Monchi’s Failure! Roma vs Porto – UEFA Champions League Review

Let’s move on the next game in the Champions League, which saw a struggling Roma side face a Porto side which are quite difficult to break down. While other games were being spoken more on, this tie still had some excitement to it, so let’s look at a game where Roma showed their best and worst sides, and Porto battled for their place in the quarter finals.

We’ll begin with the first leg, which saw Roma come out deserving 2-1 winners over their Portguese opponents. This was the game that Roma needed to win, and was arguably their biggest game of the season. Roma were missing Cengiz Under for this game, someone I didn’t realise was actually out until that first leg. It didn’t matteer much, since it was Nicolo Zaniolo who came in to replace him. The Italian has been one of the few bright sparks for Roma this season, and showed it in this game. He was the man of the match, scoring both goals and put in a very good performance for his side, taking 3 shots on target and completing 2 dribbles. I do think there are elements of his game he needs to improve, mainly his passing, but he gets into good areas and plays the role of a second striker very effectively. While Roma didn’t exactly dominate this game, they did put in a performance that was worthy of the victory, even with a complete collapse in defence costed them that clean sheet.

Porto weren’t exactly good at all, but not all is their fault. They were missing Moussa Marega, their top goalscrorer in the competition with 5 goals. While he isn’t the most technically gifted footballer around, he uses his physicality and aggression to his advantage. Without him, Porto just lacked that bite up the field, which was needed in this game. I mentioned how they needed to win the battle in midfield, and they struggled to do so. Pellegrini ran the show, creating 5 chances and having 4 shots. Pereira and Herrera just couldn’t get near him, and allowed him to pull the strings. I mentioned before that Porto were very fortunate in their away games so far in the Champions League, and they showed that against Roma. They managed 2 shots on target in the game, showing how much they struggled to take advantage of the possession they had. This is down to both of their strikers on the night, Soares and Fernando, just not being very good. Fernando only managed 18 touches, and both forward kept drifting out wide, making it very hard for Porto to create anything of note. They did manage that important away goal, thanks to Adrien Lopez getting on the end of a good ball in the box. While Roma had the advantage, Porto were definitely still in this tie.

The first leg showed Roma at their best, and the second leg showed them at their worst. I said in my preview that they needed to take advantage of that first leg because they had Lazio right before their visit to Portugal. To say their form took a cataclysmic drop after that win is an understatement. They scraped by with wins against struggling Frosinone and Bologna, but a huge 3-0 loss to Lazio hurt the side. Lazio aren’t nearly as good as they were last season, but showed a spark of their attacking prowess shown when they were so close to Champions League football. It left Roma low on confidence and going to face Porto, who had Moussa Marega back from injury. Roma were so much worse in this game than their first leg victory, and some of it has to go down to some of the changes made to the side that fought valiantly in Rome. He went back to a back 3 and changed an energetic midfield of Cristante and Pellegrini to accompany De Rossi and went to a midfield 2 of the captain and N’Zonzi. It gave the side zero protection from Porto, and allowed their opponents to comfortably control the game without the bite and speed that Roma had in the last game. It baffles me why Di Francesco would change a winning formula like that, in favour of a more pragmatic approach that didn’t work. It’s all down to Di Francesco because the players to have to take some of the blame. Manolas gave the ball away early in the game and allowed Corona to gift Soares with an open net. These players showed in both legs that they seem unable to keep track of runners, and the second goal showed that. Karsdrop was not tight enough on Telles, and Marcano just allowing Marega to make a run at the far post. It’s been a consistent theme of what has went wrong in the capital this season. With Di Francesco gone and Monchi close to Arsenal, the whole Roma project that looked so promising has now fell into ruin. While Di Francesco always has his doubters, me included, I do think Monchi should face some of the blame. I think he was hoping to have the chance to bring in prospects like Under and Kluivert time to develop into the players they are showing they could be. But the difference has been what changed since his arrivals. Both Milan clubs had massive investment which instantly put them back into the conversation for top 4, while Lazio and Atalanta were both making smart moves to push for those European football. Roma were lucky to even qualify for Champions League football last season. If it wasn’t for Inter dropping the ball, and Lazio having a slight consistency problem, I doubt they would have even qualified. Allison was the 2nd best goalkeeper in Europe last season, and saved Roma a lot of points. Replacing him with a relatively average keeper in Olsen was not a good move. Allowing both Strootman Nainggolan to leave, and replacing them with Cristante and N’Zonzi, two players who are not better than the ones who departed, left them weak in a position they were strong in for so long. Monchi seemed to change the plan of long term success to just trying to succeed on the short term. While signings like Pellegrini and Kluivert showed plenty of promise, it just wasn’t enough at the end of the day, to justify missing out on the attraction of Champions League football.

Porto were much better in this game, as it was expected. While their away record is fortunate at best, no one can argue just how good they’ve been at home in Europe. In the group stages, they scored 8 and only conceded 2. They showed Roma why teams fear them in their homeland. They were aggressive and attacked with plenty width. I complained that Pereira and Herrera didn’t do enough in the first leg, but they definitely brought their best in the home leg. Pereira especially was outstanding. He dominated that midfield, where he won 3 tackles, created 3 chances and had 4 shots. A good display from a player we know is capable of them. However the man of the match was comfortably Moussa Marega. He returned to the team in style. He forced Manolas to make the mistake, which lead to the first goal, and scored the second to ensure that Porto would go into extra time. He also created 2 chances and had 4 shots. While I don’t think he’s a great or even a good player, you cannot deny he is very useful and key to the way his side attacks. It is great to see Porto and Ajax, two historic clubs progress to the round of 16, in a world where the Top 5 leagues dominate every year. It gives hope that these leagues will only improve and continue to make smart business, the more their bigger clubs progress. Porto will not be an easy tie in the next round, and if they can just improve their away form, they could make it a tough tie for whoever they are drawn against.

Will Roma Replicate Last Year’s Success? Roma vs Porto – UEFA Champions League Preview

 

Let’s begin with by far the least interesting fixture of the round. This isn’t to say there is nothing to say about this tie, but the other games are by far more interesting. Let’s start with Roma. I was originally going to disucss why Roma are struggling so much in Serie A, and it can quickly be summarized by key players leaving and not being replaced by players of the same level. The giallorossi sold two of their starting midfielders, and brought in an aging Seven N’Zonzi and a very average Bryan Cristante. The positives for them this season is some of their younger talent truly shining and the future does look bright. Monchi seems to be looking in Italy and other less known leagues for reasonably priced talent and it seems to be working to an extent. I am still very unsure on whether Di Francesco is the man to bring this side success. He is managing the side in a very difficult period, with many of the side’s star players beginning to age out. He is still seemingly unsure what is best eleven truly is, and it’s resulted in players constantly in and out of the side. El Shaarrawy and Pellegrini have been two of the best players for Roma this season, yet they have only started a combined 25 games. He’s relying heavily on the older players in the side, and talents like Schick and Kluivert just don’t seem to be flourishing in the same way we all hoped. They are struggling and there isn’t any signs to say they should be higher than where they are.

While they have been very up and down this season, they have actually been very good in the Champions League. It did help that their group was relatively easy, with a struggling Madrid, a Moscow side they comfortably beaten twice and a Plzeñ side they managed to put 5 past. While Edin Dzeko has struggled in the league (he has arguably been very unlucky though), he has been fantastic in the Champions League. In the 4 games he started, he scored 5 and managed 2 assists. He’s had more goal involvements than any other Roma player, and only Messi and Lewandowski have scored more than the Bosnian. He has had some injury problems, but he will be available for this game, which is a huge boost. I mentioned before that Lorenzo Pellegrini has been good, but he’s been even better than he has been in Italy. He has 3 assists to his name in Europe, with only Mbappe, Depay and Mahrez getting more. He has been a creative hub for his side in his 3 starts, with only Toni Kroos making more key passes than his 3.5. He has to play if Roma want anything out of this game. Their wingers, Justin Kluivert and Cengiz Ünder, have both been great whenever they’ve played. Kluivert’s time in Rome has been limited, but he’s still only 19 and has put up solid numbers in the Champions League. Under and Kluivert have completed the most dribbles for Roma in the Champions League, and only Pellegrini is creating more chances the Dutchman. I like Under a lot and think he does have a very promising future, but it’ll only be positive if his shot numbers improve. Kluivert takes a more shots in the box than his turkish teammate, and considering he is also creating more chances too, it is worrying. Under just takes too many shots outside the box and seems to have Coutinho syndrome (a condition where all your positives can be outweighed by awful shot locations. Suso also has this awful condition). He’s still only 21 so this is definitely an area will improve on with time.

Let’s move on to Porto, who have been very good since Sérgio Conceição arrived at the club. Porto won the Liga Nos title last season by scoring the most goals and conceding the least. They only conceded 18 goals too, bettering every other side in the league. They have continued this into the current season, only conceding 11 goals so far this season. It does help that the competition in Portugal, Benfica and Sporting, have droppped off massively in the past couple of years. Benfica have sold a lot of talent in the past few years, with the likes of Lindelof, Ederson, Mitroglou and Semedo all leaving the club for better things. Sporting have had a similar problem but with completely different circumstances. There were claims that the club president sent fans to attack the players, with key figures of the team like Gelson Martins, Rui Patricio, William Carvalho and Piccini all leaving the club because of the dangerous enviroment. They were allowed to leave for low figures too, which meant it was hard to find good replacements. I bring this up because Porto have not had these problems. While selling Ricardo Pereira and Diogo Dalot, leaving 34 year old Maxi Pereira as their only first choice right back, but it seems to not be a problem, thanks to Eder Militão. The Brazilian arrived from his native league for a bargain £3.6 million, and it could be seen as one of the signings of the continent. He has been playing as both a right back and a centre back. and is seemingly unable to put a foot wrong. Porto haven’t had the same transitional period as their rivals, which has allowed them to have an easy running in the league. While I do think they have had more talented squads in the past, but it cannot be argued that the manager is getting the best out of what they have. While they were unbeaten in the group, some of the scorelines have painted the image of a side that is performing well, when in reality, that isn’t the case. Their wins away at Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow were games where they were outshot do show they have been lucky to even finish the groups unbeaten (they scored 3 goals with 3 shots on target against Galatasaray). They were in fact one of only two teams  to have a negative expected goals difference at the end of the group stages. They also scored the most penalties. This isn’t to discredit them, but to show that while what they have done so far is imprsssive, they are a side that have rode their luck.

I discusssed how well Dzeko has done for Roma in the Champions League, so it only seems right to credit Porto’s own striker, Moussa Marega. The Mali forward has been stand out for his side in the competition. He has scored the most goals with his side with 5. While Dzeko was a shot machine Marega was not. He was only taking 2 shots a game, but 1.8 of those were coming in the penalty area. Marega is not a great player in the slightest, but to his credit he does very well in this system. He gives the most fouls away in the side, and that for striker can be seen as a good thing. It’s a sign of a player who knows how to press effectively. Players like Firmino and Lewandowski are great at pressing and usually give away a lot of fouls in an attempt to regain the ball in an aggressive manner. Marega does this in a similar fashion. He leads the line very well for his side, and excels in the 4-3-3 system they have deployed. Another reason why Marega has done so well is because of his teammate, Yacine Brahimi. The Algerian has been insansely good for the past few years, mainly because of his dribbling. In 5 games, he managed 2 assists and is completing 3.6 dribbles per game, double of the player behind him. He is so important for Porto’s attack, and helps massively in transision and can give full backs an absolute nightmare. In a majority of Porto’s attacks, the ball will always go through the Algerian. If he manages to bring his A game, Roma will have a horrid time.

If Roma want to earn their place in the final 8, they will need to take advantage of their home leg. While it is very simple, it seems Serie A might have to take priority. Before their game in Portugal, they have the Rome derby against their biggest rivals, Lazio. Roma haven’t been great in big games this season, losing to Juventus, drawing twice to Atalanta, failing to beat the Milan clubs. Their only win would be against Lazio back in September. If they have any chance of getting top four, they need to beat their closest rivals. Porto are a defensively solid side and are very aggressive. But as mentioned, their right back is a massive weakness. If El Shaarawy or Kluivert can take advantage of a very weak right side, there could be a chance create chances for Dzeko and Under. Under can not be wasteful. It’s something you expect from the wide man, but this side do not give up goals. It’ll be difficult to score against them, but as seen against Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow, their away record is not great and have to hope they aren’t as lucky as they have been.

If Porto have any chance of getting by the giallorossi, they must deal with that weak midfield. When I say weak, I do not mean in lacking ability, I mean in physicality. Danilo Pereira and Hector Herrera are two players who are defensively solid and need to bring their aggressive side. Porto are great at winning the ball higher up the pitch, and with midfield consisting of a slow De Rossi and N’Zonzi and defenisvely poor Pellegrini and Cristante. These are players you can truly get at and it’s so vital to not let them play their game.

With all this considered, I’d put my money on Porto advancing through this stage of the compeition. Di Francesco’s job is truly on the line, and Porto are just in much more comfortable place. Dzeko isn’t firing in the same way as he was last season, and the loss of Strootman and Nainggolan have add a real fragility and lack of leaders in the side. This is arguably the worst side in Roma’s recent history, and this just isn’t the year for Roma to be focusing on Europe, when Champions League qualification is on the line.

 

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Team of the Group Stage

With this year’s exciting group stages over, let’s look at the players who have stood out massively this year. The only rule is 1 player per team, to add some variety to this team and to not go on about the same players. There are some great players in this side, so let’s get straight into it.

Allison

While Szczesny and De Gea are also great shouts in between the sticks, Allison just has to win it for me. While many have been critical of his occasional errors, he has changed that defense, along with Van Dijk. He has added that reassurance to his teammates, that there is nothing to worry about. The way he commands his goal is incredible and his presence is why Liverpool have improved so much this season. His game against Napoli at Anfield was great, making an incredible close ranged save right at the end of the game to deny Milik a change to send his side through. He is the reason why Liverpool were able to get out such a tough group.

João Cancelo

He has been absolutely sensational this season. While I have covered him previously, with his great performances against Manchester United and Inter Milan all highlighted, he has been a key member to a Juventus side that easily qualified, thanks to underperforming opposition. He was such a great outlet for a side that has found it difficult to find a consistent player in that right back position since Dani Alves departed. His pace, dribbling and defensive work make him a perfect modern full back. While it is questionable to put a player who only played 3 games in here, he was just that good. He put in 4 tackles and interceptions, completed 2.7 dribbles and even was taking 1.3 shots per game. A real stand out performer for a side who are looking to finally win the trophy after waiting so long.

Aymeric Laporte

Man City were very good in the group. While they had massive struggles when playing Lyon, failing to win in both games against the French side. They were still able to get top of the group, and that was mostly thanks to their own french defender, Aymeric Laporte. He was at his best in the Champions League. He was great on the ball as usual, completing 5 long balls per game, and having a 93% pass accuracy while doing so. His defense work is quite difficult to judge, considering Man City are such a possession heavy side. He did put in more interceptions than any other defense for his side, and also won 2.2 aerial duels per 90, only Fernandinho and Otamendi winning more. However he will be remembered for the 2 goals he scored. The first was to help his side secure a 3-0 win against Shaktar, and the other was to draw his side level with Lyon in their final encounter. He is has truly turned himself into a key player for Pep, and has been their best defender throughout. Alongside Ederson, he has played every minute of the Champions League. To do that under a manager who usually rotates all of his outfield players, it tells a lot about how well Laporte has done.

Mattias De Ligt

Ajax have been a huge surprise this season. Their two great performances against Bayern Munich showed this team has the potential to remind Europe why they were once a European Giant. Their blend of youth and now experience, with players like Blind, Tadic and Huntelaar all helping talents like Van Der Beek and De Jong perform at a higher level. But the player I’m choosing here is De Ligt. The Golden Boy winner has truly shown why he currently holds that award. When I first watched him back in 2017, I thought he was a player who had a massive ceiling, but didn’t have the stature and size to be able to perform against the top sides. Two years later and he has turned into the most wanted defender in Europe. The Dutch International showed his quality in the group, showing maturity and intelligence for a player so young. It does help being paired with Daily Blind, one of the smartest players in the competition when it comes to reading the game. While he is a good defender, he lacks the size and physicality that De Ligt has. It gives their back line a lot of balance, and great ability on the ball. De Ligt averaged a 93% pass accuracy, and won 3.1 aerial duels per 90. His stand out performance was against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. It was a game that showed Ajax are finally back to being taken seriously. While Zieych and Tadic were all great, De Ligt was also very good. He completed the most passes out of the Ajax back line, won 5 tackles and even had 2 shots. It showed that he is a potential super star at the back, performing at a ground where many have struggled. What a season the Dutchman is having.

Alex Grimaldo

While Benfica have yet again disappointed in the Champions League, it was a tough group to get through. Both Bayern and Ajax are good sides, they still seemingly haven’t recovered since losing Lindelof, Ederson and Semedo back in 2017. They are good domestically, but those players were truly a step above what they currently have. One player however who has stayed forever consistent is Alex Grimaldo. The Spaniard has been one of the top left backs in Europe since his time playing for Benfica. Coming from La Masia, it has helped give Benfica a great dribbler and creator from the flanks. While his stats are great, with his chance creation looking exceptional, it has been swayed thanks to the Spaniard taking his side’s free kicks. But they are still great. He put in 5.2 tackles and interceptions and 2.2 clearances. He was able to attack just as well as he can defend. He was taking 2 shots, creating a chance and completing 1.5 dribbles. He has continued to show why many top clubs are still very much interested in him.

Axel Witsel

This whole midfield is going to very different, considering none of them play for super clubs, like PSG and Bayern (sticking to my one player per club rule), so let’s begin with Witsel. A player I used to hate for so long, but he has been absolutely sensational this season, and has actually changed my opinion of him. I used to think he was a clumsy player who loved to put in a late challenge, but now he has turned into a really good passer, and is so important to what Favre is doing. Only Diallo has played more minutes than Witzel. He has also completed the most passes with the highest pass accuracy of any midfielder at the club. He helps massively in build play retaining the ball. He has improved Dortmund massively and is one of the key reasons why they have been this good so far this season.

Lorenzo Pellegrini

Another player who you might not expect to be here, but deserves to be. Pellegrini is currently in his second season in the capital, and after a season where he wasn’t given as many chances as the likes of Nainggolan and Strootman. But as soon as they departed, The Italian has truly stepped up to the plate in this competition. While he has been good in Serie A, it’s in the champions League where his stats have rocketed. He’s got 3 assists in 3 starts, creating 3.5 chances per 90. It’s the highest in the Roma side and only Depay and Kroos (a player who maybe should be here) have created more chances per 90. He’s stepped and is finally showing why United seem so interested in him.

Nikola Vlasic

The final surprise pick if this XI. As previously mentioned, Kroos and Pjanic all would have been good options, but I’ll stick with arguably one of the surprise packages of the Champions League. The midfielder is currently on loan from Everton, after a season of a lack game time. He did show moments of real quality, but he just wasn’t able to show it. He was the best player in the group stages, when not including a certain Argentine. Vlasic was massively influence in their two leg shock over Real Madrid. He was the man of the match in both, scoring in the first and assisting the second. His numbers are just outrageous. Playing as an inside left forward, he played every minute for Moscow, and there’s a reason why. Per 90, he was taking 2.5 shots, creating 3 chances, completing 3 dribbles and even put in 2.3 tackles. It’s crazy to see that from a 21 year old. While Moscow are out of the competition, Vlasic has definitely put his name on some club’s radars.

Lionel Messi

Of course he has to be here. The best player of all time, even when he barely starts in the competition, still managed to score 6 in only 4 starts. His highlight so far was easily his performance against Tottenham at Wembley. The GOAT played Tottenham like they were Leganes. He had 6 shots and 4 on target, the highest in the match. Messi is arguably the only player in Europe where he is truly unstoppable when he is at his A game. His performances throughout the champions league have highlight just how irrelevant the Balon d’Or is, if Messi finishes fifth. The best player to ever play the game, the golden boot winner and has already got double figures in goals and assists, and is the top scorer in La Liga, even with missing a month through injury. He is the best player of all time and will always deserve a place in this side.

Robert Lewandowski

While Dzeko, Dybala, Tadic and Marega all deserve mentions here, Lewandowski scored the most goals in the group stages, giving him the spot for the best number 9. While Lewandowski is starting to show his age, with his mobility being the biggest problem as these years go on, he is still a very good striker. He was taking a very good 4 shots a game, with 2.7 of them coming from inside of the penalty area. Like in the Bundesliga, Bayern were not vintage in the champions league. Their massive struggles against Ajax highlighted that this team is definitely beatable. They couldn’t handle Tadic’s movement in the first leg, and played an entertaining second leg. They finished the group unbeaten. This is what you expect from them however. Their group was a gift. A poor Benfica side and Athens made it so easy for them. Lewandowski did definitely show his best though. Bayern will have to keep him fresh.

Neymar

I have made this very clear in the past, but I can’t stand Neymar as a professional. I think he takes the dark arts of the game too far sometimes and seems to have zero professionalism on the pitch, refusing to shake player’s hands because of disagreements on the pitch. While I can’t stand him a majority of the time, he is still just so incredible to watch. His hat trick against Red Star, including 2 delightful free kicks, was Neymar at his best. Even against Napoli, a game where he didn’t score or assist, he still managed to complete 13 dribbles and create 4 chances. He is arguably the most talented player in Europe. It is a shame he has a horrible way of showing it.