One club is letting Portugal down and Kostas Tsimikas deserves a Liverpool chance. But it was a bad week for Allegri/Conte/Simeone sufferball.
“Maybe it’s not an upset if we do everything so well?” pondered Carl Hoefkens. The former Stoke and West Brom right-back is naturally no stranger to perturbing apple carts but bloodying Championship noses pales in comparison to leaving European royalty with black eyes.
Porto are not the power they once were but this is a team that has reached the Champions League group stages as a minimum in 26 out of 31 seasons since the competition’s rebrand. They are knockout stage regulars; only once has a Belgian club made the last 16 and it was at that precise hurdle that Gent fell in 2016.
Club Brugge might yet stumble but what they have achieved so far is remarkable. As impressive as the opening victory over Leverkusen was, putting four past Porto represented a landmark moment. The champions of 2004 were stunned and frankly not at all ready for the ferocious energy and diligent organisation of Hoefkens’ men.
The Belgian champions have plundered 14 goals since they last conceded, with Ferran Jutgla excelling since his summer move from Barcelona. At 23, he was the oldest of the four scorers, Antonio Nusa crowning the victory by becoming the second-youngest player to net on their Champions League debut.
Even after selling their star in Charles De Ketelaere, The Farmers are making hay while the sun shines in a group seemingly intent on underestimating them. These are upsets based on reputation but things are going entirely with the run of Brugge’s brilliance so far.
It is not difficult to see how Ruben Amorim has nudged his way onto the communal shortlist of Premier League manager targets.
Chelsea considered his candidacy before appointing Graham Potter and Manchester United have closely reviewed his credentials over the last year, with both intent on righting recent wrongs by identifying their legacy leader.
Amorim ticks a ludicrous number of boxes as a 37-year-old league winner with four further trophies to his name as coach, as well as an ever-expanding continental education. Sporting have never reached the knockout stages of the European Cup in consecutive seasons but two wins without conceding, before a double header against the weakest team in the group, puts them in firm control of their destiny.
Against Tottenham, Sporting put the fun in functional. They were obdurate and industrious in defence without sacrificing anything in attack. The overlapping runs, meticulous build-up, ambitious wing play and constant movement bore all the hallmarks of a phenomenally coached side.
It did Amorim’s standing no harm that the two last-gasp goals were scored by his substitutes. Paulinho broke Tottenham hearts a quarter of an hour after coming on; Artur Gomes took barely a minute to plunge the knife deeper.
With a spine built around Premier League cast-offs such as Sebastian Coates, Pedro Porro, Francisco Trincao and the insatiable Marcus Edwards, Sporting are thriving. The near £10m they paid Braga to take Amorim in March 2020 was a spectacular gamble and remains one of the biggest compensation fees ever spent on a manager. It would likely take two or three times that amount to procure him from Lisbon now.
It was by design that no player had more shots in the game between Liverpool and Ajax than either Virgil van Dijk or Joel Matip. Their prominence in attack coincided with the emergence of Kostas Tsimikas on the left to great effect.
Thiago Alcantara inevitably hoarded the plaudits and Diogo Jota received his flowers for an influential turn at centre-forward, but the impact of Tsimikas was perhaps more instructive. Those two players, if not guaranteed starters, can consider themselves relative regulars in a team that needs to constantly rotate.
In the case of Tsimikas, he is almost too well-defined as a back-up, the undeniable understudy to Andy Robertson. And perhaps it is time that role was reviewed.
Ajax had no joy down his left-hand side and summarily failed to deal with the quality of his set-pieces. Not only does Tsimikas maintain the high standard Robertson once set, he fits into the system seamlessly on a restricted diet of minutes.
The Greek was excellent at either end and it would benefit both him and Robertson to be rewarded with an extended run. Tsimikas has never started more than three consecutive games for Liverpool and that ought to change soon.
Schmidt happens. Benfica have started a remarkable campaign with 12 consecutive victories and a first win in Italy since 1997, having conceded the opener after four minutes, might be the most impressive of the lot.
Benfica did not waver after that Arkadiusz Milik header. Rafa Silva hit the post, Antonio Silva shackled Dusan Vlahovic and Juventus keeper Mattia Perin was the hosts’ best player.
Joao Mario’s penalty and a well-taken David Neres finish were fair reflections on a game Benfica largely controlled. They had the majority of possession in Turin and eight more shots than Juventus.
It bears repeating that this is a team which generated well over £100m in player sales this summer. The aforementioned Roger also replaced Jorge Jesus as manager and has now lost just once in a 34-game run since February across spells with the Eagles and PSV. The curse might have been lifted.
Two key contributions, without which Bayer Leverkusen would not have won. Callum Hudson-Odoi showcased his diverse skillset to unlock and decide the game against Atletico Madrid.
His perfectly-weighted lofted pass with the weaker foot played Jeremie Frimpong in to assist Robert Andrich’s opener, before Hudson-Odoi led a scintillating counter-attack three minutes later, sitting Mario Hermoso down with those quick feet before setting up Frimpong again to cross impeccably for Moussa Diaby. Germany really could be the perfect place for Hudson-Odoi.
That is certainly the case for Jamal Musiala. It was during negotiations over Hudson-Odoi that Bayern registered an interest in the fellow Chelsea academy product. The Bundesliga giants established and maintained that line of contact, ultimately using it to procure an 18-year-old Musiala from Stamford Bridge for a six-figure compensation fee.
In the three years since, both their foresight and Musiala’s convictions have been justified. He is a bona fide regular at the one of the best clubs in the world and proved against Barcelona that he can make the difference on the sort of grand stages which bely his inexperience. That run and pass to set up Leroy Sane’s decisive goal was exquisite.
A disappointing draw considering their relative dominance, but looking at the list of away teams beaten by Shakhtar in the Champions League since Celtic lost to the Ukrainians in 2007 offers some important perspective: Real Madrid, Roma, Napoli, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Take that point and run.
Both of the youngest starting XIs named in the Champions League so far this campaign have belonged to Salzburg, who also possess the youngest manager in this season’s competition. Matthias Jaissle was born after two of the players in the teams at Stamford Bridge, including his own left-back.
It is little wonder Chelsea are looking at sporting director Cristoph Freund. “The new owners are interested in how we do things with young players, how we integrate them into the first team,” he said recently. There are few better clubs to learn from right now.
A first European Cup win since beating Rangers 6-3 in the second leg of the 1960 semi-finals. That’s a lot of years of hurt.
“Fuck’s sake, mate” – Jude Bellingham, 2022.
While Benfica, Sporting and Braga all have perfect records in Europe so far this season, Porto are letting the side down drastically. Losing to Atletico Madrid in their opening fixture was careless. Being beaten 4-0 at home to Club Brugge was close to unforgiveable.
Tensions are running high at the Estadio do Dragao. That does not even vaguely excuse the sort of behaviour which saw manager Sergio Conceicao have his car, containing his wife and two sons, attacked with stones by supporters in the aftermath of another defeat.
But it does sum up the volatile existence of a selling club which overlooks one of the key facets to that role: reinvestment.
Porto sold key figures in Fabio Vieira and Vitinha this summer, having lost Luis Diaz and Jesus Corona in January. Their only signings of 2022 were the permanent acquisition of loanee Stephen Eustaquio, the arrival of centre-half David Carmo and the combined £20m gamble on untested Brazilian forwards Galeno and Gabriel Veron.
It was not close to enough for a team at least a full-back and central midfielder short. But in truth no degree of transfer inspiration could have cajoled a performance out of that insipid, lethargic Porto team. It should shame them that a team with a fraction of their resources and prestige are able to beat them at all, never mind with such ease.
The Juventus manager has a solid record in the Champions League. From 96 games he has won 44, drawn 26 and lost 26, scoring 130 goals and conceding 98.
But since losing the 2017 final his continental touch has faltered. Young Boys, Ajax, Villarreal and now Benfica have all beaten Allegri’s Juventus in Europe’s premier competition in the subsequent five years and his recent form is a far less impressive P30 W15 D5 L10 F42 A34.
For the European Super League architects to not beat Sampdoria, Roma, Fiorentina, Salernitana or Benfica in their first eight games of the season is cause for embarrassment and a series of bad Andrea Agnelli decisions are coming home to roost in the worst, most boring way possible.
For an elite manager with spells across three clubs who have all reached a major European final in the last three years, winning 13 and losing 12 of 36 games in the Champions League is a pretty atrocious asterisk on an otherwise impeccable CV.
The solution could start with a rest for Heung-min Son. The last time he registered an xG and xA of 0 in a game he started was November. Something clearly isn’t right.
Therein lies the danger of perennially walking that tightrope. Atletico Madrid turned one point into three with two stoppage-time goals against Porto, but a draw soon became defeat to Bayer Leverkusen with the concession of two goals in the last six minutes.
Diego Simeone keeps these games tight and compact by design but like any other tactic, it is far from infallible. He and his players know the taste of their own medicine well enough by now; that doesn’t make it any more palatable.
Barcelona’s Chelsea-inspired defence
Marcos Alonso was marking thin air as Lucas Hernandez scored the opener. Andreas Christensen was laughably impotent in the face of Jamal Musiala and Leroy Sane. Jules Kounde was about as useful as when Barcelona couldn’t register him. Maybe copying Chelsea’s scouting homework isn’t foolproof.
Imagine if they got their own way and took Chelsea’s captain this summer too. Cesar Azpilicueta scored the first goal of the Thomas Tuchel era but was chiefly responsible for the concession of an effort which keeps their qualification status uncertain.
It was a mixed start for Graham Potter but one which might have confirmed Azpilicueta has no business as a regular starter in this team any longer. Obvious shortcomings can generally be accepted and accounted for but Salzburg’s goal had little to do with his lack of pace or athleticism. It was a simple yet effective bit of movement from Noah Okafor to attract and meet Junior Adamu’s low and perceptive cross and Azpilicueta was beaten by the time he glanced over his shoulder.
The Spaniard made the second-most appearances of any Chelsea player during the Tuchel regime. Potter spoke of the need to lean on experience but it is difficult to see a place for Azpilicueta beyond the new manager’s opening game.
It is genuinely quite impressive to lose 16 of 17 Champions League games over the course of a decade under five different managers.
They are not very good. And this ploy to sneak into the Europa League isn’t even working: Copenhagen are third in the group.
No longer the scorer of the penultimate Champions League goal for Maccabi Haifa.
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