Champions League groups decided 5/5 (2)

Champions League group stage is mostly decided. Only in three groups out of eight qualified teams for next phase have to be decided.

And there have been little surprises. Not in terms of game results but in terms of clubs progressing to knock-out stage.

In my first posts I gave my prediction and till now beside Ajax beating Benfica to second place in group E everything else is as expected. True, majority of them were no-brainer and many expected the same.

Group A

Champions League groups decided

Atletico Madrid 2 – 0 Monaco

Borussia Dortmund 0 – 0 Club Brugge

Standings:

Atletico Madrid 12

Borussia Dortmund 10

Club Brugge 5

Monaco 1

No surprises here regarding progression. Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund have secured knock-out stage with a game to spare however Monaco’s last place and overall season performances could hardly be predicted.

The French side are going thru hell also in domestic league and might even take advantage from lack of European games in the remainder of the season, beside the one left in group stages. If additional proof that this is one of those seasons was needed they got it in Madrid.

Atletico took immediate lead thanks to a deflected shot. Towards the end of the game Monaco got a chance to get back in it but Falcao missed a penalty. Probably still wouldn’t be enough to get anything from this match but at least it wouldn’t be another blow to already low team morale.

Club Brugge took advantage of Principality club crisis and secured Europa League competition. Given the opposition they couldn’t hope for more and should be happy with their achievement.

Last match will serve only to decide group winner. Dortmund needs a win in France combined with Atletico not winning in Belgium to climb in first place. But the Spanish side won’t let it happen.

Group B

PSV 1 – 2 Barcelona

Tottenham 1 – 0 Inter

Standings:

Barcelona 13

Tottenham 7

Inter 7

PSV Eindhoven 1

Champions League groups decided

No surprises in this group either. Tottenham complicated their qualification with severe lapses in Milan and Eindhoven. Therefore is obliged to match in Barcelona Inter’s result against PSV having an advantage on Italians in direct confrontation.

Hotspurs showed at Wembley that they can play it out against the Catalan club. But needs to be concrete.

Barcelona is blowing hot and cold and with no result imperative could be up for a surprise. PSV demonstrated that blaugrana offers you a lot of chances. However if you don’t take them they’ll punish you.

At the start I expected Spurs to secure promotion before their visit to Spain. They still have everything in their hands just that they chose the tougher path.

Internazionale collected the points more due to sheer persistence then quality football or anything else.

However at this point Inter’s chances of progression look better.

Group C

PSG 2 – 1 Liverpool

Napoli 3 – 1 Crvena Zvezda

Standings:

Napoli 9

PSG 8

Liverpool 6

FK Crvena Zvezda 4

The only group where everything is still open! Three clubs have a chance of progression to Champions League’s second phase, all of them could end up in Europa League and two of them can finish this seasons’ international run.

Every goal scored will have a massive impact and turn the standings on its head.

Interestingly till now nobody won on the road! However Liverpool’s away malaise is nothing short of incredible.

Having already visited all opponents the Reds accumulated a total of 0 points! Same as Crvena Zvezda!

Champions League groups decided

But even more worrying are the performances out-up during the visits. Except for a discrete showing in Belgrade where they had their fair share of chances to score, the only goal scored was a penalty in Paris.

Even that was a generous gift from Di Maria who brought down Mane on the edge oof the box when he wasn’t a direct threat to Buffon.

And even more interesting fact is that Liverpool suffered the greatest deficit while visiting the Serbian champions! In Neaples and Paris they lost by a single goal. In Belgrade they lost by 2 goals.

Anyhow the English side still has everything to play for! At Anfield they need to beat Napoli by 2 goals and will surely progress. Not the easiest task but Klopp’s men already proved they can come up with any result.

Napoli on the other hand, if fail to qualify will rue missed chances in Belgrade and in Paris! If Liverpool was hard to recognize on their travels Napoli played some decent football and should already be sure of progression. But they didn’t and now have to fight it till the last second of the last game in one of the hottest stadiums in Europe.

It’ll be a maturity test for a side lack in international pedigree that might cost them dearly.

Paris SG is still a step behind the best! Despite all economical power and investments made the last few years they still can’t establish themselves as a European force.

They managed somehow to secure 2 points against Napoli but performances have been average at best. Not to mention the one in Liverpool. There’s enough individual talent to hurt all kinds of opposition but still lacking authority to command the play when facing top continental clubs, particularly away.

Crvena Zvezda exceeded all expectation with 4 points up to now and still in with a chance to qualify for Europa League! To achieve that they’d have to win against PSG at home and Napoli to win against Liverpool.

Difficult scenario but in this group everything is possible judging what we saw till now!

Originally I predicted Napoli and Liverpool to advance but with the current situation that’s hardly an option.

Champions League groups decided

PSG most likely won’t allow additional surprises at the Marakana and I’m hoping for Napoli to progress. Just because of Ancelotti.

Group D

Porto 3 – 1 Schalke 04

Lokomotiv Moscow 2 – 0 Galatasaray

Standings:

Porto 13

Schalke 04 8

Galatasaray 4

Lokomotiv Moscow 3

Europa League spot is still possible for Galatasaray and Lokomotiv while Porto and Schalke already secured their places in Champions League’s second round.

The Turks are favorites to qualify not only for point advantage available but also because they play the decider at home. Beside that a better head-to-head record with Lokomotiv should be enough to earn third spot. In case point parity should occur.

Group E

AEK 0 – 2 Ajax

Bayern 5 – 1 Benfica

Standings:

Bayern Munich 13

Ajax 11

Benfica 4

AEK Athens 0

Champions League groups decided

Ajax took advantage of Bayern’s troubles to snatch a draw in Munich on match-day 2 and is still in with a chance to win the group. All they need to do is win against serial German champions in Amsterdam in group’s final match.

Two weeks ago it would seem fairly possible. However Bavarians dismantling of Benfica could be a sign of resurrection after a series of under-par performances and reported dressing room disharmony.

And even if the Dutch don’t succeed next round is already guaranteed thanks to Benfica’s lack of challenge.

Portuguese club earned Europa League qualification but they need to take a good look in the mirror. Last year’s disastrous international campaign ended with 0 points. This year they can only thank that AEK’s drawn with them. Otherwise it would be another win-less European participation.

I expected much more from them and in fact predicted them finishing behind Bayern. But performances shown indicate that they belong to European second tier at the moment.

Group F

Lyon 2 – 2 Manchester City

Hoffenheim 2 – 3 Shakhtar Doneck

Standings:

Manchester City 10

Lyon 7

Shakhtar Donetsk 5

Hoffenheim 3

In the 90th minute in Hoffenheim everything was decided. Lyon and Manchester City progress to second round and Shakhtar and Hoffe will fight it for the third place.

But then Taison scored the winner and earned Ukrainian side the chance to qualify! And to make it even more interesting, last game will be against direct promotion competitor.

Shakhtar will host Lyon in the final match and if they win second place is theirs! All other results will make the French side happy. Win imperative for Ukrainian champions but at least they’ll have home advantage in the deciding game.

Champions League groups decided

Nevertheless Lyon should some on top in this one.

Manchester City respected the odds and topped the group. In some scenarios the they could finish second which would potentially complicate the proceedings. However all group winners are hoping Citizens will not let it happen.

Despite domestic dominance City have found it very difficult to display similar authority in Europe. Even if not faced with any of the favorites or historical giants. Are Premier League clubs doing something very wrong? Or is Guardiola taking Champions League group stage very lightly?

It surely would be an interesting subject to examine.

Similarly to City also Hoffenfeim respected the expectations. Played some good football and proved a stern opposition but ultimately stumbled and gave away cheap points. It’ll serve as invaluable experience for the future but remain a huge regret!

They can still catch Europa League train but if the main condition to do that is winning at Etihad don’t bet your money on them.

Group G

Roma 0 – 2 Real Madrid

CSKA Moscow 1 – 2 Victoria Plzen

Standings:

Real Madrid 12

Roma 9

Viktoria Plzen 4

CSKA Moscow 4

Real Madrid somehow won in Rome and secured top spot no matter what happens on final match-day.

Watching first half in the Eternal city it’s unbelievable that defending champion managed to do so!

Roma was on the front foot, dictated the tempo, controlled the proceedings and missed a number of opportunities to take the lead. And even double it!

Under’s miss has became viral but beside that Roma had other possibilities which went unrealized.

Football doesn’t forgive and neither does Real in Champions League. Immediately after the break Italians made a mess of a simple situation and duly conceded.

Home side was in shock and visitors took advantage to extend the lead soon after and the Roman first place dreams were crushed.

Roma continue with giving away points in games they deserved better and Real continues with mediocre displays after embarassing weekend defeat. Solari can’t be please despite the win.

Champions League groups decided

It could been a great story; after Barcelona also Real suffers humiliation in Rome. But it wasn’t meant to be.   

Third place fight is wide open after Victoria came from behind and won in Moscow. On level points with CSKA and with a more favorable last match the Czech’s have a real possibility to grab EL spot.

Group H

Juventus 1 – 0 Valencia

Manchester United 1 – 0 Young Boys

Standings:

Juventus 12

Manchester United 10

Valencia 5

Young Boys 1

Routine victory for Juventus but first place not sealed yet due to black-out against Manchester United last time out.

And another United’s last gasp victory, this time against Swiss minnows, re-opened, theoretically, top spot question.

Mourinho seems to have more lives then a cat but I’m sure he’s slowly running out of them. His United doesn’t pose particular threat to Europe’s giants.

But second spot could be a very intriguing verdict because United would play against a group winner in the next phase.

And the opposition could be Porto!

Champions League groups decided

It would be one of life’s ironies if the club that lunched him at the top level would also “finish” his career…

Stories only Champions League can write!

Majority of spots have been assigned. Those which are still up for grabs will bring exciting games.

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Milan blows it, again 5/5 (2)

Milan blew it up right at the death. Again! So did Napoli and Roma but against significantly lesser opposition. Juventus and Inter duly took advantage of it.

Game of the round was played at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome with Milan visiting fellow Champions League hopefuls Lazio. All square at the end which leaves the rossoneri still without a win against higher standing club. This time at least they got something out of it.

Credit to Gattuso

A lot of clubs have injury problems but none more than Milan at the moment. First choice center backs, first back-up and basically the only playmaker on the sidelines. And to cap it all also star-striker suspended for the outburst against the referee last time out against Juventus.

Milan Gattuso

Only 4 players missing, you’d say, but it’s the back-bone of the team, the whole central line! The biggest issue is that Milan doesn’t have quality alternatives.

Juventus without Chiellini, Bonucci, Pjanić and Ronaldo can count on Benatia, Rugani, Bentancur and Dybala or Mandžukić to fill the void. Not exactly the same but not bad at all anyway.

Inter missing Škriniar, De Vrij, Brozović and Icardi would present Miranda, Ranocchia, Borja Valero and Lautaro Martinez. Still enough to compete in Serie A.

Gattuso reinvented the whole set-up and proposed a 3-4-3 formation with 1 natural central defender. Left- and right-back tightened it up and filled-up the central trio.

Borrini was preferred to Laxalt in the left-wing role with the Uruguayan perhaps playing the price for the error that led to Juve’s second goal two weeks ago.

Lazio vs Milan

With a decimated squad and emergency formation managed to take home a point from a direct competitor. Credit where is due!

Angry Gattuso? With who?

The interesting fact is that Milan didn’t make a single substitution during the whole game! Not even in the final minutes when leading by a single goal to steal some time and disrupt Lazio’s assault.

As far as I remember, similar behaviour had Fabio Capello when still in charge of Juventus just before Calciopoli in a European cup match.

Admittedly Gattuso’s options were limited, to say the least, however there were some changes he could made. There were some players that already participated in important matches waiting for their chance.

One is surely aforementioned Laxalt. Replacing off-from Calhanoglu and adding some bite and dynamism would be welcome.

The other is Castillejo. Coming on for Cutrone in the dying minutes just to steal a few seconds if nothing else could be useful.

If a manager like Mourinho would do something like that the message would be clear to his employers; I need more quality players!

But Ringhio isn’t like that. He doesn’t play mind-games with anybody. He’s a sincere, straight-forward person, perhaps too much occasionally.

Laxalt and Castillejo

Milan doesn’t have a roster to compete with the big boys, proven on different occasions. Everybody knows it and the manager probably said it loud and clear to people upstairs in private. Ergo reported deals for Paqueta and Ibrahimović are being finalized.

Being an emotional individual he’s probably angry at mentioned players, Laxalt and Castillejo. Or at least not happy with their contribution in the last outings.

Should that be the case the duo are in for a very intense and most likely long period of regaining manager’s faith. Wouldn’t want to be in their shoes…

Milan blew it, again

Against a strong rival in difficult circumstances and with an experimental starting eleven, Milan still had three points in their pocket right until the end. Maybe not entirely deserving but had the win.

However this season they just have to concede. Only Udinese didn’t hit their net this campaign in Italy’s top competition. All others did and so did Lazio. In the most dramatic of fashions with the last kick of the game after a half-cleared high ball in the box.

Correa goal

Just as in the city derby against Inter and earlier in the season against Atalanta.

True, Milan did beat Genoa and Udinese with last-gasp goals but those were games Gattuso’s men deserved to win. Getting points from Lazio, Inter and Atalanta, direct competitors, would also add weight to their bid for Euro places.

Inzaghi also dissatisfied?

Biancocelesti’s manager also made a move that raised a few eyebrows. Contrary to his counterpart he made all the substitutions however unexpected ones.

Midway thru the second half he called out Luiz Alberto and Sergej Milinković-Savić. Two most talented players of the team with the score still tied at 0-0.

The pair didn’t set the world on fire but weren’t as bad as they were on several other occasions either.

Playing Correa instead of Alberto seemed logical and made sense and eventually payed dividends.

However Lukaku for Sergej, left wing-back replacing an attacking midfielder when pushing for a win, was very surprising.

Gattuso and Inzaghi

Not a strange thing for Lazio to lose at home but this time they saved themselves.

Both teams got a point for their troubles and neither can be really pleased with it.

Juventus and Inter cruise

Juventus displayed typical performance; routine victory without breaking sweat. Never free-scoring but also rarely allowing opponents a sniff at goal. Calm, steady, always in control and consistent. Champions stuff!

Ronaldo

Inter got over their embarrassing result in Bergamo 2 weeks ago with a “walk i nthe park” against Frosinone. And discovered a new weapon in the process. Balde Keita showed glimpses of what he’s capable of win a brace.

Lautaro Martinez also opened his account in Serie A. After a fruitful pre-season finally managed a goal in the league and a lot more should follow if given the chance.

Napoli and Roma fail, again

It’s hard to think of better opposition to face before crucial Champions League matches the following week then Chievo Verona and Udinese. However Southern giants succeeded in not taking advantage of the calendar.

Ancelotti

Napoli usually made light weight of games like this. Lost to Sampdoria and Juventus and drew with Roma but against bottom half teams eventually got what they needed.

Slippery turf played in favor of the team that didn’t care too much where the ball ended as long as it’s away from goal however Chievo shouldn’t pose any kind of challenge to title hopefuls. Especially not his season!

With Juve seldom failing to get the result final triumph for Napoli, and everybody else for that matter, looks more and more unlikely.

However it’s hardly a big surprise for Roma. Roller-coaster campaign already brought some astonishing results and 4th domestic defeat. If you lose to Bologna and SPAL, why not doing the same with Udinese?

Di Francesco

Elsewhere

Gervinho-driven Parma continue to impress and hold on to Europa League place. Salvation remains primary objective but after a third of the season gone it’s fair to say that targets could be reinspected.

Similarly important win for Empoli in their relegation battle. Not as high on the standings as Parma but nevertheless capable of causing a few headaches to anybody.

Home supporters can be quite happy this round as no guests took a victory. Milan could and should but ultimately didn’t.

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Milan vs Juventus No ratings yet.

Milan proved again that doesn’t have the tools to compete with the big boys in Italy. Juventus won without breaking sweat.

AC Milan lost 3rd match in the league. All defeats came against clubs who supersede the rossoneri in the standing. If in the derby della Madonnina the points eluded them at the last minute, versus Juve it was clear from the beginning that they have little chance of success.

Milan not good enough

Similarly to the other big match played in England this weekend, the Manchester derby, it was in plain view that it’s a game between two completely different worlds. Not just in terms of talent and quality throughout the squad. The main difference is that Juve has a clear identity, style of play, game-plan and a manager in full control.

Milan is pretty much a work in progress with a new formation and a lot of question marks still open on the manager. Some think Gattuso has the potential and is on the right path. Others, me included, think that he’s still too green for a club of such international pedigree. Particularly on the tactical and game reading level.

Missing basically half of the team is a point that has to be taken into consideration when judging the performance however he could do more with what he had.

Ringhio doesn’t have Allegri’s abundance in talent. He doesn’t have a Bernardeschi or Costa on the bench. Wouldn’t dream to leave Bonucci or Rugani out of the starting eleven.

So he needs to get creative and innovative. And given the opposition faced on the weekend his team selection was as much forced as it was brave. Or naive.

Gattuso

Stopping Juve

The biggest mistake, for me, was to play a 4-4-2 with Suso out wide in the midfield. Don’t get me wrong, Suso in the driving creative force of the side and is essential to have any chance of winning however not as a wide midfielder against Juve.

Alex Sandro as his mirror is an attack-minded full-back. With Juve keeping possession and controlling the game you have to close all channels leading to your goal. Suso can’t guarantee you much needed defensive stability to contain Brazilian’s forward forays.

The opener is evident proof of that. Alex had all the time in the world to adjust the ball, carefully check the situation in the Milan box and serve a precise cross for Mandžukič to head home.

In that situation Abate was outnumbered and couldn’t risk closing down Alex Sandro while leaving Ronaldo unmarked.

Juve goal

It bothers me to say this but in a game like this Borrini, with his fighting spirit and endless energy, would be a better option in the wide position. Suso would be moved in a free role behind Higuain in place of a confused Castillejo.

Even if he made the mistake leading to the second goal, on the opposite flank Laxalt would be a better option than Calhanoglu. The Turk is extremely talented and certainly has a future at the club but he going thru a rough patch and isn’t contributing as expected in the attacking sense. Without the ball he’s putting in decent work-rate however Laxalt offers you more.

Flanks closed, and the middle?

With Bonucci on the bench the only play-making option for Juve was Pjanić and Suso would go on to follow the Bosnian closely and disturb his game. This would force one of bianconeri’s central defenders to initiate attacks. But neither Chiellini nor Benatia are as nearly comfortable on the ball as Milan’s former captain.

Bakayoko and Kessie are capable of matching Matuidi and Bentancur’s dynamism so there would be less passing options for Juve.

Dybala was floating around in search for space and not giving any reference points to Milan’s defenders. His movement as well as Ronaldo’s would have to be tracked by central defenders and one full back, depending on which side Juve’s attack is developing.  

In this way Milan would have greater stability in defensive phase and Juve would have to work much harder to get in behind the defensive line or earn clean crossing positions.

When in possession?

With Suso’s free and his natural tendency to start from the right and cut inside on his magical left foot, you pressure Juve’s left side of defence. With Borrini’s aid in dragging defender’s attention and Ronaldo not tracking back, Suso would have only Matuidi on his way.

Kessie supporting from the central role would keep Pjanić busy so he couldn’t offer Matuidi enough cover all the time.

The Frenchman is a beast in breaking-up play but in the course of 90 minutes the Spanish wizard would have it better at least a couple of times and thus possibility to create something.

Milan

Additionally, I’d instruct Suso to mirror Ronaldo’s movement and always stay on the same side in case the Portuguese superstar shifts to the right. In this way numerical advantage on that side would be gained with wide midfielders, Borrini or Laxalt, occupying respective defenders and full-backs offering always a safe passing option.

Everything would depend from one man however it’s the case anyhow. Relieving him from strict defensive duties and leaving him floating in the attacking third at will at least you put him in better conditions to hurt the opponent.

Higuain?

I believe he was aware that he’d see even less of the ball as did against Inter. It’s difficult to prevent Juve to isolate your striker.

Anyway Higuain is a world class striker and needs just half a chance to take his team in front.

Actually, even with Milan offering next to nothing in goal threat sense, Pipita had his opportunity. But he blew it.

Szczesny read former teammate’s intention and produced a great save from the penalty awarded for Benatia’s hand-ball.

Leveling just before half time would give Milan much needed confidence for the second period.

I’m sure Juve would won anyway but Higuain would not be expelled later on for an emotional outburst towards the referee. For a foul on in the middle of the park.

Higuain

What about Ronaldo?

Same old story. Played his own match in the match, never let shooting opportunity go by and eventually scored the all important second goal. The one ended all hopes Milan had of getting something out of this.

After some dreadful defending pounced on a loose ball in the heart of the box and finished expertly.

During the week he was cut short of his free-kick privileges and rightfully so. Juve have valid alternatives in Pjanić and Dybala and it’s their turn to show what are capable of.

What next for Milan?

Three indications give a proof, as it is said, so Milan has a lot of work to do to compete with the big guns.

With this squad they can win against smaller teams, as they’re doing this season. But to push for greater objectives a lot more quality in depth is needed.

And fix the conceding issue! Defensive organization is a big problem this season. Milan just can’t keep a clean sheet!

Elsewhere?

Milan can take some satisfaction from Inter’s result this weekend. The neroazzurri’s apathetic showing was no match to Atalanta’s dynamic display and the Bergamo outfit deservedly won 4-1. Apparently congested fixtures lately took a huge physiological and physical tally, particularly the double clash against Barcelona in Champions League, which culminated this weekend.

Atalanta

Napoli and Roma won respective matches to keep within touching distance from Juve. Lazio and Cagliari got a point from a tricky away games against Sassuolo and SPAL respectively.

Fiorentina lost 2 points right at the death to Frosinone and Empoli earned an important win against fellow salvation hopefuls Udinese.

Juventus almost allowed innocuous opposition to get back in the game, again, but this Milan side simply can’t come close to the serial champions. Neither in terms of player nor managerial quality.

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