Champions League verdict 5/5 (4)

Champions League group phase is over. Majority of the expectations and predictions have been respected however there were a lot of surprises also. But what can we expect in knock-out round?

Favourite’s performances

Favourite’s for final triumph have all passed the first obstacle. Very few of them impressed but ultimately achieved the first goal. 
Judging by what we saw till now there are only 2 teams respecting front-runner tag.

Barcelona

On paper second strongest group in competition’s first phase was group B where Barcelona faced Inter, Tottenham and PSV Eindhoven. Barca eventually secured top spot before game 6 even started which was expected. Inter’s challenging Tottenham for other progression spot was also predicted however lack of duo’s challenge to Spanish domination is a bit disappointing.

Champions League Valverde

Competition

Especially from Inter! In the double confrontation with Barcelona, the neroazzurri got a point out of possible 6 but hardly deserved even that. In both games Italians looked scared and rarely troubled the Catalan giants. Perhaps difference in class is too big however you’d expect at least a decent fight!

At times it looked as if Inter didn’t even count on any points against the blaugrana and just played because they have to.
Tottenham also got a point against Barcelona however in fairly different circumstances. Even if at Wembley Spanish representative won it was also due to a false start from the home side and individual errors. But the Spurs played some good, attacking football and even threatened to snitch something out of it.
True, Barca was going through a difficult spell beginning of October, however, Tottenham showed that they can fight it out against anybody.
In group’s last game Barca had little motivation but still managed to trouble the London outfit even with a backup starting eleven. The English side eventually got the needed result and it’s only fair that they progressed in front of Inter.

Champions league Messi

Barcelona displayed ruthlessness but also diminished Messi-dependance.
When the Argentine was absent Suarez took the responsibility to guide the attack and team forward. And delivered!
Coutinho occasionally showed why Barca splashed top-dollar for him and also Dembele provided glimpses of his talents.
Arthur slotted nicely in midfield, displayed quality and personality.
He’ll never be the next Iniesta but a reliable performer for years to come. With Rakitić, Busquets and Vidal completing the midfield first choices it’s another area without particular concern.

Weak points

Defence is another story! Catalans were never admired for defensive stability and it’s the team’s weak point.
The whole team has to defend, no doubt about that, but Barcelona conceded 5 goals in groups stage and nearly all of them were scored within a few meters from goal.
Last example was last night’s equalizer; Lucas was left all alone in the center of the area while 3 players were closing Kane. It can be argued that the result meant nothing to Barca but it happened for the umpteenth time.
Bad organization and communication! And apparent lack of concentration late in the game.
In the last 3 matches Barcelona allowed opposition to score in the last 10 minutes. 2 of those goals cost them 4 points. Nothing to worry about in terms of qualification, even if it wasn’t secured yet.
Certainly something to work on.

Juventus

Never mind the last group game Juventus showed impressive ability to win and dominate games.
When Juve wants and needs they deliver! Admittedly, group competition wasn’t of the highest caliber however until qualification wasn’t achieved quality, organization and strength in depth were demonstrated.
Manchester United managed to overturn the result in Turin in closing stages but those few minutes can’t outweigh everything good showed up to then and after that.

Champions league Allegri

Italian serial champions’ biggest advantage in strength in depth. For every position, there are a least 2 valuable alternatives! Starting from the goalkeeper, proceeding through defence, midfield and attack, quality all over the field!
But they also have one weak point! And that’s themselves!
Demonstration of that is internal defeat against Man Utd. Match completely dominated, chances created, everything under control however somehow managed to spurn it all in the final few minutes.
Anyway until Ronaldo, Dybala, Douglas Costa, Mandžukić et al are there you can never write them off.
Following other European heavyweights aren’t having the best of seasons, this is Juve’s great chance to finally get their hands on the ultimate prize.

Undecided

Manchester City

Guardiola assembled a fearsome squad and developed trademark playing style which has always brought results.
Nearly without competition in domestic league rightfully tipped as one of the candidates for final victory.
However, in international fixtures, things aren’t going as smoothly as you’d expect.

Champions league Guardiola

Opening day home defeat to Lyon followed by a last-gasp win in Germany against Hoffenheim exposed team’s weaknesses.
Apart from easy double wins against Shakhtar all other matches were perhaps too tight considering City’s squad and manager.
Without doubt nobody’s’ wish for the next round however considering group phase struggles, surely there is some hope.

Disappointments

Liverpool qualified from the toughest group, predictably on the last day with a dominant display, nevertheless hardly strikes fear in opponents! Particularly on the road!
Last season’s finalist seems unable to compete in international competitions as a visitor.
Ever since last April’s showing in Rome, through the final in Ukraine and this Autumn’s showings, Liverpool is a welcome guest.

Champions league Klopp

Not only in terms of result but also regarding personality and overall performances.
Up to a point understandable submissive outings in Paris and Naples but utterly disappointing game in Belgrade raises questions on the Reds’ actual strength and competitiveness!

Bayern Munich is the other giant, although qualified as group winner, who isn’t living up to its glorious past. At least in terms of performances!
A lot isn’t functioning as it should, Bundesliga standings show it clearly, but still, you’d expect more from such an experienced and talented group of players. 

Champions league Kovač

Possibly the amount of experience is one of the problems anyway this Bayern isn’t causing any sleepless nights to managers across Europe.

Real Madrid eventually topped group G but it’s miles away from the side that dominated Europe the last few years.
Besides the much publicized Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo departures, taking away 2 corner-stones of recent triumphs, the team lost its hunger for success! It’s visible in the so-called small games as in direct confrontations.

Champions league Solari

 It speaks loudly that CSKA Moscow ended this year’s European path victorious in Madrid. Out of 7 points gained in total, 6 of them came against European reigning champion.

Champions League proceedings

Next round’s draw will be held next week.

Group winners are seeded teams and can’t play each other in the round of 16. This also means that second, expectably deciding, game in the first knock-out round seeded teams play at home.

Additionally, teams from same countries can’t be paired. Those parameters can help us guess some of the possible clashes we’ll watch in February.

Seeded teams:
Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, Paris SG, Porto, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Juventus.

Other qualified:
Atletico Madrid, Tottenham, Liverpool, Schalke 04, Ajax, Lyon, Roma, Manchester United.

Potentially mouth-watering pairings could be Barcelona vs Liverpool, Real Madrid vs Manchester United or Juventus- Atletico Madrid.

Regular phase didn’t offer any stand-out candidate however crucial part is yet to start and everybody will have the chance to fight for it.

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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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Barcelona new low, Real on a high No ratings yet.

Barcelona roller-coaster season continues with a home defeat to mediocre Real Betis. Madrid giants took the opportunity to close the gap.

12th match-day in LaLiga brought a major surprise with the Andaluzian green and white claiming all spoils at Nou Camp.

Barcelona slump

Barcelona trouble

Home game against Betis had all the necessary ingredients for an easy, Barcelona-like goal difference boosting league match with a routine win.

Midweek point against Inter in Champions League that sealed the qualification to the next phase held the mood high. Messi’s return to action after the injury upped the atmosphere additionally. And the opponent had scored a solitary goal in previous 5 away games.

What can you expect in these circumstances? Total domination in a high scoring win.

In the end that’s exactly what happened however not to the hosts liking.

Right from the start it was clear that Barca can’t create as much as would have expected. Initial apparent supremacy was cut short by Betis goal.

Defensive frailty      

After 20 minutes, in which both sides created some interesting situations in opposition’s box, Betis took the lead. And naturally in the most predictable way – counter attack.

Junior Firpo entered the box from the left and cut in onto his right foot. Sergi Roberto, not a natural defender, tried to confront him and deny shooting space, if it can be said so. However the Brazilian found enough time and space to release a shot that left no chance to Ter Stegen.

Betis celebration

If he was cutting inside you’d expect one of the center back’s to be there to watch Sergi’s back. Well, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Admittedly, Barcelona’s right back didn’t cover himself with glory on the occasion anyway some kind of back-up should be there.

Firstly, because it has to. Following defensive basics, every player has to have somebody covering his back.

Secondly, the nearest Firpo’s teammate was some 20 to 25 meters away! And between them, beside Sergi, 4(!) other Barcelona players. Four! Chasing shadows. Taking a rest. Not sure what were they doing, but surely they were not defending.

Catalan pride was never known for their defending and fans are used to see similar scenes. Therefore probably weren’t too much concerned especially as soon after had a close range sitter saved by Pau Lopez in visitor’s goal. Our time is here, probably crossed their mind.

Barca team most likely believed the same as stubbornly refused to defend!

Not an accident

Pique

As if trailing by a goal wasn’t enough of a challenge for them, the hosts time and again allowed too much space for the opposition to thrive in. Subsequent warning shots weren’t taken seriously and Betis duly doubled their advantage.

This time they didn’t even bother to pose any kind of resistance! Joaquin was left undisturbed to slot into an empty net some 6-7 meters from goal.

If Lenglet and Jordi Alba at least pretended to mark somebody, Pique and Sergi Roberto didn’t bother even that much to at least fake it.

They did, however, learn the lesson from the first goal and watched each others back. Shame that the threat was coming from somewhere else…

After the break Barcelona went all out attack and eventually scored, courtesy of a gifted penalty by Betis defence, who until that point looked very tight and organized.

Game back on, you’d think! But since blaugrana apparently decided that won’t do any sort of defending in this game the goalkeeper shouldn’t be any exception. It was a rare mistake by the usually very dependable shot-stopper.

And to make things worst the goal came only a couple of minutes after Barcelona reduced the deficit. 71st minute, 1-3, but still a lot to come.

Till the last minute lack of the very minimum of concentration and attention on both sides helped to make it an entertaining, high-scoring and dramatic match.

Messi not enough

Messi scored two goals, had a few of trademark runs throughout the match and some decent shots but even he can’t make up for a collective black-out.

Messi vs Betis

One of the stand-out members of the team and Catalonia in general, Pique, had a lapse of concentration that lasted for some 95 minutes. On several occasions was recalled from the manager but ultimately didn’t help.

Barcelona’s performances and particularly results this season oscillate from great, like the mauling of Real Madrid and Inter, to ridiculous, like defeats to Leganes and Betis.

Since it’s not an isolated incident it makes you wonder what to expect when the crucial part of the season arrives. What kind of Barcelona will we see against top European sides in international competition and in domestic season-defining trips to Madrid?

Betis will cherish the 3-4 victory in one of the most iconic stadiums in the world for a very long time. And rightfully so.

Real Madrid’s resurrection

Benzema scoring

Since Santi Solari took over the reins Real Madrid started to score goals and stopped conceding them. True, opposition faced in the last few weeks was far from world class but in September and October anyone could take the famous scalp.

This weekend’s trip to Vigo was pointed out as the trickiest fixture at the beginning of the short tenure.

But since Benzema remembered that he’s a top notch striker and found his shooting boots, Celta couldn’t prove too big of an obstacle.

Even if in the end the hosts had more possession and provided some attacking threat Real’s win was just and deserved.

Solari has been offered to guide the team further on, as expected, due to result  tendency overturned and lack of quality alternatives. Hopefully he’ll make the best of it and build a reputation as a manager. But don’t expect any Zidane effect.

Catching up

After the disastrous clasico defeat title challenge looked unrealistic. Both in terms of performances and point gap.

However, if Real continues to improve his game and Barcelona keeps blowing hot and cold we could be in for a very interesting season.

Solari satisfied

Especially with Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, both winning by minimal margin this weekend, not giving up.

And Deportivo Alaves and Espanyol still hanging in there. Surely not title contenders but potential party-breakers for somebody.

Elsewhere

Surprises also elsewhere, beside in Barcelona, as Valencia, 4th Spanish team in the CL this season, won away to Getafe. Strange to hear, I agree, but it’s only second league victory for Los Che.

Somewhat expected visitor’s triumph in Valencia where Real Sociedad, best league record on the road, won against high-flying Levante. The Valencia outfit, nicknamed the frogs, have an indifferent home record but still sit in 8th place with just 3 point shy of Real Madrid.

Barcelona’s lack of defensive stability this season has been one of the talking points. If they don’t find a solution quickly Madrid giants and possibly also Sevilla will soon overtake the lead.

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