Champions League grades: top marks for Shakhtar, United sink to new low
Editor’s Note: these figures refer to teams’ performance in this week’s round of matches and not their chances of winning the competition as a whole.
What happened in Hamburg on Tuesday should resonate as one of the great Champions League stories. Shakhtar, a team without a home since 2014, exiled from Ukraine by war, continues to show admirable fortitude. The 1-0 win over Barcelona had echoes of Shakhtar beating Real Madrid home and away in 2021. Of course, Barcelona didn’t play well at all, Robert Lewandowski was a virtual passenger, but Danylo Sikan, a 22-year-old, showed the Pole legend how you could convert a headed chance, while Newerton, an 18-year-old Brazilian, confused Barça. Shakhtar’s is a spirit that cannot be broken.
Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid
Dortmund’s 2-0 defeat by Newcastle was humiliating for Eddie Howe’s team. Another lesson that Champions League football brings countless dimensions to a Premier League team that has no experience in the tournament. BVB striker Niclas Füllkrug nodded home, a goal from which Newcastle could not recover. They failed to clear the second ball three times and paid the price. Julian Brandt, now such a key player for Edin Terzić, breaking through the increasingly desperate Newcastle press, showed real composure in his long run and slide rule.
Milan, FC Copenhagen
Milan vs PSG was the heavyweight match of the week. Even though both clubs carry a hint of past glory, the quality was high and it was Milan’s greater tricks that took the win 2-1. Winning goalscorer Olivier Giroud continues to improve with age: he is much more confident of reaching the finish than he was a decade ago, while his Milan teammates performed well to prevent the new PSG from getting into their flow. Ousmane Dembélé rattled the crossbar, but Kylian Mbappé was forced into positions where his danger could be contained. The same went for teen sensation Warren Zaire-Emery. It was an evening in which the individualism of Milan’s Rafael Leão was the shining light and defining factor of the game. Christian Pulisic was forced off late in the match with a leg injury, but appears to be recovering prevent serious injury.
Real Sociedad, PSV Eindhoven, Union Berlin
La Real is proof that homegrown provincial teams can still make an impact at the very highest level. Back in the league after a ten-year absence, they recorded a last-16 finish in style, blowing Benfica away in the first half. win 3-1, while also missing a penalty. Ander Barrenetxea, 21, scored their third goal in the 21st minute. Imanol Alguacil previously served at the club as youth coach, and six of his graduates started the match with a further nine Sociedad-bred players on the bench.
Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Lazio, Arsenal, RB Leipzig
When it comes to getting things done in the Champions League, most of the big boys have done their job with ruthless efficiency, although Arsenal, beating the always dangerous Sevilla 2-0, got their campaign back on track. The loss in Lens on the second matchday was corrected by beating the Spanish team home and away. A clean sheet for David Raya was very welcome, as was a goal for Bukayo Saka, although he seemed to take a blow in the process; Sevilla, like some other opponents, had clearly decided to target Arsenal’s main attacker. Coming back from last weekend’s Premier League defeat to Newcastle and all the fuss surrounding it, this was a real tonic for Arsenal. Leandro Trossard impressed at false number 9 in the absence of Gabriel Jesus and Eddie Nketiah. The January signing from Brighton remains extremely useful to his manager due to his versatility on the front line.
Royal Antwerp is the kind of opposition that a club with Porto’s pedigree should be able to beat aside with little difficulty. That was not entirely the case, even though Antwerp was reduced to 10 men in the 52nd minute. Evanilson followed up the hat-trick he scored against the Belgians in the first meeting with the opening goal during Tuesday’s 2-0 win. but it was Pepe who made headlines and grabbed history. The former Real Madrid defender and still The Portugal international nodded home to score their second goal. At forty years, eight months and twelve days, he is the oldest player to score in the competition. There was also relief. Moments earlier, Pepe’s aging legs had allowed Arbnor Muja to slip through and almost grab the equalizer.
Galatasaray, Napoli, PSG
Being held to a 1-1 draw by Union Berlin to hand the German side their first ever Champions League point was a disappointment for Napoli, who continue to struggle with the hangover from winning last season’s Scudetto. The draw ended a run of twelve defeats for Union in all competitions. Old foe Leonardo Bonucci, the former Juventus talisman, led the defensive line to keep Napoli’s attackers at bay. Union bowed out of the competition having failed to win, but Bonucci still allowed himself a moment of celebration when the final whistle blew. After David Datro Fofana, on loan from Chelsea, had scored the equalizer, Rudi Garcia’s attackers could no longer find a way out. Napoli should still be good for the last 16, but their chance to secure progression was denied by Bonucci et al.
Sevilla, Braga, Benfica, Red Bull Salzburg, Feyenoord, Red Star Belgrade, Royal Antwerp, Lens
Lost 3-0 to Real Madrid was no shame for Braga – the Spaniards won their first four group matches for the first time since the 2014/15 season. Braga, which is playing in the Champions League after an eleven-year absence, has a combination of youth, diamonds in the rough and veterans. Defender José Fonte is 39, while playmaker João Moutinho is 37, although neither could capitalize on their vast experience.
Young boys, Barcelona, Newcastle
The defeat to Shakhtar leaves Barcelona unreliable and below expectations this season, even if the club’s financial problems mean they can no longer pick the best in the world. Xavi, for all his haughtiness as a coach, has yet to emulate the teams he played in. If Lewandowski struggled, João Félix, a player with talent but also high performance, was equally disappointing coming off the bench. Félix continues to do that his xG is underperforming in domestic and European competitions, leaving Barcelona completely reliant on Lewandowski as their only goal threat. And there are problems elsewhere. It remains a surprise to see long-time Southampton mainstay Oriol Romeu anchoring the midfield.
Perhaps Manchester United’s overall performance in the 4-3 away defeat to Copenhagen means this is a tough score. But Erik ten Hag’s side’s penchant for stealing farce and infamy from decent positions is unparalleled. Marcus Rashford’s red card in Copenhagen was one of those decisions that becomes subjective when replayed in slow motion, but these things do happen. The immediate reaction to that setback was to quickly surrender a two-goal lead. To then give up a winning position after Bruno Fernandes’ penalty and then lose is all of Manchester United in 2023. There was at least hope in Rasmus Højlund’s performance, but the fear may be that he will be swallowed up by the chaos that surrounds him. United finished bottom of the group on the evening and their next match, at Galatasaray, looks fateful.
Brendan Rodgers is once again struggling on the European stage as a manager, although Celtic’s 6-0 thrashing of Atlético Madrid must register as a low point. And especially because they had shown such spirit and attacking quality by drawing 2-2 with the same opposition a fortnight ago. Admittedly, Antoine Griezmann had one of his magical nights, as did Álvaro Morata, and Daizen Maeda’s red card didn’t help either, although it was fully deserved as one of those tackles whose VAR reveals the full horrors. Celtic thus exited the Champions League, unable to reverse their manager’s abysmal record in the competition. Achieving third place and a place in the Europa League also seems like quite a task.