The Champions League group stage concludes this week. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s action in Europe’s premier club competition.
Mignolet made the Club Brugge surprise possible
The departures of head coach Alfred Schreuder, playmaker Charles De Ketelaere, and towering frontman Bas Dost indicated Club Brugge was a team in transition. Many predicted the Belgian side would flounder in Group B. But the reality was very different. Club Brugge progressed with a six-point cushion in second place, while Atletico Madrid finished bottom following Tuesday’s 0-0 draw at Bayer Leverkusen.
And no player deserves more credit for Club Brugge’s feat than Simon Mignolet.
The 34-year-old added a spectacular swat at Patrik Schick’s 54th-minute header to his acts of heroism during an excellent European campaign. He previously produced 12 saves across both fixtures against Atletico without conceding and has generally been a reassuring presence between the sticks for Carl Hoefkens’ outfit.
He’s helped Club Brugge recalibrate their expectations.
“I don’t think we should be disappointed with the performance today,” Mignolet said after Brugge finished second following the final round of fixtures in their quartet. “Porto have been on a good run and were probably the best in the group.
“But our five clean sheets still mean something. We are advancing to the next round, and that’s the most important thing.”
Mignolet appeared to cower under the bright lights of Anfield during his six-year stay with Liverpool. His performances were so troubling that fans regularly called for him to be dropped, even when there were unconvincing options in reserve, such as Brad Jones and Adam Bogdan. He returned to Belgium in 2019 with his tail between his legs.
He’s unrecognizable as the stoic leader of Club Brugge, where he’s been key to ensuring his side made a mockery of pre-tournament predictions with their straightforward path into the knockout rounds. Mignolet’s resurgence is undoubtedly one of the standout stories of the Champions League season.
Spurs need to be so much better
There was a moment that summed up Tottenham Hotspur’s lack of ambition in the first half.
Usually, a player with Heung-Min Son’s counter-attacking ability lurks outside or on the edge of the box during an opponent’s corner kick, waiting to retrieve a loose ball and burst upfield. Instead, the ball spilled to Son deep inside his own box, and he smashed it as far away as he could, allowing Marseille goalkeeper Pau Lopez to restart another attack for the hosts.
There wasn’t much else Son could’ve done. The South Korean forward and his teammates were crammed into their own area.
And in the rare occasions Spurs ventured into Marseille’s defensive third, they were ruinously negative and uninspired. It’s disappointing to see attackers as gifted as Son and Harry Kane stifled by Antonio Conte’s frustratingly unadventurous game plan.
Conte – who watched from the stands after his red card during Spurs’ previous Champions League outing – and his backroom staff would likely gesture toward Group D’s final standings if anyone questioned their approach to games. First place in such a competitive quartet is commendable, especially when the Italian’s thin squad has recently dealt with costly injuries. A 2-1 win away at the raucous Stade Velodrome is always a fine result.
But playing like that in the competition’s knockout rounds isn’t sustainable. Spurs don’t possess the defensive quality to hold out the best Champions League teams – Chancel Mbemba was given too much space to shape himself for his first-half header. And, unlike when ex-Arsenal left-back Sead Kolasinac somehow missed a golden opportunity at the back post in the 87th minute, they’ll be punished in critical moments.
Being conservative might be the best way to manage this Tottenham team when it has so little creativity in midfield. Still, there has to be a way to pair deep defensive and midfield lines with more freedom for Son and Kane.
Right now, Spurs’ best players are being wasted.
The Champions League roller coaster
Going into Tuesday’s action, Marseille had permutations aplenty. The French club could finish in any four Group D spots, depending on their own result against Tottenham and the concurrent fixture between Eintracht Frankfurt and Sporting CP. The margin between a place in the Champions League knockout stage and being eliminated from European competition was slim. A wild ride was a distinct possibility.
They rode the roller coaster.
When Mbemba scored just before halftime to give Marseille a 1-0 lead, they were in line to advance. They dropped to third in the table when Spurs equalized early in the second stanza, out of the Champions League but still good enough to salvage a Europa League place. Then, following the heart-wrenching Kolasinac miss, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s 95th-minute rocket condemned Igor Tudor’s team to fourth place. Just like that. So long, Europe.
Sporting, too, fell victim to the wild emotional swings that only the Champions League can deliver. The Portuguese side won its first two group stage matches, only to finish third and miss the round of 16. As if to twist the knife, their bitter Portuguese rivals, FC Porto, lost the first two games of their Champions League campaign but rebounded emphatically to top Group B.
Admittedly, this tournament has flaws. The group stage has developed into a procession for some of the continent’s wealthiest teams. But when it delivers, the drama remains unmatched.
Anguissa flourishing this season
Liverpool’s struggles this season are down to a variety of factors – there’s no singular solution for Jurgen Klopp. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the club’s deteriorating midfield is playing a huge role in the Reds’ inability to sustain their recent high standards.
In Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Liverpool got a firsthand look at someone capable of rectifying the issues plaguing Klopp’s midfield. The Napoli standout, enjoying the best season of his career for Luciano Spalletti’s high-flying side, has a unique blend of skills that would perfectly provide what the Merseyside outfit is currently missing.
The flourishing Anguissa, 26, is press-resistant and good in tight areas like Thiago Alcantara but offers more box-to-box coverage. He’s a feisty tackler like Fabinho but provides more attacking drive and scoring ability. He’s dynamic in possession like Naby Keita but can actually stay fit. The Cameroonian is the type of do-it-all player who can impact the game in different ways, including those that don’t show up on the stat sheet. In that way, he’s not dissimilar from prime Georginio Wijnaldum, a player who would help Liverpool immensely right now.
Even in a match that Napoli lost – their first defeat of the season in all competitions – Anguissa caught the eye at Anfield. The signs were there at Fulham, despite the team around him floundering. Now, in the right system, it’s all coming together.