There is always a frisson of excitement for football obsessives when the battle-lines are redrawn on the European front and the Champions League and Europa League start their knockout phases. With the domestic season having turned into a procession thanks to Liverpool’s utter supremacy, this season the continental stage potentially offers more intriguing competition.
After last season’s domination in both competitions the first two weeks back have offered something of a mixed bag for the Premier League’s representatives. First up the irresistible force that is Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool revisited the site of their triumph in May to take on the immovable object that continues to be the unceasingly effervescent and frankly downright menacing Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.
You just knew when the teams were drawn together from the pot that ‘El Cholo’ (broadly: one who is streetwise/ street-tough) would be absolutely relishing the opportunity to pit his combative, robust, un-bowing gang of muck and bullets warriors against inarguably the best side in the world right now.
Despite rumours of Atléti’s demise founded on: the loss of previous key man Antoine Griezmann alongside the likes of Juanfran, Godin, Filipe Luis and Rodri , the failure to live up to expectations of expensive new acquisitions most notably Joao Felix, and the fact that they sit twelve points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona; when push came to shove Simeone’s men met the challenge head on with a display of not just mere tenacity but the sheer bloody-mindedness and sense of collective purpose on which their reputation has been built.
The very early goal rocked Liverpool. The yapping, snarling, tough-tackling unit that they tried to break down time and time again frustrated them and the pantomime villain himself, Diego Costa’s late cameo got under their skin like no team has managed for the last two years.
Of course we all know that going to Anfield with a solitary goal lead guarantees absolutely nothing, just ask Atlético’s compatriots Barcelona who went there with a three goal lead only to be sent home humbled and broken less than a year ago. The only thing that is certain is that the battle set to play out a week on Wednesday is going to be another one of those must-not-miss matches.
The following evening Tottenham were somewhat fortunate to escape with just a one goal defeat given the chances that Julian Nagelsmann’s exciting young RB Leipzig side spurned. Jose Mourinho’s side will head to Germany with the miracle of Amsterdam fresh in their minds and armed with the knowledge that if they score first, they are very much back in the tie. However without both Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, a situation the self-avowed Special One described as like: “going to fight with a gun without bullets”, finding the net may be quite a challenge in itself against a team that is pushing Bayern Munich all the way at the top of the table and boast a solid defensive record both domestically and in Europe.
Chelsea were given pretty much the very definition of humbling by Bayern Munich, so much so that manager Frank Lampard suggested: “It was a harsh lesson” and a “reality check”. Barring a miracle that is almost beyond contemplation Chelsea are out of the competition for this season, although in trying to extricate any positives from their exit they might find that it actually places them in the driving seat to qualify for the competition next season from their league position.
With it looking highly likely that Manchester City won’t be permitted to enter the competition next season (Football Nerd Weekly Ramblings- UEFA can’t afford not to follow through on their punishment of Manchester City but need to be wary of the potential future implications. ) Pep Guardiola’s team selection in which he consigned both Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling to the bench didn’t immediately strike as an indication of City going “sh*t or bust” in their final attempt to bring their project to fruition as your very author suggested it might last week.
Yet whereas in the past Guardiola has been guilty of over-thinking big European clashes, this time his tactical masterplan worked a treat. Using a striker-less formation with Gabriel Jesus pulled out wide to the left and Kevin De Bruyne playing more like the orthodox Number 10 he was years ago confused the Real Madrid rearguard and they couldn’t seem to work out who they should be picking up.
The fact that Los Blancos took the lead was down to an individual error by Rodri rather than a sign of Real being in the ascendancy. Something that was further reinforced when City turned the tie on its head through late goals from Jesus and a penalty after Raheem Sterling was chopped down in the box. The fact that Real Madrid’s captain, Sergio Ramos was shown a red card for the 26th(!) time in his career will only strengthen the belief that City will progress deep into the competition, if only they could avoid Liverpool or Spurs in the next round…
In the lesser vaunted competition, the Europa League, both Manchester United and Wolves made short enough work of their Round of 32 games: United easing past Club Brugge 5-0 last night and 6-1 on aggregate; although Wolves had to be thankful for their convincing 3-0 win over Espanyol at home in the first leg to ensure their progression. Today’s draw has handed United the fairly straightforward task of overcoming LASK of Austria, whereas Wolves will take on Olympiakos conquerors of Arsenal. Both clubs will fancy their chances of going all the way to the final if they can avoid each other and seeming clear favourites Antonio Conte’s Inter.
So to Arsenal. After putting themselves in a favourable position with a 1-0 victory and an away goal in the first leg, as has happened so many times before they were undone by yet more defensive ineptitude. Since coming into post Mikel Arteta has brought tangible improvements to the shape and organisation of the team, and it really does seem that he has got things moving in the right direction.
However his team’s capitulation last night was once again based on two all-too-familiar failings: an insipid attacking performance that saw the ball circulated without meaningful intent, 61% possession should result in more than a solitary Aubameyang strike deep into extra time; and two goals conceded from crosses into box through ineffectual (read non-existent) marking.
As easy as it would be to blame Aubameyang for his very late miss that would have snatched back qualification at the very death of the tie, his goals have been papering over the failings of the rest of the team for the last eighteen months.
Quite where Arsenal go from here is largely unclear. One school of thought is that a season without the distractions of Europe might give Arteta the time and space he needs to shape his side and that with the backing of the money-men at the club he will be able to invest in the players to deliver what he wants just as Klopp has done at Liverpool and his mentor Pep has with City. However that ignores the apathy and lack of interest in anything other than the bottom line value of the club as an asset of the Kroenkes, who have never truly shown any sign of wanting to invest in the playing side of the club; which is after all why we found the accident-waiting-to-happen David Luiz at the heart of our defence once again last night!