Barcelona’s dilemma after a lucky escape; The domination of the Premier League
Matchday five of the Champions League group stage saw another side from Europe’s biggest club secure their place in the knockout stage with Chelsea, Inter Milan, Manchester City, Manchester United, the Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Sporting CP putting all the names in the hat for the draw for the round of 16.
We asked Mark Ogden, Julien Laurens and Sam Marsden to answer some of the big questions raised by this week’s games.
What caught your attention on the 5th day?
Ogden: Haris Seferovic’s failure against Barcelona in the 93rd minute of Tuesday’s 0-0 draw at Camp Nou not only denied Benfica a 1-0 win that would have left Barca in need of a miracle to qualify in Group E, but it also deprived us of a potential defining moment in Champions League history.
Barca are on the ropes right now and Seferovic could have carved out a place for himself in football lore by scoring a goal that would surely have ended their 20 consecutive years of reaching the knockout stage. Images of him celebrating the winner could have matched those iconic moments of Jose Mourinho sprinting to the Old Trafford sideline as Porto manager or Steven Gerrard’s crucial winner for Liverpool against Olympiacos in 2004-05 .
But the Swiss striker ended up producing one of the misses of the season by distorting his shot at close range. Who knows how important failure can be?
Laurens: Exceptional goal from Thiago Alcantara for Liverpool in the 2-0 win over Porto. Few players, let alone a defensive midfielder, can hit a half volley like him: so pure, so precise, so beautiful. Thiago is an incredible player with technical ability, footballing IQ and a vision far above many other players in his post. He can dictate the pace of a game and control a game like no other.
Much of what Liverpool achieve or fail to achieve this season will depend on their physical form and performance. When he is in the kind of form we saw against Porto or against Arsenal last weekend, he gives another dimension to this Liverpool team. And his Wednesday goal was certainly a reminder of that.
Marsden: The exit of Borussia Dortmund. It has been a difficult few weeks on the sidelines for injured Erling Haaland. He first saw Norway’s World Cup dream go up in smoke as they lost points to Turkey, Latvia and the Netherlands. Now he has seen Dortmund leave the Champions League after a 3-1 loss to Sporting.
The German squad had six out of nine points when Haaland got injured and seemed a good bet to advance to the round of 16, but the back-to-back losses since then mean the Europa League awaits them in 2022. With Ajax and Besiktas rounding out the group, you’d expect them to pull off.
– How teams can reach the round of 16 | When is the draw?
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN + (US only)
– You don’t have ESPN? Access immediately
Better for Barcelona: sneak into the round of 16 or try to win the Europa League?
Laurens: Qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League is much more important for Xavi and Barcelona. Financially, they need the income that these two games (and maybe more) will bring. In terms of ranking, they also have to go through this. They don’t need to reach another low point as they try to make their way to the top.
And at least there wouldn’t be any pressure if they qualified for the Champions League. No one is going to bet on them to go further and qualify for the quarterfinals, so it would work for them. On the other hand, if they enter the Europa League the pressure will be huge, everyone will expect them to win it. They are likely to go far which means more games and less time for Xavi and his players to focus on La Liga.
Marsden: Staying in the Champions League is better for Barcelona, even if it means another round of 16 exit following last season’s 5-2 aggregate loss to Paris Saint-Germain. The prize money and the prestige of the European elite competition are much higher. Success (and therefore more income on match day) is far from guaranteed in the Europa League either, as traditionally bigger teams have discovered in the past.
It’s not even as if the competition provides a platform for a generation of talented young people. They are all already playing. An injury crisis has pushed Barca’s slim side to their limits and a free midweek would be more welcome than the Europa League.
Ogden: Playing in the round of 16 will be worth more for Barcelona, both financially and in terms of prestige, than winning the Europa League. They simply have to do everything to avoid the ignominy of falling into a competition that will only further humiliate the club.
I think they’re doomed to the Europa League now anyway because, as I expect. Benfica beat Dynamo Kiev, then Barca have to win at Bayern Munich, and that won’t happen. The only good thing about being in the Europa League is that it may give Barca their best hope of playing in the Champions League next season, but they have to do everything to beat Bayern because the Europa League is truly the “twilight zone” for clubs as illustrious as Barcelona.
Shaka Hislop said Man United were not inspiring against Villarreal and only won thanks to the heroism of Cristiano Ronaldo and David De Gea.
The four English clubs are at the head of their group; rank them in order of probability of winning it all
Marsden: Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool then Manchester United – although you can argue for any top three order. I will give Chelsea the advantage because they were transformed under Thomas Tuchel. They won the competition last season, beat Juventus this week, lead the Premier League and are so tough defensively.
City and Liverpool are roughly on the same level, however, with two of the best coaches and teams in the game packed with talent. United are lagging behind but cannot be ruled out.
Even at 36, Cristiano Ronaldo’s has proven to be decisive in Europe this season and a new coach will surely pull more than a assembled squad at a heavy price.
Ogden: Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United. Liverpool are a team in their prime with a winning Champions League pedigree and yes they have Anfield which is a huge advantage in the knockout stage. I rank Liverpool among the favorites to win the competition.
City will always be close and are as good as any Champions League side, but their lack of a center-forward puts them behind Liverpool and Bayern Munich.
Chelsea? Last season’s success has proven that they can win and their coach is their trump card. But I’m not sure they have the goals to beat the best this time around.
As for United, they are rank underdogs, but a top manager could organize them to win it. They have the offensive quality, David de Gea is back to his best and, as Chelsea (2012 and 2021) and Liverpool (2005) have proven, the best team in Europe doesn’t always win the Champions League.
Laurens: Manchester United is definitely the last of the English clubs. I don’t even know how they ended up at the top of their group. For the other three, however, good luck trying to separate them.
There’s a reason Liverpool and City drew in the Premier League (2-2), why the Reds also shared a point with Chelsea in the league (1-1), as the champions won by accuracy at Stamford Bridge: there isn’t much between these three at all. They are all impressive, confident, with managers at the top of their game, great team spirit and unity.
Chelsea are probably the strongest defensively, City the most fluid in attack and Liverpool can hurt you in a lot of ways. If I have to rank them, and I find it really difficult, I would go first to Manchester City, then to Chelsea and then to Liverpool. But ask me again tomorrow and I would probably go to Liverpool, Chelsea and City!
ESPN FC’s Craig Burley and Julien Laurens share their candid thoughts on PSG’s lackluster performance in their 2-1 loss to Man City.
For Thanksgiving, what are you grateful for in this season’s competition?
Ogden: Sheriff Tiraspol. Yes, the history of the Moldovan champions is far from a fairy tale of modern day football, with their rich supporters ensuring almost total domination of their domestic league with 19 of the last 21 titles, but in terms of the League of champions, they are absolute minnows.
The Sheriff’s home win over Shakhtar Donetsk on Matchday 1 was a story in itself, but then beating Real Madrid at the Bernabeu was an incredible shock and one that the Champions League needed after the breakaway failed of the Super League last season. These will be the usual suspects in the knockout stage, but Sheriff has shown that even the smallest teams are still capable of dealing a blow to heavyweights.
Laurens: I am grateful for the incredible record of French players! Sébastien Haller (who was born in France but plays international football for Côte d’Ivoire) is on fire with Ajax with nine goals in five games. He has been unstoppable and leads Ajax to their best group stage campaign in the competition. He is the top scorer in the Champions League, along with Robert Lewandowski.
And what about Christopher Nkunku? He is not even a striker in the traditional sense of the word but with already seven goals, including a hat-trick against Manchester City, he is third in the scorers table. The native Parisian is such a rare talent that is versatile, clinical and so elegant too.
Then you have Karim “The Dream” Benzema with five goals, French-born Algerian international Riyad Mahrez with four, Antoine Griezmann with three, Kylian Mbappe with two and Kingsley Coman with one. Long live France and our goal scorers who light up the Champions League this season so far.
Marsden: Ajax. The Dutch club’s ability to rebuild itself should be a lesson for Europe’s biggest spenders. The majority of the stars in their 2019 semi-finals are gone, but coach Erik ten Hag has built a new squad that seems capable of matching that feat.
Ten Hag’s squad is made up of a mix of youngsters, players who had been thrown elsewhere, and hidden gems unearthed by a brilliant recruiting team. Pinning everything together is a clearly defined style of play that is pleasing to the eye. Everyone knows their role.
Highlights of the current campaign have included 5-1 and 4-0 wins over Sporting Lisbon and Borussia Dortmund, respectively, as Ajax went through the group stage with five out of five wins.