What I Learnt from the UEFA Champions League this week

One for the road: Sergio Ramos celebrates scoring for Real Madrid against Napoli. Photo credit: @realmadriden

“We are only halfway through the tie. There are 95 minutes left and lots of things can happen.

“I go into the game with a positive mood. We have to do everything really well, both in defence and in attack. PSG are a really good side.

“Of course, lots of things have happened since the first leg. We have improved and have put in some good performances. We are optimistic by nature and convinced of what we can do. We will try to make the most of the favourable circumstances.

“If a team can score four times against us, we can score six times against them. We have seen that before this season. We have nothing to lose.”

What better way to begin discussing one of the most exciting weeks in UEFA Champions League history than to start with the words of the Barcelona coach cum prophet, Luis Enrique?

The 7th and 8th day of March, 2017 will remain etched in the memories of football fans for as long as I can think of. History was made, records were shattered and the already-immortal ones became even more immortal (if that word exists).

While so many will talk about how Arsenal ’10-d 2′ bottle things up after a fine start to a football season, the major talking point of the week was the showdown in Barcelona.

It’d have been hard to think of any record that Barcelona had not shattered. But a 4-0 first leg deficit was a high hurdle, a new one for the ‘Catalan gods.’ But they proved themselves once again, as one of the best, if not the best, in the world of football.

The greatest comeback you’ve ever seen? I thought so too!

Aubameyang came to life with a hattrick. Benfica couldn’t hold on. Real Madrid stuttered at first (a trend fast becoming a norm for the Los Blancos), then came back to win in Napoli.

What else did I learnt about the UEFA Champions League (UCL) this week?

Borussia Dortmund’s Yellow Wall

1. The UEFA Champions League is in a World of its Own…

When day turns into night midweek, and the stars litter the sky, the best in Europe come out to play. The competition is the UEFA Champions League and the word ‘play’ has been taken to another level.

It may not be the most-watched football competition in the world but, the Champions League has a way of catching (capturing too) attention the world over.

It’s not certain there’s a puppeteer pulling the strings behind the curtains, but if there is, this one puppeteer is a good one, one that is getting better with each passing Matchday.

Each night, drama is expected to happen. And with each night of football, the UCL doesn’t fail to disappoint. It serves up high drama with each passing night and the fans everywhere (well almost, taking timezones and who won or lost into consideration) go to bed satisfied.

It’s fair to say it’s just the Round of 16. But that makes things scary too. What level of action awaits fans in the quarter-finals? Semi-finals? Of course, we know mouth-watering clashes await fans… but no one knows how exciting they’ll be. We can only anticipate.

 

2. … and the Premier League Can’t Seem to Keep Up

For letting Barcelona overturn such a massive first leg deficit, the whipping league for the week should be the French Ligue 1. PSG should be ashamed of themselves, right? Well, it’s a two-sided coin – and I’ll let you choose which side to stick to.

While you’re choosing, I’ve singled out England’s Premier League for some butt-whopping in this piece. This is a league that prides itself on being the toughest, – they’re closely followed by the English Football Championship. Lol, I know I know, I sound incredulous to most right now… but that’s how the bitter truth can look like sometimes. – meanest, unforgiving football league in the world.

On Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and even on some Mondays, these big shots strut their stuff, confidently and amazingly. The display takes your breath away. You see amazing goals, and master tactical plans being executed by players who are obviously close to the top of the football world’s food chain.

But when Tuesdays and Wednesdays appear, England’s top guns disappear into thin air. The fearsome English lions all of a sudden transform into harmless cubs. Then they’re knocked around haplessly by Europe’s ‘Senior Men.’

Then with repeated terrible European outings, Europe’s so-called minnows get the required confidence to step up to the plate too and either try a home run or slam dunk or a hole-in-one. And most times, they succeed, overpowering most of these ‘English Local Champions.’

The Gunners tried to prove themselves in the first half of their clash against Bayern Munich, but they couldn’t hold on or increase their lead. They had to let another five in, yet again!

I know you’re tempted to quickly mention the ref’s decision to send Koscielny off and how it affected the display of Wenger’s men on the night. But, as a football team, if you can’t keep playing well regardless of the kind of hand you’re dealt, aren’t you a spine-less, weak-hearted football club?

Sounds harsh, I know but English clubs have to wake up to the current reality. Benitez’s Liverpool, Fergie’s Manchester United and the rest didn’t win the UEFA Champions League by playing like boys. They weathered the storm, played like men and created space for themselves in history.

3. Referees?

You know, it’s almost impossible to talk about football these days without certain refereeing issues rearing their ugly heads.

The most recent episode of this unsatisfactory series before this week started was the Zlatan-Mings incident (just so you know, I still feel Ibrahimovic should have been sent to the showers earlier than scheduled. But heck, what do I know? I’m just a bloody football fan).

I can easily make a case for these referees: They’re humans, not robots or machines. As thus, they have EVERY RIGHT to make some terribly questionable calls every once in a while. But, what happens when those calls have huge, permanent effects on games?

Case 1: Arsenal, Koscielny, Lewadowski and the Red Card

It’s the responsibility of a player, defender for that matter, to know what to do while he’s sharing his own 6-yard box with an opponent. Rules are rules. Break them and get broken.

Koscielny, inside the six-yard box, stops a Lewadowski who is through on goal (stops here means he slightly touches the Polosh international who milks the situation and goes to ground faster than you can say “Alice in Wonderland.”).

Centre ref points to the spot, flashes a yellow and everything is fine. Remember, during this time, the Gunners were in cruise control. They had their hands, in a way, wrapped around the necks of the Germans.

One of the extra refs (those ones that stand beside the goal post) says something to the center ref. Yellow transforms into red and Arsenal go on to ship in 5 at the end of the day). A famous Frenchman called the ref’s move a scandalous one. I concur!

Case 2: Barcelona, PSG, and the Suarez Dive

I’ll save my breath for this one and let the gif do most of the talking.

I know they can’t see it all everytime but, arrrggghhhhh, some mistakes can’t be condoned at this high level of football. It’s just unforgivable.

Two weeks ago, Impossible. Two weeks after, “Nothing is impossible.”

4. Football Is Just Crazy

That’s the best definition I can find.

It was hard to imagine Barcelona overturn that 0-4 deficit in Paris. I thought Arsenal had learnt their lessons. I thought Cavani’s goal had put the final nail in Barcelona’s coffin. I thought Napoli would give Real Madrid a run for their money on Italy.

All these were my thoughts… until football came strolling along with its craze. All norms became abnormal in seconds with a rebirth of that famous Aguero goal by Sergi ranking high on the list of ‘irregulars.’

It’s hard to put football in a box… football is JUST CRAZY!

So far, this year’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 has been ‘goals-full.’ And the drama continues next week before the highly anticipated draws for the quarter-finals.

Quick one before I stop writing…

Are there really draws? Or is it just one of the master plans of the puppeteer hiding behind the curtains? This was the topic in the blog’s discussion room yesterday.

With repeated draws in the past like Real Madrid v Lyon, Bayern Munich v Arsenal, Barca v PSG and more, what do you think? Are draws in football, especially in the UCL, really just draws or… is there more to it than meets the eye?

Let me know what you think by dropping your comments in the comments section. I’d love to hear from you.

About Author

Rotimi Daramola is a freelance football writer, football analyst on radio (The Beat FM), and football content creator that is in love with the beautiful game. You can keep up with all of his writing and also engage with him on Twitter @Rotdav

C. Ronaldo’s New Role, 1-5/02/2017, Beautiful Goals and more from the UEFA Champions League Week

Coincidence?

Coincidence?

“We have been royally treated this week in the UEFA Champions League”

– Match Commentator of the Real Madrid vs Napoli game.
Nothing could be truer than that statement. In just two days, the pain of the absence of Europe’s ‘Premier Football Competition’ was swept away by amazing contests, beautiful goals and shocking results (Hello Paris).

The stage had already been set, since last year, for exciting clashes between Europe’s best. Of course I looked forward, mouth-wateringly, to the encounter in France and the one in Spain the moment the draws were made.

But I got more than what I bargained for this week – and I’m sure I’m not alone on this boat!

After just two nights in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 clash, Barcelona are already four goals behind, a certain English team shipped in 5 in Germany and the current holders had to wiggle their way past Napoli.

How about a bigger picture?

All 4 Valentine

All 4 Valentine

1. From Paris… With Love

PSG vs Barcelona, in recent times, has always been a tight contest. It has never been an affair that was too one-sided.

In one corner of the ring, you’ll usually haven’t the French, busy trying to stamp their authority in European football. In the other corner, the Catalan giants, looking to further assert their European authority.

So, you can understand why it’s almost always the classic case of a game “kinda too close to call” whenever these two entities meet. But, the meeting between PSG and Barcelona on Valentine’s Day, in Paris, wasn’t one too close to call. IT WAS A ONE-SIDED AFFAIR!

You are forgiven if you thought Barça’s MSN gang ran riot and terrorized their French hostages on the night because that’s what they know how to do best. On this fateful night, it was the exact opposite. PSG scored two unreplied goals (two beauties by Di Maria) in each half of the game to take a four-goal advantage into the second leg.

Surprised Barcelona didn’t score? With the way the PSG players played, it was impossible for the clubside from Spain to score. The closest they came to scoring was a header from Umtiti that hit the woodwork.

The work rate of Unai Emery’s men was un-freaking-believeable! Names like Aurier, Rabiot, Cavani, Veratti seemed to be on the move every time. The little pockets of space Messi’d usually enjoy in games like this were closed up. The Argentine was locked out. Neymar was isolated. Suarez? You know the rest.

The French side never seemed to slow down. For example, Barcelona were encamped in their own half for the entire first 5 minutes of the 2nd half. This is testimony enough about PSG’s resilience to kill the game – despite being 2 up already at the time. Add another 5 minutes, and Di Maria had rattled the net again, this time with a beauty from his left foot.

3 – 0.

By the 75th minute, PSG’s left-back had dribbled past Neymar, went on a mazy run, and supplied Cavani who scored the fourth with a one-timer. During this time, PSG’ had already registered10 attempts on target compared to Barca’s lone attempt on target.

Barcelona went visiting... 4 nothing!

Barcelona went visiting… 4 nothing!

The Catalan giants seemed distraught. The big and mighty names disappeared at the sight of regulars like Rabiot, Aurier, Draxler and the young Presnel Kimpembe. The fabbled “Barcelona Connect” struggled to connect throughout the game.

Now, the Catalan giants have an uphill task of overturning a four-goal deficit at the Camp Nou, a challenge no club In Europe has ever tackled successfully.

2. Real Madrid and CR7’s New Role

Before this game, there was something unnerving about the UCL form of Napoli. This was a team that could spring surprises. They won their group. It’s almighty Real Madrid, I know. But the Italians almost pulled off a Spanish surprise.

Their set-up from the word go startled and rattled Zidane’s men. Their quick exchange of passes seemed to catch Modric and co off guard. Sometimes, it looked like tiki-taka. At other times, it looked like something never seen before.

The passes were fast, the runs sharp and it didn’t take long before they opened their account, scoring inside the first 10 minutes of the game thanks to Insigne. And to think that Real Madrid had been doing all the playing during this time. That was the wake up call for the leviathan.

Realising that the ‘highly dreaded’ away goal had just been conceded, Real Madrid started creating chance after chance and Benzema found a way to pull Madrid back on level terms.

C. Ronaldo then unselfishly cut one back for Toni Kross, who finished cooly with a low shot. Then there was Casemiro’s beauty of a goal that got Rafa Nadal laughing and left Morata stunned on the touch line.

Jubilant: In case you missed Casemiro's cracker, look it up and watch it. Thank me later ;)

Jubilant: In case you missed Casemiro’s cracker, look it up and watch it. Thank me later 😉

Speaking of C. Ronaldo, it’s not exactly clear who has given the Portuguese football god this new role he now performs in: maybe his age has forced him to start operating in this new capacity, maybe it’s Zizou. It’s quite hard to tell. But the obvious remains: Cristiano Ronaldo is now more of a team player and less selfish.

Case Study: His assist for Toni Kroos Is one CR7 would usually take aim from. It was inside the opponent’s 18-yard box, a confort zone for Ronaldo. But he chose to pass Instead.

There was the 85th minute pass to Marcelo which he could have chosen to fire home as soon as he received the pass in the 18-yard box.

Seeing as the usually goal-hungry CR7 hasn’t scored a UCL goal in 523 minutes, it’s weird to see him break the UEFA Champions League assist record. Wonders, they say… http://www.goal.com/en/news/8/main/2017/02/15/32726982/ronaldo-breaks-champions-league-assist-record?ICID=HP_BN_2

3. No Love Lost at Odds of 5-1

“The game ends Arsenal 1, Bayern 5, for the second year running.” – Match Commentator.

But for Ospina, the scoreline may have had three digits. And you know whose the double digits would have been. This one was a contest between men and boys.

Forget what Arsene Wenger said about missing Koscielny. The Arsenal team that played against Bayern Munich on Wednesday wouldn’t have survived if they had a XI full of Koscielny’s. The English side was just helpless.

Swept away by the Germans: Arturo Vidal  and Lewandowski

Swept away by the Germans: Arturo Vidal and Lewandowski

It was a mismatch from the blast of the ref’s whistle and Arjen Robben’s beauty of a goal (how many times have I said this?) was a testament of things to come. Yes they got an away goal, but shipping in 5? De javu. De javu. De javu.

Is it time for Wenger to go? I don’t know. I can’t say. Ask your friend who’s an Arsenal faithful (please let me know what they think by leaving me a comment. I’d love to hear from you).

A Round of Applause please?

A Round of Applause please?

Some may say the job’s only half done for the Bavarians. And they’re right. Only a handful of German goals in England will rightfully settle this one.

Benfica beat Dortmund by 1-0. That’s still the most open game of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 so far.

The games continue next week. Will there be more beautiful goals, large scoreline margins or even more surprising wins or defeats? Fingers are crossed.
About Author

Rotimi Daramola is a freelance football writer, football analyst and football content creator that is in love with the beautiful game. You can keep up with all of his writing and also engage him on Twitter @rotdav