The quarterfinals weren’t special, but Wasim believes we’ll see the magic of the FA Cup in the semis and the final as Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City duke it out for honours in the world’s oldest cup competition.
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On this episode of the podcast, Wasim analyzes the continuous twists and turns in the battle for Champions League qualification in the Premier League.
You can listen to the podcast through the player below or subscribe through iTunes here.
European competition has concluded for 2016 and from now until February, the focus will be on domestic football on the continent. This weekend sees some heavyweight clashes across many different leagues. Here are my picks for the games to watch this weekend:
Friday, December 9th
Eintracht Frankfurt vs Hoffenheim (5th vs 4th in the Bundesliga)
Saturday, December 10th
Cologne vs Borussia Dortmund (7th vs 6th in the Bundesliga)
Bordeaux vs Monaco (7th vs 2nd in Ligue 1)
Leicester vs Manchester City (The Premier League Champions in 16th welcome 4th placed City)
Sunday, December 11th
Anderlecht vs Club Brugge (3rd vs 2nd in the Belgian Pro League)
Torino vs Juventus (7th vs 1st in Serie A’s Turin derby)
Manchester United vs Tottenham (6th vs 5th in the Premier League)
Schalke 04 vs Bayer Leverkusen (8th vs 9th, between two of Bundesliga’s European powers)
Benfica vs Sporting (1st vs 2nd in the Primeira Liga)
Paris Saint-Germain vs Nice (3rd vs 1st in Ligue 1)
Monday, December 12th
Villarreal vs Atletico Madrid (6th vs 4th in La Liga)
Roma vs AC Milan (2nd vs 3rd in Serie A)
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.
Champions League Matchday 5 is often the most defining day of the group stages. There’s a good chance we’ll know most of the qualifiers for the round of 16 after these matches, as well as the group winners. Keeping various permutations in mind, these six games are likely to be the most decisive in this round.
Tuesday, November 22
Monaco vs Tottenham
Monaco lead the group, four points clear of Tottenham and hence, can even afford to lose this game and still control their destiny. Leonardo Jardim is unlikely to tolerate that outcome as Monaco will want to avoid needing anything from their last game away at Bayer Leverkusen.
Anything other than a win and Spurs could exit the competition if Leverkusen win in Moscow. After waiting so long to make here, an early exit would be quite underwhelming for Spurs. Mauricio Pochettino can take solace in the fact that Tottenham haven’t lost away from home in this Champions League campaign, but his men will need to be switched on from the first whistle if they want to stay alive in the competition.
Sporting Lisbon vs Real Madrid
Sporting need to win this match to keep their hopes of progression alive, but even that may not suffice as Real have a cushion of five points. The Portuguese were so close to winning at the Bernabéu on Matchday 1. They will need to rely on the those same levels and then some to get their desired result this time around.
Real have inexplicably dropped away points, so it isn’t a foregone conclusion that they will get the three points in Lisbon. While a draw or loss won’t be terminal for Real’s hopes, it will almost certainly result in a runner-up finish considering Dortmund are hosts to Legia Warsaw.
FC Copenhagen vs Porto
On the balance of play, an argument could be made that Copenhagen have been the best team in the group, yet they find themselves in third place. Copenhagen dominated the reverse fixture and if they could finish the chances they create, they can leapfrog their opponents with their last game against an eliminated Club Brugge. A draw would suffice for Porto as it would keep them second with their last game at home against a Leicester side that is likely to have already qualified for the round of 16.
Sevilla vs Juventus
The group leaders face off in what should be a cracking encounter at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Sevilla have the advantage, leading by two points after Juve conceded a late equalizer at home against Lyon. The Bianconeri will have to take the game to the hosts as they will want to avoid finishing second and drawing a big team in the round of 16 like last season. If Juve win, Sevilla could yet find themselves in trouble with a visit to a Lyon team that could still be in contention come the final matchday.
Wednesday, November 23
Arsenal vs Paris Saint-Germain
Two teams that have made a habit of finishing second in the group stages now play each other with a golden chance of finally winning a group and getting better odds in the round of 16. A better opportunity might not present itself, so will Arsenal or PSG rise to the challenge or will nerves get the better of them? We’ll find out at the Emirates.
Besiktas vs Benfica
Were it not for the concession of two late equalizers at home, Besiktas would already have a place assured in the last 16. As it happens, they are a point behind Napoli and Benfica and need to get maximum points in their last home fixture against the Portuguese champions. If they lose, the Turkish champions could be knocked out if Napoli beat Dynamo Kiev. Benfica on the other hand, will be alive even if they lose, but a win would guarantee qualification and keep them in the hunt to win the group.
Matchday 4 of the Champions League provided lots of drama leaving the fate of many groups in the balance. Five teams have made it to the round of 16, but there is still plenty to be decided. Here are the grades for all 32 teams involved in an engrossing matchday.
Pressing from the front, playing out from the back, City had Barcelona’s number at the Etihad. Aside from a 20-minute spell in the first half, Pep Guardiola’s men played the match on the front foot. Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling pulled Barca’s defenders away at will while Ilkay Gundogan made smart runs from midfield. Guardiola also showed tactical versatility by switching De Bruyne to a nominal forward position close to Aguero, a move which wreaked havoc on the visitors backline. Special brownie points to City for showing parking the bus is not the only way to beat Barcelona.
The Rojiblancos hammered Rostov at home with 31 shots, but needed an injury-time winner from Antoine Griezmann. Diego Simeone may be miffed at how his men didn’t score more, but Atletico are now the only team to have maximum points from the first four games in the Champions League. While that record is special, the most significant result of Griezmann’s winner was that it leaves topping the group in Atletico’s hands.
Adding to the significant injury issues at Dortmund, Thomas Tuchel had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang suspended for internal reasons. Considering all the off-field issues, it was natural that BVB would not have the most fluent of performances. However, they got the win and the result that secures their qualification to the next round. With Real’s slip in Poland, Tuchel’s men now have a golden opportunity to win the group.
Still to concede a goal in the group stages, Jorge Sampaoli’s men put in another consummate performance as they dismantled Dinamo Zagreb 4-0 at home. After exiting at the group stage last season, Sevilla need just one point from their remaining two games to make it to the round of 16. With Juve unexpectedly conceding a late equalizer, Sevilla actually have the opportunity to win the group when the Bianconeri visit Andalucia. It is now a matter of managing the nerves for the triple Europa League champions.
An efficient win bearing the trademarks of a fine Leonardo Jardim performance. In a group characterized by close matches and slim margins, Monaco’s 3-0 romp of CSKA Moscow was effectively worth an extra point. The principality side rarely look like conceding. However, if Radamel Falcao can stay fit and finish like he did in this match, maybe Monaco can dream of making a run to the quarterfinals again.
After a terrible start to the campaign, Benfica needed to get maximum points off their double-header against Dynamo Kiev and they duly delivered. Next up is a tricky trip to Turkey before welcoming Napoli to the Stadium of Light. Their defence, which looked at its unbreachable best against Kiev will be key if they are to progress out of the group stage.
A dominant performance away at the Dutch champions. 2-1 simply didn’t do justice to Bayern’s control in Eindhoven, but they showed the necessary spirit to keep going and finding a deserved winner. All Carlo Ancelotti would have wanted was a chance to top the group when Bayern welcome Atletico for the last game of the group and his men duly delivered.
Finally, a result that did justice to their performances in the group. Roger Schmidt could justifiably argue that Leverkusen should be on 12 points, but six points with no defeats is not a bad place to be. They were the dominant team at Wembley and for a while it looked like they would throw away a win again with a series of missed chances. Kevin Kampl ensured the three points they deserved with a calm finish. Another three points should see Leverkusen through to the next round.
Mesut Ozil’s delightful winner will be the lasting memory of Arsenal’s comeback win in Sofia. Crucially, it ensures Arsenal welcome PSG to the Emirates in control of Group A. It wasn’t a performance to shout about and were it not for David Ospina making some crucial saves, Arsenal could have left Bulgaria embarrassed. It is now imperative that they take advantage of their escape against the French champions.
It wasn’t a vintage performance, but one wasn’t needed. Kasper Schmeichel’s late save ensured a fourth successive clean sheet in the competition for Claudio Ranieri’s men. Next up is a home game against the group’s basement boys and Leicester should be confident about qualifying for the round of 16 before a daunting trip to Porto.
A crucial late equalizer scored by Marek Hamsik might just end up being the most crucial point for Maurizio Sarri’s men. Lose to Besiktas and Napoli would have been out of the top two despite winning their first two matches. Such negative momentum would have been hard to overturn. In stead, Hamsik’s equalizer sees Napoli hold on to first place with a winnable home game against Dynamo Kiev up next.
Like Arsenal, PSG’s performance in Switzerland left a lot to be desired, but by hook or crook they won against Basel. Thomas Meunier’s sensational late volley brought Unai Emery the three points, but a significant improvement will be needed for PSG to get the win against Arsenal in London. Nevertheless, the fact that they are still in with a chance to win the group without being close to their best, speaks to the winning mentality that has been cultivated at the club in the last few seasons.
Over the course of their double-header against Club Brugge, Nuno’s men did what was barely needed and got the necessary six points. With Copenhagen unable to break Leicester, Porto can now visit Denmark with the luxury of sitting back and picking their opponents on the counter. The Portuguese giants have been nowhere close to their best, but look set to right the wrongs of last season’s group stage exit.
A performance that nobody could have predicted given their results so far, Legia thrilled in their remarkable 3-3 draw against Real Madrid. Showed great fortitude to overturn a 2-0 deficit and it was a pity that they couldn’t hold on after taking the lead late on. The greater pity was that they had to play behind close doors due to the idiocy of some of their fans.
Made up for their humiliation at the Emirates last time around with a superb performance. Ludogorets attacked and exposed Arsenal’s back up full backs and could rightly consider themselves unlucky to not get at least a point against the Gunners. If they play with the same vim and vigour against Basel an unlikely Europa League spot can still be salvaged.
A fantastic away result in Turin, that could have been even better if Alexandre Lacazette had capitalized on a great opportunity to score in stoppage time. If only Lyon had taken advantage of the opportunities in the home leg of this match, they could have seriously shaken things up in Group H. In stead, it all feels like a case of too little, too late.
After the great win away at Napoli last time out, Besiktas were eight minutes away from the double over their Italian rivals with one foot in the next round. In stead, the concession of a late equalizer means Besiktas will need to win at home against Benfica and probably still need a point in Kiev. A massive opportunity missed for the Turkish champions.
After putting in two excellent away performances at Leicester and Porto, Copenhagen failed to take the initiative at home to the English champions. The Danish champions will be aggrieved to be on just five points after the way they have played so far and will now most likely need to win both their remaining fixtures to go through. A tall task at hand.
Outplayed for vast swathes of their match against Gladbach, Celtic somehow hung in and got a penalty that resulted in a valuable point. If they can muster a great performance in Glasgow against a travel-weary Barcelona, Brendan Rodgers’ men might just sneak a Europa League place.
Its not that Barcelona were abysmal in Manchester. For a brief period they were in total command, but once City stepped up, Barcelona didn’t look like they had a response in them. The group is still in their control, but it is evident that without Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Andres Iniesta, there is a vulnerability that can be exposed. Luis Enrique will hope that he doesn’t have to rely on his bench during the business end of the competition.
It had been coming for Juve. Max Allegri’s men have stuttered through October, following one unconvincing performance after the other. It hasn’t cost them in Serie A because of the huge gap between Juventus and their domestic rivals. However, the continent is a different matter. Juve were extremely lucky to get the three points in Lyon last time out, and many would say justice was served when they were denied a win at home after Corentin Tolisso’s late equalizer. Carelessness cost the Bianconeri a group top spot last season. They’ll need to pull off an away miracle in Sevilla to avoid the same fate this time around.
Gladbach were in a position to make Group C really interesting after their away win at Celtic. Unfortunately for André Schubert, his men failed to follow up with a win at home. The Foals dominated for large periods but defensive carelessness cost them. Even if they were to win against City at home next time out, a Europa League spot is now their best hope.
Rostov can be proud of their efforts against Atletico over the two legs. Losing by a single goal in each game against last year’s finalists is no disgrace. There was a huge disparity in quality, but unlike most other teams in their position, they played with valour and true effort to leave with their heads held high.
Two disappointing defeats against a Dortmund side that were not at their effervescent best. After the great away performance at the Bernabéu, Jorge Jesus’ side have subsided into their shell just when opportunity presented itself. A small chance remains, but performance levels will have to increase substantially to beat Madrid at home.
A terrible performance by everyone involved with the Merengues. Complacency was the name of the game as Real threw away a two-goal lead at the group whipping boys. Zinedine Zidane was also guilty as he selected a front four of Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Alvaro Morata. For a side already struggling with balance in the absence of Casemiro and Luka Modric, it was a reckless selection. Real now need to win in Lisbon to ensure they still have a chance of topping the group in the last game against Dortmund. The road to Cardiff has just become harder.
After an extremely lucky night in Leverkusen last time out, Spurs simply had no answer to their German visitors at Wembley. The most damning indictment of Mauricio Pochettino’s men was that they didn’t look like they belonged on the biggest stage. After waiting so long to re-enter the competition, Tottenham are lurching towards the most anti-climactic of campaigns. The return of Harry Kane and Toby Alderweireld from injury should provide Spurs with a boost, but can they catch up to the savvy of the more experienced European teams in the group?
Over the past decade, Basel have prided themselves on being tricky opponents, qualifying for the last 16 or at least running the more fancied teams really close. This season has seen none of that as they sit on a solitary point from four games. A tricky tie against Ludogorets awaits to determine a Europa League spot.
It’s easy to forget that PSV were a penalty shootout away from the quarterfinals last season after their campaign this time around. The Dutch champions were never going to be favourites in a group with Atletico and Bayern, but that their fate was decided after just four matches is a considerable source of embarrassment for a proud club.
An inexplicable first half performance against a team they led for almost 90 minutes in the last matchday. CSKA have always prided themselves on making things uncomfortable for the higher seeds in the Champions League. This season they have been the complete opposite and it hasn’t been pretty to watch.
A pale shadow of the team that made the second round last season. As the other three teams play out a close race for qualification, they’ll look to Kiev for bonus points. A sad regression for the Ukrainian champions.
Another performance of heart and endeavour, but simply don’t possess the quality to make any sort of impact in this competition. They never looked like getting a point in Portugal, much like all their other matches in the Champions League this season.
They were always going to struggle at Sevilla, but it became infinitely harder when they were down to ten men. Dinamo made a Champions League game look like a training exercise for Sevilla. Simply unacceptable.
Saturday sees another day of frantic football action all over Europe. Here are my picks for five of the continent’s best games.
Wolfsburg vs Bayer Leverkusen
Looking at their current predicaments in the lower half of the Bundesliga, it is hard to believe that Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen have been fighting each other for Champions League qualification during the last three seasons. It is quite remarkable that this match is being previewed with the hosts in 16th and the visitors in 11th.
There is no denying the fact that the sales of Kevin De Bruyne and Ivan Perisic have had a huge impact on the Wolves, but a team featuring Julian Draxler, Mario Gomez, Luiz Gustavo and Ricardo Rodriguez should be doing so much better than being in the relegation zone. Manager Dieter Hecking had to pay the price with his job but interim boss Valérien Ismaël couldn’t have asked for a worse display on his debut in a humbling 3-1 defeat at Darmstadt. Wolfsburg haven’t won since the opening round and a massive turnaround will be needed to win this match.
Bayer Leverkusen had their own humiliating loss, losing on penalties to the ten men of third division side Sportfreunde Lotte in the DFB Pokal. While Roger Schmidt has a lot of credit in the bank, his tactical naivety has led to a middling start to the campaign, consequently increasing the pressure on the manager. Leverkusen followed up an impressive win over Borussia Dortmund before the international break with two inept performances after the resumption of domestic duty. Not unlike their opponents, Leverkusen are stacked with enough quality to merit being higher than 11th.
Will nerves and pressure lead to a tense occasion? Or will a moment of magic by one of the many star players light up the match? Either way, with talented individuals and high stakes, this match is must-watch football!
Tottenham vs Leicester City
Last season’s top two take on each other with the champions unlikely to be involved in an exhilarating race, as was seen last season when Leicester and Spurs duked it out for the title. Leicester have lost every away match in the league this season and come into the game as huge underdogs. Spurs are the last remaining undefeated team in the Premier League, but they have drawn more than they have won. Mauricio Pochettino’s men have dominated games without being ruthless in front of goal. The Foxes have been blown away in the first half in all their losses. Spurs will have to capitalize on this early travel vulnerability. However, if Spurs don’t take their chances, the likeliness of falling to a counterpunch only increases. It may be only fifth versus twelfth, but intrigue abounds at White Hart Lane in what should be a cracking game.
Toulouse vs Lyon
One of the French League’s surprise stories takes on one of the season’s underwhelming disappointments as Toulouse welcome Lyon. Pascal Dupraz’s men have lost only one of their last six matches, a run that has seen them outplay PSG and Monaco, resulting in comprehensive 3-1 victories at home to against Ligue 1’s top dogs. Meanwhile last season’s runners-up have lost three out of their last four matches, leaving Lyon languishing in 10th. Bruno Génésio needs a win badly. Having Nabil Fekir and Alexandre Lacazette back together will certainly boost Génésio’s hopes but an increasingly porous defence will face their own challenge dealing with the red hot form of Martin Braithwaite and Ola Toivonen leading Toulouse’s attack. This should be an entertaining and open game for neutrals. Will Lyon finally kickstart their season or will Dupraz lead Toulouse to another win against of Ligue 1’s big teams? Tune in to find out.
Borussia Dortmund vs Schalke 04
The Ruhr Derby would have a different story if it was held a month ago. In stead we see two teams moving in opposite directions as Borussia Dortmund host Schalke at Signal Iduna Park.
While Dortmund are still tied for most goals in the league alongside Bayern Munich, defensive weaknesses coupled with a crippling injury crisis have stunted Thomas Tuchel’s men in the past month. Tuchel could be without as many as 10 starters in a big match against their rivals. Winless in three, Dortmund really have to keep some semblance of pressure on Bayern.
Many pundits thought Markus Weinzierl would be the first manager to lose his job in the Bundesliga after the league campaign started with five straight defeats for Schalke. The tide has turned in the last month or so as the Royal Blues gained seven points from their last three domestic games while maintaining a perfect record in the Europa League. Yevhen Konoplyanka seems to have found his groove, while most impressively, Nabil Bentaleb has come to the fore, scoring goals from midfield.
Derbies always have a story of their own. Whether the heroes of this particular story will be the injury-stricken Dortmund or the improving Schalke remains to be seen. Goals should feature in this derby.
Juventus vs Napoli
Last season’s clashes between Juve and Napoli were intense affairs, with the Bianconeri’s win at Juventus stadium proving to be the decisive turning point of the title race. This time around, Juve lead Napoli by four points and the sense of occasion is not the same, but this is still a big match in the Serie A calendar.
While Juve have lost on their visits to the San Siro, they have looked impregnable at home. They shook off some of their October rust with a 4-1 thrashing of Sampdoria, with Miralem Pjanic becoming more influential with each passing game. Napoli seem to be finding some semblance of form after a rough stretch of form saw them lose three on the bounce at home and in Europe. Maurizio Sarri’s solution to Arkadiusz Milik’s long-term injury seems to be the use of a false nine alternating between José Callejón and Dries Mertens. As dangerous as that fluid forward line can be, it’s another challenge altogether against Juve’s famed back three.
The champions should come out on top at home, but expect Napoli to test them all the way in the battle between first and third.
We are at the halfway stage of the Champions League group stage after Matchday 3. It’s time to assess the performances of all 32 teams and see who excelled, who struggled and who needs to do better.
It could be argued that Leicester were fortunate to win against Copenhagen. Such an argument would have merit. That is missing the point though. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Copenhagen have significant Champions League experience and in the first game of this group, they dominated Porto away from home. Leicester are playing in the Champions League for the first time. That they are here is already an achievement in itself. The fact that they have won their first three games and now need only one win from three games to qualify for the last 16, is quite frankly, remarkable. The Foxes are underdogs in every sense, against almost every other opponent in this competition. Yet they have maximum points without conceding a goal. It is a feat that can be forgiven deeper analysis while being cherished and celebrated.
The scary thing about their win over Manchester City was that Barcelona were hardly at their best. Nevertheless, there is excellence to be appreciated in taking your chances ruthlessly. In Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, the Blaugrana have a front three that are the epitome of efficiency. Luis Enrique’s men are now almost guaranteed to win the group, even legislating for a possible loss at the Etihad. If the midfield and defence step up however, Enrique will be confident that with a prolific MSN leading the charge, City can be beaten away as well.
A performance of complete comfort. Arsenal were effervescent in every aspect with their front four again in blistering form. Not only did Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott score again, but Mesut Ozil scored a hat trick. Crucially, after years of suffering in the group stage, Arsene Wenger is ideally placed to come first in the group. Arsenal have a goal difference advantage of three over PSG, with the French champions still to visit the Emirates. The Gunners are looking good!
There were elements of luck in their win at Naples, but Senol Günes and his men were once again adept at making the most of their chances. Turkish teams winning matches in the Champions League has become rare in recent seasons, so an away victory in particular, is really special for Besiktas. The Turkish champions are now the only undefeated team in Group B. With two home games remaining and blessed with the poaching instincts of Vincent Aboubakar, Günes will be confident that Besiktas can take advantage of this upset to make it to the next round.
A mature away performance that belied the inexperience of Thomas Tuchel’s injury-plagued squad. Dortmund were dominant for the first hour in Lisbon, taking a two-goal lead with a performance embodying control and precision. Even more impressive however, was the resilience and calmness shown in defence after Sporting pulled a goal back with over 20 minutes left to play. With a four-point lead over their hosts with the return fixture at home, Dortmund have a comfortable cushion to qualify for the last 16 and remain in contention for first place in Group F despite Real Madrid having the easier opponent on the day.
The Italian champions were far from fluent, but an away game at Lyon was never going to be easy. In true fashion, Gianluigi Buffon put in a performance for the ages, just as an army of critics were chastising him after recent errors. Impressively, after being under the cosh for most of the match Juventus actually improved after going down to ten men, keeping the ball better and taking the game to Lyon. While some may consider it daylight robbery, was it any surprise that Juve got the winner? Champions after all, always find a way to win.
There are issues of balance without Casemiro in midfield, highlighted emphatically by Legia Warsaw cutting through the centre with ease in the move that led to their penalty. However, this was not an occasion for Casemiro and defensive midfielders in the first place. Real’s only remit in this match was to plunder goals and boost the goal difference. A 5-1 win did nicely for Zinedine Zidane in that regard.
A performance in tune with their great run to the quarterfinals last season and a much-needed to win to kickstart their campaign this time around. Benfica never looked like losing in Kiev. Win their return fixture at home and Rui Vitória’s men will control their own destiny as Napoli and Besiktas take points off each other.
A measured and controlled away win giving further fuel to the theory that Sevilla have in fact upgraded by getting Jorge Sampaoli as manager. Sevilla played entertaining football in last season’s group stages, but exited with only six points. They have already got seven at the halfway stage this time around. With home matches against Zagreb and Juve to come, the Europa League champions have a great shot at actually winning the group.
Just desserts for André Schubert’s brave approach at Parkhead. Gladbach play football in an admirable way, always taking the attack to the opposition regardless of circumstance, often coming up against teams with greater quality. Against Celtic they played with a strut that their hosts simply had no answer for. Gladbach now have the edge over Celtic for Europa League qualification, but with two home games left and Manchester City to play Barcelona once more, could Schubert and his men cause the ultimate sting in the tale by qualifying for the last 16?
Diego Simeone’s men played almost exclusively on the front foot at Rostov and probably should have won by more goals. Yet, with the crucial win against Bayern in the last matchday, all Atletico need to do is keep accumulating the points until the last rubber in Bavaria, maintaining their hold on first place in the group. Another bonus was a second successive win without Antoine Griezmann scoring.
Carlo Ancelotti had asked for more intensity from his Bayern side and they delivered. The Bavarian giants were deserved winners, but the casual defensive errors that have been prominent this season led to a sloppy concession of a goal. Thereafter, for half an hour, PSV troubled Bayern. Better teams than PSV will not provide the German champions with the same largesse. Ancelotti clearly still has some fine-tuning to do.
From a barely deserved point in Matchday 2 to undeservedly missing out on all three in Matchday 3. Monaco threw the kitchen sink at CSKA and Bernardo Silva’s late equalizer was the least they deserved. Two points gained from late equalizers could well end up making the difference for Leonardo Jardim’s men in a congested group. Monaco now have to ensure they get all three points in the return fixture at home, so as to establish some daylight ahead of the chasing pack in Group E.
Porto took a while to get going in Belgium, but once they got out of their stupor they were good value for their win against Club Brugge. It should restore some confidence for the Portuguese giants who had gone four games without a win in the Champions League group stages dating back to last season. Nuno has to ensure a comprehensive victory in the return fixture at home, before the crucial trip to Copenhagen on Matchday 5.
Another stuttering win for the French champions. They scored first against the run of play before their greater quality came to the fore in the second half against Basel. The appointment of Unai Emery was meant to signal a shift in Europe for PSG. All the evidence seen in the campaign so far would suggest that PSG are likely to fail the moment they come up against one of Europe’s big guns yet again. Emery and his men need to buck up their ideas, and buck up quickly.
On reflection, Spurs got an excellent away point at Leverkusen. After all, the German side are regulars in the Champions League, while Spurs are a young team in age as well as experience in Europe’s premier club competition. That being said, it was still a harsh lesson for Spurs’ young guns. They had their chances in the first half when the hosts looked ragged. Having failed to take advantage, Mauricio Pochettino’s men were put on the back foot right from the resumption till full time. Only the magnificence of Hugo Lloris prevented a defeat, meaning Spurs still have qualification from the group in their own hands.
As dominant a performance as one could have in losing a match. The Danish champions were extremely unlucky to leave the Midlands with no points. However, Copenhagen are still in the picture for qualification to the next round. Not many teams control games away from home, yet Copenhagen have done so in Portugal and England. If they display the same levels of performance at home, they are bound to win. The visits of Leicester and Porto will now decide their fate.
Many would rightly say that Leverkusen deserved more from their match against Tottenham. The problem is that it feels like Leverkusen always deserve more, but they simply don’t make the most of their chances. They dominated against CSKA Moscow but contrived to throw away a two-goal lead and then conceded a last-minute equalizer at Monaco to the host’s only shot on goal. Roger Schmidt’s men could conceivably already have been on nine points, in stead they are third in the group with just three. To qualify now, Leverkusen will need to win at least one of their remaining two away games in Moscow or London.
It is now three consecutive defeats across all competitions for Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli side. While the injury-enforced absence of Arkadiusz Milik is a big blow, it was no excuse for this defeat, where the Azzurri were their own worst enemies. Lorenzo Insigne’s missed penalty was one of many missed chances, while the defence was calamitous on the few occasions they were called upon. Napoli could have wrapped up qualification for the next stage if things had gone their way. In stead, everything is up in the air for an increasingly nerve-ridden side.
Visiting CSKA used to be an awkward trip for most teams in the Champions League. This season we’ve seen two atrocious performances by the home team in Moscow, with the visitors completely dominant. Remarkably, CSKA were on the verge of being the first home team to win a match in Group E. This travesty was justly denied by Bernardo Silva’s late equalizer for Monaco. Such is the tight nature of the group, that somehow CSKA are just three points behind the group leaders and still alive in the race for qualification to the last 16.
The Champions League continues to be a tough nut for Jorge Jesus. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at the Bernabéu, it was imperative for Sporting to get maximum points at home. The home faithful would justifiably have expected a great performance to gain hold of second place. Except for a brief period in the second half however, the crowd saw their team being easily nullified by a visiting team that exhibited a better temperament for the occasion. Now four points behind Dortmund, Sporting travel to Germany needing a win to stay alive. It’s looking like another Europa League campaign beckons for Sporting.
The Swiss champions were actually the better team for most of the first half at PSG. That they followed it up with a meek performance in the second half was extremely disappointing. A reasonable tilt at second place was possible if Basel had shown gumption. As it turns out, a Europa League place is now the summit of their ambitions.
There is no doubt that City had their chances at the Camp Nou and in many ways their first half performance was admirable. The Champions League though, is not a forgiving arena and the sheer lunacy of their mistakes merited a chastening defeat for Pep Guardiola’s men. While City would like to believe they have a chance at home, such defensive ineptness is likely to be equally punished by the aforementioned MSN even at the Etihad. Qualification out of the group is no longer straightforward.
Considering their inexperience, defeat to Juventus was no disaster. However, that fails to take into account a Bianconeri side that were there for the taking. Alexandre Lacazette fluffed his chance with a poor penalty that would have given Lyon the lead. Even then, Les Gones were provided another great opportunity when Mario Lemina was sent off. In stead the home side capitulated. Now four points behind Juve and Sevilla, Lyon could be out of contention after their visit to Turin on Matchday 4.
The Belgian champions gave as good as they got in the first half against Porto, deservedly taking the lead. To some observers their defeat at full time may seem harsh, but as other teams have discovered in this round, criminal defending is unlikely to go unpunished in this tournament. As good as Miguel Layún’s equalizer for Porto was, he was afforded full freedom of Brugge’s left flank, while the foul for Andre Silva’s injury time penalty verged on the amateur. Brugge now face a fight just to get off the mark.
A nondescript performance by the Ukrainian champions in a home game they had to win. Last season’s round of 16 appearance is now unlikely to be repeated, with Serhiy Rebrov’s men now needing a miracle just to make it to the Europa League.
The Russians never looked like scoring against Atletico and they were completely out of their depth against a European giant. Yet, unlike other teams of similar ilk, Rostov played with pride and commitment and valiantly ensured they didn’t concede more than one goal, avoiding a humiliating thrashing that so many other minnows suffered on Matchday 3.
Celtic’s most realistic goal after they were drawn in Group C would have been to qualify for the Europa League. To that end, a point against City last time out was a great result. To then follow up with a thoroughly underwhelming performance against Gladbach when they had the momentum was just inexcusable. Kolo Toure’s comedic defending contributed to the goals, but the defeat was justified in every sense as Brendan Rodgers’ men were outplayed from the first whistle to the last. It’s now hard to see Celtic getting another point in this campaign.
That PSV lost 4-1 away to Bayern is no disgrace. What was disgraceful however, was the shambolic defending evident in the first two goals. These are the Dutch champions after all and surely one expects better from them, than to concede directly from a short pass on a corner. Phillip Cocu did so well last season to take PSV to the last 16. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to build on that success as a group stage exit beckons.
Another hammering for the Polish champions. The long-awaited return to the Champions League is increasingly becoming a nightmare. One goal scored, 13 conceded and a game each still to play against Real and Dortmund. This could get even uglier.
Three games in and Zagreb remain the only team to not score in the group stages. Not to add to their misery, but it’s hard to imagine how they are going to find the net in their remaining three games. Not up to scruff.
Better teams than Ludogrets have struggled to live with Arsenal at their fluent best. However, the defending in the last 10 minutes at the Emirates when they conceded three was simply non-existent. Doesn’t paint a flattering picture for the Bulgarian champions who until now have always displayed fight and a never-say-die attitude in the Champions League.
The return of European football gets most fans excited about the Champions League. With the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, PSG and others involved, it is of course natural that Europe’s secondary club competition gets overlooked. However, this writer always looks forward to the Europa League knockout competition. Jurgen Klopp recently called the tournament a “Mini-Champions League”. Looking at the calibre of the remaining teams and some of the fixtures in the round of 32, his suggestion is not far off the mark. Some of these matches could quite conceivably be seen in next season’s Champions League, while others are ties between some great historic clubs.
Here are some ties that should the whet the appetite for all football fans:
Anderlecht (3rd in Belgian Jupiler League) vs Olympiakos (1st in Greek Super League)
Borussia Dortmund (2nd in Bundesliga) vs Porto (3rd in Portuguese Liga)
Fiorentina (3rd in Serie A) vs Tottenham (2nd in Barclays Premier League)
Saint-Étienne (4th in Ligue 1) vs Basel (1st in Swiss Super League)
Villarreal (4th in La Liga) vs Napoli (2nd in Serie A)
Galatasaray (5th in Turkish Super Lig) vs Lazio (7th in Serie A)
Marseille (11th in Ligue 1) vs Athletic Bilbao (7th in La Liga)
Shakhtar Donetsk (1st in Ukrainian Premier League) vs Schalke 04 (5th in Bundesliga)
Sporting Lisbon (1st in Portuguese Liga) vs Bayer Leverkusen (3rd in Bundesliga)