Every Champions League Club’s Most Important Player

The round of 16 is where the Champions League truly begins. With the predictable group stages finally over, let’s look ahead to all the teams left in the competition. The previews will be coming, but for now, let’s look at every team’s most outstanding player. These are the players who are irreplaceable in their sides, who will be relied upon to win these close ties. I will not be speaking about these players in the previews, to avoid repeating myself. 

Atletico Madrid: Alvaro Morata 

While this season, with all of the departures in the summer, can be argued as a transitional one, it’s still been very frustrating for Atletico. Their city rivals have been above average, but they’ve had chances to stay closer in the title race. While they’ve remained solid at the back, it’s in attack where, as usual, they’ve misfired. Yet, it’s hard to include any defender as their most important player, when Simeone is so reliant on his attackers to produce some magic. Saul Niguez does deserve mention for remaining as consistent as ever, but Morata is easily the player to be relied upon.

The former Chelsea striker has garnered a reputation for being a poor finisher, which is still valid. Morata has again missed a few big chances this season. Possible game-winners against Sevilla and Real Valladolid and a header against Granada would put him in double figures for goals. Morata has always missed the occasional sitter, but it shouldn’t deflect from his all-round game. He’s still taking the most shots per 90 for Atletico Madrid with 3.5, with 2.3 coming from inside the penalty area. He’s winning over 5 aerial duels per 90, reminding everyone how much of an aerial threat he still is, as well as creating 1.4 chances. Even in a very defensive team, these are great numbers. It becomes more significant when Joao Felix hasn’t hit the ground running, and Thomas Lemar still looks like the same shadow as last season.

Morata will need to be at his very best to beat the best team in Europe. Liverpool have been sensational over the last couple of years, especially in the knockout games. I can’t see Atletico creating many chances during both legs. Morata’s ability to do a bit of everything could help his team get the much-needed goals to advance, even if he won’t be putting the chances away.

Liverpool: Virgil Van Dijk

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There were surprisingly a lot of candidates for Liverpool. Any of their superstar forwards, Alexander-Arnold’s elite chance creation and Allison ridiculous ability to make that defence even better than it already is. But the runner-up for the Balon d’Or is my choice. Philippe Coutinho’s sale and the arrival of Virgil Van Dijk must be considered one of the best deals in the history of the modern game. The Dutchman is fantastic in the air, an elite distributor and a constant goal threat. Not only has Van Dijk been individually unbelievable, but he simultaneously improved everyone around him. Joe Gomez looks like a future England starter alongside him, and Matip began earning heaps of praise for the first time in years. Not much needs to be said. While a lot of money has been spent on Van Dijk, he has definitely paid it back. Two European finals, one Champions League, the third-highest points tally in the history of the league and most likely a first title. His influence and ability will keep his side fighting until the very end. 

Borussia Dortmund: Jadon Sancho

Marco Reus is obviously a contender here, but Sancho has taken another leap in his rapid development. The England international has become Dortmund’s biggest threat in the final third and has been the driving for some of their most significant results this season. Sancho made the difference in their massive comeback against Paderborn and scored and assisted in their 3-3 draw to RB Leipzig. He’s contributed to a goal in all of his past 7 games. Sancho finished the Hinrunde with 9 goals and 9 assists, more goal involvements than Reus and Thorgan Hazard. Sancho has overperformed his xG, but that’s been Dortmund’s story under Favre. The former Manchester City attacker has stood out among other elite attackers. Julian Brandt has been fantastic whenever he’s played, and Thorgan Hazard has, creatively, been one of the best players in Germany. Sancho’s speed, dribbling and chance creation will cause a lot of problems for PSG, especially considering their defensively poor full-backs. I can’t see Sancho remaining in Germany past the summer, meaning this could be his last chance to drag Dortmund over the line.

PSG: Marco Verratti

In a team containing talented players like Neymar, Mbappe, Icardi and Di Maria, why have I chosen Verratti? I’ve already expressed my love for the Italian, and even with midfield reinforcements arriving in the summer, he has remained a vital piece in Tuchel’s team. Verratti is one of the best midfielders in the world at pretty much everything that matters. Similar to Thiago Alcantara, Verratti is a fantastic progressor of the ball, either through his incredible ability to pick out one of his teammates in difficult positions or his tireless work rate. Here’s statsbomb’s player radar of Verratti’s 18/19 season, and it’s insane:

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Verratti might go down as one of the most under-appreciated players of the 21st century. The popular opinion of Ligue 1 being the weakest league out of the top five, as well as PSG’s dominance, has made it difficult for people to take many of their stars seriously. But it’s not only in France where Verratti has shown his excellence. Time and time again, Verratti has demonstrated the best teams in Europe just how good he is. In their famous 4-0 first-leg win over Barcelona back in 2017, Verratti was instrumental in nullifying Rakitic, Gomes and Busquets. Even against (at the time) Solsjkaer’s high-flying Manchester United, Verratti dominated the game at Old Trafford, unbeatable on the ball while being a huge reason why PSG were able to transition so quickly against the Red Devils. I’ll most likely discuss Paris’ attackers during the preview. Still, there’s no debating that Verratti will be instrumental if PSG wishes to dominate the game against a tough and robust Dortmund midfield. 

Atalanta: Josip Ilicic

Papau Gomez is usually the choice for Atalanta’s most important player. And while their captain will need to bring his usual brilliance, it’s hard to argue with just how good Ilicic has been for Italy’s best attacking side. Alongside Zapata or Muriel, Ilicic has involvement in everything Atalanta do in the final third. The Slovenian’s dominates Atalanta’s shots, dribble and shot-assist numbers. In fact, it’s only in shot-assists where Ilicic isn’t top (Gomez averages 3 while Ilicic averages 2.8). The former Fiorentina forward is averaging 4.9 shots per 90, putting him on the Messi and Ronaldo level we wish every forward could reach. His xGChain (the total xG of every possession a player is involved in) is the highest in Serie A, with 14.05 (this is only counting players who’ve played over 700 minutes).

Do I think Atalanta will progress beyond Valencia? I’m not entirely sure, but I hope so. Atalanta under Gasperini have been so much fun in creating an elite attack, and Ilicic is arguably the crown jewel. His incredible offensive ability, as well as his creativity, could be a massive factor in taken Atalanta to the next stage in their first campaign in the Champions League.

Valencia: Dani Parejo

Not even a competition for this. Dani Parejo is another who’s massively underrated. In a league that’s been dominated by the likes of Modric, Iniesta, Busquets, Rakitic and Kroos throughout the decade, Parejo should definitely be considered among those fantastic players. The Spaniard has been so consistent for a team that has continuously changed personnel, whether players or coach. Parejo has been a consistent goal scorer and supplier. Since 15/16, Valencia’s skipper has contributed to at least 10 goals. A lot of goals either come from the penalty spot or free-kicks, but that’s a skill by itself. He’s actually scored 13 free kicks for Valencia, a frankly ridiculous amount for any player. 

Parejo’s biggest strength in assisting his side is by far his leadership. After their poor start to the 18/19 season, it wouldn’t surprise me if Parejo had a massive say in waking his teammates up from their misfortune and pushing them on to finish in the Champions League spots. Even if Atalanta manage to get a first-leg lead, Parejo will do all in his power to turn the tie to Valencia’s favour. 

Tottenham Hotspur: Heung-Min Son

Throughout Tottenham’s run to the final last season, Son was their key man, since Kane (as usual) missed key matches in their memorable campaign. While Lucas Moura did score that incredible hat-trick to sink a young Ajax team, they wouldn’t have reached that point without Son’s goals in the round of sixteen and the quarter-finals. During their first leg against Borussia Dortmund, Son scored the second goal at Wembley, giving them a massive advantage over the Bundesliga side. His performances during their two-legged affair against champions Manchester City were by far the highlight of his season. The South Korean international scored the only goal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, ensuring that Manchester City were left fighting during their second leg. Son went on to leave his opponents in an awkward position, scoring two goals at the Etihad. 

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With Harry Kane out until April and Ndombele struggling to put together a consistent run of games, it’s tough to argue with Heung-Min Son’s importance to the Tottenham team. Son offers something that none of his teammates can currently offer a consistent goal threat. I much prefer him starting as a winger, because Kane regularly drops deep, Son feels like the only focal point for the team. His pace and ability on the counter-attack make him a threat to every team in Europe.

RB Leipzig: Timo Werner

Julien Nagelsmann has taken Leipzig to the next level, adding that needed improvement in possession. This allows them to stay competitive against all kinds of opposition, whether big or small. While players like Sabitzer, Nkunku and Mukiele deserve credit for the leaps, they’ve taken in their development. It’s hard to argue with just how good Timo Werner has been this season. The German international is easily the most inform striker in the league. His massive goal tally of 20 is difficult to match across Europe. Not only has his goals gone up, but his creativity is frankly ridiculous. Werner is fifth in the Bundesliga for assists with 6. Not only that, but his xA per 90 is currently at 0.37. Werner has a higher expected assists per 90 than the likes of Filip Kostic, Marcus Thuram and Jadon Sancho. Werner is flourishing in every way under his new coach, and easily the player Tottenham will be looking at stopping.

Chelsea: Matteo Kovacic 

Chelsea were easily the hardest choice here. Abraham, Rudiger, Azpilicueta and Kante were all considered, but Matteo Kovacic had to be here. The former Real Madrid midfielder has always been an enormous talent but struggled at his former club. Since signing for Chelsea however, he seems to be finally turning into that world-beater. When playing alongside Jorginho and Kante in a midfield three, it allows Kovacic to focus primarily on his best quality: ball progression. Kovacic has consistently averaged over 10 deep progressions per 90. There aren’t many better players in England who can transition the ball through each zone. It’s arguably been the most significant improvement under Lampard. While they have been somewhat naive defensively, they’ve been better to watch, and the midfield isn’t so static. Kovacic is completing over 3 dribbles per 90 in the Champions League. His defensive work has fallen off a cliff when in Europe, but that’s primarily down to having Kante, as well as Jorginho to do the defensive work. Kovacic will be a player that Bayern Munich have to limit. His ability to quickly move the ball into the opponent’s third is difficult to stop and could be a deciding factor in this huge tie. 

Bayern Munich: Robert Lewandowski

Whether Bayern are good or bad, there is one player you can always count on, and that’s their superstar striker Robert Lewandowski. Poland’s all-time top goalscorer has been running insanely hot all season. He went on a run of scoring in 15 consecutive games. He ended the Hinrunde with 29 goals in all competitions, more than many talented players manage in a whole season. Not only is his form in the Bundesliga fantastic, but he has brought it into Europe. Lewandowski is currently the top goal scorer in the competition, scoring 10 in 5. His finishes against Tottenham in their 7-2 demolition were outstanding. His first goal saw the former Dortmund star quickly turn his body and hit the ball right between the defenders, making it impossible for Lloris to stop the shot.

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Not only does Lewandowski continually put the ball in the back of the net, but he does so much for his team. I highly doubt Serge Gnabry would have reached 10 goals if it wasn’t for Lewandowski either intelligently dragging defenders away from him, or creating the goals himself. He is a perfect modern number nine but will need to bring his group stage form in the games where it truly matters. 

Napoli: Fabian Ruiz

While Milan and Sampdoria falling down the table is the story of Serie A, it’s Napoli’s drop off which has been the most astounding. Last season’s runners up have looked a shadow of the team they were under Sarri. It was difficult to choose a player here. Not because of a wealth of options, but a lack of them. Key and reliable players like Allan, Callejon, Koulibaly and Insigne have all dropped off massively. The only player that has stood out is former Betis midfielder Fabian Ruiz, who has still remained at a high level, even with all of the issues on and off the field. 

The Spaniard is a midfielder who can do a bit of everything. He arrived last season as a number ten or an advanced eight but primarily played in a double pivot under Ancelotti. Ruiz wasn’t necessarily bad there; however, he wasn’t being played to his strengths. Ruiz is an excellent progressor of the ball, continually getting involved during buildup through his passing. The 23-year-old’s xGChain sits at 11.51, higher than anyone else for Napoli. His best strength is comfortably his dribbling, consistently averaging over a 65% dribble success rate. He’s technically excellent and could have a massive say in their tie against Barcelona, who themselves have plenty of midfielders who can dominate a game. 

Barcelona: Lionel Messi 

Nothing needs to be said. The best player to ever grace the game is going to be his team’s most important player.

Lyon: Moussa Dembele

Lyon are having an awful season, on and off the pitch. Sylvinho arrived as the new head coach, with Juninho has the new sporting director, in an attempt to push Lyon to the next level. Unfortunately, this has not worked out so far. Juninho was sacked after only winning three games in eleven. Rudi Garcia was shockingly appointing, which didn’t go down well with the fans, considering he was managing Marseille as recently as last season. When you pair that with Marcelo’s feud with some of the Lyon ultras, this season was over before it even started. 

With Depay tearing his ACL, meaning the Dutchman will miss the Euros, Moussa Dembele seems like the apparent player who could turn the tie for Lyon. Dembele has dropped off slightly from last season but remains a considerable threat. He’s Lyon’s top scorer in Ligue 1 with 11 goals. He’s excellent physically, able to beat players in the air or with his speed. His finishing has always impressed, consistently putting away more difficult chances. The only worry for Dembele is whether he can actually score in the Champions League, something he’s yet to do. Lyon’s sudden nose dive from the top of Ligue 1 has been staggering, and it puts their chances of progressing rather unlikely. They’ll have to hope Dembele can start putting in the performances that made him stand out last season.

Juventus: Cristiano Ronaldo

The Champions have been slightly worse under Sarri, including Ronaldo. While his form has improved in recent weeks, he’s finally started to look like a 34-year-old. His shot numbers are still on that elite level they’ve been since the start of the decade, but he has begun to look slow, with his start to the season, yet again, underwhelming. Still, Ronaldo is one of the best forwards around, with his knack for the big stage a massive factor when discussing Juventus. His hat trick against Atletico Madrid in last year’s round of sixteen perfectly showcased how Ronaldo can carry a team through the toughest of circumstances. The competition’s all-time top scorer is still the best headerer of the ball in the world and loves a score a spectacular goal. The success of Ronaldo’s transfer to the old lady rests on these big moments. He was brought in for a lot of money (too much), and if he doesn’t win the Champions League, this move will be seen as a failure.

Real Madrid: Karim Benzema

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Moving onto Ronaldo’s former club, who are finally starting to look just as good as they were when the Portuguese superstar was playing in the famous Los Blancos shirt. Even with Madrid looking solid in defence and their young players starting to flourish, it’s Karim Benzema who has remained at the same high level as he has throughout the last decade. Casemiro does deserve a lot of credit for keeping that midfield together, but Benzema has helped keep Madrid in the title race. He’s the club’s top goalscorer this season with 12 and assisting the most with 5. What’s impressed me the most about Benzema is how he’s returned to being more of a goalscorer. His insanely impressive 2 key passes per 90 do show how he is still a great all-rounder in terms of goals and creativity, but his involvement in buildup play has started to decline. This is actually a good thing. Benzema is now 32 and in a team full of future superstars. He is giving these players that reliable, experienced player up front, who will put the ball away when given a chance. Luka Jovic struggling for games is a testament to Benzema’s importance. It wouldn’t surprise to see him play a vital role against the Premier League Champions. 

Manchester City: Aymeric Laporte 

Kevin De Bruyne might be the obvious answer considering how unbeatable he has been this season. However, if Manchester City can reach 98 points with their Belgian playmaker missing most of the season, then he can’t be as vital as Aymeric Laporte. The former Athletic Bilbao defender has seen his importance grow over the last few months. After picking up a severe knee injury in September. It left Pep with a stagnant John Stones and an ageing Nicolas Otamendi as his only recognised centre-backs. While City have been really bad at the back throughout the season, losing a composed, intelligent and dominant defender in Laporte, did make things a lot harder. I have no idea if Laporte will be ready for their colossal tie with Real Madrid. Pep, as well 

Are Juventus Favourites? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group D

Atletico Madrid

The summer transfer window was one of the most critical windows for Atletico during this decade. They lost an entire back-line, alongside their best midfielder and attacker in Rodri and Griezmann respectively. They went about fixing these problems in quite exciting ways, with a combination of experience and younger talent, including the addition of one of the hottest prospects in Europe; Joao Felix. It keeps Atletico Madrid competitive in the short term while allowing them to improve over the next few years.

Simeone’s side is currently top of the league, winning all of their games. However, they’ve shown an unusual trait in the opening 3 games. They’ve remained defensively solid as ever, with only Sevilla, Bilbao and Getafe facing fewer shots per game. They are deservedly top of the table, but what stands out is in the attack, where their shot numbers are fascinating. No side takes fewer shots per game than Atleti’s 6, but they’re managing to get 4 of them on target, the joint 7th best and by far the most efficient. In fact, Barcelona is taking 4.3 shots on target in 13 shots per game. It seems Simeone’s side are focusing on only taking shots from strong locations. Their xG per shot is 0.29, better than Sevilla, Barcelona and Real Madrid. It’s an approach I doubt is sustainable, but the idea of your players focusing only on high-quality shots is delightful.

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While Morata and Costa have started the season brightly, their big-money signing Joao Felix has to be the player that rest of the teams here have to keep their eye on. The Portuguese international broke onto the scene with a bang. In his first full season of top-flight football, he scored a hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt, making him the youngest player to score on in the Europa League. A lot of clips of the young forward went viral, showcasing his skill and ability on the ball in training. While that is great to watch, by far his best quality is his movement. Felix plays as a second striker, making him effective wherever he plays. The 19-year-old can find pockets of space to expose the opposition in different ways. He can either find room to receive the ball and bring others into play or go for goal himself. Playing in such a forward position has put pressure on him to contribute to goals, but it hasn’t had an effect on the way he plays. It’s by far one of my favourite things about him. Felix enjoys playing football, and you can see it on the pitch whenever he plays and makes the game look so natural. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops under a defensive coach like Simeone, but Felix possesses the qualities right now that can make him a world-class talent. His shot location and movement off the ball are genuinely excellent but offers so much in terms of dribbling and creativity that will make it so difficult for his opponents to handle.

My only worry regarding Atletico is during the knockout stages, but right now, I don’t expect them to have any issues in terms of reaching the round of 16. Their games against Juventus will undoubtedly be exciting, just to see if they continue their consistently high-quality chance creation.

Bayer Leverkusen 

One of the more attacking sides in the competition, Leverkusen have the forward talent to match nearly any team in Europe. Even with Julien Brandt’s departure, Leverkusen still possesses arguably the best forward options in the league, with Volland, Diaby, Demirbay, Bailey, Bellarabi and Havertz all being extremely useful for any coach to have. Ever since Peter Bosz’s appointment midway through the season, they’ve been an absolute joy to watch. Last season, he managed to improve all of the attackers’ output, while ensuring the side weren’t leaking goals nearly as often. Before the Dutchman’s arrival, Leverkusen were struggling to remain in competition with the other teams seeking Champions League football. The change in management was a real boost for all involved. Brandt and Volland were the two who benefitted the most. Out of Brandt’s 18 goal involvements, 14 came after Bosz’s appointment, and Volland scored 8 out of his 14 goals during the second half of the season. A change to a 4-3-3 with the players reaching their expected talent level ensured they deservedly finished inside the top four.

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As mentioned, there are a lot of players that Juventus, Atletico and Lokomotiv have to watch, but by far their biggest threat is Kai Havertz. The 20-year-old is not only the best player for his club but the future of the German national team. At such a young age, Havertz has shown so many qualities that will make him one of the best in the world. While goal-scoring has attracted all the attention, his creativity is his best quality. The midfielder, capable at playing from a six to a ten, is a fantastic passer. His teammates, primarily Bailey and Brandt last season, were great at stretching a defence, which allowed Havertz to pick up the ball in dangerous areas. The German consistently picked out the likes of Volland and Bailey through defence-opening through balls or accurate crosses into the box. It’s tough to stop Leverkusen from scoring goals, but stopping Havertz is the best way to ensure they’re not a threat.

The only problem with Bosz, and it’s a big one, is his naivety. It all goes back to that Europa League. He fell right into Mourinho’s hands and played the way the Portuguese tactician predicted. Ever since it’s been a consistent worry for whenever his sides play one of the big clubs. Bosz possesses a lot of good qualities like other Cruyffian thinkers. The difference between him and other managers like Pep and Koeman is he doesn’t make the necessary changes for specific opponents. His sides will consistently play the same way week in and week out, and while that is good when facing weaker opposition, it makes it so easy for a good thinker to outsmart him. In a group containing the best defensive coach of the decade and a Juventus team famed for dealing with sides like Leverkusen, I just can’t see a world where they finish ahead of either of them.

Juventus

The way Juventus were eliminated in last year’s competition was worrying. A poor, but effective performance to earn a 1-1 draw away against Ajax gave them an advantage during the second leg in Turin. The problem was Juventus just decided to sit on their small lead, instead of taking the game to Ajax. The Dutch side was fantastic and highlighted not only their old-fashioned approach but the weaknesses in their team, especially the midfield. Frenkie De Jong and Donny Van De Beek walked right through Can, Pjanic and Matuidi. Since Pogba’s departure, The Old Lady have failed to adequately replace him, settling for older players who could do a job, instead of improving the team.

It’s what made Juventus’s summer quite perfect. Aaron Ramsey added a player who could offer a lot in goals and creativity from deep, something the previous crop of midfielders could not give. Rabiot is by far their best acquisition. While the Frenchman’s off the field issues put off a lot of clubs from signing him, there is doubting his talent. Rabiot is quite similar to a younger Luka Modric, arguably the best compliment to give him. He makes a lot of defensive actions per game, with the 24-year-old making 5.5 tackles and interceptions last season for PSG. He is an elite progressor of the ball, completing 1.3 dribbles and over 10 deep progressions. He is what Juventus needed, a midfielder who could actually transition the ball through dribbling.

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So far this season, Juventus haven’t been playing their new signings, with Sarri still opting for Khedira, Matuidi and Pjanic. What’s so fascinating about this is just how good they’ve been this season. If Sarri continues to get this output out of these ageing stars, I wonder what he can do with Rabiot once he is settled. Juventus now have a more attacking coach who could help guide Juventus to the Champions League they’ve been trying to win for years. With a solid defence, an improved midfield and Ronaldo still scoring goals, it’s hard to look past Juventus as one of the favourites for the competition. Simeone might cause them problems, but I can’t imagine Juventus failing to escape this group.

Lokomotiv Moscow 

It’s difficult to see how Lokomotiv Moscow find a way out of this group. The Russian side ended the 18/19 season in second place, finishing 8 points behind champions Zenit and equal on points with Krasnodar. Out of the top teams in Russia, Lokomotiv was arguably the worst. They overachieved xG and were lucky to finish so high up the field. Even after losing a lot of their older talent through free transfers, they have made some exciting additions. Joao Mario arrives from Inter Milan on loan, and while I’ve never been his biggest fan, he can offer a lot to a Moscow side who have just lost Manuel Fernandes. Grzegorz Krychowiak was signed permanently during the summer, after being on loan in the 18/19 season. The Polish international had a torrid time in Paris, but his move to Russia has been an enormous success. Usually playing as a defensive midfielder, Krychowiak has already scored 3 this season and is taking 3 shots per game. It’s clear he’s enjoying his football again, and it’s the best he’s been performing since his time for Sevilla.

Lokomotiv’s most significant threat has to be the Miranchuk twins. A rare occurrence to see twins playing for the same team, and makes it even more unique to see them being their team’s best players. Let’s start with Aleksey. The 23-year-old is more experienced than his brother, making his debut at 17 while his brother Anton, didn’t play for the first team until he was 20. Aleksey primarily plays as a number 10, using his incredible passing ability to create for his brother and the other forwards. Last season, Aleksey was making 2.6 key passes per 90, and it’s risen to 3.4 this season. Most of Lokomotiv’s attacks run through the attacking midfielder, which has made him not only one of his club’s best players but one of the stars of his national team.

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Aleksey’s attacking output has been improving as he gets older, mainly his shot volume; something his brother already excels at. Anton Miranchuk had to wait four more years to play alongside his brother in the first team, which is very surprising considering just how good he is. While his brother plays in the middle, Anton sees most of his game time on the left, cutting inside to shoot or create for his teammates. Aleksey is slightly more creative, with Anton averaging 2.2 key passes per 90, but Anton is far more of a goal threat. Last season, the wide player was scoring 0.51 goals per 90, a massive difference to his brother’s 0.13. This is primarily down to the pair having different roles in the side, but it’s good to see where they differ.

It might be slightly unfair to write them off before the competition even begins. But it’s difficult to imagine a world where Lokomotiv can escape this group. Atletico possess a fantastic manager, Juventus have talent across the pitch, and even Leverkusen have some of the best attackers in Germany. It’s one of the many flaws with the Champions League group stage structure, and it seems each of these previews showcases this perfectly. I’m still unsure how to necessarily fix this, but something needs to be changed to benefit those who did win their league titles. After all, it is called the Champions League, not the super club’s league.

Maurizio Sarri to Juventus: A Good Move?

With Allegri leaving the club at the end of the season, Juventus are in a place of difficulty. They spent a lot of money on players who were at their peak to win the Champions League. First, it was Higuain. The Argentine arrived for over £75 million. He scored a record 36 goals in the league and was seen as their best chance at finally winning the trophy at eluded the team for so long. While they did reach a Champions League final in 2017, they were truly outclassed by a better Real Madrid side. After succumbing to defeat by the hands of the European Champions again, it left Juventus in a difficult place, of where to take this team next.

The Old Lady decided to sign the same player who was consistently stopping them from winning the Champions League, signing a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo for £100 million. At the time it was arguably the best move for all parties involved. Real Madrid managed to get a colossal amount for a player who was coming to the end of their career, allowing them (in theory) to find a long-term replacement for the forward. Ronaldo was given a chance to win another league title and prove he is the solution for a team’s hope of winning in Europe. Juventus were given the best player in the competition’s history. This was their best short-term solution to winning the Champions League.

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However, it did not turn out as expected. Ronaldo wasn’t nearly as effective as many were hoping he would be. While he did win Juventus the tie against Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side, that was mainly thanks to Simeone making some huge mistakes in the game and allowed Juventus to score those goals. Juventus spent a lot of money on a player who failed to win the golden boot in the league and on the continental stage. Messi scored twice the goals Ronaldo did in Europe, while veteran forward Quagliarella and journeyman Duvan Zapata all finished ahead of him in Serie A. It isn’t to say Ronaldo has been bad but spending so much on a player for short term success should give you more goals than this.

What has been worse for Juventus is the effect that the Balon d’Or winner has had on the rest of the squad. Higuain and Caldara left in a swap deal with AC Milan, to bring Bonucci back to Turin. It’s similar to the situation the LA Lakers were in when LeBron James joined them last year, They had to bring in a bunch of older players, guys who were at the same stage as LeBron, who didn’t need any time to develop and were ready for success. Juventus lost one of the most promising Italian defenders around in favour of bringing back a player who left for disagreements with Allegri. It’s also meant that Rugani’s game time has diminished, going from starting 22 games before Bonucci’s arrival to now starting 15. Juventus making moves for these older players will make players like Rugani and Caldara leave, meaning the club have no players to succeed their experienced ones when they depart or retire.

Dybala is another who was massively affected by the arrival of Ronaldo. The Argentine was seen as the heir to Del Piero, wearing his famous number 10 shirt. He had been fantastic for Juventus since his arrival and was easily the jewel of their crown. Soon as Ronaldo arrived, Dybala’s future was in doubt. He couldn’t play in the same attacking midfield role in a 4-2-3-1 as he did when Higuain was in front of him. He was excellent at covering a lot of ground and linked well with Dybala. Ronaldo has never done that, meaning he couldn’t play in that free role he performed so well in, because Ronaldo was to have that role. Allegri seemed unsure with what to do with Dybala and it has now led to speculation on whether their superstar will remain at the club.

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After failing to win a domestic double and crashing out to a talented Ajax side, it has left Juventus with having arguably their worst season under Allegri. He was tactically beaten by Erik ten Hag and were the worst side in both legs. Their performances in the league weren’t good, with the effect of Ronaldo making them predictable and uninspiring in attack. He’s a player who you have to build your whole attack around if you wish to get the best out of him. Atalanta were taking more shots and Napoli were playing a better style of football. Juventus were playing football similar to the Milan clubs, who have been criticised all season for being lacklustre. The most troubling thing for Juventus is how xG shows just how poor they have been. According to xPTS (expected points), Juventus would have finished 4th, behind the clubs mentioned.  This Ronaldo move has ended in calamity, and it could be worse if their younger players are to leave.

With Allegri now gone, Juventus have turned their attention to Maurizio Sarri. The Italian has had a slow road to the top, not managing in Serie A until he was 55. He managed to save a good Empoli side, which earned him a move to Napoli in 2015. This was seen as a strange appointment at the time and after only gaining 2 points in his first 3 games, doubts were raised. Napoli legend Diego Maradona even stating they should have kept Benitez. However, these doubts were erased quickly. By November 2015, they were only 2 points from the top, with Higuain scoring 9 in 12.

Sarri transformed a defensive side under Benitez to one of the most attractive sides in the history of the game. He changed the defensive 4-2-3-1 to a free-flowing 4-3-3. He changed Jorginho from a rotation player to their most important midfielder. Allan arrived from Udinese to add a defensively solid player who could help transition the ball. Pepe Reina arrived from Bayern Munich. While past his prime, he offered experience and is a solid distributor. These signings helped turn Napoli into an aggressive, pressing side off the ball, and a patient, possession side when with the ball. They are a side gifted with technical players all over the pitch, allowing Napoli to make quick passes to expose the opposition defenders. Their full-backs offered great width, with Hysaj and Ghoulam comfortable attacking in the final third. Jorginho is a fantastic passer who helped the side keep the ball, while Hamsik and Allan were better in attack with the pair pushing forward to support the forwards. Lorenzo Insigne was by far the best player in the team. He was the player who could add that spark and brilliance in the final third. His teammates were always looking to get the ball to him. fully aware of how he could break through the tough defences in Serie A.

What made Sarri’s Napoli so impressive is how they improved every season. They achieved 82 points in their first season, 86 in their second and 91 in their final season. It was Sarri’s last season which saw Napoli at their best. While playing at a high level for 2 years, they took it to another level. Napoli went viral. Their goals beginning with defenders and finished with the precision of their forwards. They were gifted with players who could play in between the lines and expose those difficult sides, and overload the wide areas to find weaknesses. They were the side the whole of Europe were hoping and praying to take the Scudetto from the Old Lady, but failed thanks to falling off right at the end. While failing to win a trophy that season, it was a side made many fans remember how football could be played in Italy.

With Sarri’s contract expired, he moved to Chelsea. While bringing Jorginho with him to help implement his style with the hardest role to play, it didn’t turn out as successful as Chelsea would have hoped. While a 3rd place finish and a Europa League (the viral clip of Sarri admiring his medal was arguably one of the purest moments of football this year) does seem good on paper, many problems with his Chelsea side were identified.

The first being the midfield. The sight of Kovacic, Jorginho and Kante in midfield before the season began was terrifying for opponents, but as the season progressed, it didn’t have the same impact as Sarri’s midfield at Napoli. While Kante is a fantastic destroyer and a good passer, he isn’t nearly as good as Allan with his impact in the final third. Kante completed 0.9 dribbles per game, while Allan completed 2.1 per game during his final season for Sarri. Kante is one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, but he played in a role he has not quite adjusted to yet. Kovacic was another who didn’t offer enough. Hamsik was scoring goals from midfield, positioning himself outside of the box to give an option to the forwards and find space to take a shot from distance. He was taking 2.3 shots per game, while Kovacic was taking less than a shot per game. Kovacic is another great player, but he wasn’t accustomed to playing this role. He arguably would have suited playing in the role that Kante was occupying. The Croatian has great tackle numbers while being a great dribbler. Hamsik wasn’t afraid to take risks to push his side further up the pitch, while Kovacic just isn’t as good in attack as Sarri arguably wanted him to be. Finally, let’s talk about the player who has been criticised the most out of the trio. What I think about regarding the issues many have had with Jorginho is out of ignorance. When Rio Ferdinand blasted the Italian for not getting assists, it underlines an issue of expectation. Jorginho has never been a creator in the final third, with his highest return for Sarri previously being 4. His tackles and interceptions have stayed similar and his passing has been strong as ever. Kante cannot play at the base of the midfield because Jorginho isn’t as athletic as the Frenchman. Jorginho works at the base of the midfield because he is an intelligent player who can set the tempo of the attack. I’m not completely defensive of Jorginho, because he has been far from flawless. Teams have targetted him in big games and he hasn’t made it difficult for them. Jorginho is a player who is quite immobile. He has struggled to adjust to the speed of the Premier League and struggled through the tougher periods of the season.

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The attack has been a major issue for Sarri. It’s been very reminiscent of watching Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal. When approaching the final third, there was a lack of movement, making it difficult for his United side to score goals.  It’s similar to what is happening for Sarri. While Hazard has a similar skillset to Insigne and is a better player than him, the rest of the team doesn’t match the same quality that Napoli had. The midfielders do not contribute enough in the final third, the full backs don’t offer the same attacking prowess and defensive strength and the strikers do not possess the same intelligent movement as Mertens does.

To say that Sarri has had a problem with his forwards is an understatement. He began the season with Morata. While the Spaniard did link well with his teammates, he was frustrating in front of goal, scoring 5 in 16 appearances. Higuain came in as Sarri’s choice. The Argentine had his best season in club football under the Chelsea manager and it seemed like a safe choice, but Higuain has been getting worse since that record-breaking season. He had fitness concerns at Milan and his sharpness is not nearly as good as it once was. He’s been very disappointing for Chelsea, as expected. The work rate he was famed for is not nearly as good as it once was, and the team has generally looked worse since his arrival. While Morata wasn’t great in front of goal, he at least was a presence in the air and linked well with Hazard. Higuain’s poor form meant that Giroud was given a consistent run in the team. The World Cup winner is a selfless forward and brought back the best side of Hazard but is far from a long term solution.

Chelsea were fantastic for the first couple of months in the season, but teams began targetting Jorginho and effectively making them predictable and easy to defend. Their form plummeted during the winter and a 4-0 defeat to Bournemouth highlighted some of the problems with the side. Chelsea did improve as the season went along, with Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek playing a vital role for their club in the final stages of the season. Hudson-Odoi offered a more inventive and exciting forward on the right, while Loftus-Cheek finally added that goal threat from midfield that Chelsea were craving. Their injuries were massive losses for Sarri because those two players were a big reason why Chelsea seemed back on track at the end of the season.

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So what are Sarri’s strengths? He is capable of building a side that have an identity, a style of play which would be unique to the club and enable them to stand out. He is able to work with what he has, getting the best out of older players like David Luiz, Giroud, Raul Albiol and Pepe Reina. He will generally improve the attackers given to him and enable them to flourish in an attacking system. Sarri-ball is arguably the closest some teams will get to playing the football seen under Pep Guardiola, a style that every fan wants at their club.

Sarri generally has a lot of weaknesses. The first being his lack of squad rotation. Sarri doesn’t care what players, fans and owners want. If a player is good enough to him, he will start. His Napoli side, while fantastic, rarely ever gave the rotation players in his squad a chance. Highly rated players like Diawara, Zielinksi and Marco Rog only managed to start 19 games between them. It’s been one of his biggest issues at Chelsea. Fans were desperate to see Hudson-Odoi start consistently well before Sarri began doing it, but he didn’t deem him ready. If you want your younger players to come through and break into the first team, Sarri is one of the worst managers for doing that. He wants to find eleven players who can play a majority of the games, not wanting to change that. His desire to find a small group of players to rely on is seen by Gary Cahill’s dismay of Sarri. The former England international has been hugely frustrated in how he has been treated, but he isn’t good enough anymore and Sarri knows that. You could deem the Italian old fashioned, but it has worked in building a good side. Sarri also needs extremely technically gifted players for his system to work. His buildup player revolves around players knowing how to effectively distribute the ball under pressure, and quick passes and intelligent movement is vital in how Sarri wants his sides to play. These are problems that simply have to be resolved through the transfer market. Some players just cannot play the system Sarri desires.

Would Sarri be the right fit for Juventus? the short answer is no. While the squad does have players that Sarri would definitely like, with Sandro, Cancelo, Dybala and Cuadrado all being players the Chelsea manager would favour, however, the signing of Ronaldo has made this move impossible. Ronaldo will not press from the front or offer enough off the ball to fit what Sarri would want to do. Juventus have spent a lot of money on the forward and cannot afford to have him placed on the bench. What Juventus need is a short term solution in someone similar to Allegri, to allow them to begin turning over the older players in the side. Sarri’s system takes at least 2 years to fully implement, depending on the personnel at his disposal. Sarri would be a better fit once the older players in the side are moved on. If Juventus never signed Ronaldo, this move would make much more sense.

 

Portugal vs Switzerland – UEFA Nations League 2019 Semi-Final Preview

With my focus recently being on improving teams throughout Europe and bringing attention to players who have had stand out seasons, it can be easy to forget that the UEFA Nations League games were taking place this week. I have been a massive advocate for the idea of the Nations League. they have brought purpose to those pesky international breaks that would stop the flow of the club football, at a time where looking away from your television was impossible. UEFA seemed to introduce this new competition to give hope to smaller nations in qualifying for Euro 2020 and future tournaments. I’ve spoken to many fans regarding the Nations League, and a majority are very supportive of it. While slightly confusing, it has added a reason to care about these breaks. The standards of the games have increased because these teams are playing for something, instead of just preparation. We’ll be previewing the two big semi-final games and the final, to see which team will come out with the trophy, starting with Euro 2016 winners Portugal and a solid Switzerland side.

Starting with Portugal, who will go into this tie as the favourites. Their World Cup outing wasn’t as impressive as many hoped. While they progressed to the Round of 16 unbeaten, they only managed to win a single game. They were beaten by a poor Uruguay side thanks to a brilliant performance by Edinson Cavani but it was a tournament that ended with more questions than answers for Portugal. They’ve had to continuously rely on their older players in defence with the lack of defensive prospects coming through their youth set-up. While that is an issue that Fernando Santos cannot do much about, it is his team selection in attack where my issues begin to surface. He was playing players in the wrong positions throughout the tournament. Bruno Fernandes, one of the best young attacking midfielders around, was forced out onto the left side. After one game, in which he was poor, he went on to not start a game for Portugal in Russia again. Gonzalo Guedes was another to suffer thanks to Santos. He had a fantastic season prior to the World Cup, playing on the left of a 4-4-2. However, he was playing up front with Ronaldo for his national team. I can understand why he was playing there. He was there to do the off the ball work that Ronaldo has never done throughout his career. He had to sacrifice his own game for the sake of the team, and he suffered for it.

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In the end, Portugal’s issues always seem to come back to their biggest strength, Cristiano Ronaldo. We’ve seen the sacrifices Juventus have had to make to accommodate one of the best talents of his generation. Dybala looks to be leaving the club after Ronaldo’s arrival and Juventus have generally looked worse this season. When you have Ronaldo, all of your chance creation is solely for him. You begin crossing the ball more and playing a less attractive, but more effective style of football. Portugal needs to start thinking about the future of this side once their greatest ever player retires.

They have already briefly shown what life could be like without Ronaldo. In their 3-2 victory over Poland earlier in the season, they played a 4-1-4-1, with Andre Silva leading the line. They generally played with a lot of speed, with a lot of quick exchanges between players. They had a lot of pace in players like Rafa Silva and Cancelo while having technically superb players in Bernardo Silva and Ruben Neves to keep possession while under pressure. A team should never rely on individuals, and it’s a stage Portugal need to move past. However, with the inclusion of Sousa from Braga, replacing Andre Silva in the squad, it paints a picture of a side who are looking more at the short term, instead of choosing players who will have a future for the national side.

Portugal’s biggest threat in the game, excluding Ronaldo, has to be Bernardo Silva. While the race for the PFA player of the year was primarily between Raheem Sterling and Virgil Van Dijk, Bernardo Silva was the best player in the Premier League. He went from a good winger into a fantastic central midfielder. He filled that De Bruyne-shaped gap that was left while adding more defensive work and a player who leads the press for his side. While I think he great on the ball, it’s his engine that is most impressive. During their title-defining 2-1 victory over Liverpool, Bernardo Silva was everywhere. He covered 13.7 kilometres, at that point a record for most distance covered by a player last season. He was halting Liverpool constantly, through interceptions and smartly placed fouls. Bernardo is one of my favourite players in the league. A midfielder who possess such intelligence and ability, yet is comfortable in doing all the off the ball work that one of the most demanding systems require. His chance creation for Portugal has been key. He ranks top of the team for key passes with 2.3 in the Nations League. Portugal will constantly get him on the ball. Silva is fantastic at retaining the ball and helps them transition the ball. He has even been showing the same work rate and defensive work he offers for his club. Silva is third in the side for tackles per game with 1.7. While Portugal are most likely include Ronaldo in these games, Bernardo will remain vital for his side in defence and attack.

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Their opponents, however, are no walk in the park. Switzerland is a nation who have surfaced as one of the best teams in Europe throughout the decade. They rank 8th in the FIFA world rankings and looking at the talent in their squad, are likely to improve. Their showing in the World Cup was solid, but nothing exceptional. They finished 2nd in a difficult group containing Brazil, Serbia and Costa Rica. While they weren’t the best to watch, they were solid in defence and were efficient in attack. Their defeat to Sweden in the round of 16, however, showed their weaknesses. They lack many players with pace and relied heavily upon Shaqiri. Since he was playing out on the right wing, he was left isolated throughout their defeat. While he did create 4 chances, he failed to get a single shot on target. Petkovic regularly deployed Behrami and Xhaka together. Both lack energy and drive in midfield. While Xhaka is an elite passer and Behrami puts in a lot of defensive work, they cannot play together without someone who can play that box to box role.

While they did struggle to reach their potential in Russia, their Nations League qualifying campaign was a massive success. They scored 14 goals in 4 games, 9 more than they managed at the World Cup. There are a handful of reasons for why they saw such an improvement. Starting with their midfield, Behrami was replaced by Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Denis Zakaria. The young midfielder still gave that defensive presence in the midfielder, as his former teammate did, while adding that little bit extra in the final third. He was creating 1.3 chances per game, while also taking 1.8 shots. He was making those runs into the box, to help give his teammates extra options. Xhaka still remains to be the player who keeps things ticking in midfield, completing 90 passes per game, but he has been given a partner who is able to cover the distance in midfield while also aiding in attack.

The Shaqiri problem was also resolved, simply by moving him into attacking midfield. This fixed two major problems. Shaqiri wasn’t left so isolated anymore and neither was Seferovic. He’s now taking more shots, creating more chances and is getting on the ball more than he has ever been before for his country. It also makes Switzerland less predictable. Shaqiri will drift across the pitch to involve himself in the game, and it has made his side more difficult to deal with. Shaqiri has taken his game to another level and will key in this semi-final.

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Their midfield and attack have both improved, but their defence also deserves a mention. Petkovic has changed his personnel, with Lichsteiner and Djourou being replaced by the likes of Elvedi and Mbabu. They still remain solid at the back. Akanji and Elvedi are great passers, while Mbabu and Rodriguez are full backs who are able to cover large areas of the pitch, while also helping their team on the attacking front. While their defenders aren’t on the same level as the likes of France or Netherlands, they could form a very good defensive unit with time on their side.

While Shaqiri and Xhaka have already been mentioned when looking at key players for the side, Haris Seferovic will be important. The forward has struggled to establish himself at the top level, playing for Fiorentina, Real Sociedad, Eintracht Frankfurt and now Benfica, where he has arguably been the most successful. In 29 appearances in Liga NOS, he has scored 23 goals and assisted 5. In a season in which has seen Jonas struggle for minutes, Seferovic stepped up for Benfica. While he did impress at club level, it was during the Nations League group stages where he arguably put in his best performances. He scored 5 goals, including a hat trick against Belgium. He’s good at finding space in the box, which was perfect against a Belgium side which aren’t exactly organised. He links up with Shaqiri well and he’s taking 3.5 shots per game, a solid number for a striker. He excels when the team are using him as the focal point. Petkovic has gotten the best out of the striker and will need him if Switzerland hopes to progress to the final.

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If Portugal wish to reach the final, they will need to take advantage of two things. The first being Granit Xhaka. He is a great passer of the ball but lacks the mobility to be an effective central midfielder. He is poor defensively, with teams throughout the Premier League noticing how bad he is at tracking runners. I’d personally deploy Bernardo Silva in midfield to deal with Xhaka. He can keep pressure on him, while his intelligent movement will help him find space behind the Arsenal midfielder.

If Switzerland want to progress to the final, they will need to target the centre backs. Shaqiri and Seferovic need to be smart and look to drag the defenders in areas they will feel most uncomfortable. One of Pepe or Fonte will play, who are both over 33. Diego Costa had a fantastic game against Portugal last summer, with Pepe unable to deal with him. Seferovic needs to look at what Costa was doing, and try and replicate the damage the Spaniard was causing.

It’ll be a close game, but I think Switzerland will progress. While Portugal have a lot of talented players, their reliance on Ronaldo and their weakness at the back can leave them to be both predictable and vulnerable. The Swiss have balance throughout the side, and Petkovic has taken the steps in the right direction for transitioning this side to its next generation. This could be the tournament where the rest of Europe sees this.

 

 

Are Juventus Favourites for the Competition? Atletico Madrid vs Juventus – UEFA Champions League Preview

As we come on to the last day of fixtures for the round of 16, let’s look at one of the most interesting games of the group stages. The 2016 finalists Atletico Madrid against the 2017 finalists Juventus. While they were both very good in those respective seasons, a lot has changed since then, so let’s look who will come out of this round victorious.

Let’s start with Atletico Madrid, who have arguably had their worst seasons in recent years. While that may be a strange statement considering they are still in the top 4 and have advanced to the round of 16, but elaboration is needed. Let’s start with the summer. This was arguably one of their biggest summers of the decade. It seemed with Barcelona showing vunerability, Real Madrid losing Ronaldo and Sevilla having a poor season, it meant it could be Simeone’s time to reclaim the title. They brought in Lemar for more than £60m, Rodri, Arias, Kalinic and Gelson Martins. All of these players were hopefully going to improve an already good side, and finally make a title challenge, so why hasn’t it happened? The signings should instantly looked at. While Rodri and Arias have worked out, Lemar and Martins have not worked out. Lemar might go down as one of the worst signings of the season. In 21 games in La Liga, he has only contributed to 3 goals. Considering how good he was for Monaco, especially during their title winning season, it’s just not good enough. His numbers aren’t good to see either. When they declined last season, it was just presumed that his numbers dropped because Monaco lost a lot of their key players, Like Mbappe, Silva and Mendy. A team getting worse is going to make the players look worse too. Soon as he went to Madrid however, me and many others thought he would improve because the team was better, but that’s simply not happened. His chance creation has halved from the title winning Monaco season, going from 2.2 to 1.1. He’s also shooting so much less, from 1.7 to 0.7. While the player does need to be questioned, Simeone is the one who truly needs to be questioned. I think he is an excellent coach, but his handling of some of these huge signings needs to be questioned. Gelson Martins has already left the club, to join Monaco on loan, Kalinic has only started 6 games, Diego Costa has been awful this season and Vitolo has only played 428 minutes. Out of the 18 players that were involved in the 2016 final, 12 of those players are still at the club. My point is that Simeone has a problem with finding replacements for some of these players. Vrsaljko, one of the best players at the 2018 World Cup, was allowed to leave. Carrasco was great for Simeone, yet was still allowed to leave. My point is that the club are spending a lot of money on players, only for their manager to not play them. It’s now getting worse because that solid defence is finally starting to show its cracks, with their 4-0 defeat to Dortmund earlier on in the season being their biggest ever defeat under Simeone. He has to adapt and fit these players in, or all this work he’s done will feel like a waste.

When talking about their key players, there is no one else to mention other than Antoine Griezmann. The World Cup winner is one of my favourite players currently playing, because there is so much to his game. While I think he would easily score more goals in another team, playing in this more defensive side has brought out qualities in him not any other coaches would find. He is just a perfect player to lead the line or play as a second striker. His ability to find space in the box and between the midfield and defence is expectional. He also does plenty of defensive work and is willing to drop deep, because he is still incredibly useful when he does this. He is currently taking 3.2 shots a game, which is solid. What makes this even better is that he’s creating 2.2 chances a game, the highest in the squad. This is what I meant when saying different qualities have appeared. In other sides, he wouldn’t have to create these chances , but playing for Atletico has revealed just how good he is at chance creation. For the first time in his career, he isn’t massively overperforming xG. Last season he scored 19, yet was meant score 14. This season he’s only overperforming by a couple of goals. He plays for a very defensive side so it’s expected that he will always run a little hot. He’s been great in the Champions League too, getting a goal contribution in every game he’s played. He will be the key for dealing with one of the best teams in Europe. With Koke missing for this game, it means there is a lot of pressure for the other midfielders to step up, mainly Rodri. He has been one signing that has worked out so well from their spending spree last summer. He came in to replace their former captain Gabi, and has filled his boots with ease. He is averaging 60 passes a game, making 4.5 tackles and interceptions a game and is even winning 2.2 aerial duels. He is so solid defensively, and is able to distribute the ball so effectively. This is a difficult match for any player, never mind someone who has never played in the Champions League knock out rounds before. Let’s hope he brings all these qualities into this round.

Juventus have been very good this season. After a season that saw them pushed to the very edge by Sarri’s Napoli side, they seemingly wanted to bring back their domiance, and after signing Emre Can, Joao Cancelo, Perrin and of course Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s Juventus in a good position to earn instant success , and it’s meant a lot of pressure for them. What makes this side very lucky is they have one of the Top 5 managers in the world in Max Allegri. The Italian’s ability to change and adapt to whoever he’s playing, and bringing the absolute best out of any player he has, makes his teams so difficult to play against. Serie A this season has went back to its predictable self, thanks to Juventus just walking away with it so far. Ronaldo, Dybala, Manzukic and Pjanic are all performing as good as ever to make sure they win their 8th Scudetto in a row. What I like most about this side is how quickly they have learnt to play to Ronaldo’s strengths. While Dybala and Mandzukic aren’t playing as good as they have in the past, they have been so selfless in making sure Ronaldo gets all the chances like he did in Madrid. The 3 of them are just so flexible. They are all able to play on the flanks, and through the middle. It means Allegri is given so many options in how to approach these big games. I truly do think that this is their chance to take advantage of weaker competition. Juventus have a striker who gets in amazing positions and knows how to turn up on the big stage, and have a defence with incredible full backs and 2 defenders who are some of the best of the modern era. While losing Buffon is a massive blow, Szczesny is more than good to play for this side. Juventus couldn’t have picked a better time to sign the 5x Champions League winner in Cristiano Ronaldo, but it has put a lot of pressure on them to succeed instantly. This squad’s average age is 28.3, with only 2 other sides in Serie A having older teams than the Champions. While Ronaldo still has a couple of years left at the top level, players like Chiellini, Bonucci, Matuidi, Cuadrado, Khedira and Mandzukic are all over 30. This could be the last chance for Allegri to win the Champions League with this set of players, which makes this arguably the most difficult season of his career to date.

Ronaldo is definitely the biggest threat in this game. Atletico is one of his favourite sides to face, a team in which he has scored 21 goals against. It’s a game where he usually able to turn up against, so it’s important to create as many chances as possible for him. He is already taking nearly 7 shots a game in Serie A, which is just outstanding for a 34 year old. The problem is he has had one of his worst Champions League campaigns for a long time. He is the competition’s all time top goal scorer, yet he only managed a single goal. Having that red card early on did not help him, but it puts even more pressure on him now. He came to Juventus for the sole reason of winning this compeition, so he has to go back to his scoring ways. Another who could be a massive threat is Paulo Dybala. With Ronaldo not performing, it put a lot of pressure on the Argentine to carry the side, and he did. He scored 5 goals in the compeition in only 4 starts. While he won’t be as much of goal threat as his teammate, his chance creation and movement in the final third will be key in finding goals against such a solid side.

My money would be on Juventus to advance. I just think Ronaldo’s goal record against Atletico is too good to ignore, and with their defence finally starting to weaken, it has made them arguably the worst they’ve been in a long time.

Are Liverpool Overrated? Champions League Heroes and Zeroes Game Week 4

Hero – Atletico Madrid

For redeeming themselves after their horrific defeat at the hands of their opponents in their last meeting. They beat Borussia Dortmund 2-0, thanks to goals from Saul and Griezmann. Before complimenting how good Simeone’s men were in this half, let’s discuss just how bad Dortmund were. They didn’t manage a single shot on target. They have been pretty good in attack, while overachieving in some sorts. So seeing them not even test the keeper is disappointing. Anyways, on to Atletico Madrid. They were back to their best in the Champions League after their biggest defeat in the competition. They only managed 32% possession, yet dominated the game. They blocked Dortmund out completely, and reminded Europe why they are so difficult to beat. Their stand out player in the game was comfortably Saúl Ñíguez. The Spaniard played on the left side of midfield, and not contributed in attack, with him scoring the first, but also had 2 shots and created 2 chances. While his form in the league can vary, no one can question he has been one of the best players in the Champions League. Felipe Luis is another who stood out on the night. Simeone is an expert at getting the best out of his players. 2-3 years ago you could say that the Brazilian was the best left back around. Now 33, his ability is dropping but he is still a solid defender in this system. He put in 4 tackles and 5 interceptions. He also created 2 chances and got an assist. After all their summer spending, it’s good to see Atletico looking like the prospect I thought they would be.

Zero – Liverpool

Who else to talk about her. The reds suffered a humiliating defeat to the hands of Red Star Belgrade. This was actually the Serbian side’s first ever win in the competition, which was just mind boggling to find out. Liverpool were truly terrible. While they had 23 shots, they only managed 4 on target. Salah and Van Dijk were the only ones who managed to test the keeper, meaning 8 other out field players didn’t even manage to get a shot on target. It’s crazy to think that a team with such an apparent good attack, failed to have many stand out chances against a side that they walked over at Anfield. Two players were pretty disappointed, being Sturridge and Wijnaldum. Sturridge had the chance early on to put his side ahead, but missed a simple chance to give his side the lead at that point. It was a chance for him to challenge Firmino for a place in the side, and failed. I really dislike Wijnaldum as a player. I just do not think he offers enough to justify the amount of games he starts. This game perfectly shows this. In a game where you want your most advanced midfield to help the attack, he offered nothing. That isn’t necessary true. He had 2 shots and made an interceptions. You just want so much more in a game where attacking is all you’ll be doing. It serves another example of when Wijnaldum vanishes in away games. A poor day all round for the Reds, and will need to finally step up this season.

Hero – Harry Kane

Spurs were in a bad place before this game. After consecutive loses in their first two, and a draw against PSV, it left them in a difficult place. They had to win against PSV and Inter if they wished to have any chance of progressing. After falling behind thanks to a great header from De Jong, they had a mountain to climb. But as usual, it was their captain who dragged them through it. Kane was the reason why Spurs were even able to win the game. He was absolutely sensational and seemed to be be back at his best pre ankle injury. He had a monsterous 8 shots in this game, which means he had a shot roughly every 6 touches. That is just incredible. He also completed 3 dribbles as well, which is impressive for a guy who seriously lacks pace. Kane hasn’t been at his best this season. Thanks to a world cup hangover and spurs suffering an injury crisis, he has had to sacrifice a lot of his game. He has still managed 6 goals in the league and is now on 4 in 4 in Europe’s competition. He has brought his A-game when he needed to and credit needs to be given to him for that.

Zero – Thierry Henry

Oh Monaco. They went quickly from Europe’s new hipster club, to a side in serious trouble. After Jardim decided he couldn’t do anything else with this side, Henry was brought in to try and salvage something out of this season while there was still plenty of it. To say he’s had a bad start is an understatement. He’s been in charge for 5 games and has now only managed 2 points out of a possible 15. Of course it’s hard to judge a guy who has only been charge for a month, and I do sympathise with him. He’s under an immense amount of pressure, and is probably quite unsure what to do with these players. Monaco signed a lot of players in the summer, using their model of recruiting prospects and hoping they work. After underwhelming France last season and losing Fabinho, Lemar and Moutinho, all key players, they are really struggling. Their game against Club Brugge might be their worst. They lost 0-4 to Brugge, which is their biggest defeat in the Champions League. There nearly had as many chances as Brugge, having 6 efforts on target to Brugge’s 7. But conceding the goals they did must have drained them of confidence. Antonio Barreca blatantly handballed it and allowed Brugge to sit back and defend the goals they already scored. It’s such a shame to see a team once seen as one of the most exciting in Europe, to now struggling to stay in their own league.

Hero – Real Madrid

For the first time in Champions League Heroes and Zeroes, we welcome Real Madrid. The European champions looked to finally show why they even have that title, with a comfortable 0-5 victory against Viktoria Plzen. After the sacking of Julien Lopategui, Santiago Solari was brought in temporarily, until a replacement was found. He has definitely got Madrid playing much better, and due to this, results have definitely picked up. They have won every game under Solari, and are creating much better chances. Speaking of creating, Toni Kroos was outstanding. He was one of many players who completely dropped off near the end of Lopategui’s reign, and is back to his majestic best. At point, he was the best midfielder around. But thanks to his legs beginning to go and Kroos generally doing less defensive work, he has lost that title. He was magnificent against Plzen. He created 6 chances, had 3 shots and completed every long ball he attempted. He also capped his performance off with a delightful finish to chip the keeper. Another player who performed well is Benzema. The Frenchman has been on the decline for years now. He was criticised heavily last season for lacking in goals, but that was because he was making space for Ronaldo. This season however, the pressure is on him. He wasn’t actually great in this game, scoring with every shot on target he had. I have credited other players in the past for being that clinical, but for a Madrid player, they need be taking so much more shots when they are dominating games. Kroos, Bale and Ramos all had more shots than Benzema. He seems to be getting in less goal scoring positions, and it just shows how much he is decreasing by the season. He has been a good servant, but he will need serious replacing. A good performance from Madrid, and it’s good to see the champions showing why they have won it 3 times in a row.

Zero – Juventus

While Manchester United do deserve credit for somehow getting 3 points, when they didn’t deserve it at all. Juventus deserve plenty of criticism for not putting this game to bed, and failing to deal with United’s changes. Juventus had 23 shots compared to United’s 9. Dybala, Khedira and Cuadrado all had chances to seal the win, yet failed to take it. The worst of all was actually Allegri. He has been incredible in recent years, for getting the most out of aging players, and being smart when on the pitch. However his decision to bring on Barzagli, and switch to a 3 in the back was what spurred United on to win the game. It gave so much more space for United to get near the box. They won the game from set pieces. They are areas you expect an Italian side to be able to defend. They truly struggled to deal with the aerial threat of Fellaini. If they wish to win the Champions League, they cannot allow a weaker side to take advantage of them like this.

Hero – Gabriel Jesus

Because of the monsterous form of Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus’s minutes have been limited. He’s only started 2 games in the league, but has started 3 games in the Champions League. Pep seems to trust Aguero more in the Premier League (where he is performing at an incredible level) and is using Jesus in competitions where Aguero can be rested. This could be the last season where this can be used. Jesus will want more minutes as he gets older. Pep probably does have a solution in how to use him, but I’m unsure how long Jesus will remain happy with this role. He was truly amazing for City, scoring his first hat trick in the Champions League, and being only the third Manchester City player to score a hat trick, joining Negredo and Aguero who also have scored hat tricks. He must have reminded Pep why he was brought in to begin with. His movement and off the ball work is still top level, and is a great box predator. He is reminiscent of Icardi some ways. He doesn’t need too much of the ball to have an effect. He managed 28 touches in the game, the least out of any player who started for the Champions. However he still managed 6 shots, 4 on target and made 2 key passes. He’s just so effective whenever he plays. It’s the game he needed. Pep now has a dilemma. He has two strikers in red hot form. Pep only had this dilemma because of Jesus’s incredible game, so credit to the Brazilian.

Zero – Lyon

Last time Lyon and Hoffenheim met, I said it was by far one of the best games in the Champions League so far. Their second battle was still a spectacle, with the game ending 2-2. While last time I gave credit to anyone who was able to watch the game, it is time to look at it with more of a critical eye. Lyon are zeroes here, because they squandered a 2 goal advantage. What makes it even more disastrous is Hoffenheim were down to ten men. Lyon could have won this game rather comfortably. They comfortably had more shots, 28 to Hoffenheim’s 16. The goals they conceded were soft. Kramaric was given room to shoot freely, and they drew due to a set piece, an area where they had an advantage. Both teams have been impressive in this Champions League so far, but this game was Lyon’s for the taking.

Barcelona Won’t Win the Treble because…. Top 5 League Talking Points

There were plenty of big games to discuss this weekend, so let’s get straight into it.

Bundesliga – Bayern finally lose. Nagelsmann’s new Vs old.

The Bundesliga was very interesting this week. It shows how that even though Dortmund fought from behind to beat Leverkusen, and to top the Bundesliga, that they aren’t even the main two talking points. Let’s begin with Bayern, who lost their first league game under Niko Kovac, losing to an inform Hertha Berlin side by 2 goals to 0. It was mostly a deserved win for Hertha, who took advantage of a very mediocre Bayern display. Bayern had 25 shots, but only 5 on target, with Lewandowski getting the best chance of the game when it was 0-0. Expected goals had Bayern at 2.41 because of the sheer amount of shots they had. It doesn’t excuse individual errors however, with Boateng making such an unnecessary tackle to give Hertha the first goal. Duda has continued his excellent start to the season by scoring his 5th goal of the season. But the stand out performer for Hertha was their full back Lazaro, who made 5 interceptions and got the assist for his teammate. He did everything you expect a full back to do in the modern game. Kovac set his team up in a 4-1-4-1, but when looking at the average player positions, Both Robben and Ribery were playing near Lewandowski. It looked more like a 4-3-3 in the end. Maybe Kovac wanted them further back to limit the effects of the wingers, who knows, but it was clear attacking was their priority. Renato Sanches was another who wasn’t so impressive. Kovac has put a lot of faith in the Euro 2016 winner, after his disastrous spell in Wales, and his first season struggles in Germany. It has mostly paid off, but in this game he was very poor. While his defensive work in a game where Bayern had 69% possession is irrelevant, you want Sanches doing more in a creative or attacking sense. He didn’t make a single key pass or even a cross or long ball. He was a passenger and just didn’t contribute enough in the game. It was a bad day at the office for Bayern, and no the pressure is on.

Nagelsmann had a very awkward day in the office, with his Hoffenheim side playing his future employers RB Leipzig, where he saw his current side lose 2-1. Leipzig played this game very well, using the very intense style of Hoffenheim to their advantage. Werner was used effectively in dragging Akpoguma wider, which gave Poulsen room in that space to run. He had an excellent game, scoring both goals for the away side. He also made 4 key passes, completed 7 aerial duels and had 3 shots on target. Poulsen had always been a useful player, but never a consistent scorer. He already has 3 goals this season, which is one less than his entire tally last season. If he keeps it up, he could finally prove he is ready for the top level. However Hoffenheim were not at their best in this game. While it was very close, their just didn’t have the players upfront to put them over the line, in the same way Leipzig do. Both Szalai and Belfodil only managed a single shot on target between them. It does give something for Julien Nagelsmann to look forward to, when he gets his hands on that RB Leipzig team, and most importantly their scouting network, they could be a real home for young players and talented ones alike.

La Liga – Another draw for Barca. The Madrid Derby.

The top of the table just seems to keep getting interesting, because it seems no one wants to be there. Barcelona had to win this game, to get that advantage over their Madrid rivals, who played each other later in the day. They didn’t do that however, and ended up having to scrape back a goal to draw against Athletic Blibao. Valverde continues to puzzle me with his strange tactical decisions when choosing his side. With Umtiti injured, it left only Pique and Lenglet as viable options for the game. While both are good defenders, neither have the incredible strength and athleticism that their French teammate possesses. Valverde’s team selection really only baffled me further up the pitch. Why play Roberto in midfield, when you’d think Semedo would come in to give him a rest for the Champions League tie against Spurs? You’d think playing Rafinha would make more sense. The forward line was the most baffling of all. He left Malcom out of the squad entirely. Why? This was a perfect chance to rest Suarez and Messi, and start a forward line of Dembele Coutinho and Malcom, to see if playing all three could still work. Yet he decided to play Suarez again. Suarez is still a useful player, but is not near the level he was when he arrived. He takes less shots and just doesn’t offer as much as others in build up. I said in the title that Barcelona will not win the treble they should probably be aiming for, and this is why. Valverde seems to have no idea how to please all of these players and how to correctly use his squad. Busquets, Pique, Messi and Suarez have been so important over the recent years, but they are all over 30 now, and need to be managed right. Valverde has not done that, and I could mean a struggle as the season goes on. A poor result and another baffling decision from the Barcelona manager.

The hotly anticipated Madrid Derby didn’t go to plan, with the game ending in a 0-0 draw. This is the fourth time in a row where this game has ending in a tie, with the last victory going to Madrid 2 seasons ago (famously remembered for Ronaldo’s hat trick). While it did end goalless, there is still plenty to talk about. Let’s begin with the goalkeepers. Jan Oblak has been the second best goalkeeper for a while now, and further showed that against Real. He made 6 saves in the game, including an excellent one to stop Asensio from scoring. Courtois also had a good day against his former team, with the Belgian making 2 great saves to stop both Costa and Griezmann from scoring. Both clubs are blessed with elite stoppers, and is one reason why their defense can always be relied on. Two other players who were good on the day were Toni Kroos and Rodri. Both midfielders are playmakers, yet from different generations. One is a world cup winner, the other was signed from Villarreal in the summer and called one of the signings of the summer by myself. Atletico have had a bit of a midfield problem to say the least. Since Gabi’s departure, they have not been able to fill the void that their talisman left. Rodri since a great controller, usually averaging over a 90% pass accuracy, and is also able to do his defensive work. He showed both against Real Madrid, He had the highest pass accuracy in the game (excluding substitutions of course), put in 6 tackles and interceptions, and made a key pass. It was an overall solid performance from their young Spaniard. On the other end of the spectrum, Toni Kroos put in one of his usual performances. There was plenty of creating and passes, with Kroos completing 103 passes, and making 4 key passes. Anther solid showing from an established star. After this draw, it leaves both Madrid sides and Barcelona in real contention for the title. It is still very difficult to predict.

Ligue 1 – Lille Smash Marseille. Monaco at Rock Bottom.

Ligue 1 is turning more into a one horse race as the season is going along. Lyon just struggle to consistently gather, Marseille still look weak away from home, and Monaco are just a mess ( oh we will get to them). Let’s start with Marseille, who were truly humiliated against Lille, who won 3-0 at home. It was a real bad performance from the away side. Payet didn’t play this game, neither did Sanson, Amavi or Mitroglou. I criticised Mitroglou last week, but Germain wasn’t much better. The Frenchman didn’t even manage a shot all game, and just showed how ineffective Marseille were in the final third. While they were very lackluster in the final third, it was defensively where they were at their worst. Both Gustavo and Mandanda have away penalties, that looking back on, they should have never given them away. Both were reckless and are experienced enough to not be giving away penalties like that. That isn’t to take anything away from Lille however. While two of their goals were penalties, their third goal was an absolutely great team goal, and just showed why they deserved the win. Both Bamba and Pepe were key for the home side again. Their forwards have not been firing, so seeing their wide players contributing so well must be a relief. It’ll be interesting to see how both Bamba and Pepe continue to perform this season. Many top sides are always in need of wide talent. It they continue their great run of form, it could result in a big move for one of them. Both have started every game, and have scored 5 goals each. They have been electric. Lille now sit in 2nd, ahead of both Montpellier and St Etienne. This could finally see their return to the big time.

Monaco just cannot get a few wins together. They lost another game on Friday, this time to St Etienne by 2 goals. This wasn’t as bad as some of Monaco’s earlier performances, with both Falcao and Adama Traore having good chances to put the visitors ahead, but failed. St Etienne were very clinical on the day. They won the game thanks to an excellent performance from Kazri. The Tunisian was in hot form in this game, scoring two brilliant goals to put his side ahead. St Etienne did deserve the win, if not a bit lucky that Monaco are just in this much of a rot at the moment. Monaco were very wasteful in this game. Both Diop and Falcao managed 9 shots between them, yet only got 2 target. Falcao especially was poor in this regard. He had an excellent chance to put his side ahead with a chance at the near post, and missed it. It’s hard to say where Monaco go from here. They now sit at 18th, with only 1 win this season. Their model of selling and replacing with upcoming talent just hasn’t worked. They’ve only managed 8 goals this season. They haven’t been nearly as good as last season. Let’s hope Jardim can turn this around. For all he’s done for that club, he at least deserves that.

Premier League – Embarrassing Mourinho. The Best Draw

I think there is no where else to start but Manchester United. The club is currently at its worst since Fergie left. While the club were clueless under Moyes, boring under Van Gaal, they are now an embarrassment. You have the manager and the best player making constant drama off and on the pitch, a board and chairman who care more about the profits than actually competing for trophies, and a manager that is so bad at his job, that this is his last job at a big club. This is the third time in a row that Mourinho has had the dressing room turn against him. There is no big club that will look at him and think he is worth the constant investment over a long period of time. Anyways, back to the game. Mourinho set up his side in a strange way. He played a 3-5-2 with Matic, Fellaini and Pogba as the three. The problem with playing this is Fellaini and Matic are just not athletic enough. It’s a formation where plenty of ground needs to be covered and both the attack and defense needs support. Matic has not performed for months, and nothing else needs to be said about Fellaini at this point. I don’t know why Mourinho is refusing to play Fred. The Brazilian might not be complete package, but he is very energetic and wants to contribute in the final third. A midfield of him, Pogba and Herrera would be pretty perfect in a 3-5-2, but Mourinho didn’t opt for that. His favouritism towards Fellaini, Matic and McTominay has resulted in the three of them getting more games than they probably deserve. Neither of them are good enough for the club, yet because the manager likes them they get games. It left United with a mountain to climb before the game started, because West Ham had an advantage. It didn’t get better, with United conceding in the first 5 minutes. He played McTominay in a back 3 and it his lack of experience showed. Why is an apparent great tactician playing a player with very limited ability in a position that barely any player could fill. He was asked to play in central defense, a position he can’t even play, yet he’s being thrown in there by Jose. The attackers were left isolated, and even when given chances, they just didn’t show anything related to drive and urgency. This is not to take anything from West Ham. They were great on the day and outperformed United in every position. Their sudden transformation into the side we all expected is such a pleasure to see. Many critics, like myself, praised the club for finally conducting the right business in the summer, and it seems to be finally paying off. A terrible day for José Mourinho, and a great day for the victors.

On a more positive note, Liverpool and Chelsea possibly produced one of the most entertaining draws in a while. It was end to end, entertaining, and probably deserved more goals than it was given. Liverpool for most of the game were more of a threat, with Salah, Mane and Firmino quickly hurting Chelsea, and taking advantage of their advanced fullbacks. Firmino especially was very good, making 4 key passes and making 2 tackles. He did everything we expect from the Brazilian at this point. However while their forward three was productive (and arguably very wasteful), their midfield was mostly anonymous. While Milner continued his excellent form and put in a good performance away from home, his teammates, Wijnaldum and Henderson, were anonymous. Henderson will have these games where he struggles to get involved, and it can pass him by when the pressure is on. He, however, was not nearly as bad as Wijnaldum. The Dutchman is not exactly my favourite around, in fact I think he is average at best. This is a game where he showed it. He didn’t do anything in defense, and didn’t contribute anything in attack. He offered nothing in a game where Liverpool needed to make a statement, and instead reminded me why he cannot be relied on in touch away games. He seems to lose his spine when he isn’t playing in Anfield. Chelsea had a similar issue. Because of the speed in which Liverpool attack, it was difficult for Sarri’s side to play the game in the way they wanted. Kovacic did have a very good game however, getting the assist, while also putting in 3 tackles. This game was everything the neutral, like myself, wanted. Let’s hope there are more. It leaves the both of them, and Manchester City in a very tight place, where if any of them slip up, it could be difficult to catch the leaders.

Serie A – Ronaldo’s Big Performance. The Rome Derby

Serie A had an excellent few fixtures to look forward to. Let’s start with the first big title deciding game of the season, where Juventus came out 3-1 victors over Napoli. While Juventus were the better team, it wasn’t completely smooth sailing. Mertens took advantage of a poor Leonardo Bonucci mistake, and stuck his side ahead. However thanks to a great performance from Ronaldo, Juventus eventually got the result they wanted. It was a very selfless performance from the Portuguese international, having a key involvement in every one of their goals. It was his perfect cross which gave his side the equaliser. It was his shot that gave Manzukic the tap in for second, and his second half strike that Bonucci taps in. He is paying back that €100m by every game he plays. His big performance is what put Juventus over the line. Selfless is not exactly a word which is best described for Ronaldo. He has always loved being the central figure of every side he’s played for, but in this game he had drop wide, and help his side in every way. It was just as good as seeing him score a great hat trick. This leaves Juventus comfortably ahead of any rival, as expected. It means the champions league must be top priority. It is the trophy that alludes Juventus. Their team is capable, and with many of the top sides over Europe currently in transition periods, this could be their chance.

And last but not least, the Rome Derby, which saw Roma defeat their local rivals Lazio by 3 goals to 1. It was a great game and it just showed how much this game means to the players and fans. Every player put their full effort on that pitch. Roma did deserve their win. The first goal was thanks to some great hold up player thanks to Edin Dzeko, and finished with a nice back heel from Pellegrini. After Immobile got Lazio back in the game, a delightful free kick from Kolarov put the home side back in the lead. Roma were great on the day. I have been doubting Di Francesco recently, unsure if he really is the man to push Roma to that next level. Roma have been really good recently, proving maybe it was an over exaggeration from myself. I still have my doubts on how he sets up his defense, but his forwards are scoring plenty, which is why their form has been so good recently. I do feel that Lazio will not be as entertaining as last season, with Anderson and De Vrij both leaving the club, but they will still compete for that top 4 spot. Roma need to sort some of their defensive issues if they are to compete with Napoli for the best of the rest, but it will be interesting to see.

Spurs To Drop Out? Champions League Heroes and Zeroes

My new series, where I look at 5 players/managers who have had a good or bad week in the champions league. Let’s go!

Hero – Paul Pogba

The Frenchman has been under constant scrutiny through out his time at United, for dancing, too much social media use, and not performing well enough in the bigger games. I am a huge Paul Pogba defender. I think he has been United’s most consistent outfield player since his arrival. He as just been unfortunate in both of his season. He had an Ibrahimovic who just couldn’t finish the great chances he was giving him, and he missed a lot of games last season. Last season, the injuries began on that first Champions League night, so finishing the game as captain was a huge deal. He did that, while also scoring 2 and assisting Anthony Martial. He was fabulous on the night and was the driving force for United on the pitch. He made 3 key passes and had a 92.6% pass accuracy. Another great performance from the Frenchman. His first goal was also brilliant

Zero – Mauricio Pochettino

The Tottenham manager was asked so many questions regarding his decision to not take both Trippier and Alderweireld to Milan. He defended his choice and said the places he took would be enough. While I think Aurier did make more sense to play, because Perisic can be a handful to deal with, it’s Alderweireld where I have an issue. In that first half, Spurs were so sloppy on the ball, giving away the ball so cheaply and allowing Inter to press them, knowing they seemed so threatened on the night. Alderweireld is an excellent distributor, and would have definitely made a difference on the night. Spurs having a lead, and losing it thanks to a moment of magic from Icardi, and a moment from madness from the backline, was the last thing Poch needed. It put further inspection onto his decisions on the night. The post match press conference was not pretty. It was as if I was watching Mourinho after the Spurs defeat. A man who couldn’t protect his players except from pulling attention away from them. Not a good night for the coach.

Hero – Lionel Messi

Praising Messi is a normal occurrence for everyone in football, but just because he gets love for being the best, doesn’t mean she should stop receiving it. Messi was the star as Barcelona dispatched of PSV Eindhoven 4-0. Messi ended the game with a delightful hat trick, with two of the goals just showing his excellent ability at scoring goals under any circumstance. This is a big year for Barcelona, and Messi. After their collapse in Rome last season, they need to put that behind them and push for the big prize. Messi needs to remind Ronaldo who the real winner is. Ronaldo’s record in the competition is frankly ridiculous, and Messi has fallen behind in recent years, because of Barcelona’s inconsistent form. With Ronaldo now suspended (we’ll get to that), it gives Messi a chance to close the gap on the all time scorer. It’ll be a big season for the football legend.

Zero – Cristiano Ronaldo

What a terrible way to start the new Champions League season. Ronaldo received a red card for his actions towards Murillo. It could have been the hair pull or the push, but it’s unsure what exactly he was sent off for. But no matter what it was, getting sent off is the last thing that Ronaldo wanted. Ronaldo is a serial winner. He wants to score the most goals in every competition, and now with him having the chance of being suspended for 3 games, it gives him less time to score goals. Ronaldo has been the top scorer now for the last 3 years, and he wants to keep that going until his retirement. Juventus still managed to win the game, thanks to penalties taken by Pjanic. Ronaldo needs to now focus on the league, until his eventual suspension is over. Juventus will still be fine. That team will always find a way to carve out a good result.

Hero – Nabil Fekir

The Frenchman was the driving force behind their surprise win over Pep’s Manchester City. I mentioned in my preview for their group that Lyon have been so frustrating and it’s impossible to tell which Lyon would turn up. The best one turned up today. Fekir was the stand out player for the French side. His qualities are seriously underestimated. He is just an incredibly versatile forward, being a great at getting goal scoring chances, creating, and he is a great dribbler. He is Lyon’s most important player because he is that player who can win them a game. He was at his best today. He managed 3 shots, 3 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. He was fouled 5 times in this game, showing how much of a threat he was in this game. Lyon set up in a 4-4-1-1, to help defend against a strong city side, and player more on a counter attacking way, using the pace of Cornet, Depay and Fekir to hurt them when they had the chance. The whole team put in a great defensive show, and Fekir highlights this. He put in 3 tackles in the game. Fekir is a player who usually does not do defensive work, but in this game it was all hands on deck to defend the narrow lead they had. An excellent performance and let’s hope they continue on these performances in the league.

Zero – Napoli

Carlos Ancelotti’s side failed to make the most of their easiest opponent in their group. They drew 0-0 against Red Star Belgrade, meaning they now have to play Liverpool and Paris without a win under their belts. The worst part for Napoli is they had the chances to seal the game, yet didn’t put the ball away. Callejon had a half chances that could have easily been a goal. The worst one by was Mertens, who miss hit the ball from a few yards out. Napoli had 73% possession, and had 20 shots, yet just couldn’t find a way through. Even though Napoli did dominate the game, and outshot their opponent, they still didn’t threaten Red Star enough. The majority of the game was spent in the middle third of the pitch, with 50% of the game being spent there. 34% was spent in Red Star’s third of the pitch. Napoli just didn’t do enough on the day. Mertens was the only one with the clear chance in the game, which isn’t good enough. It leaves Napoli in a bad place. As seen from my preview, Napoli are not a stronger side than Paris or Liverpool, and now having to play both of them could mean their elimination is decided early. They needed to capitalise on having the easier side to start, to get the momentum for their next fixtures. It’ll make getting out of this group even harder now.

Hero – Jürgen Klopp

Liverpool (as predicted) are now in the driving seat for group C. They beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-2, with Roberto Firmino scoring the late winner off the bench. Klopp is the winner here for carrying his league form into Europe’s elite competition. One of the criticism of teams who play with a high intensity is their inability to play that same way multiple times in the same week. They were very good against Paris. They exploited their weak and imbalanced midfield by playing a very workman like midfield, of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum. They made the Ligue 1 champions look average at best. A performance that makes Liverpool a threat on both ends this season.

Zero – Thomas Tuchel

I do have some sympathy for Tuchel. He said before the window ended that the full backs were not good enough. And that they were desperate for a number 6, and only brought in Juan Bernat. It left him in a position of weakness, because he couldn’t use the squad to its full potential. He was forced to play a midfield three of Di Maria, Marquinhos and Rabiot. None of them managed a key pass between them. They were largely ineffective and couldn’t control the game. It is clear that Paris are missing Veratti, but it doesn’t excuse Lo Celso joining Betis. He would have done a better job than Marquinhos in that role. Juan Bernat also didn’t cover himself well in the spotlight, with the Spaniard giving the penalty for Liverpool. It was a needless challenge to make, because Wijnaldum was not a threat. Tuchel is at a disadvantage, not having the players he wanted, but this team has some incredible talent, and he needs to do better against Red Star and Napoli.

Hazard to WIN Player of the Year? Top 5 Talking Points From The Top 5 Leagues

Bundesliga – Leipzig’s 5 goal thriller. Mönchengladbach Keep Pushing

Leipzig have not been so great this season. They began their season with a defeat to Dortmund, and then drew against newly promoted side Fortuna, a team they should be beating. But they finally got their first win, with a 3-2 victory over Hannover, thanks to goals from Werner and Poulsen. Leipzig went for a more defensive set up here, starting 3 in midfield, with Kampl being the only real attacking threat from it. It worked in a way, with Leipzig winning more tackles and aerial duels. It didn’t stop Hannover’s threat however, with the away side getting more shots and dominating possession, with 68% in their favour. It was a scrappy game for Leipzig, but having a clinical striker like Werner is what gets you through tough games like this, when you are not at your best. Werner was particularly good in this game. He only touched the ball 34 times, but still managed 6 shots. It shows how he was getting in good areas when taking shots, because of the lack of build up play he was involved in. Hannover will feel hard done by here. They should have won the game based on how much of the ball they had, but just failed to capitalise. Asano had 6 shots, yet only got 1 on target and failed to score. It’s the difference between the two sides. Leipzig seem to be missing Keita. His ability to cover the defence and advance the player, just isn’t seen in the current side. It is a big season for Leipzig, so let’s see where they go from here.

Mönchengladbach have started the season very well so far. Their 2-1 win over Schalke keeps them unbeaten, and puts them at 5th in the Bundesliga. It was a very equal in most ways. The possession was split evenly in half, and both sides had similar shot numbers. The difference in this game was that Mönchengladbach took their chances. Ginter wasn’t marked for the first goal and was given a chance, and he took it. Schalke just didn’t do the same. While Ginter did score the opening goal, one player who had an excellent game was Alassane Plea. The Frenchman was key in linking the attack, with his 4 key passes being the highest for the home side. He also completed 2 dribbles. While his shot numbers weren’t the highest, only managing a single one goal, he was instrumental in keeping their attack ticking. As for Schalke, it seems they will get out of this rot soon. Their forwards just haven’t been performing, resulting in their only goal in this game being their third this season. Mark Uth did manage to get 3 shots on target, but didn’t manage to score. Eventually the ball will start to hit the back of the net, and when it does, they will finally start fighting for the top 4. What makes it even more difficult for Schalke now is they have Bayern next, and judging by not only their form, they also have a Champions League game, which could not help in their hope to stay competitive in the Bundesliga.

La Liga – Girona Win in Style

It wasn’t exactly an eventful week in La Liga. I’ve already spoken enough on Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. With Madrid dropping points, Atletico continuing their awful start, and Barca winning again, there just isn’t much to add. So I thought let’s take about the most exciting game of the weekend, being Girona’s win over Celta Vigo, which ended with Girona beating their opponents by 3 goals to 2. It was definitely a deserved win as well. While Celta did control the game, it was a great counter attacking lesson from Girona. They only managed 11 shots compared to Celta’s 20, but they made their chances count. Christian Stuani in particular was excellent. The Uruguayan only managed 3 shots on target, but still scored a brace. He has been excellent for Girona since his arrival from Middlesbrough. He scored 17 last season and seems to be continuing where he left off. Girona’s defending in this game was very balls to the wall. What sums that up is Stuani’s contribution. He managed 3 tackles from an attacking position, showing how much of a team effort it was. However when talking about defensive work, one cannot leave out Álex Granell. The Spanish veteran managed a frankly ridiculous 12 tackles and interceptions in this game, while also making 3 key passes, the most in the side. On a side note, the 2nd goal from Stuani was excellent showing of a counter attack done right. They moved so fast and made quick short passes to move the play up. Girona are a good side, and it’s good to see them win games like this, by playing a very straight to the point way of football. As for Celta, on another day they would have won this, but they were exposed. Girona noticed that they were weak on set pieces and in the air in general. They exploited this through crosses. The first two goals came from the full backs advancing far up the pitch and just putting in a ball in the box. Celta tried a similar way, to take advantage of Maxi Gomez’s superior aerial ability, but didn’t work. Hugo Mallo, the Celta Vigo captain, attempted the most crosses for them, yet out of the 7 crosses he managed, only 1 caused significant danger. Like I said, on another day, it could have went their way. But it cannot be argued that Girona deserved the victory.

Ligue 1 – Lille’s Great Start. A Payet Inspired Win

With PSG cruising the league as usual, let’s put some focus on a side who have started excellently, being Lille. The 2011 Ligue 1 champions have started the season in great fashion, already getting 3 wins this season. While their wins haven’t came against tough opponents, they are scoring goals and doing well defensively. They beat Amiens 3-2, with Pepe getting all three goals. He was absolutely great in this game. He managed 5 shots on target, made 3 key passes, and completed 2 of his dribbles. He played in the game more as a striker than a winger. He was constantly getting in central positions, which explains why he was able to get so many shots on. He also won the penalties he converted. He is now on 4 goals in 5 games, and his opposite winger, Bamba, is on 3. Both are performing well for their new side, and look to help push Lille back to their successful period when the likes of Hazard, Cabaye and Gervinho were performing in that side.

Marseille had another good week. They followed their dramatic win over Monaco, by beating Guingamp 4-0. It was definitely a deserved win, They had much more possession, allowed their opponent zero chances to attack, and completed 86% of their passes, compared to the away side’s 75%. This is Marseille’s third win of the season, leaving them on equal points with Lille, and 5 behind Paris. While they are not in a good place to challenge for a title, it will leave with an advantage in the fight for top 4. Back to the game, Marseille actually didn’t score until the second half of the game, and for a reason. They failed to capitalise on the many chances they were creating in that first half. Mitroglou notably missed a header from a couple of yards away, which perfectly summed up Marseille in that first half. However in the second half, they just came out with a a bang. Marseille took their chances against a Guingamp side that just couldn’t keep up with them. The midfield partnership of Strootman and Sanson performed very well, with the pair completing a combined 15 tackles and interceptions. They did a great job in shielding the back four. Their captain, Dimitri Payet, was another who performed excellently. He was at his creative best with the Frenchman making 5 key passes. His goal was by his highlight. It was easily the best goal scored this season. It was as if it was a cross more than a shot, but yet still got it in the goal. What a great talent, who will always be remembered as the player who should have been at a higher level. While Payet was fantastic, Thauvin was the man of the match. The world cup winner scored two and had a great game. He was a constant threat on that right side, and was key to Marseille getting over the line. He has been their best performer in their recent resurgence. In this game he showed that, by completing 3 dribbles, and making 3 key passes. It just shows how much of a complete winger he is, being able to score, dribble and create. He is the whole package. Marseille have a big season ahead of them, and they have started it in great fashion.

Premier League – Hero Hazard. Villain Vorm

Chelsea have been very good at the start of the season. Sarri was able to fix a majority of the issues that Chelsea had at the time. He brought in a very good goalkeeper to replace the unhappy Courtois, one of the best game controllers in Jorginho, and a guy I’ve been wanting to see move for so long in Kovacic. However while all three have been good in their first season, one cannot compliment Chelsea without discussing Eden Hazard. The Belgian has been on fire since the World Cup (where he should have won the player of the tournament) and has continued his form into the new season. In his previous four, where he only made brief cameos in the first two games, he has contributed to four goals. He has been in the form of his life so far. In this game he more than doubled his tally, scoring his first hat trick in 4 years (and getting me plenty of points in fantasy football). It was the icing on the cake for his recent form. He was so involved in this game, getting on the ball 97 times, more than midfield star Jorginho. Hazard has always been key in driving the attack, but this is just insane. He is now carrying the attack on a new level. He completed 3 dribbles, scored all of his shots on target, and had an 89% pass accuracy, the third highest on the pitch. It was a perfect performance from Chelsea’s key man. With the way he’s playing, he could end the season as the player of the season.

While Hazard was the hero, Michel Vorm was far from that. The Spurs number 2 was at fault for the first goal and had an overall poor game as Liverpool won at Wembley, flattering Spurs with a 2-1 victory. Spurs continued to struggle against the top four, as again, they seemed to not know what they are doing. The full backs were travelling too far up the pitch, leaving Salah and Mane all the space in the world to press the centre backs, giving them no options to move the ball. However the biggest talking point by far is the continual poor form of Harry Kane. The golden boot winner has been absolutely dreadful at the start of the season. He just looks doesn’t look sharp, with the forward failing to get into good positions in the final third and seems to pass the game by. He reminds of Wayne Rooney in his later years at Manchester United. He lost his pace as the years went on, and just couldn’t lead the line in the same way. I am not saying that Kane has lost his ability, but he just isn’t playing as a traditional number 9 this season. He is dropping far too deep, instead of leading the line. Compare him to Icardi. The Inter captain has been compared to Kane over the years, because both started scoring an insane amount of goals at roughly the same time. However the difference is Icardi does not get too involved in build up play, and instead waits in the box and looks for space to exploit. Kane had a 16% conversion rate last season, and Icardi had over 25%. It proves that Icardi takes better shots than the Englishman. Kane needs to start playing as more traditional number 9, and allow the build up play to be done by the more creative players. A bad day for spurs, but a worse day for Kane.

Serie A – Ronaldo Finally Scores. The Sampdoria Show

By far the biggest talking point is Cristiano Ronaldo finally scored his first 2 goals for Juventus. The Portuguese forward scored a simple tap in to start, but then ended a good counter attack with an excellent side finish. He was a threat throughout the game as well. He has his usual incredible amount of shots, with the forward taking 9 shots. Which was more than half of Juventus’s total shots (14). This could be the boost he needs. Many expected Ronaldo to hit the ground running. While it has taken longer than expected for him to begin his scoring account, it will now push him to continue to score more, and break even more records. On another note, Douglas Costa was the opposite of a professional on the pitch. Never should a player hit or most of all spit at an opposing player. He should have been banned for more than 4 games, but a punishment is still a punishment. It will hopefully prevent players from doing these unacceptable actions no longer.

Sampdoria followed their absolute beating of Napoli, by beating Frosinone by 5 goals. They were better than their opponent in every department. Sampdoria had more possession, more shots, completed more tackles and had a better pass accuracy. The stand out performers again were their forward two. Quagliarella and Defrel have created one deadly partnership so far this season. Defrel bagged a brace, while his partner in crime scored and assisted. Both of Defrel’s goals were excellent. The first was a well taken volley, while the second was a great individual effort. While his goals have been impressive, what’s surprised me the most about the striker has been his work rate. Any player who starts alongside Quagliarella has to cover more yards, simply because the Italian has not got many years left in him, and needs to safe his energy. Defrel did this job to best of his ability, while contributing in an attacking sense. He made 4 tackles in the game, the second highest in the game. He is just the perfect partner for Quagliarella. Sampdoria’s run now is a difficult one. They have Fiorentina at home, and then Inter Milan. Getting points against these two could show us all where Sampdoria are heading this season.

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group H

And last but not least, the final group. One of the toughest groups here, it contains Scutdetto winners Juventus, 2x winners Manchester United, Marcelino’s Valencia side and last but not least, Swiss champions Young Boys. It’s going to be an interesting group.

Juventus

Let’s start with Juventus. The Old Lady to into this tournament as one of the favourites, based on 2 words, Cristiano Ronaldo. The five time Balon d’Or winner is by far the best player in the history of the tournament. Juventus have signed the top scorer in the Champions League, who has been the main reason why Real Madrid were able to win three champions leagues in a row. Their other signings were also very good. João Cancelo was great for Inter Milan last season, and will give them a real attacking addition. Mattia Perin has performed well for Genoa over the past few years, and will give competition to Wojciech Szczęsny. They have a very good squad, but the only issue is their midfield. It just isn’t as strong as the other sides, like Barcelona, Madrid and Man City. I like Pjanic, but Matuidi and Khedira are just not as good as they used to be. If they just invested more in that area, they would be definite be main challengers. They will top the group, because of their solidarity at the back, and their attack.

Manchester United

Just the perfect draw I wanted my team to get. United go into this tournament a slight mess. The loss to Sevilla is still fresh in the minds of the supporters. After a summer of disappointment in the transfer market, it has left the manager in a tough place. Mourinho is one of the few managers in the world that can only succeed if he is fully backed. There is no point having Mourinho if you are not going to give him what he wants. The squad is full of players who are not good enough, and players who seem unhappy. There have been a few positives this season. Luke Shaw has been excellent in every he has played, Lukaku has already got 4 in 5, De Gea is at his best, and United have finally started putting some wins together. United have some excellent individuals, and are able to punish any team on their day. But the problem is holding onto those leads, and making the changes count. Lukaku needs a lot of chances to score, and United struggle defensively in every sense of the word. I think they’re better than Valencia and Young Boys, and could challenge Juventus at home. They will finish second, but that might be me being biased.

Valencia

Valencia started last season like a rocket. They had Zaza, Guedes and Rodrigo in great form, but by the new year, their form started to slip. Now they have started the new season quite poorly. Besides a good point against Atletico, they have lost against Espanyol, and draws against Betis and Levante. They just haven’t hit the ground yet and need a win desperately. They have some very good players that can damage any team. Geoffrey Kondogbia was great last season at recovering the ball and driving the ball forward and Santi Mina was excellent in the second half of the season. The signings of Gameiro and Batshuayi give them extra options up front. Batshuayi is great addition. His form for Dortmund was excellent and hopes he can do the same for Valencia. Marcelino is amazing at setting up a defense, as seen by Gabriel actually being good. But it’s the other end of the pitch they have been struggling with. They have only managed 3 goals so far, and have only been managing 3.8 shots on target per game. Valencia will always make it hard for other teams, but because of their lack of goals, they will not be getting to the round of 16.

Young Boys

Besides the strange name for the team, Young Boys are in the competition after winning their domestic title for the first time in 30 years. However even after losing their manager, they still look great. They have won every single game this season, with their three top scorers, Fassnacht, Hoarau and Ngamaleu, have contributed to 14 goals in 6 games. They are in excellent form right now and are ready to bring it into Europe’s elite competition. However, while I think they could shock a side (my money would be on United), Juventus and United have the pedigree and the quality to compete. But I do think they will still come out of this competition with their pride in tact.

Final Table

1. Juventus

2. Manchester United

3. Young Boys

4. Valencia