Liverpool join Portugal in Champions League winners; Spain, Simeone, Juve are crowned losers

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp embraces Darwin Nunez Credit: Alamy
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp embraces Darwin Nunez Credit: Alamy

Portuguese clubs are thriving but Spanish sides have reached a historic low. Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool have taken a welcome step back.

 

Winners

Portuguese clubs
Benfica and Porto are guaranteed safe passage and Sporting have retained absolute control over their fate with a game remaining.

Only four countries have ever had three or more representatives in a single season’s Champions League knockout stage. It is an achievement which England, Germany, Italy and Spain have taken for granted but Portugal stand on the brink of something special. Those three clubs do not see eye to eye but there should be mutual respect for such a ground-breaking accomplishment.

For a country which has its talent routinely snatched away, the Primeira Liga seems to have only grown stronger. Benfica sold Darwin Nunez, Everton, Gedson Fernandes, Pedro Pereira, Jota, Nuno Santos, Roman Yaremchuk and Carlos Vinicius, while loaning out many more and shedding some big names – Jan Vertonghen and Adel Taarabt – on free transfers. They reinvested less than half of the money they received in sales this summer back into the squad but their business has been phenomenal and the precursor to a 19-game unbeaten start.

Porto lost Fabio Vieira and Vitinha to the vultures but did not even manage to directly replace them in the market and after some early issues, Sergio Conceicao has rediscovered their inimitable grit and fighting spirit; they conceded six and scored only once in their first two games of this group stage, but have rebounded to concede no goals and score nine in the subsequent three.

Sporting might yet miss the party but their draw with Tottenham – while ultimately fortuitous given the stoppage-time VAR shenanigans – showcased their skill yet again. Given their most expensive signing of the summer was Wolves spare part Ruben Vinagre, a player immediately loaned out to Everton, it is no mystery why Ruben Amorim is attracting such admiring glances.

For three clubs from the same country to keep thriving on the continental scene in such adverse circumstances is healthy for the coefficient but also the perception of Portuguese football as a whole. They accept, acknowledge and embrace their combined role towards the bottom of the food chain, but that doesn’t mean they will let it hold them back.

 

Liverpool
Jurgen Klopp won’t make the mistake of considering it a turning point in this maze of a season, but Liverpool needed that.

They also seem to need to feel a sort of jeopardy. The switch to a diamond formation opened up spaces behind them and thoroughly exposed an undercooked Fabinho. But it gave Mo Salah a more central role with the chaotic foil that is Darwin Nunez, and represented a welcome risk from Klopp, who for some time has tried to mask Liverpool’s deficiencies instead of maximising their strengths.

“We could have lined up with that formation in a 4-3-3 but we decided to go more for a diamond,” said the German after the win. “The difference is not that big in possession but it keeps the strikers a bit more inside so we had no clear wingers and it opens up for the full-backs.

“You have to be really brave in the No.8 positions and the full-backs positions. We needed in the last line Van Dijk and Gomez.”

Klopp added that his players showed the wherewithal to work problems out “step by step during the game”, in terms of when his centre-halves had to cover for the full-backs to push higher and provide more width. The German then acknowledged that “when the other team is doing well, you have to get through it. And when you can take over, you have to take over.”

It all points to necessary growth from Liverpool: a brilliant team focusing on what they can do best, combining initiative with routine and welcoming the erraticism and volatility of a sport which cannot be controlled.

 

Napoli
Those two draws in the space of three days at the end of August are starting to look like a crisis. Napoli have won every other match this season bar those stalemates against Fiorentina and Lecce. Since the start of September their record is P12 W12 D0 L0 F35 A10.

No team has ever scored at least three goals in every fixture of a Champions League group stage but then few have been quite as brilliant and captivating as Luciano Spalletti’s Azzurri. Liverpool beware.

 

Trevoh Chalobah
In 31 starts for Chelsea, Trevoh Chalobah has never lost in normal or extra-time. His only defeats have both come on penalties to Liverpool in domestic finals – and he was substituted in the 106th minute of one while scoring in the shootout of the other.

Slightly weird that he doesn’t seem to be on the England radar really.

 

Xabi Alonso
The youngest Bayer Leverkusen starting XI in Champions League history, featuring a five-man defence in which 23-year-old Edmond Tapsoba was the senior member, as well as an attack of Callum Hudson-Odoi (21), Adam Hlozek (20) and Moussa Diaby (23), was led to a fine result by relative coaching novice Xabi Alonso.

The present – most likely out of Europe and one place above the Bundesliga relegation zone – is fairly glum, but the future might well be bright.

 

Edin Dzeko
His hatred for Viktoria Plzen has not dimmed, even at 36. Edin Dzeko scored his first goal against the Czech side in 2005 and notched his 11th and 12th a whole 17 years later. One of the most under-appreciated strikers of this generation has not scored more career goals against any other team.

 

Mario Gotze
It doesn’t feel particularly right for Mario Gotze to be the oldest outfielder in any team but that colour does actually suit him at Eintracht Frankfurt.

The German’s assist for Randal Kolo Muani was a perfect example of a player thinking at least one step ahead of everyone else on the pitch – both teammates and the opposition. Gotze’s first pass was wayward but he reacted to find a space in the Marseille area, dragging Leonardo Balerdi with him. The centre-half expected a shot or continuation of the run but Gotze instead cushioned the ball perfectly for Muani, completing a one-two that the Frankfurt striker did not anticipate but one he nevertheless welcomed with a fine finish, with Gotze the ultimate architect of the match-winning move.

 

Leipzig
In the last two and a half years, Leipzig have beaten Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, Manchester City and Real Madrid, reaching two European semi-finals in the process.

Those are solid foundations upon which to build a fearsome reputation, which Leipzig themselves will hope is carried by Christopher Nkunku. Beating Real keeps qualification in their hands and thus makes it less likely he will leave mid-season.

Have no doubt – and Real rotation or not – that was a seismic victory.

Chelsea target Christopher Nkunku celebrates his goal Credit: Alamy
Chelsea target Christopher Nkunku celebrates his goal Credit: Alamy

 

Milan
Not sure 4-0 should equal the biggest ever Champions League win of a team that has won the tournament seven times but there you go.

 

Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting
Now stands alone as the highest-scoring Eric in European Cup history, surpassing Cantona in suitable fashion with a goal against Barcelona.

 

Sevilla
To the Europa League they go.

 

Losers

Spanish clubs
It is the first time ever that three Spanish clubs have been knocked out in the Champions League group stage. At least they all have their finances in order and aren’t entirely dependent on the prize money.

 

Diego Simeone
Since losing the 2016 final on penalties, Atletico Madrid have won only four knockout ties in the Champions League. Three of those were over Premier League teams – Leicester in 2017, Liverpool in 2020 and Manchester United in 2022 – with the other coming against Bayer Leverkusen half a decade ago.

A home draw with the German side means that risible record will be extended into another campaign. Atletico knew they had to win to stand a chance of progressing from a presentable group but they never even managed to lead against a Leverkusen team under the guidance of Xabi Alonso in his fifth match in senior management.

Yannick Carrasco, scorer of the equalising penalty in that 2016 final, squandered the opportunity to keep Atletico’s hopes alive from 12 yards in added time. The blame may fall squarely on his shoulders but a team that has outscored only Rangers, Viktoria Plzen, Dinamo Zagreb, Celtic and Copenhagen in the Champions League this season makes the bed in which they must lie.

Giovanni Simeone alone has matched his father’s team’s attacking output of four goals so far in Europe in 2022/23.

The highest-paid coach in world football will know that is not good enough. There must come a point when a full and frank conversation is required to figure out whether he truly is the man to take Atletico forward. The decision to wait until the 86th minute before introducing skilful, unpredictable forward Joao Felix for rugged centre-half Jose Gimenez in a game Atletico had to win felt instructive.

Simeone referred to himself as “stubborn” in insisting he will “keep going” after what he described as his “hardest day” in charge after those two Champions League final defeats. Atletico feel further away from that stage than ever before and risk being left behind.

 

Barcelona
There are no levers left to pull, no loopholes to squeeze through. Barcelona must recognise their mistakes, pledge to learn from them and embark on a long and difficult journey instead of constantly seeking shortcuts.

Or director of football Mateu Alemany can blame “inexplicable refereeing decisions” and president Joan Laporta can suggest “you can’t blame the players or the coach for anything,” while fans chant ‘UEFA is a mafia’. That works too. Sure.

Without proper introspection there will be no growth and Barcelona will lock themselves in an infernal cycle of entitled finger-pointing, the escape from which grows more difficult with each game.

Xavi gambled on the present to address uncertainty over the future. That is the only way to describe throwing everything behind a window to sign Robert Lewandowski, Marcos Alonso, Hector Bellerin, Andreas Christensen, Raphinha and Franck Kessie, all of whom were aged between 25 and 33. This should be a team at or near its peak but when it comes up against any opposition outside of Spain’s malleable Davids, Barcelona is a Goliath in name and reputation alone.

Perhaps they will take their medicine in the Europa League this time but far more likely is that Barcelona continue to reject a necessary rebuild that would require ripping it all up and starting again, instead opting to stick a plaster over their leaky finances and shot squad.

 

Juventus
Three European Super League clubs have already been knocked out of this season’s Champions League (Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus). Two more failed to even qualify for the competition (Arsenal, Manchester United). Another two (Milan, Spurs) need a result in their final group game to advance.

In the latest damning year for a failing elite, Juventus still set the benchmark. Their last five Champions League eliminations have come at the hands of Ajax, Lyon, Porto, Villarreal and Benfica. Instead of trying to reform the game, Andrea Agnelli should probably just focus on helping The Old Lady cross roads they deem to be beneath them.

 

Rangers

“To compete in the Champions League, you need hundreds of millions. Otherwise you can’t compete. Look at Ajax, they sold players worth over £200million. Look at Liverpool as well. For us to compete with them, it’s too much to ask. We want to compete but we want to compete with the squad we have and the squad we’re capable of making.”

Giovanni van Bronckhorst delivered that rousing motivational speech after the first game of this European campaign, which Rangers lost 4-0. They have since shipped three, two, seven and three again with only one scored in response. Their current goal difference of -18 is tantalisingly close to the Champions League group stage record low of -22 and Ajax could give them another helping hand at Ibrox next week. What a mess.

 

Ajax
It might have been an idea not to sell your best centre-half (Lisandro Martinez), midfielder (Ryan Gravenberch), winger (Antony) and striker (Sebastien Haller) in the same transfer window, not to mention putting a rank novice (Alfred Schreuder) in charge of such delicate surgery of the spine.

For all the talk of the diminutive defender they sold to Manchester United being an aerial liability, Ajax remain laughably susceptible to crosses and corners. They started well enough but offered little of note at home in a must-win game after Salah’s opening goal. This is already the second-most goals they have ever conceded in an entire European Cup campaign, only one behind the 2012/13 season with Rangers at Ibrox still to play.

Take all that into account and bear in mind this was the oldest Champions League starting XI in their famous, proud history, and more than a little Dutch courage is needed to face the reality of their situation.

 

Salzburg
Sure, they hadn’t lost at home since February 2021, a run dating back 40 games. But Salzburg have drawn their last three matches in the Austrian Bundesliga and been held and now beaten in the Champions League this season at the Red Bull Arena, which clearly no longer gives them wings.

 

Club Brugge
Simon Mignolet has conceded at least four goals in five of his last nine Champions League games. He kept a clean sheet in the rest. That is the heritage of a man who once let in six against Stoke and props to Club Brugge for embracing that. If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best and all that. And that was certainly their worst.

 

Riyad Mahrez
Probably shouldn’t take any more penalties for a bit
.

 

Danylo Sikan
Mate.

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