europe will be enviously monitoring Marsch at his current rate of development.

He deserves time, as any coach replacing someone whose values and tactics were so intrinsic and embedded would. Yet some managerial appointments simply never work out and when the defensive deficiencies are so consistently stark it does not bode well.

 

The Milan clubs
The Jose Mourinho curse is not only real, it extends to the entire city. Since he inspired Internazionale to European Cup glory in 2010, they and AC Milan have a quite risible combined Champions League record for members of the supposed elite: P74 W23 D21 L30 F95 A103. The only time either club has topped a group in the last decade was Inter in 2011/12, and they have failed to finish higher than third in their three full campaigns since returning to the competition in 2018/19.

Defeat to Real Madrid in stoppage-time can be explained away as a momentary lapse in concentration at the end of an otherwise promising performance. But failure to score against Shakhtar Donetsk yet again is laughable. The Ukrainian champions have kept five Champions League clean sheets in the last five years and three of them came against Inter.

Milan might have felt they could fare better and it should be noted that their group is far more difficult. But the disappointment of letting a half-time lead slip against Liverpool was compounded by a loss to Atletico Madrid in even more devastating circumstances. Milan took a deserved lead through Rafael Leao and coped admirably with the first-half loss of Franck Kessie before eventually succumbing to Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez.

The frustration will be that two freak moments undid them. Kessie’s second yellow card was harsh and the handball call on Pierre Kalulu even more cruel. Milan have led their Champions League games for a nice 69 minutes, been level for 57 and trailed for 54 yet have nothing to show for it; Inter at least have a point, if not a goal.

 

Raheem Sterling
It just doesn’t really look like working. Rodri aside, it was not a game for Manchester City players to impress. But in the case of Raheem Sterling it feels as though the inevitable is being delayed. Something needs to change.

Five Manchester City players have started every game the club has failed to win this season. Ederson, Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo can hardly share the blame for the goalless draw with Southampton but Sterling and Jack Grealish are culpable. At least in the latter’s case he has been an integral part of some victories; one has to go back to February to find the last time Sterling either started a Champions League win or scored in a Premier League victory.

He remains a phenomenal player, albeit one who no longer seems to be a natural fit in this team. Both player and club could do with a fresh start after more than six years.

Gianluigi Donnarumma makes a save from Raheem Sterling

 

Real Madrid
Our early losers
, along with the rest of us. A 30th ever Champions League group-stage defeat, of which seven have now come since 2017. Real Madrid have only lost eight Champions League group-stage games at home in their history, yet Shakhtar beat them 3-2 at the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium in October 2020, while both CSKA Moscow and Sheriff Tiraspol have now raided the Bernabeu for all three points in the last three years.

Such embarrassments will only strengthen their Super League resolve but there is little they can do to heal the damage done to their reputation and ego. The only fear factor surrounding Real Madrid in 2021 is their own.

 

Josuha Guilavogui
A difficult way to learn that you cannot simply tackle Erik Manuel Lamela Cordero fairly and expect to get away with it.

 

Bela Guttman
He did not die for this. The curse is on borrowed time.

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