Manchester City’s best night yet, Tottenham’s Wembley woes and Arsenal’s selection dilemmas are among our talking points to emerge from this week’s Champions League results.
MANCHESTER CITY HAVE COME OF AGE
Manchester City took a giant leap towards the knockout stages with a comprehensive 3-1 win over the mighty Barcelona on Tuesday night in what was comfortably the most impressive display of Pep Guardiola’s reign so far.
Lionel Messi’s 90th Champions League goal, a counter-attacking masterpiece complete with cool finish from Neymar’s pass, put Barcelona in control as half-time approached.
The whole emphasis of the game changed, however, six minutes before the interval when Sergi Roberto’s mistake allowed Raheem Sterling to set up Ilkay Gundogan’s simple finish.
City, seeking their first win over Barcelona at the sixth attempt, were irresistible from then on as Kevin de Bruyne’s free-kick curved past Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the 51st minute.
Andre Gomes crashed a shot against the bar as Barcelona pressed for an equaliser, but City wrapped up a landmark win against manager Pep Guardiola’s former team with 16 minutes left when De Bruyne played in Jesus Navas and, when his cross fell loose from Sergio Aguero, Gundogan was once more on the spot to score.
The margin of the victory could have been greater though given City’s dominance and the result really showed that Guardiola’s methods are begininning to pay dividends at City.
It seems even more bizarre now given, in the run-up to Saturday’s win at West Brom, City had gone six matches without a win and there were plenty questioning Guardiola and his methods.
However, the win – and the manner of it in particular – would have been exactly the sort of night the club’s Abu Dhabi-based owners had in mind when they finally lured him to the Etihad.
City reached the Champions League semi-finals last season before succumbing to eventual winners Real Madrid, and they hope Guardiola will help the club make tat leap from the second tier of Europe’s clubs into the elite. Nights and performances like this, will increase confidence and help underline the fact that he is the man who can bridge that gap.
This was a win achieved with all the Guardiola hallmarks, in a blaze of attacking football, passing, movement and a willingness to take on the best without forsaking his principles.
It was the most significant win of Guardiola’s reign so far – and offered up the rich promise of more to come.
City under Guardiola have most definitely arrived.
”SELFISH’ OZIL IS FROM ANOTHER PLANET
Mesut Ozil scored one of the best goals this season as Arsenal came from behind to secure a 3-2 victory over Ludogorets and reach the round of 16. The strike really underlined the player’s status this season as one of the best players in world football right now and was typical of the confidence the Gunners, and Ozil in particular, are displaying right now.
Ozil was a picture of composure as he ran through on goal, chipped the keeper and cut inside two defenders before slotting in from close range for a dramatic winner.
The German has now been directly involved in eight goals in his past five games for Arsenal in all competitions, with five goals and three assists.
The German playmaker has already taken his tally this season to seven, having scored eight for the Gunners in total last term.
Last season Ozil was known as the Premier League’s assist king, having created 19 goals for the Gunners. This year, it currently stands at just one – a fact that has seen him placed only in seventh place in this list of English football’s Top 10 Number 10s.
The player has been branded as being ‘more selfish’ in some quarters, but that has to be taken as a compliment by the player given his influence for the Gunners.
His goal against the Bulgarians is one of those you never tire of seeing – and with Sky Sports pundit Charlie Nicholas branding Ozil as “from another planet” – we say long may it continue as Arsenal go from strength to strength at home and abroad.
With north London rivals Tottenham going through a sticky patch having not won in six games, can anyone see Sunday’s clash at the Emirates being anything other than a home win?
SANCHEZ AND GIROUD DILEMMA FOR WENGER
The energy and goals of Alexis Sanchez playing as a central striker have proved a major success for the Gunners this season – but the Arsene Wenger’s team selection against Tottenham will make interesting viewing given the return to goalscoring form of Olivier Giroud.
Giroud now has three goals in his last two games and could come into the reckoning for Sunday’s midday showdown.
But what to do with Sanchez as a consequence of any Giroud recall represents a dilemma. The Chilean was shifted out to the left wing against Ludogorets and initially, it seemed to reduce his threat as well as Arsenal’s.
Wenger now has to decide which attacking formation works best for his side in the key games coming up – starting with Sunday’s clash with Spurs.
LEICESTER’S KEEPING IT OUT CAMPAIGN
Leicester missed the chance to seal qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League after a forgettable 0-0 draw in Copenhagen.
The Foxes never got going in Denmark and the hosts failed to take advantage to leave their own hopes of reaching the last 16 in doubt.
Kasper Schmeichel ensured the visitors escaped with a point when he produced a fine last-minute save from Andreas Cornelius while Christian Fuchs cleared Benjamin Verbic’s effort off the line with Leicester yet to concede in the competition this season.
However, Ranieri and his players still deserve enormous credit: they’re the first Champions League debutants to keep a clean sheet in their first four games of the competition and they’re clearly set their stall out early to enjoy their time in the competition, knowing that as a collective, it’s likely to be a one-off….
You can see the likes of Schmeichel and Riyad Mahrez featuring in the tournament in years to come – most likely at other clubs – but for the likes of Wes Morgan and co – they’re clearly determined to enjoy their time dining at the top table. And why not….
VARDY: IS THE DREAM OVER?
England striker Jamie Vardy has now gone 12 games for club or country without a goal – a run stretching back to 10 September.
Having scored a stunning 24 league goals last season, the England man has managed only three this term in all competitions.
With regular partner Shinji Okazaki on the bench, Vardy was deployed as a lone frontman against Copenhagen, a role which did not help his prospects of ending his goal drought.
He had only one shot in the match and his 37 touches of the ball were the second fewest of any player in the Leicester starting XI.
The knives will be sharpening over the former Fleetwood man’s form, with plenty ready to cast him as a ‘one-season wonder’.
However, while Vardy is clearly lacking in confidence right now, but playing without a strike partner is unlikely to help him end that run any time soon.
SPURS REALLY OUGHT TO BLAME WEMBLEY
Tottenham’s Wembley curse struck again as Mauricio Pochettino’s men slipped to a 1-0 defeat against Bayer Leverkusen – to leave the club with a huge uphill task of reaching the knockout stages.
Pochettino insisted after the match that it was his underperforming players who should shoulder the blame – and not the fact they’re playing at the national stadium.
However, while several of their players were massive disappointments – as exemplified by our Player Ratings – Spurs have now won only once in seven matches at the national stadium and they paid the price for another sloppy display as Kevin Kampl’s second-half winner left their hopes of qualification hanging by a thread.
With a wider pitch than they’re used to, and the fact they’re effectively giving up ‘home advantage’, playing at Wembley really hasn’t suited Spurs at all – and you do wonder in hindsight if Pochettino might just admit its played a part?
The defeat means Tottenham drop to third in Group E, two points behind Leverkusen and four adrift of Monaco, who they play in France later this month.
After working so hard last season to reach the Champions League, are Spurs now destined to find themselves ‘back where they started from’ – Europa League, Thursday nights….?
COMPETITION WIDE OPEN – BUT BIG GUNS ARE PROVING THEIR WORTH
With five of the last 16 places already settled (Arsenal, PSG, Atletico Madrid, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund are already through) this year’s competition already appears to be going to plan, especially with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Napoli, Monaco, Sevilla and Juventus also looking almost certain to progress.
The competition, however, does appear a little more open this year, with some of the usually impenetrable sides looking slightly more vulnerable, as best exemplified by Barcelona’s defeat at Man City and Real Madrid conceding three times to whipping boys Legia Warsaw.
Leicester look a safe bet to gatecrash the party in the round of 16 – and would anyone bet against them reaching the quarter finals with a favourable draw?
Their willingness to have a go in Europe is reminiscent of Leeds United back in the 2000/01 season when David O’Leary’s troops reached the semi-finals; the Whites’ progress to that stage made all the more staggering given they then had to negotiate their way through two group stages back then.
However, no-one would relish a clash with Leicester and you’d not put it past the Foxes to reach the last eight before hitting a stumbling block.
The closing stages will likely be contested by the usual suspects, but picking a winner at this stage looks far from easy, with Atletico Madrid – who have played four, won four, the pick of the teams so far….