The Champions League rumbled on this week. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Matchday 5 in Europe’s premier club competition.
Now what, Joan?
Joan Laporta’s big gamble didn’t pay off.
In pulling the infamous economic “levers” over the summer to inject immediate cash into the debt-ridden club, the outspoken Barcelona president tried to reassure anyone willing to listen that, actually, forfeiting long-term assets for short-term gain wasn’t unwise. The influx of capital and lavish spending – over €150 million on a variety of star players – was worth the risk because it would immediately bring Barcelona back to the top, he said. Success on the pitch would beget success in the financial accounts.
A few short months later, and Barcelona, despite their expensively rebuilt squad, failed to reach the Champions League knockout stages for the second consecutive season. They were eliminated, officially, by virtue of Inter Milan’s 4-0 win over Viktoria Plzen early on Wednesday. Their match against Bayern Munich was ultimately moot. They lost 3-0, for good measure.
It’s believed Laporta and his fellow executives budgeted for a run to the quarterfinals, at least. Failure to meet that expectation will cost the club around €20 million. It’s true that, in a roundabout way, they’ll save some money now; Barca won’t have to pay their players any Champions League bonuses. They can also recoup funds by progressing in the Europa League, both through matchday ticket sales and performance bonuses. Every last penny counts at Barcelona right now.
On-field failure wasn’t an option for Barca this season. Now that it’s here, what comes next?
Ugly numbers for Barcelona
With sections of the Camp Nou left barren after home fans departed early with Barcelona trailing in the first half against Bayern Munich, Xavi’s reeling side limped to the finish line of their penultimate Champions League game.
Here are some notable numbers from a Champions League campaign to forget for Barca.
2 – Last year was a wake-up call. But this year’s early exit from the Champions League is going to sting for a long time. Along with exiting the tournament in the group stage in back-to-back seasons for the first time, the consequences of another Champions League nightmare could prove devastating.
3 – For some, Barcelona’s struggles in Europe were predictable. After Lionel Messi departed, of course, a dip in form was to be expected. But few could have foreseen just how bad things would get, as Barcelona have only managed three group stage wins in the two seasons since their all-time leading scorer left for Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2021.
7 – Barcelona were not only perennial favorites to progress out of the group stage, they were usually favorites to win the whole tournament. But those days are long gone, as it’s been almost a decade since Barcelona last won the Champions League in 2015.
9 – Hopes of a miracle victory against Bayern Munich lasted nine minutes and three seconds, as the German club pounced out of the gates against a Barca side that looked defeated from the opening whistle. Things only got worse from there, as Sadio Mane’s opener set the tone for a comfortable 3-0 Bayern victory.
13 – It wasn’t always like this. Not long ago, Barcelona were a sure bet to qualify for the knockout rounds after they set the Champions League record with 13 successive first-place finishes in the group stage from 2007-08 to 2019-20.
189 – After arriving at the Camp Nou in a blockbuster transfer from Leeds United last summer, Raphinha did little to live up to his £50-million transfer fee in the Champions League after going 189 minutes without a goal or an assist.
Dimarco on the rise
Federico Dimarco has made the left flank his own for Inter Milan.
Coming into the season, there was genuine debate – bordering on concern – over who would inherit the left wing-back position that Ivan Perisic vacated when he left for Tottenham on a free transfer. Dimarco faced competition from Robin Gosens, who was signed in January, while the versatile Matteo Darmian has spent time on the left side throughout his career, too. Competition was fierce for a spot in Simone Inzaghi’s starting XI.
Fast forward, and there’s no longer any debate. Dimarco, 24, is firmly entrenched as the starter, while there’s talk of Gosens leaving the club in the upcoming transfer window. The Italian showed why on Wednesday, putting forth another indefatigable display complete with incisive passing in the final third, pinpoint crosses from the left wing, and wicked delivery from set pieces. Dimarco, who honed his craft while on loan at Hellas Verona, was everywhere in the 4-0 win over Viktoria Plzen, crafting a team-leading five key passes and setting up a goal for the perennially underrated Edin Dzeko.
It’s no surprise that Dimarco has recently garnered more opportunities for the Italian national team, too. The Milan native is flourishing.
Desperation and desolation for Atleti
Imploring Atletico Madrid to all-out attack is like asking a sloth to sprint. It’s not really in their nature.
So, when it happens, it looks exactly how you’d expect a Diego Simeone team to attack: Shots are viciously drilled into crowds, crosses are launched in hope rather than design, and brawls ensue with opposition defenders. And, of course, Joao Felix sits on the bench until there’s little time for him to influence the game.
It’s an ugly – yet, admittedly in this case, entertaining – spectacle.
A penalty save, crossbar, and accidental goal-line block from Yannick Carrasco in the 99th minute denied Atletico Madrid a 3-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen that would’ve kept their hopes of progressing to the knockout rounds alive. But in truth, this group campaign was lost in the weeks prior to Matchday 5.
The financial finagling that resulted in Antoine Griezmann playing reduced minutes over the opening two months of the season unsettled the strikeforce and should take some blame for Carrasco’s sublime first-half strike being their first goal in the competition for 291 minutes. In fact, Griezmann’s 100th-minute header against FC Porto in their group opener was the high point of Atleti’s campaign, but it was followed by a pitiful return of two points from four matches.
Club Brugge’s excellent performance in Group B was unexpected, but there’s no denying that this continental jaunt was an abject failure for Atletico Madrid. They were lucky to last five matches.
Bayern hitting their stride
Since throwing away a late lead and settling for a 2-2 draw in Der Klassiker earlier this month – a performance that honorary club president Uli Hoeness blasted as “not Bayern-like” – the Bavarian club has been on a tear.
Wednesday’s 3-0 win over a beleaguered Barcelona was their fifth straight in all competitions. They’ve scored 19 goals in that stretch.
Bayern toyed with Barca for large spells of their victory at the Camp Nou. They didn’t need to up the ante, having already qualified, but the overwhelming sense was clear: If they really wanted to, Bayern would have blown Barcelona away. We’ve seen it before, after all.
This was a team playing without Leroy Sane, Lucas Hernandez, or Manuel Neuer. It can still get even better. That’s a terrifying prospect.
Julian Nagelsmann has been questioned by outside sources at various points this season. But the Bayern brass has always stood by him. They have a clear vision and structure in place, and it’s paying dividends. There’s plenty more to come as the perennial contenders head into the last 16.
Conte can’t blame VAR this time
For just a few short seconds, Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte broke away from his diatribe against video assistant referees to address the way his team performed in the first half against Sporting CP on Wednesday. “We played with low intensity,” he told reporters. “Sporting deserved (to be) 1-0 up.”
Conte quickly went back to hammering the referees, going as far as suggesting they treat Tottenham differently from other top teams.
He was angry the officials ruled Harry Kane’s 95th-minute goal offside. But replays showed the call was correct. Conte was red-carded when he stormed onto the pitch to contest the decision. He and his assistants pleaded their innocence. Conte said the referee singled him out.
But why did Tottenham need a last-minute goal in the first place? Why does Conte have such little confidence in his team’s ability to advance with a win over Marseille next week?
Booed off the field at halftime, Tottenham showed absolutely no vigor or drive in the opening 45 minutes. They looked just as limp in previous matches against Newcastle United and Manchester United. Their soulless first-half display, not the referees’ ultimately justified decision, jeopardized their continued progress in the Champions League.
Spurs played with a lot more energy in the second half but missed a number of chances. It took a set piece just to get back into the game. Hugo Lloris had to make a couple more saves to keep the score tied.
Conte’s team has played poorly for two weeks now. That’s what should really concern the Italian coach.
Here are the main talking points from Tuesday’s matches …
Unbeaten Potter still has work to do
It took a moment of magic to lift Chelsea into the round of 16, with Kai Havertz popping up out of nowhere Tuesday to add another crucial Champions League goal to his resume.
However, before Havertz broke the deadlock and eased concerns with one swing of his boot, there was legitimate concern that Chelsea’s dominating performance would go unrewarded. The same old issues in attack that plagued Thomas Tuchel near the end of the German manager’s reign as Chelsea manager seemed alive and well in the team Graham Potter inherited in early September.
Chelsea dictated the tempo throughout the contest but repeatedly came up short in the final third. And it wasn’t for a lack of chances – Potter’s men produced one of their most dominating halves under the English coach, slicing through Red Bull Salzburg’s defense effortlessly in the first half with slick passing and constant movement that made them difficult to mark.
In all fairness, Salzburg ‘keeper Philipp Kohn was a major factor in containing Chelsea, making several important stops. But the Blues’ end product on many occasions just wasn’t good enough – especially for the caliber of stars that they have on the payroll. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, for one, had a day to forget. The ex-Arsenal star continued to look conflicted in front of goal on an evening in which he should’ve scored at least two goals by halftime.
Despite the headaches, Chelsea left Austria with three points against a Salzburg side that hadn’t tasted defeat at home since February 2021 – a run of 40 matches unbeaten. And while Potter will be encouraged after his side extended its unbeaten run to nine games under his leadership, the English manager will need to solve what’s plaguing his attack if Chelsea are to mount a realistic run at the Champions League title in 2023.
Milan slowly finding their footing
AC Milan didn’t exactly get a free ride to start the season. Injuries to key players, including star goalkeeper Mike Maignan and club captain Davide Calabria, disrupted their rhythm. Summer signings Divock Origi and Charles De Ketelaere struggled to make any early impact. Questionable refereeing threatened to block their progress to the knockout round of the Champions League for the first time in nearly a decade. The reigning Serie A champions quickly learned they’d have to prove themselves all over again.
And that’s what the Rossoneri are doing. They’re just three points behind first-placed Napoli in the Serie A standings, and after Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb, they only need a point next week against Salzburg to advance to the round of 16 in the Champions League.
Their performance in Zagreb was as convincing as it was necessary. After losing back-to-back games to Chelsea – and conceding five goals in the process – Milan needed a strong showing to claw their way back into contention in Group E. Despite having only played on a handful of occasions this season, center-backs Simon Kjaer and Matteo Gabbia combined to clear their lines and block shooting lanes. Gabbia even scored his first goal for his boyhood club. Backup ‘keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu made all the saves he needed to make, and Rafael Leao created enough chances to double the final score.
Zagreb hadn’t lost at home in 31 matches. Milan made them look like they hadn’t won at home in 31 matches.
Now on a three-game winning streak of its own – its longest of the season to date – Stefano Pioli’s side has powered through weeks of adversity and achieved a level of consistency few thought it could attain with several starters out injured.
Ake earning respect at City
Nathan Ake didn’t have much luck in his first two years at Manchester City. He suffered an injury each time he appeared set for a run of games, restricting him to starting just a quarter of the matches across two Premier League campaigns. And when the big fixtures arrived, Pep Guardiola – a manager who appreciates balance in the middle of defense – would pick two right-footers rather than select the left-footed Ake.
How times change. In recent weeks, Manuel Akanji and Joao Cancelo have tired during games while John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, and Kyle Walker dealt with injuries. Ake, on the other hand, is the fittest defender in Guardiola’s throng and has become so reliable that he was picked ahead of Ruben Dias for the Manchester derby earlier in October.
“We need a right foot and a left foot,” Guardiola explained after the 6-3 win over Manchester United. Ake has won his boss’ faith.
Borussia Dortmund were dangerous down the right flank during the first half of Tuesday’s 0-0 draw, but City’s biggest weakness on that side wasn’t Ake – it was Cancelo, who’s lost form in recent matches. Cancelo was substituted, and Ake was moved to left-back at halftime, becoming more influential as the game went on.
What Guardiola likely admires most about Ake is his gait – his back is straight and his head is raised while he strides, always aware of what’s going on around him – and his ability to skim well-weighted balls to the midfielders’ feet. He led the Group G match in touches (158) and played 20 more passes than Niklas Sule, Mats Hummels, and Nico Schlotterbeck combined. Ake’s also a proactive player without the ball and won each of his three attempted tackles at the Westfalenstadion.
In a summer awash with good deals for City, Chelsea’s failure to sign Ake appears to be a blessing for Guardiola and a backline troubled by fitness issues and injuries.
Juventus’ downfall complete
Since reaching the final, and losing to Real Madrid, in 2017, Juventus have been going backward in the Champions League. They followed that soul-crushing defeat, their second loss in the showpiece match in three years, by faltering in the quarterfinals in each of the next two seasons. Three consecutive ousters in the round of 16, against a trio of underdog opponents, followed. The trend was obvious.
It reached a nadir Tuesday.
Juventus’ 4-3 defeat to Benfica – a scoreline that could’ve, and perhaps should’ve, been much worse, confirmed that Massimiliano Allegri’s team won’t even have the opportunity to underwhelm in the knockout stage this time around. The Europa League, at best, beckons.
A humbling defeat to Maccabi Haifa on Matchday 4 meant this was always the likely outcome, but it’s still jarring to see the math officially confirm what has looked inevitable since the beginning of the campaign.
Consistent mismanagement, both at the executive and field levels, has consequences. Puzzling transfer decisions add up. Riffling through managers has a destabilizing effect. All of that together, over a period of several years, has left Juventus in their current state. Once on the cusp of winning a trophy that’s become an obsession for the club after so many near misses, Juve are now further away than they’ve been in almost a decade.
This team, and club, is in need of rejuvenation. There was no clearer indication of that than the waning minutes of Tuesday’s defeat. Exciting youngsters Fabio Miretti, Matias Soule, and Samuel Iling-Junior, each 19 years old, came off the bench and injected life and verve into the Italian side, turning a lopsided 4-1 deficit into a respectable 4-3 defeat almost single-handedly.
There’s a clear path forward for Juventus. Can we trust them to actually take it?