The world’s two best players are competing for one of the few honours left available to them but elsewhere the competition is stagnating and will benefit from a shake-up
Lionel Messi has averaged a goal every 45 minutes played so far in the Champions League this season. He has hit two hat-tricks – against Celtic and Manchester City – and his 10 goals helped Barcelona to top spot in the group ahead of Pep Guardiola’s City side.
Messi had fallen a long way behind Cristiano Ronaldo in the race to 100 Champions League goals following the Real Madrid forward’s 16 strikes en route to winning the title last season. However, a lack of form and some injury problems have curtailed Ronaldo’s impact in Europe this season and he has only scored two so far in his six matches.
It means he sits on 95 Champions League goals with Messi on 93. It is inevitable that both men will crash through the 100-goal barrier and there is a battle on between them to see who gets there first.
Messi was included in the Barcelona squad to face Borussia Monchengladbach on matchday six despite Barca already being assured of finishing first with the Argentine’s eyes very much focused on the goalscoring prize. He may have been outshone by Arda Turan on the night but it says plenty about Messi’s hunger for individual success that he was on the field in the first place.
Ronaldo lined up against Borussia Dortmund a night later but had a fruitless evening in front of goal, hitting the post with his best chance of the game.
Messi and Ronaldo are so successful both individually and collectively now that there are very few prizes left for them to claim. The race to 100 is certainly one to watch in the knockout phase come spring.
Fifteen of the 16 teams drawn from pots one and two for the group stage have qualified for the Champions League knockouts. The only team to defy their seeding and fail to qualify were CSKA Moscow. Monaco – who began the season in pot four – went through ahead of them.
That 15 of 16 favourites have been delivered to the second round shows the Champions League as being a stagnant competition and altogether too predictable. If anything it only confirms that UEFA’s decision to shake up the Champions League for the 2018-21 competition cycle is a welcome one.
While some supporters might complain that seeing more clubs from the big leagues distorts the tournament, the evidence borne out shows there is a gulf in class between the favourites and the rest that is to the detriment of the competition as a whole.
Dinamo Zagreb and Club Brugge – for example – have earned not a single point between them while the likes of Legia Warsaw, Celtic, PSV and Basel have not fared much better. If the teams representing leagues from further down the food chain are to have any sort of convincing argument about keeping the Champions League more democratic then they are going to have to start doing a lot better on the pitch.
The European Club Association – increasingly dictating Champions League policy – hopes that the new plans for the competition will increase the sporting quality and competitive balance of the tournament as well as maximise commercial success. Fans all over the continent have grown weary of mismatches, dead rubbers and half-hearted games towards the end of the group stages.
Thankfully, not many more of those need to be endured.
This is not what Nasser al Khelaifi had in mind when he sacked Laurent Blanc and replaced the Frenchman with Unai Emery. The former Sevilla manager was enlisted to help PSG improve their game in Europe but things are not working out at all for the Spaniard so far.
Expectations are not being met in Ligue 1 – PSG are third despite the budget gap between them and the rest being astronomically large – and face Nice this weekend. Mario Balotelli’s side are three points clear of the Parisians in the league – a situation which is best described as a slap in the face for the Qatari project.
Not only that but PSG have tumbled from top spot in their Champions League group too. Arsenal’s matchday six win against Basel was impressive in its own right but should never have been enough to earn first place in the group. All PSG had to do was beat lowly Ludogorets at home to ensure top spot but they failed.
Thanks to dreadful defensive mistakes, PSG fell behind twice and could only muster a 2-2 draw. That result followed last weekend’s 3-0 humbling away at Montpellier in the league.
It is clear something is not right with PSG currently with incoherence on the pitch and individual blunders costing them time and again.
Edinson Cavani is scoring consistently but other big-name players like Marquinhos, Hatem Ben Arfa, Lucas Moura, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Angel Di Maria are failing.
PSG’s expensive project is on uncertain ground currently as is their manager Emery.
Napoli were on the verge of becoming the first team qualified for the knockouts at the start of matchday three but slumped to an unlikely defeat at home to Besiktas. Following that loss, they were dragged into a three-way fight for qualification with the Turks as well as Benfica. Their win against the Portuguese champions on matchday six confirmed their progress as winners of the group. There were two disappointing defeats on matchdays four and five against Besiktas and Dynamo Kyiv meaning things were far tighter for Maurizio Sarri’s side than they needed to be.
However, goals from Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens meant it all came together for Napoli at the end. It’s the first time they’ve ever qualified for the second round as group winners and their third time overall at this stage of the draw. Napoli suffered a big blow in losing record signing Arek Milik to injury and happily the Pole is likely to be back to lead their line for the Champions League matches in the spring.
As always with Napoli, it was eventful and exciting but all’s well that ends well.
The knockout round will have no pushovers. Six of the strongest seven member associations in Europe supply all 16 teams between them with the sole exception being the Russian Premier League which lost its two participants at the group stage.
Romantics might lament the fact that no outsiders from the Netherlands or Belgium for example have made it through but the simple fact of the matter is those clubs weren’t good enough this year.
Instead we have four exceptionally strong Spanish clubs in Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Sevilla. No one will want to face Real or Sevilla in the second round considering they are in the second pot.
Three English clubs are safely through with only Tottenham eliminated. Arsenal and Leicester topped their group while Manchester City will give a stern test to any seed they draw in the last 16.
Three German clubs have also made it with Borussia Dortmund finishing ahead of Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen finishing runners-up in their sections.
Italy’s Serie A will be represented by Juventus and Napoli as group winners. Monaco and PSG will represent Ligue 1 while rounding out the process will be Portuguese sides Benfica and Porto.
The second row of seeds is intriguing with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich the obvious big fish in there. But Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will fancy themselves as favourites against most sides they can draw in the top half too. That’s not to mention the potential in Monaco who have taken great delight in surprising all-comers so far this season.
Barcelona will be regarded as bookmakers’ favourites followed by Bayern and Real but there is no predicting what might happen. On Monday – when the draw transpires – more will be revealed.