The Warm-Up: Liverpool's high five and PSG's nosedive
Jack Lang rounds up the evening's Champions League action and salutes Petr Cech...
THURSDAY’S BIG STORIES
No hiding place for the coefficient
A couple of years ago, it looked like an unfair fight. Our fragile football teams were simply no match for the nebulous might of UEFA’s proprietary coefficient system, which stopped at nothing in its quest to terrorise the inventors of the beautiful game.
As Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Madrid teams dominated our brave boys, we were forced to envisage a horrible, dystopian future in which the Premier League would only have – yes, I know this these are painful memories – three and a half guaranteed places in the Champions League. And everyone knows that three and a half rounded down is three. And the number below three is two. It was scary stuff.
Now, though, the world’s greatest league rides again. After Tottenham’s Turin turnaround and Manchester City’s Swiss bliss, it was Liverpool’s turn to switch on the magic last night. The Reds were always favourites to find a way past Porto, but even Jurgen Klopp cannot have hoped for such dominance in the first leg at the Estadio do Dragao.
Liverpool clobbered them. Absolutely kneecapped them. They were dressed as highlighter pens and proceeded to draw attention to each and every single one of Porto’s defensive frailties, cutting through their hosts time and again.
Mo Salah (obviously) and Roberto Firmino were on the scoresheet once more, but the main of the hour was Sadio Mane, who recorded his first Liverpool hat-trick and generally looked unplayable. The winger has often played third fiddle to the other members of the Fearsome Threesome (formerly Fab Four) domestically, but he now has six goals in seven games on the continent.
Cold Wednesday nights in Madrid
For long spells at the Bernabeu, Paris Saint-Germain had Real Madrid on the run. Marco Verratti was weaving neat patterns; Dani Alves was bombing on with intent; Kylian Mbappe’s pace was causing problems. When Adrien Rabiot stroked home the opening goal, the Ligue 1 side looked well on the way to a statement victory.
Then… well, even if you knew nothing about PSG’s last visit to Spain, you’d still have to call it a brain melt. Giovani Lo Celso – a surprise selection and in hindsight a poor one – grabbed Toni Kroos by the neck and conceded a penalty. Unai Emery wavered (more on this later) and Madrid, despite not playing very well at all, somehow smashed and grabbed their way to a 3-1 win.
PSG have work to do in the second leg, then, but at least they could comfort themselves with the minor victory of having the evening’s best quote. “It’s all well and good putting eight goals past Dijon,” muttered Rabiot after the game, “but it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted.”
Cough cough Neymar cough.
That’s now 101 Champions League goals for Cristiano Ronaldo, by the way. He did pretty much nothing apart from scoring from the spot and deflecting a loose ball over the line with his knee, but they all count.
Dennis Bergkamp joined Internazionale 25 years ago today. Here are all of his goals for the Nerazzurri:
HEROES AND ZEROES
Hero: Petr Cech
After the Arsenal goalkeeper sent his best wishes to Ryan Mason yesterday, an interview given by Mason in October did the rounds. Cech, it turns out, is king of pastoral care when it comes to head injuries in football.
“Straight away, he contacted my family, my fiancée and just sort of reassured us that what we were going through was sort of normal and to be expected,” Mason said on Talksport.
“As soon as I got a bit more strength I was keen to see him because he had said, ‘As soon as you’re ready, I’d like to come round and speak to you.’
“I was a bit worried at first because I hadn’t really spoken to anyone longer than 10 minutes. He walked through the door and sat on my sofa and just said, ‘Sit back, don’t say anything. Just listen.’
Arsenal's Petr Cech reacts at the end of the matchReuters
“He spoke for about an hour and a half. I didn’t say anything, he just spoke. It was brilliant. It just reassured us that everything we were going through was part of the process of recovery and we’ve been in touch ever since.
“He’s been fantastic. He’s kind of set the standard of what it is to be a proper man and a gentleman. I’m hoping no one ever does go through that sort of injury again in sports, but if they do go through something similar, I’ll be there like Petr was for me.”
Zero: Unai Emery
If you’re going to replace your top scorer with a full-back after 65 minutes, you really, really have to be keeping things tight in the closing stages of the match. And while PSG could probably consider themselves a touch unlucky on both of Madrid’s late goals, it was notable that both arrived at the end of attacks down the side that Emery probably thought he had shut down.
“When [Thomas] Meunier came on we dominated on the right flank,” he claimed after the game, apparently seriously. Come on now.
IN THE CHANNELS
A golden night of football deserved the best available talent on microphone and studio duty. Sadly, BT Sport could only come up with the stultifying Glenn Hoddle/Michael Owen punditry combination for the Madrid match.
Hoddle, who consistently impresses with his ability to perform co-commentary duties with literally none of the grace and flair that defined his playing career, was a verbal non-event throughout, simply describing the action at a few seconds’ remove, as if providing an alternative audio track for the visually impaired. Ironically, G-Hod’s grey drone felt like a punishment exacted on all football fans for something they did in a past life.
And then along came Owen to offer some insight after the final whistle. “Emre [sic] is going to have… erm… Unai Emre [sic] is going to have a lot to answer for,” he ventured. “Some of the tactical substitutions might have been questionable.”
Such as? No, nothing? OK, thanks Michael. Even poor Darren Fletcher, usually such a reliable figure, seemed to be drinking from the nonsense fountain…
It’s stick-or-twist decision time for Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side face Ostersund in the first leg of their Europa League round-of-32 tie this evening. The Frenchman played the reserves for most of the group stage, but with things not exactly going smoothly in the Premier League – they’re eight points off the top four – this competition surely now represents their best chance of qualifying for the Champions League next term. And if it’s good enough for Jose Mourinho…