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Champions League

The Heroes and Zeros of the Champions League, feat. Chelsea and Liverpool



As it does every year, this season’s Champions League has impressed. Its quality, flair and controversy have entertained all football fans alike, neutral or not.

The competition that can combine the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is undoubtedly the undisputed Champion of club tournaments, and it will continue to be so.

But who will be the champion of the ultimate tournament this year? Who has excelled themselves, and who has fallen short? Let’s take a look at the over and under achievers of the latest edition of the Champions League.

Who got it right?

Juventus – By far the tournament’s greatest over-achiever. They are Italy’s first semi-finalists and now finalists since José Mourinho masterminded Inter Milan’s incredible win in 2010. It is not that they don’t have the capability within their ranks however; Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Carlos Tevez all of course have immense quality and are some of the best players in the world. But no-one expected them to get this far.

Massimiliano Allegri has changed Juvé’s style from a risky back three into a more solid back four, with full-backs Patrice Evra and Stephan Lichsteiner pushing on. The god, that is Pirlo, has anchored the defence impeccably, with Arturo Vidal, a rejuvenated Claudio Marchisio and an increasingly improving Pogba, supplementing the attack.

Against Madrid, Gareth Bale was non-existent, Ronaldo only managed a penalty, and Tevez’s partner Alvaro Morata came back to haunt his old side and exploit their defensive weaknesses. Allegri’s tactics are absolutely perfect.

Monaco – Yes they’ve got bags of money, but have they really got any world beaters? Their centre-forward played for Fulham last year. However, they got to the quarter-finals, only to be outdone by Juvé. Their defence has been unbelievable. They’ve conceded 26 goals in 36 games in Ligue 1 this season, and in all competitions they’ve amassed an unbelievable 28 clean sheets.

The partnership between Aymen Abdennour and Andrea Raggi has been impenetrable. Twin this with their quick counter attack, namely Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and Bernardo Silva. The French outfit takes a lot to beat, and so it proved; completely embarrassing Arsenal at the Emirates is one to remember.

Barcelona – Unbeatable. Neymar, Messi and Luis Suarez have to be one of the best front-threes to have ever played football. It’s intoxicating to see them play. Last week they made one of the best centre-halves in the world, Jerome Boateng, look mediocre. It’s hard, despite Juvé’s discipline at the back, to imagine that they’re going to be able to stop the South American spearhead.

Luis Enrique has not been afraid to leave Xavi on the bench, with Ivan Rakitic taking his place. But what seems to be different to last year under Gerardo Martino, is that Enrique can get the best out of them, that he is able to manufacture charisma, chemistry, class.

Who bottled it?

Liverpool – What I’m about to say is already pretty obvious. The money they spent in the summer in accordance to what they did this season just isn’t good enough. Simple as that. In comparison to the other Champions League groups, they were given a reasonable route into the knockout phase. Yes, they had Real Madrid, but they also had Ludogorets and Basel. A Bulgarian and Swiss team.  A loss and a draw to Basel and a draw against Ludogorets instantly threw out the good work that they put in a season before, and they weren’t even able to retain any sort of European dignity in the Europa League, as Demba Ba’s Besiktas sent them packing. A shame for Steven Gerrard really, but then football is unforgiving.

Napoli – Rafa Benitez’s men didn’t even make it to the group stages. Despite performing so well the season before, they were unable to see off Athletic Bilbao. However, unlike Liverpool, they have managed to retain some sort of dignity. They have reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, but really should have beaten the Dnipro to reach the final. With players like Gonzalo Higauín, Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik at Benitez’s disposal, they should’ve done a lot better.

Chelsea – A disappointing year for a manager who is normally so much more prolific in the Champions League. It’s Mourinho’s natural habitat. But the man who has won the tournament on two separate occasions failed to deliver, despite controlling the Premier League. Chelsea’s form in Europe over recent years has kept English sides in touch with the continent’s elite, but this year they were outdone by two headers from Thiago Silva and of course, David Luiz. Fate, like Morata, had its say here, too.

So, who’s going to win it?

I can’t look past Barcelona. Enrique has his side performing so cohesively that they seem impossible to beat. But who knows; Juvé have surprised us so far. One thing is for sure – the controversy will continue, as Luis Suarez lines up against Patrice Evra and Giorgio Chiellini.

Will is from Gloucestershire, England and is currently studying Sports Journalism at Staffordshire University. Will also has a WordPress blog called The Fallen Giants.

Champions League

Tottenham Hotspur 1-2 Juventus: Three talking points from Wembley

Tottenham bowed out of Europe against an experienced Juventus side.

Rob Meech



Photo: Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur crashed out of the Champions League after Juventus produced an inspired fightback to progress to the quarter-finals. The in-form Son Heung-min had put Spurs 3-2 ahead on aggregate shortly before the interval, but two goals in three second-half minutes changed the complexion of the tie.

First, Gonzalo Higuain stabbed home the equaliser before Paulo Dybala completed the comeback with a delicate finish. Harry Kane hit the post in the dying moments, but Spurs’ exit at the hands of last season’s runners-up was confirmed as they failed to score a second goal. Here are three talking points from Wembley Stadium..

Max Allegri outfoxes his Tottenham counterpart

So poor were Juventus in the first half that they were fortunate to be only one goal behind on the night and still in the tie. There was no indication of what was to come, as Max Allegri’s side transformed the match in the second period. At the final whistle, the Juve boss headed straight down the tunnel instead of venturing on to the pitch to celebrate with his players. But it was his tactical switch that paved the way for their victory.

With an hour on the clock, on came Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner, who injected much-needed pace and guile. The visitors changed formation and suddenly they were getting in between the lines, with Dybala becoming much more effective. Within minutes, Juve were 2-1 ahead and in their element. Once in front, they managed the game brilliantly and didn’t look like conceding. Mauricio Pochettino, who could only stand and watch it all unfold, had been outwitted by the master.

Future looks bright despite heartbreaking exit

Disappointment may be the overriding emotion for all involved at Tottenham right now, but once the dust has settled they should look back at their Champions League adventure with pride. For this was the season they arrived as a major force on the European stage. Victories over Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in a group they topped were huge fillips and evidence of their continued progress under Pochettino.

Spurs were unlucky to be drawn against a club of Juventus’ pedigree in the last 16 and it was the Italians’ knowhow that paid dividends in the heat of the battle. The hosts looked a little naive, but the experience will benefit them in the future. Tottenham are odds-on to finish in the top four and thereby qualify for the Champions League again next season. Should Pochettino be given the funds to invest in his squad this summer, the club’s fans can look forward to more nights under the spotlight.

In-form Son strikes again for Spurs

The South Korean, who was given the nod ahead of Erik Lamela in the starting line-up, vindicated his selection with the opening goal at Wembley. Son had already gone close to breaking the deadlock and was causing Andrea Barzagli all sorts of problems with his marauding runs. There was more than a touch of fortune about the goal, which rebounded off his left leg and wrong-footed veteran keeper Gianluigi Buffon, but it was no less than the Spurs forward deserved.

Son came close to levelling the tie in the latter stages but, ultimately, it was to be neither his nor Tottenham’s night. With 16 goals in all competitions this season, the 25-year-old is making a big impression. He was the home side’s most potent attacking force, upstaging both Kane and Dele Alli at Wembley. Son has finally established himself in the starting XI and Spurs fans will hope he can continue to ease the goalscoring burden on Kane.

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Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Chelsea held La Liga leaders Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Rob Meech



Photo: Reuters

Lionel Messi finally broke his goalscoring duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona the edge after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Messi had failed to score in eight previous attempts against the Blues, but he was not to be denied on this occasion as he cancelled out Willian’s 62nd-minute opener.

A Chelsea clean sheet would have been a massive boost ahead of a daunting trip to the Camp Nou next month.

However, Messi’s equaliser 15 minutes from time means Antonio Conte’s men face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s showpiece competition.

Here are three talking points from Stamford Bridge…

Conte’s tactical approach so nearly pays dividends

But for the fatal error that led to Messi’s leveller, Chelsea would be heading to Catalonia in three weeks’ time with a one-goal lead to protect.

That they came so close to victory is testament to Conte’s tactical nous, which stifled Barcelona while also allowing the home side to flourish.

As expected, the visitors dominated the ball throughout the encounter. However, they created precious few opportunities as Chelsea’s back line held firm.

Conte had resisted the temptation to start with an out-and-out striker, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud both named on the bench.

The fluid movement of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian caused more problems than Barcelona have been used to this season and the Blues’ second-half goal was a deserved one.

Heading into the second leg, Conte will need to devise another masterplan if Chelsea are to proceed to the last eight.

Third time lucky for impressive Willian

The tricky Brazilian has by no means been a regular for Chelsea this season.

But he was given the nod against Barcelona in a three-man attack that featured Hazard as a false number nine.

It’s a system Conte has favoured recently, but although it failed to get the best out of Hazard, the same could not be said about Willian.

He was Chelsea’s chief threat and, on another night, could have walked off with the match ball.

Willian twice hit the post in the first-half, showing great skill on each occasion to create space and leave Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.

Despite his misfortune, Willian was unbowed and he broke the deadlock with a pinpoint finish that raised the roof at Stamford Bridge.

It was a fitting reward for a top-class performance that highlighted his natural ability.

Surely he can’t be far away from cementing a regular spot in Conte’s starting XI?

Messi ends Chelsea goal drought to have decisive say

It is not often that British football fans get to see the little magician at such close quarters, so each time he arrives on these shores it is to be cherished.

Chelsea had a game-plan to nullify his influence and in the first half this worked superbly.

Although there were the usual sublime touches that we have come to expect, Messi was largely shackled by a solid rearguard display from Chelsea’s three-man central defence.

However, it only takes a side to switch off for a moment for the Argentinian to flex his muscles.

A misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose pull back enabled Messi to slide the ball past Thibaut Courtois.

Once the ball had arrived to him in the box, there was no doubting where it would nestle.

Messi’s exuberant celebrations underlined the importance of his equaliser in the context of the tie.

It could be the decisive moment.

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Champions League

Porto 0-5 Liverpool: Three talking points from Estádio do Dragão

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from Estádio do Dragão, as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool dismantled Champions League opponents Porto.

Rob Meech



Photo: Reuters

Sadio Mane plundered a hat-trick as Liverpool produced a five-star performance to thrash Porto and virtually seal their place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Mane opened the scoring on 25 minutes before adding two more in the second half which, coupled with goals from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, made it a hideously one-sided affair at the Estádio do Dragão.

Porto offered precious little resistance during the 90 minutes and were completely outclassed by a Liverpool side bursting with confidence.

The return leg at Anfield in three weeks’ time will be nothing more than a formality to confirm the Reds’ place in the last eight.

Here are three talking points, as Jurgen Klopp’s men sounded a warning to the European elite…

Mane emerges from the shadows of Salah and Firmino

Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’ has been a member short since Philippe Coutinho’s big-money switch to Barcelona in January.

But there has been no sign that the Reds’ form is suffering as a result. If anything, they look stronger by the game.

By his own high standards, Mane has had a relatively quiet campaign thus far and been overshadowed somewhat by the exploits of Salah and Firmino, both of whom were also on the scoresheet against Porto.

But the Senegalese forward returned to his dazzling best on the European stage to help Liverpool take total control of this last 16 tie.

Although he had a helping hand from the Porto keeper for his first goal, which really should have been stopped, Mane took his next two with great precision to round off a sensational evening for the visitors.

Klopp will be delighted that the former Southampton man proved to be so influential in arguably their most important game of the season.

Free-scoring Liverpool will take some stopping

It is not just Liverpool’s performances in the Champions League that have drawn widespread praise, but the amount of goals they have scored in the process.

No club have netted more than the Reds, with the five they bagged in their first knockout fixture since 2009 leapfrogging them above French giants Paris Saint-Germain.

It is now 28 goals in total for Klopp’s free-scoring charges, whose attacking weaponry proved too hot to handle for their Portuguese opponents.

As they showed against Sevilla in the group stage, Liverpool’s defensive frailties can sometimes undermine them.

And when, as expected, they line-up in the quarter-finals, they are likely to face a side with much more to offer in attack than Porto did.

However, new signing Virgil van Dijk, who made his Champions League debut for the Reds, should bring stability and leadership to the back line.

On this evidence, they look like viable contenders for the main prize.

Klopp’s reign is delivering the goods

When Klopp joined Liverpool in the autumn of 2015, many Liverpool supporters believed he would bring them immediate success.

The gregarious German is still yet to win silverware at Anfield, but there is no denying the club are taking significant strides forward under his management this season.

Some of the money they received from Barcelona for Coutinho has already been reinvested into the squad and more high-profile arrivals are likely to follow in future transfer windows.

Liverpool remain prone to suffering off-days against lesser opposition, perhaps more so than any of their main domestic rivals, but they possess the armoury to blow away teams of the highest quality.

Even Manchester City, the runaway Premier League leaders, recently succumbed to the Reds’ attacking might.

As always, the proof will come at the end of the season.

But under Klopp, Liverpool are playing an attractive brand of football that is illuminating Europe.

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