With the Champions League Round of 16 behind us, Wasim looks back at fine wins for Leicester and Monaco, while posing questions for Guardiola and Sampaoli. Plus, Juve and Atletico are the two teams nobody wants to draw in the quarterfinals.
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Matchday 5 of the 2016/17 Champions League is in the books and there was plenty of drama as some teams qualified for the last 16 while a few others saw their hopes dashed. The following are grades for all 32 teams as we get nearer to the conclusion of the group stage.
Confirmation of their qualification to the next round with a game to spare and group winners to boot. Even when Brugge pulled a goal back in the second half, Leicester looked comfortable and calm. It’s now time to revert to that template on the domestic front.
The dominant team in both their meetings against Spurs, Monaco looked assured and would have dished a thrashing to their English visitors but for the brilliance of Hugo Lloris in goal. Always known for their defensive prowess, Leonardo Jardim’s men have evolved into an intelligent attacking team. With the group won, Monaco will at the very least, want to replicate their run to the quarterfinals in 2015.
A win that exemplified all of Juventus’ best traits. For the first half an hour in Seville, Juve were rattled by their hosts’ pressing and a lesser team would have capitulated. Hanging in is what Juve do best though, and with their advantage in experience, they capitalized on the mistakes that the hosts eventually made. To top the group, all the Bianconeri now need, is a win against a Dinamo Zagreb side that are yet to get off the mark. A complete contrast from their visit to the Sánchez Pizjuán last season, where defeat cost them top spot and an easy draw in the last 16.
The great entertainers of the matchday with their manic 8-4 win over Legia Warsaw. Of course, the defending was atrocious and BVB could easily have conceded more. Thomas Tuchel will analyze the mistakes and chaos at the back, but for now all that mattered were the three points to stay ahead of Real. Dortmund now go to Madrid needing only a point to top the group.
A sensational win against one of Europe’s heavyweights. Rostov-on-Don witnessed a special night as their team beat Bayern 3-2 in a thriller. As this column has reflected previously, Rostov have put in the effort that embarrasses more seasoned clubs who have just rolled over in the competition. The underdogs just need a point in Eindhoven to qualify for the Europa League, but even if that doesn’t eventuate, they have given their fans the memory of a lifetime.
Glasgow hasn’t always been the most comfortable of venues for Barcelona, but they never looked like leaving with anything other than the three points at Celtic. In to the round of 16 as group winners, Luis Enrique will be happy with a job done. Now to sort out affairs in La Liga.
They still face a difficult task to qualify for the round of 16, but Lyon would happily have taken being alive going into the last matchday. Beating Sevilla by a two-goal margin is going to be difficult, but Bruno Genesio’s men will at least be playing at home, on the back of much-improved form in the last month. Can the likes of Lacazette and Fekir deliver a magical night for the fans in Lyon?
Bayern’s loss in Russia already reduced the pressure before kickoff, but Diego Simeone’s teams don’t believe in complacency. In control from the first whistle to the last, Atletico have deservedly won the group. Considering their domestic travails, it would be no surprise to see Los Colchoneros approach the Champions League with even greater motivation. There is a long way to go, but they are clearly the opponent that all other contenders want to avoid once the knockouts get underway.
For a team supposedly struggling, the French champions put in a dominating display at the Emirates. Edinson Cavani’s missed chances denied PSG all three points against Arsenal, but they have taken control of first place in the group at just the right time. There is something about London that brings out the best in PSG, and as was the case in their games against Chelsea in the last three seasons, their midfield put in a masterclass. If Thiago Motta and Marco Veratti can stay fit during the business end of the competition, PSG may just enter unchartered territory.
The ideal response after the dropped points in Warsaw last time out. Zinedine Zidane’s men were not particularly fluent, but their determination and hunger saw them getting the three points, just when it looked like they would have to settle for second in the group. They now welcome Dortmund in the last game, still with a chance to top the group with a win.
Their draw in Moscow looked better after Spurs’ defeat saw Roger Schmidt’s men go through to the next round. Leverkusen also deserve some credit for staying strong in the face of CSKA’s best performance in the competition this season. However, amidst the euphoria of qualification, Leverkusen will regret the nine points dropped from winning positions. It could end up costing them in the round of 16.
Being dominated by Copenhagen in both fixtures does not reflect well on Porto’s stature in this competition, but crucially they didn’t lose and got two points in their head-to-head. The Portuguese now need a win in their last game at home to a Leicester side with nothing to play for. Progression to the last 16 should be ensured.
At halftime in Istanbul, Besiktas were reeling on the brink of an exit, flattered by being just 3-0 down to a rampaging Benfica side. What happened in the next 45 minutes is scarcely believable, but somehow the Turkish champions rallied, scored three goals and got a remarkable point. Winning in Kiev is no guarantee, but Besiktas’ destiny is in their own hands as they face an opponent with nothing to play for, while Benfica and Napoli play each other in a high-pressure game.
In typical Arsenal fashion, Arsene Wenger’s men failed to show up just when a great opportunity presented itself. A win would have secured first place in the group for Arsenal in front of their own fans. In stead, Arsenal ended up lucky to get a point as they were dominated in midfield, grateful to Edinson Cavani for missing chances again. Second place and a tough draw in the round of 16 now awaits. So disappointing, yet so expected.
For half an hour, everything was going perfectly for Jorge Sampaoli against Juventus. Leading 1-0, Sevilla were set to qualify for the round of 16 as group winners. Then Franco Vazquez happened. The hosts still plugged away with 10 men, but eventually it caught up to them against a Juve side that just know how to win. A draw in Lyon will still be enough for Sevilla, even a single-goal defeat will do. So the permutations just about favour the Europa League champions, but there will be nervousness about the possibility of entering their favourite competition once again.
Finally, a display befitting of their reputation as a tough place to visit. CSKA missed some great chances to win against Leverkusen, but the draw means they have a chance to qualify for the Europa League if they beat a demoralized Spurs at Wembley. After all, the Russian champions are likely to take that tournament seriously compared to Spurs.
A stuttering performance by Pep Guardiola’s men. Except for a brief period either side of half time, City didn’t really hit the high notes in Germany. Qualifying in second behind Barcelona is no disgrace, but City should have at least taken the race for top spot down to the last matchday.
The draw against Basel means the Bulgarian champions have the head-to-head advantage over Basel for the Europa League spot, which is no mean feat for a club of their size. However, after their spirited and adventurous display against Arsenal last time around, the stalemate against the Swiss champions was quite underwhelming.
The story of their season. When they are on top, Gladbach look so good. However, it very rarely lasts, the opposition always likely to get a foothold in the game once the intensity drops. Thus was the case against City in the 1-1 draw. Nevertheless, Gladbach could never realistically aim to qualify for the round of 16 ahead of Barca and City and the consolidation of a Europa League place, means André Schubert’s men have a crack at a competition that is a right fit for their current stage of development.
A lucky barely-deserved point in Naples as the hosts threw the kitchen sink at them. While the round of 16 appearance of last season won’t be repeated, Kyiv are entertaining neutrals as the spoilers in the group. Napoli and Benfica will hope that Serhiy Rebrov’s men have one last trick in them when they host Besiktas on the last matchday.
3-0 up at half time against Besiktas, Benfica had one foot in the round of 16. They then contrived to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory. Last season’s defensive prowess has deserted the Portuguese champions and as a result, they face a nervous last game at home to Napoli, in which they will most likely need a win to qualify. Nervous times for Rui Vitória’s men.
The defending against Dortmund lurched between comedic and tragic as Legia could have conceded even more than eight. While the experts will not be impressed, one can’t begrudge the fans. A campaign that was going to be remembered for all the wrong reasons has now seen seven goals scored in two games against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. It’s not quite the stuff of dreams, but great memories nevertheless for the group’s whipping boys. At least they have gone down swinging!
Ostensibly having outplayed their opponents in every match, Copenhagen simply haven’t taken advantage of their dominance. Even if they win their last match away at Brugge, they’ll have to rely on Porto dropping the ball. Some may say it’s an undeserved fate, but getting the ball in the net, is after all, the most crucial part of the game.
At one stage Napoli looked on course to be the first team to qualify for the last 16 as early as matchday three. Since then, Maurizio Sarri’s men have dropped the ball spectacularly. Two opportunities to seal qualification at home have been squandered and the Azzurri now face a difficult game at Benfica with their hopes of progression in the balance.
Across their two games against Real, Sporting could justifiably argue that they weren’t outplayed. They were never favourites in a tough group, but no points in their four games against Real and Dortmund is a massive disappointment and they are yet to even cement a Europa League spot. Unlike their storied rivals in Portugal, Sporting are yet to make an impression in the Champions League.
Deers in the headlights in the first half, Brugge played with greater spunk in the second half and even scored a memorable goal. While they have yet to get a point, the Belgian champions have shown incremental improvement after conceding seven goals in their first two games. Can they end their campaign on a high at home to Copenhagen?
Previous vintages of Basel would have rightly believed they could upset PSG and Arsenal to make a genuine bid for the last 16. This version has lost the head-to-head to Ludogorets. Can their famous home form against English teams salvage something against Arsenal?
After waiting so long to make it to the holy grail, you get a group that you expect to qualify from, if not outright win. You’re built up as one of the most exciting teams that are ready to enter the big stage. Then you lose your first home game. And your second. Next up your schooled by a team with more nous and are thankful to your goalkeeper for keeping it respectable. Now, you are trying to figure out how to get out of the Europa League. That is the story of Tottenham’s Champions League campaign.
It’s no secret that Bayern have been below their best for quite some time. Nevertheless, a defeat against Champions League debutants is unacceptable. To compound matters, Bayern have now relinquished top spot of the group to Atletico, rendering the last match against their rivals at the Allianz Arena meaningless. A tricky draw in the round of 16 now lies in store and Bayern will have to buck up their ideas if they are to make the semis for a sixth consecutive year.
No wins, no points and no goals in five matches. Enough said.
Last season, PSV left the Vicente Calderon after a heartbreaking penalty shootout. It has been the most uninspiring of follow-up campaigns for the Dutch champions. They never looked like getting anything against Atletico. The fact that Rostov ended up performing better in matches against Atletico and Bayern adds salt to the wounds.
The Scottish champions were always likely to finish bottom of the group, but that they are out of Europe completely with a game to spare is a hammer blow to Brendan Rodgers. Without Europe, what benchmark can club, manager and players measures themselves against? Parkhead, home to so many memorable European nights saw only one point gained. Just not good enough by any standard.
How will Manchester City respond after their first defeat under Pep Guardiola? Will either Chelsea or Leicester finally kickstart their season? Who will be Juve’s closest challengers in Serie A? These are the questions facing the big football matches on Saturday.
Chelsea vs Leicester City
On one side is a team where N’Golo Kante’s role is not yet clearly defined. On the other side is a team that are clearly feeling his absence. Of course there are other players of quality in this game to make it about more than one man, but it is Kante that perfectly symbolizes the undefined starts that Chelsea and Leicester have made in this nascent season.
For the champions, this was always going to be a tricky campaign. Leicester lost only three times in the entirety of their wondrous league winning campaign. They have already matched that tally in seven games this time around. It’s likely that there will be a few more defeats as they deal with opposition who are smartening up to their tactics, as well as the integration of new players into the new system. The latter factor may yet end up making Leicester a better team in the long run. In the interim though, they have been dominated and dismantled in their meetings with big teams, as witnessed against Manchester United and Liverpool.
Whether Chelsea are a big team or not is still to be decided. For a side that were champions in 2015, they have a squad that rather alarmingly asks a lot of questions. How is John Terry still their best centre back? Why is Branislav Ivanovic still playing at right back despite being repeatedly roasted on the flank for almost two years? Is Cesc Fabregas worthy of a starting place? Do Chelsea have the potential to unlock defences without Fabregas? Will Eden Hazard ever replicate his league-winning form?
Many expected Antonio Conte to be the man to solve these problems and make Chelsea a team to fear again. Alas, even the Italian strategist cannot fix such problems overnight. To his credit, Chelsea do play with a greater intensity compared to last season, but some of the comedic defending from Gary Cahill in particular cannot be legislated for.
Perhaps we’ll only see the best of these two teams later in the season. For now, these two Italian managers will only be concerned with the three points. Who will prevail between the wise old head of Ranieri and the young strategist in Conte?
Napoli vs Roma
You can call them bridesmaids or the two step sisters, but the harsh reality that Napoli and Roma have to deal with is that in their current guise, their most feasible aims are to be the second best team in Italy after Juventus. It’s not that these two lack for talent, creativity or stature. On their day, the football they play is amongst the finest seen in Europe. It is their inability to play consistently and furthermore, a lack of desire to get the points when they are not playing well that stunts them.
Flair and inconsistency. These two aspects make it hard for any writer to preview such a match. Napoli are extremely difficult to beat at home, while Roma have been quite poor on their travels this season. History would suggest Napoli are favourites, but there are other factors at play.
Arkadiusz Milik, who started the season so well is now out for six months after getting injured playing for Poland. It’s a big blow. In theory they have a great replacement in Manolo Gabbiadini. However, the Italian has been second choice for so long that they are doubts about his confidence and over his ability to integrate into the style of Maurizio Sarri. Nevertheless, with the likes of Dries Mertens and José Callejón in good form, Napoli should possess enough to trouble a notoriously fickle Roma defence.
Roma seem to have found a spark up front. While Francesco Totti’s sublime playmaking is still creating goals and chances for the Giallorossi, it is Edin Dzeko who has stepped up when it comes to end product. The Bosnian had a much-maligned first campaign in the capital, but seems to be rejuvenated after a good pre-season. His link up play with Totti has been superb, but it is also his understanding with wingers Mohamed Salah and Diego Perotti that has been crucial in allowing Roma to constantly apply pressure on opposing defences.
The fact that the two attacks have been highlighted tells its own story when it comes to this fixture. Luciano Spalletti and Maurizio Sarri are two astute tacticians and in many ways they have improved many aspects of their respective teams. Unfortunately, defensive woes still bog the two giants. Ultimately the result may just come down to who makes the least mistakes at the back.
Manchester City vs Everton
Matches between these two have always been fun to watch in recent seasons and it should be no different this time around. In fact, with two new managers who are completely different from their predecessors in both, tactical flexibility and discipline, the two clubs are playing some excellent football. Or should that be were playing excellent football?
You got the sense watching these two teams in the two weeks leading up to the international break that perhaps momentum was stalling. City were lucky to escape with a victory at Swansea when they were pressed and harassed. Celtic then scored three against them, before they were finally pressurized into submission by Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Everton lost an easy EFL Cup match at home to Norwich, were then non-descript at Bournemouth and were extremely fortuitous to get a point at home against a dominant Crystal Palace side.
It is against the backdrop of those last two weeks, that Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman have to reignite their teams. It seems to churlish to suggest that a team with Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and David Silva are missing just one player, but when that player is a Kevin De Bruyne in form, it is a huge absence. Everton may not provide City with the same pressing test they faced against Celtic and Tottenham, but nevertheless Koeman will ensure his team’s defence isn’t breached easily. Could this finally be the day where Guardiola trusts Leroy Sane with a start? A solution is certainly needed and all eyes will be on the legendary manager to see how he adjusts.
Meanwhile Koeman will count on Yannick Bolasie, Kevin Mirallas and Seamus Coleman to torment City’s vulnerable flanks. With Guardiola himself admitting defending against height is a problem, Romelu Lukaku will be licking his chops in anticipation of the battle against John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi. Certainly, Everton possess enough of a scoring threat to remain alive in the game even if City dominate.
There will be a lot of observant eyes scrutinizing the action at the Etihad. City should be favourites at home, but the battle between Guardiola and Koeman is no straightforward matter.
Finally, the tide has turned. Each previous Leicester victory had passed with disbelief, but qualified disbelief: ‘They will fall away eventually’, ‘wait until they play the big teams’, ‘Leicester won’t win the league; they can’t.’ Such an accomplished win away at their closest challengers is all it took for the Foxes to be taken seriously as contenders. Hell, contenders? Leicester are favourites. Favourites to win the Premier League. Christ
The consensus seems to be that Leicester are at the top of the table and in the hunt for the title because they have unstoppable momentum. In any sport, the importance of momentum can’t be denied, especially when it comes to improbable wins or late surges. However, as in life, not every situation in the world of sports is the same.
In the 2013-14 season, Liverpool’s incredible dash for the title had incredible momentum. With Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturbridge in full flow, Liverpool were smashing their way past teams scoring three or four goals a game, sometimes even five or six. The problem was that they often conceded two or three as well. It took one team to stop them from scoring to derail their title bid at the bitter end.
While not scoring at the remarkable rate of that Liverpool team, Leicester are still tied for the most goals scored in the league with Manchester City. The major difference however, is that Leicester have displayed an ability to find solutions when they’ve had trouble scoring. Even when Jamie Vardy didn’t score for a month and Riyad Mahrez missed two penalties that resulted in four dropped points, the Foxes lost only once. This, despite facing a set of fixtures that would have been difficult for the any of the league’s established elite, let alone this season’s upstarts.
To me, this speaks of great reservoirs of mental strength as well as the squad’s tactical versatility. It could all still fall apart, but if Leicester do win the league, I would rate Claudio Ranieri’s acumen and the squad’s focus and work ethic as the primary reasons for success above momentum.
Leicester moved back to the top of the Premier League after beating Stoke 3-0 at the King Power Stadium. What was meant to be a challenging game against a tricky opponent ended up being a comprehensive win. Here are three thoughts on the game.
1. Drinkwater and Kante establish base for win
The goals and assists provided by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have understandably grabbed most of the headlines during the Foxes fairytale season. Most supporters of the team however have long acknowledged the importance of Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante in their success. The midfield duo are a key cog in implementing Claudio Ranieri’s counterattacking strategy.
Stoke’s own midfield duo of Ibrahim Afellay and Glenn Whelan have played a crucial role in enabling their team to be effective in possession. Depriving them of rhythm would be necessary for Leicester to gain a foothold. It was here that Kante’s boundless energy came to the fore once again. The Frenchman had the most tackles and interceptions in the game, completely neutralizing Stoke’s threat in the attacking third while setting the base for his peers to start attacks.
Meanwhile Drinkwater was calm in possession, almost always finding the right pass. He had a team high 78 touches during the match and crucially he also scored the opening goal just before half time. The goal was a great way for Drinkwater to get the recognition he deserves and he topped off his performance with a delightful through ball to assist Vardy for Leicester’s second goal.
That Leicester have managed to stay in contention despite Vardy and Mahrez’s recent blip is a testament to the solidity that Drinkwater and Kante bring to the Foxes. With the two midfield stalwarts managing things on their end, it was time for the usual suspects to return…
2. Vardy and Mahrez back in the thick of things
It is the ultimate compliment to how far Vardy and Mahrez have come along that a stretch of four games without a goal or assist for either was considered by some to be a slump. That Vardy still remains the league’s leading scorer speaks of his prowess in the first part of the season. While this is clearly a team that is the sum of all its parts, no manager will ever say no to a hot striker who can guarantee goals.
Thus Ranieri would have been extremely happy to see Vardy find the back of the net again. The best part about the goal was that it demonstrated a sense of freshness returning to Vardy. After latching on to Drinkwater’s excellent pass, Vardy still had to run with the ball and then finish accurately. He did both calmly.
That returning freshness was also evident in a lot of Mahrez’s play. The trickery and cute passes were on full display against the Potters, culminating in a jinking dribble and a scuffed shot assisting Leonardo Ulloa for the team’s third goal.
It still seems unrealistic to expect the pair to maintain their form through to the end of the campaign. However, Ranieri doesn’t need either Vardy or Mahrez to replicate their form from the first half of the season. There are only 15 games left in the season with no cup distractions. If Mahrez and Vardy can get half the numbers they had till December, Leicester will almost certainly finish in the top four.
3. Inconsistency stifling Stoke’s upward progression
Stoke and Mark Hughes have been getting a lot of praise this season. Stoke-a-lona have outclassed both Manchester clubs at the Britannia. They have also defeated Chelsea and just last weekend Arsenal were arguably lucky to escape with a point. However, that has been mixed with home defeats to Watford and Crystal Palace, as well as away losses at Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion. This latest reversal means they have won only one of their last five games on the road.
Of course, losing to Leicester in their current guise is hardly a disgrace. Nevertheless, Mark Hughes claimed he wanted to take Stoke further up the table this season and the club have backed with him some marquee signings. In those signings lay some hints as to why Stoke’s longest winning streak this season stops at three. The likes of Shaqiri, Arnautovic, Bojan and Afellay may well belong in the end of season highlights reel, but the reason they are not at the elite clubs anymore is because they are comfortable performing to a high level on an average of once every three games. A glorious goal against City here, a mesmerizing assist against Chelsea there, but nothing in those defeats against the bottom ten clubs.
The ambition to progress while playing an entertaining style is laudable at Stoke. However, for the project to truly blossom, Mark Hughes has to get his talented bunch of former Champions League winners to perform consistently week in, week out. In this season of opportunity, the Potters have got as good a chance as any to sneak into Europe. Whether they do, comes down to a question of mentality, not talent.