Champions League winners and Zlosers

Date published: Thursday 9th December 2021 11:17 - Matthew Stead

Kylian Mbappe might be as selfless as Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Liverpool have put Chelsea and Man City’s squad depths to shame. And oh, Sevilla.

 

Winners

The selfless Kylian Mbappe
In 90 electric minutes, Kylian Mbappe overtook six-time champion Paco Gento, two-time winner Samuel Eto’o, 2008 victor Wayne Rooney and 2007 hero Kaka for all-time European Cup goals. The Frenchman will hope to usurp another quartet of legendary forwards in due course. Edinson Cavani, Sergio Aguero, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ruud van Nistelrooy are the only players to net more times in the Champions League than Mbappe without ever winning the trophy.

PSG have stumbled a little through this group and Mauricio Pochettino continues to experiment in search of balance and cohesion, but it would be a fool’s errand to dismiss their hopes. A day before their 4-1 victory over Club Brugge, it was reported that Lionel Messi’s entourage had misgivings about the manager’s tactical acumen and restrictive approach. This was an emphatic response.

The visitors still found a way through more often than is comfortable, with Mats Rits’ consolation highlighting some particularly awful midfield play from Marco Verratti and Idrissa Gueye. But going forward, that combination between Mbappe and Messi is becoming predictably lethal.

While he took 380 seconds to boost his goal record, the all-round brilliance of Mbappe was underlined a little later on. His wonderful boost of speed and skill thoroughly rinsed Jack Hendry and Messi barely had to break his stride to collect the subsequent centre before scoring from 20 yards.

A 12th assist in 22 games equals his career best for an entire season. No other PSG player has more than four. And that is before mentioning how he gave up a late penalty while on a hat-trick to try and boost the actual Lionel Messi’s “confidence”. As Mbappe explained: “I’m trying to help the team.” He’s doing as good a job as anyone at the Parc des Princes.

 

Red Bull Salzburg
The most intriguing and tantalising of any group contained four clubs separated by three points. It was a little anti-climactic for Lille, Red Bull Salzburg, Sevilla and Wolfsburg to end up in precisely the same positions in which they started the week, but that takes nothing away from the achievements of the two qualifiers.

For Salzburg, this was only the third time they had ever reached the Champions League group stage. On the previous two occasions they had finished third, dropping into the Europa League and being instantly knocked out each time. Their meeting with the masters of that competition in Sevilla was pretty much a straight shootout for the place, considering Lille’s early lead in Wolfsburg.

It was an accomplished performance, dependent on a little luck with Munir El Haddadi hammering the crossbar, but ultimately just reward for brilliant counter-attacking. The goal was well-constructed, set up by one of the stars of the group stage in Karim Adeyemi, finished by Noah Okafor.

The champions of the last eight Austrian Bundesliga seasons – and current leaders by 12 points – have been Europa League semi-finalists before but this is the success they craved. The first Austrian team to ever reach the Champions League knockouts will be a handful for any opponent.

 

Lille
Credit, too, to Lille, who navigated calmly past Wolfsburg and into the group’s top spot. As Ligue Un champions against modest opponents, perhaps that was their expectation when the draw was made. but after the sales of Mike Maignan and Boubakary Soumare, losing once and conceding at least as few goals as every team except for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich is a remarkable feat.

Their fate is sealed, of course. The vultures don’t even wait for this carcass to reach the summer, with Fiorentina reaching a reported agreement to sign man of the match Jonathan Ikone in January. But this is how Lille operate and considering they are unbeaten in eight, it isn’t working too badly.

 

Diego Simeone
Since he was appointed in December 2011, Diego Simeone has taken Atletico Madrid through nine Champions League group phases. On the solitary occasion he failed to guide them into the knockout stages, Los Colchoneros simply won the Europa League instead. Atleti started the final day bottom, faced a Porto side unbeaten at home in games not against Liverpool since April, lost Luis Suarez to injury after 13 minutes and went a man down with around half an hour remaining. They shouldn’t emerge from those set of circumstances with a two-point cushion for qualification.

It was revealed post-match that Sime Vrsaljko – one of a number of players forced out of position – had featured for the majority of the game with a broken jaw, hence his tears at the final whistle. It turns out that an angry Argentinean fiercely grasping in the general direction of his own crotch can be quite inspirational.

 

Sebastien Haller
The first player to score in his first six Champions League appearances. The second to score in every game of a single group stage. The 427th to leave West Ham wondering what on earth they did wrong. Haller has taken 487 minutes to reach ten goals in the European Cup; he needed 3,196 minutes to get double figures for the Hammers in the Premier League.

 

Ajax
As conversation inevitably turns to which Ajax vintage is better, it is worth considering that these are essentially two completely different teams being compared. Only two players started both the heartbreaking Champions League semi-final second-leg defeat to Tottenham in May 2019 and the 4-2 victory over Sporting Lisbon on Tuesday – and Daley Blind was in another position.

The 31-year-old featured at left-back as Ajax rounded off their first perfect European Cup group, having understandably failed to repel Lucas Moura two and a half years prior. Noussair Mazraoui was the only other player to start both games. It is an unbelievable level of churn that has done nothing to diminish their brilliance.

Remko Pasveer, Perr Schurrs, Lisandro Martinez, Edson Alvarez, Ryan Gravenberch, Antony, Steven Berghuis David Neres and Haller cost £80.4m between them. Matthijs De Ligt, Lasse Schone, Frenkie De Jong, Hakim Ziyech, Donny van de Beek and Kasper Dolberg were sold for a combined £220.2m while Andre Onana and Nicolas Tagliafico have been phased out. Dusan Tadic remains integral, one of the few survivors of a breathtaking evolution.

Of course, the true key figures have not changed. Erik ten Hag is approaching his fourth anniversary as manager, Marc Overmars has been director of football for almost a decade and Edwin van der Sar was made CEO five years ago. They might be the best-run elite club in the world.

 

Liverpool
For all the talk of Liverpool lacking the same squad depth as Chelsea and Manchester City, the three Premier League title contenders made a similar number of changes to varying results. Chelsea made eight and surrendered top spot in their group after a disappointing draw at Zenit. City made seven and endured a horrible evening at Leipzig. Liverpool made eight and left the San Siro with their European record unmarked.

A defence of Neco Williams, the excellent Ibrahima Konate, Nathaniel Phillips and Kostas Tsimikas was roughly the same combined age as Milan’s leading centre-forward but with 21 career Champions League appearances between them, they excelled. A midfield of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tyler Morton and Takumi Minamino should not work yet it dominated. The platform was provided for those proven forwards to prosper, and so they did. Liverpool embraced the group of death and equalled the Champions League record for biggest points gap between winners and runners-up.

Jurgen Klopp has reached the point whereby he can rely on inexperienced teenagers and fringe players to come in at no visible expense to performance levels. It feels like an age since some supporters were up in arms about a lack of summer investment and ambition. The Reds seem to have nailed the transfer market tightrope yet again. There were discussions before the Milan game as to whether Liverpool should be allowed to field a weakened team but on this evidence, no such thing currently exists.

 

Portuguese clubs
Sporting Lisbon had secured safe passage in between their chastening Ajax experiences, but Benfica held up their end of the bargain in Group E with a composed home win against Dynamo Kyiv.

So for the first time since 2017, Portugal have two representatives in the Champions League knockout stages. Benfica and Porto were eliminated at the last-16 hurdle then. This is already a sizeable achievement for one of many countries who have had their domestic credentials dismissed on the continental front.

 

Mason Greenwood
Perhaps the only Manchester United player to emerge with credit from a meaningless draw against Young Boys. Luke Shaw might claim to have boosted his own stock but while the left-back’s cross laid on the opener, it was Greenwood’s finish that made it look incisive.

Greenwood’s development had started to drop off a little under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but the high energy and 4-2-2-2 formation of Ralf Rangnick suits him as much as any other player. The goal typified a bright performance but Greenwood also showed a responsibility and leadership in a relatively young attack.

The others who stepped in, from Nemanja Matic’s awkward centre-half cameo to Donny van de Beek’s clumsy midfield display, Juan Mata’s fading class and the tidy but ineffective Jesse Lingard, will get more chances to prove themselves. It takes more than a single game after being left out in the cold to show your true quality. But Rangnick needs no more proof of Greenwood’s proficiency. There will be a place for that level of brutal skill.

 

Bayern Munich
A first Champions League win in which Robert Lewandowski did not score since October 2020 – although his assist for Thomas Muller’s 50th European Cup goal was lovely.

It has felt as though England’s insular nature has led to Bayern being a little overlooked when discussing the tournament favourites, as Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City’s credentials are more closely considered. The clubs in question will make no such mistake. Beat Bayern and the trophy is likely yours.

 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Some proof of genuine growth from the 40-year-old, who recently raged against Manchester United charging him £1 for a hotel fruit juice, but was only too happy to fetch a free hot dog for Nathaniel Phillips. Ibrahimovic even took Franck Kessie with him just in case. So considerate.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic embraces Nathaniel Phillips

 

Losers

Barcelona
That was truly awful
.

 

Sevilla
The trials and tribulations of their compatriots have masked what was an abject failure for Sevilla; it was arguably even more disastrous than Barcelona’s efforts. That group should have been a cruise for the only team with genuine European pedigree, yet they contrived to cling on to third place after winning just one of six games. And that was the easiest: the home fixture against bottom Wolfsburg.

Two of Sevilla’s five goals were penalties and while their defensive record was solid, that was never going to be enough to advance. To be second in La Liga after 15 fixtures, yet fail to make it past this calibre of opposition, is baffling.

Julen Lopetegui has questions to answer after failing to extricate a truly positive performance out of his team in six games. The 55-year-old has never been beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League and after this campaign, it really is not difficult to see why.

 

Chelsea
That was careless. Depending on how the draw falls, that late equaliser from Zenit St Petersburg could be inadvertent good or unavoidable bad news for Chelsea. With one more lapse of concentration – and a brilliant Magomed Ozdoev strike – the Blues went from potential ties against Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid, Sporting Lisbon, Inter Milan, Benfica, Villarreal/Atalanta or Salzburg, to the smaller and more treacherous pool of Ajax, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Lille.

But any examination of their next opponents is to miss the point. If Chelsea get the ‘favourable’ last-16 draw of Lille and count themselves fortunate for doing so, that would be precisely the sort of complacency and carelessness that was their undoing in Russia.

The sight of Timo Werner sauntering behind defences, picking up brilliant positions and finishing confidently will boost Thomas Tuchel but do nothing to soothe his current defensive headaches. Four games without a clean sheet is uncharacteristic of the German’s reign and Chelsea have conceded as many goals in their last two matches as they did in their first 14 this season.

Any team would miss N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic individually, never mind at the same time. And Chelsea did make wholesale changes. But yeah, careless, sloppy and disorganised at precisely the wrong time in the calendar.

 

Kyle Walker and Manchester City
Eleven teams had secured passage through to the knockout stages before the last round of Champions League group games this season. Six of those sides still won their final match, while another two drew. Two not only lost but had a man sent off in the process. And as deeply naive as Nicolo Barella was in reacting to Eder Militao’s remarkably dangerous play, Inter Milan were beaten by a couple of glorious goals away at the runaway La Liga leaders.

Manchester City fell to managerless dwellers of the Bundesliga’s bottom half, whose goals could be traced back to clumsy or complacent defensive mistakes. Kyle Walker, whose covering for the opener was questionable, applied the mouldy cherry atop an inedible cake with a stupid, childish, retaliatory kick in the 82nd minute.

Pep Guardiola offered no defence to a 31-year-old who really ought to know much better. Some even wondered why Walker and other regular starters such as John Stones, Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden featured, but the manager’s reasoning was sound. One of the buzzwords among elite coaches is “rhythm” and Jurgen Klopp deemed it similarly important enough to play a few of his most important players against Milan.

But as infamous rotation sceptic Gloria Estefan once said, the rhythm is gonna get you. Manchester City were caught out. The seven-game winning run is over. A key defender is missing for at least one leg of their last-16 tie. And while they cannot be blamed on anyone in particular, the smattering of injuries suffered in Germany only added to the sour taste.

It felt like Manchester City had matured and evolved on their journey to last season’s final. This showed that their guileless innocence in Europe is just hiding in the shadows.

 

Porto
Admiral Ackbar could have seen that trap coming from a mile off. Atletico Madrid, a goal up but a man down, were always going to try and address the latter balance. It was a trick they tried to no avail against Liverpool in October as Jurgen Klopp removed Sadio Mane first. Porto had to have seen it coming.

Atletico laid it perfectly, ensuring the flashpoint occurred on the touchline closest to the benches, thus guaranteeing a multi-man melee when Wendell vaguely raised an arm in the same postcode as Matheus Cunha’s face. They knew precisely what they were doing. So, too, must have Porto. Yet they walked straight into it.

Quarter-finalists in three of the last seven seasons, Porto also reached the last 16 twice in that time. Their last two Champions League knockout exits were to the eventual winners (Liverpool in 2019 and Chelsea in 2021). This one should sting more because they are better than Atletico in their current guise.

 

Milan
Both victims of a rather unstable group of death do have title challenges to fall back on. Porto lead the Primeira Liga table on goal difference, while Milan have inched ahead in a four-way battle atop Serie A. But that should do nothing to mask their respective disappointment at letting a below-par Atletico slip through.

In Milan’s case, they scored three goals and led in two separate games against Liverpool, led against Atleti at home and beat them away, but faltered twice against Porto. It might have been easier to stomach had they failed miserably rather than barely.

 

Erling Haaland
One of the best strikers around will be playing neither Champions League knockout nor World Cup football in 2022.

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