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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

 

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.

Is The Serie A Title Race Already Over? Top 5 League Talking Points

Bundesliga

The Revierderby

While Dortmund’s game against Bayern is always a huge fixture, their game against Schalke is arguably just as big. Both sides are only a 23 minute drive away. They are both located in a real working class area and this derby has produced 152 meetings, with Schalke coming out as the better of the pair. Going into this game, it was clear that while Schalke have picked up some form in recent weeks, Dortmund were the favourites. While it was close, it was Dortmund who came out as victors, thanks to goals from Thomas Delaney and Jadon Sancho. Schalke did bring the game level thanks to Caligiuri’s penalty, but it just wasn’t enough.

Let’s discuss the victors, who weren’t great on the day, but still managed to win the game. The Veltins-Arena is not an easy ground for Borussia Dortmund, with their last win coming in October 2013, so the fact they were able to pick up the victory is still very impressive. However their performance wasn’t their best showing. They only managed 3 shots on target. Schalke managed the same but they have a valid reason being they lack forward options at the moment, with Mark Uth and Breel Embolo both picking up injuries. Dortmund didn’t have any massive injury troubles going into this game. They started all of their big performers, with Reus, Sancho, Alcacer and Brunn Larson all starting as their attackers. Reus was very good on the day. He has been revived this season, and while isn’t the brilliant winger in his earlier days, he has evolved as a player, similar to how R9 changed from a player who relied solely on physical power, and instead used his technical prowess to his advantage. Reus is the leader in this young side, and knows what it means to play for the club. In this game he created 3 chances, more than any other player on the pitch, and got the assist with a delightful free kick into the box. Other than Reus, their attackers weren’t good enough on the day. Both Sancho and Brunn Larson were lack lustre, but they are young players. This is a game that is so hard to predict, and it can be overwhelming. Paco Alcacer was arguably the worst out of the three. He didn’t manage a single shot on target, and was taken off for Mario Gotze. While Dortmund should be happy with the win, it wasn’t vintage from them. Lucien Favre has garnered a reputation for completely misleading xG. They are currently top of the table, yet xPTS claims they should actually be 2nd, with Bayern as the comfortable leaders. They are actually the luckiest team in the league, with Favre’s side only expected to score 27, 12 less than they have actually managed. Dortmund have been very good this season, there is no denying that. But with Bayern being more dominant, Hoffenheim taking more shots and Leipzig having a better defense, it does show how maybe they’re fortunate to be where they are. I still hope they can keep it up. The Bundesliga has been very boring for a while now and it needs this refresh. Not only does it throw Dortmund right back at the top, but it will make Bayern really reconsider how well they think they’re ran.

La Liga

Atletico Madrid show quality against in form Alaves

Onto La Liga, which has had a predictable, yet interesting week. The high scoring game between Levante and Eibar, but let’s look at Atletico Madrid. They have truly disappointed me this season. With the huge additions they made in the summer, it was expected for them to finally push on. They have been fine enough. They still have a very good defense, but Simeone has faced some real problems. The first was his midfield. Since the loss of Gabi, a player so similar to Diego Simeone, it was as if there were two of them. The signing of Rodri from Villarreal was so good. I’ve already gone through previously why he’s so good, but there was doubt he could be the guy to replace Gabi. But after a start to a season which lacked minutes, he has finally found his place in the side. Only Koke completes more passes a game than Rodri. He also completed the most tackles in the side and the most clearances out of any midfielder. He holds the ball very well and is a great shield for the defense. I bring this up because he was one of Atletico’s best players on the day. He scored, completed more passes than any other Atletico Madrid player, and made 3 tackles and 8 clearances. He was very good on the day, and it seems Simeone finally has put his trust in him.

The Rojiblancos were deserving of the victory. They created better chances, and kept Alaves quiet and unable to create real substantial chances. While Alaves did take more shots, they only managed 3 on target. Atletico Madrid are one of the best sides in Europe at ensuring the chances you make are poor ones. It is why they are such a good side, and even with aging defenders, they are still rock solid at the back. One of their stand out defenders in this game was Santiago Arias. The Columbian was brought in as a replacement for the departing Sime Vrsaljko, and has been a worthy successor. He had a very successful time at PSV, where his dribble numbers and attacking threat were his most notable attributes. He was very good in this game, and showed all these qualities. He created 2 chances, more than any other defender, and even got an assist. It was a very good display from a player who will need plenty if he is to replace Juanfran.

Let’s quickly touch on Alaves, who while didn’t deserve the 3 points, they still had some chances in this game. Ibai Gomez managed more shots on target than any of his teammates, with 2. Alaves have been fine this season. While they don’t score many goals, they take the chances they get and play a very direct style. They can seem old fashioned, with Alaves being near the bottom of the table in shots, possession and pass accuracy, but right now they are just taking advantage of the state that is La Liga right now. The league is a mess, which has left teams like Alaves and Levante to climb the table, in times where they really shouldn’t be this high. While they are having a good season, it’s mainly because of how bad some other sides in La Liga have actually been.

Ligue 1

Ligue 1 will not be spoken about this week. The yellow vests protects have brought up security concerns. France is not exactly the happiest nation at the moment. 5 games have been suspended this weekend, including the game I most looking forward to, St Etienne against Marseille. It is still unsure when these games will be played, but I will cover Ligue 1 when it eventually comes back.

Premier League – Manchester City stunned by Sarri

Arguably the game of the weekend, Sarri was the first manager in the Premier League to truly dismantle Pep’s side. While City did dominate, Chelsea took their chances and limited City to create chances that aren’t as high quality as usual. It was arguably the most interesting game of the season.

Let’s start with Chelsea, who were truly great on the day. They came into this game in arguably the worst of situations. They lost 2 in their last 3, with their win coming against Fulham, a side even United could put 4 past. There was reason for worry, and even in the first half that worry was still there. City dominated and definitely should have got on the score sheet, but Chelsea rode their luck, and thanks to a goal from N’golo Kante and a late header from David Luiz, the blues managed to get the win. When I say that City dominated that first half, it was no exaggeration. Kante’s goal was Chelsea’s first shot on target. It’s Kante’s 4th goal contribution this season, the same as he’s managed in his last 2 seasons for Chelsea. While he is still learning his new role of box to box midfielder, it cannot be argued that he is definitely showing progress. While both Kante, Hazard and David Luiz will be remembered for what they did going forward, the man of the match was comfortably César Azpilicueta. The Spaniard was a monster at the back, that if you just add up all his defensive actions, he made 24. That is unheard of and it could be the first time I’ve ever seen a player amass that many. No matter where he plays Azpilicueta will always be one of the most consistent players in the side. He is just a delight to have for any squad. What Chelsea did so well is actually realise they are a lesser team than Man City. They might have played a 4-3-3, but in defense, it looked more like a 4-5-1. They were fine to have less of the ball, because they knew they could score a goal at the perfect opportunity. Both Kovacic and Kante are incredibly athletic, and could definitely help transition. It’s was a great approach from Sarri, and seems to be doing well at Chelsea, playing a different style to many of his predecessors.

This did seem like a huge off day for Manchester City. The champions dominated the first half, but late in the game they failed to get back a goal, and the pressure seemed to have got to them. The biggest talking point of the game was Man City’s lack of striker. Pep after the game said he was happy with how they played and the how his side set up, but I disagree. While he has played a striker-less team before, it just didn’t work here. Sterling just doesn’t have the same ability as someone like Jesus, to get in behind and make very intelligent runs. Sterling has been incredible this season, but it’s more as a winger, not a striker.

While Liverpool might be top of the table, City are still comfortably the better side. Every result they have had all been earned, with no luck to speak of. Let’s hope the better side actually win it this year.

Serie A – Juventus extend lead at the top

With Serie A going back to its one horse self, let’s look at their Friday night battle against Inter Milan, a side who have massively disappointed me so far this season. They have a very good manager, and made additions that should have seen them skyrocket up the table, but have been labouring on. While Icardi and Brozovic have been their usual great selves, Perisic, Nainggolan, Candreva and Vrsaljko have all underperformed this season. Perisic has always been their main creator, so having him slow down is a massive problem. Luckily, Keita Balde has been in good form recently and has helped his side. However even Keita couldn’t make the difference, with Juventus winning 1-0.

Inter had 2 incredible chances to get ahead, but thanks to Icardi creating them, instead of being on the end of them. Gagliardini hit the post and Skriniar hit it over the bar It meant they didn’t have their most clinical striker taking the shots. Other than those two chances, Inter only managed a single shot on target. They were wasteful in the final third and but the fact they created the chances they did, does earn credit. Vrsaljko was arguably their best player. While he hasn’t been as good as I expected, he did definitely bring his a game in this one. He completed 2 crosses, more than any other Inter player, and had their only shot on target. He was arguably one of the only highlights from a defense that wasn’t good on the day. xG had this game at 1.41 to Juventus, and 0.95 to Inter.

Let’s move on to the victors, who while weren’t great, still managed to get the job done. It’s classic Juventus. They are a winning machine. They have a team full of players who know how to win games, through the more dirtier side of the game, with players who have played at the top level for a long time, and know what it takes. They were good in this game, creating better chances than their opponents, with their forwards performing very well. Paulo Dybala was very impressive on the day. He created 3 chances, took 4 shots and even completed 4 crosses out of his 5 attempted, which is frankly ridiculous to see a player be that accurate. Mandzukic scored the only goal, and also had the most shots on target, and created 2 chances. Ronaldo wasn’t stand out in his game, but it’s good to see his teammates performing even when their main man isn’t. However another full back stole the show, this time it was João Cancelo. The Portuguese, while disappointing in Spain, has simply been brilliant since arriving from Valencia last summer. He was signed permanently by Juventus in the summer, after his loan spell with Inter came to an end. He has arguably been the signing of the season in Serie A. He created 3 chances, made 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and got the assist with a delightful ball to Mandzukic.

It’s hard to see how Juventus aren’t favourites for practically every competition they’re in. They have a deep squad, quality in every position, and huge competition for places. I still think their midfield is a bit weak. It’s the only thing truly holding them back from being the best side in Europe. While Atalanta and Napoli might be more fun to watch, Juventus are winners, and that is what’s most important when winning league titles.

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.

How Important is Messi? Champions League Heroes and Zeroes – Game week 2

Hero – Paulo Dybala

Because of the signing of Ronaldo, it has put Dybala in a very strange place. He seems to no longer be the centre piece of the side because of the arrival of the Portuguese and all the fame and arrogance that comes with it. He has so far become a bit part player this season, with Allegri still unsure one where he fits in. However after Ronaldo’s suspension, it was Dybala’s chance to show Allegri that he needs to find a place for him, and boy did he take it. Dybala scored a fabulous hat trick against Young Boys, to put Juventus at the top of their group. That first goal was excellent ball from Bonucci, and an even better finish from Dybala. It’s his fourth hat trick for his side. It now pressure on both Ronaldo and Dybala, to see who is truly fit to lead the line for the side.

Zero – Bayern Munich

For not being able to bounce back after their first league defeat of the season. They played a very good Ajax side, but you still expect the champions to put aside any team. Ajax truly took the game to them and arguably should have won the game. The away side completely outdid their opponent, using Tadic as a false nine to confuse the Bayern defenders, and use Van Der Beek to exploit the space that Tadic was making. Bayern don’t usually deal with a false nine, which it made it so difficult to deal with. Both Lewandowski and Ribery had strangely ineffective games, which saw both of them fail to register a shot on target. It was very out of the ordinary for the forwards. It shouldn’t be too difficult for the German side to progress to the next round, but Ajax did show how vulnerable they are during Kovac’s early days.

Hero – Sergio Aguero

For helping Manchester City end their 4 game losing streak in the Champions League, and to drag his side over the line, against a very resilient Hoffenheim side. Hoffenheim caught the champions out very early on (in fact the fastest goal since El Shaararwy’s goal against Chelsea last season) and it left city with a mountain to climb. However thanks to Aguero scoring not long later, it made it much easier for them. David Silva was also at his silky best in this game, but Aguero’s performance, included taking a crazy 7 shots, is what got the win for his side

Zero – The Real Madrid Fringe Players

This was a chance for players like Ceballos, Vasquez, Nacho and Reguilon to make a statement to Lopategui, that they all deserve a chance in this star studded eleven, however it wasn’t a day to remember. Thanks to an early error from Toni Kroos of all people, Real just didn’t turn up at all in Russia. While they did amass a crazy 26 shots, only 4 were on target. Because they conceded a goal so early, it left Real desperate to get back into the game, resulting in many half chances that were wasted. While the players I previously mentioned didn’t impress, it was actually Karim Benzema who stood out in the worst way. The Frenchman struggled without his Welsh superstar beside him. He had 5 shots, yet didn’t manage to get one on target, or make a key pass or complete a dribble. It just wasn’t his night. Madrid will get out of their group, but hopefully Lopategui has learnt not to rest players in Europe’s elite competition.

Hero – Lionel Messi

For just showing why he is the best player to ever play the game. On paper, Spurs away is a tough fixture, but Barcelona made it look easy. It is a huge part thanks to their little magician. Messi was at his unearthly best. The Spurs backline just couldn’t get near him. The amount of times he would receive the ball and drive at the spurs defense and make it look like they weren’t even there was outstanding. His stats even show this, with the Argentine scoring 2, having 4 shots on target, and making 3 key passes. He was just excellent as ever.

Zero – Romelu Lukaku

I had to sit and suffer through a very flat and slow Manchester United performance. Mourinho chose the same static midfield again, and it was ineffective, again. However by the far the worst performer was Romelu Lukaku. I do not know what happened to him after the world cup, but he just doesn’t look his usual lively self. His movement wasn’t there. He was giving his teammates no forward option, because of his lack of willingness to find space and keep United moving forward. Throughout the game you could see Pogba screaming at him to make a run, because he just wasn’t giving anything to the side. I think what shows his lack of involvement in the game was his lack of touches. The Belgian only managed 33 touches, which is 31 fewer than Sanchez and Rashford’s 64. Both of them were trying to get the ball forward and create opportunities. If I was Jose, I would be considering leaving Lukaku on the bench for the next game against Newcastle.

Hero – Antoine Griezmann

For helping his side secure their first home win of the campaign. After a slow start, Atletico Madrid are finally showing what we all expected from them. Lemar looks to have finally settled, and Arias seems to be playing a big part for the side. However the best element of their side remains Griezmann. The Frenchman has been a key reason for why they are back on track, and he showed this against Club Brugge, who after scoring an absolute wonder strike, just couldn’t contain him or Costa. Costa’s game has been sacrificed massively for Griezmann, but it is definitely working. They might have just formed the most deadly partnership in Europe. The second goal highlights this, with Costa making the run, and instead of shooting, decides to play it to Griezmann, who puts it away comfortably. The world cup winner had a hand in all the goals, and seems to be one of the most in form players in the tournament.

Zero – Jürgen Klopp

Liverpool have now not won a game in 3. The reds have been tipped to be team to dethrone Manchester City at the top, but their performance against Napoli did show some real vulnerability. They didn’t manage a single shot on target throughout the game. In games against possession based sides, Liverpool can usually use their workman ethic and ball winners in midfield to attack the side quickly. But Napoli completely outperformed their opponents. They won more tackles and aerial duels. The reason why this is impressive (and why Liverpool were pretty poor) is because these are stats where Liverpool usually excel. It was a bad day for Klopp, and with Manchester City next on the calendar, it could be a change to make a statement in England.

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