It was a good week in the Champions League for faltering Premier League goalscorers, but considerably less so for Barcelona and Juventus.
With speculation starting to rise about whether he was ever going to return to the form that has defined so much of his career at Liverpool, Mo Salah needed a big performance against his team’s weakest group appointments and he delivered. Salah scored a hat-trick in six minutes against Rangers at Ibrox, capping off a performance which summed up the vast ocean of resources between England’s biggest clubs and Scotland’s biggest clubs.
None of this came as a result of any huge tactical shift. All three of his goals came from the right-hand side. But they came about because he wasn’t shunted out onto the wing in pursuit of the ball, and Jurgen Klopp will likely consider this win to be hugely important in getting his players’ heads back into the sort of space that they need to occupy to revive their faltering Premier League season.
It’s fair to say that Liverpool will face far greater challenges this season than Rangers, but with modern conditioning and training having made all players supreme athletes, the mental state of players is more important than ever and if Liverpool can start to believe in themselves again they might just be able to start turning this season around.
Salah has only scored twice in the Premier League this season and needs to start putting in this performance week in week out again, but his six minute hat-trick will have been exactly the response to recent criticism that Klopp will have been looking for.
The Graham Potter revolution continued on Tuesday night with an extremely comfortable win for Chelsea in the San Siro against Milan. It was the second time in eight days that Potter’s team had opened a can of whoop-ass on the Serie A champions, though they were a little fortunate with the 17th minute double-jeopardy moment of Fikayo Tomori, who conceded a penalty and picked up a red card after hauling down Mason Mount.
The home crowd were incandescent, but that rage buttered no parsnips on the night itself. Chelsea won comfortably to complete a transformation in eight days, from wondering aloud whether they’d be able to get through this group stage successfully to leading it.
And Potter seems to have brought something out in Mason Mount that had been lying half-dormant for a while. Mount couldn’t get on the scoresheet in Milan, but he created both goals and is the only outfield player to have started in all five of Potter’s games in charge. At a time when nerves seem to be rising about English players either being in a form slump or at risk of serious injury with every tackle they make (see Tuesday night’s flap concerning Reece James), Mount’s resurgence couldn’t have been better timed for the upcoming World Cup.
Winning doesn’t necessarily have to involve picking up all three points. Champions League Grinches Real Madrid might have snatched a point from their trip to Warsaw with a bloodied header five minutes into stoppage-time from Antonio Rudiger, but few people were talking about them after the match.
It remains extremely difficult for any of us in Western Europe to imagine what Shakhtar have been through during 2022. As missiles rain down on their city and human rights horrors are being unearthed in their home region, it’s tempting to believe that football could almost feel like something of an irrelevance, but the spirit shown by this team in this year’s Champions League – they remain in third place in their group and highly likely to transfer into the Europa League even if they fail to make up the one-point deficit they have behind RB Leipzig in their group – has proved to be the most inspirational stories of this year’s competition.
They may have ended up with ‘just’ a point from their game against the holders, but they’re winning hearts and minds across the continent, and that feels like a massive, massive victory.
Manchester City may have breezed through to the knockout stages of the Champions League with their goalless draw in Copenhagen, but the evening might well be one that sticks in the head of the Copenhagen goalkeeper Kamil Grabara, who not only kept a clean sheet against one of the strongest teams in the tournament but who also saved a penalty from Riyad Mahrez into the bargain.
There was little question that it was a penalty for handball, even though it required a VAR check to confirm, but what followed was truly a moment for Grabara to cherish because Mahrez’s penalty wasn’t a bad one, rather it was a superb save to keep the score goalless. And while there is a tiny asterisk against the achievement brought about by the absence of a certain Norwegian goalbot, there likely won’t be many other goalkeepers who keep a clean sheet against any Manchester City team this season.
This wasn’t a very good week for the apex predators of Italian football, with Milan, Juventus and Inter managing just one point between them, but for current Serie A leaders Napoli the goals just seem to keep flowing. With a whopping 17 goals from four matches, they are the highest scorers in the entire group stages of the competition and booked their place in the knockout stages with two games to spare with a 4-2 win against Ajax.
This isn’t just some sort of Champions League aberration, either. Napoli lead Serie A by a point from Atalanta and are the top scorers in that division as well. And it’s worth remembering that this season could have been a disastrous one for them, having lost the backbone of a decent team during the summer with the departures of Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, David Ospina, Kalidou Koulibaly and Fabian Ruiz.
Napoli remain unbeaten in the last six months, and their comfortable win against Ajax, with another four goals to chuck on the pile, is starting to make us wonder whether they could present a surprise challenge to win this year’s Champions League outright.
Heung Min Son
The Spurs striker hasn’t been in the greatest of form so far this season, but he served a reminder of how dangerous he can be against Newcastle and chipped in with two first-half goals against Eintracht Frankfurt. It was, in many respects, quite a Spursy evening at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. After all, they did start by falling a goal behind and then found themselves clinging on a little at the end after Eintracht had a player sent off while also missing a late penalty.
But Son’s performance was a reminder of the other Spurs, the team with one of the most in-tune attacking front pairs in the Premier League, and the forcefulness of the volley that extended their lead to 3-1 was a reminder of just what a player he can be when he’s on top of his game. Spurs haven’t exactly lit up their Champions League group yet, but they do lead it with two games to play, and there are certainly worse positions that they could be in, even if their late tail-off in this game will have given Antonio Conte something to ponder.
There remain eight unbeaten teams out of 32 in the Champions League group places, and of these eight teams RB Salzburg stand out as perhaps the surprise package. In a group containing a financially plumped Premier League club and the champions of Italy, Salzburg remain unbeaten after four matches and although they’ve drawn three of them, they remain in second place with two games left to play. On Tuesday night they went to the cauldron that is the Maksimir and came away with a point. Their next match against Chelsea will likely test their obduracy to the extremes, but their final game away to Milan could see them eliminate the Italian giants from the competition altogether.
Social media tends to go to the extremes on any matter, and a failure to beat Inter probably isn’t quite at the level of catastrophising that was swirling around after the final whistle blew at the Camp Nou, but Barcelona’s ongoing involvement in this competition is now hanging by a thread despite the best efforts of Robert Lewandowski to keep their hopes alive.
The 3-3 draw against Inter left them three points adrift with two games to play, and the stark reality facing them is that Inter now only need a draw from their penultimate group match against the zero from four Viktoria Plzen to guarantee that Barca drop into the Europa League.
Of course, the big irony here is that Barcelona’s summer transfer spree, funded by opening a sluice gate of ‘financial levers’ (or, as they’ve been described elsewhere, ‘payday loans’), was supposed to make a big ‘BARCELONA ARE BACK’ statement, but while their form in La Liga has been outstanding, in the Champions League they’ve laboured to just four points from four games and have been repeatedly found wanting against decent opposition.
And their performance against Inter was full of contradiction. Pushing forward to chase the game, they left vast defensive gaps that Inter could exploit with ease, and although Lewandowski’s late equaliser kept them in the competition by the skin of their teeth, it remains more likely that they will not advance to the knockout stages of the competition.
This would, of course, cost the club a considerable amount of money, and the question now is how dependent a senior management team with a less than stellar record with regard to the club’s finances in recent years had left them team on getting through the group stages. You’d like to think that they’d been prudent enough to not have gambled the club’s future on reaching the last 16 of the Champions League, but this is Barcelona, so it’s far from implausible that they have.
With one point from three games this wasn’t a very good week for the Unholy Trinity of European Super League advocates Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus in the Champions League, and it’s not stretching things to say that two of these three have demonstrated why they need a closed league more than anything else, but it was Juventus who really scraped the bottom of the barrel with a limp and insipid 2-0 defeat at Maccabi Haifa.
The Old Lady are out of this year’s Champions League with two games left to play, and they may yet find themselves missing out on even a place in the Europa League. Coming on top of a weak start to their Serie A season – they’re in eighth place in the table, with just three wins from their first nine games – this all amounts to something of a crisis in Turin, with the return of Massimiliano Allegri to the club starting to look like a big, big mistake.
Within minutes of their latest embarrassment, Juventus president Andrea Agnelli was confirming that Allegri is not going to be sacked, but unless performances improve rapidly it’s difficult to believe that this can be a tenable state of affairs for much longer. The Old Lady will have to be for turning at some point.
The ‘Swiss Model’
This was an extremely interesting week of Champions League football, and the travails of Barcelona and Juventus have served as a reminder of how important jeopardy is in the group stages of this competition. But from the 2024/25 season on UEFA have determined a change to a Swiss model, which will feature more matches and more opportunity for the biggest clubs to dig themselves out of holes in which they’ve put themselves.
With plenty more drama likely to come, the decision to extend the competition starts to look like a mistake when viewed from a footballing perspective. The cynical reply to this is to say that money rather than football was the primary motivation behind UEFA’s decision, and that the extra money it brings in will likely be used as justification, but reducing jeopardy remains a fairly explicit aim of the biggest clubs and the expanded group stages may well end up looking like a bit of a slog.
The Old Firm
With one point between them from their eight games played so far, the return of both of the Glasgow giants to the Champions League has shone a harsh light upon the gulf brought about by the financial disparities between Scottish club football and many other leagues. Both Celtic and Rangers have been eliminated from the Champions League with two games to spare, and at the time of writing it doesn’t seem very likely that either will be grabbing third place and a spot in the Europa League, either.
The current SPFL television deal is worth £30m a year (across all clubs), or less than a third what the lowest-placed English Premier League club will make from TV and prize money this season. This vast difference makes competing at this level just about impossible even if both Celtic and Rangers can draw more than 50,000 people a week to their league games, and without them being admitted to the Premier League or some sort of pan-European competition it’s difficult to see how this will ever change.
There have been repeated stories over the years about these two clubs joining the English system but nothing has ever come of it, while admitting them to a European Super League on meritocratic grounds is also problematic. Only a major upheaval of the game seems likely to change this situation.
Well, let’s start with the good news first. A 4-0 win against Schalke at the weekend lifted Bayer Leverkusen out of the Bundesliga relegation places, following a dismal start to the season which saw them win just one of their first eight league games of the season, while getting knocked out of the DFB Pokal by a third tier club and sacking their manager. But that’s just about where the good news ends for a team that has slumped alarmingly since finishing last season in third place in the table and winning its Champions League group.
But most of the feelgood factor that returned to the club after their win against Schalke felt as though it had dissipated from the BayArena after a 3-0 home defeat against Porto. The result leaves them bottom of their group with two games to play, although they could yet sneak second place with wins from their last two games. But on the evidence of their performance against Porto, this doesn’t seem particularly likely.