Chelsea, Club Brugge and Napoli put Sevilla, Xavi and Hart to shame in Champions League

Pep Guardiola might have had a point about Joe Hart, who tried to outdo Antonio Adan. Club Brugge, Chelsea and Napoli enjoyed themselves.

Club Brugge
Group B currently contains Diego Simeone, Sergio Conceicao and Xabi Alonso as managers who could probably still excel as players. Carl Hoefkens is not foolish enough to suggest that his two seasons each at Stoke and West Brom hold up to such scrutiny but he is certainly showing his more illustrious contemporaries how this European lark is done from the dug-out.

The headline statistic was that no Belgian club had ever won their first three games of the Champions League group stage but a more startling fact lies ever so slightly beneath the surface: this is only the third time a Belgian club has won three games in an entire Champions League campaign.

Gent achieved that feat in 2015/16, finishing as runners-up behind Zenit Saint Petersburg and falling to Wolfsburg at the first knockout hurdle.

Anderlecht won six matches in 2000/01, beating Manchester United and Real Madrid but being eliminated in the second group stage.

Three wins without conceding in a group containing one previous Champions League winner and two finalists, all of whom are regulars on this platform, already ranks as one of the country’s finest modern European achievements.

It is generally advised to visit a doctor if you have a Brugge that has lasted longer than a fortnight without changing. This one is only getting bigger and more painful for the opposition.

Napoli
Some clubs routinely make recruitment look so difficult that it’s easy to forget how sensible, efficient and prosperous others are in the market.

Napoli’s summer transfer window was a thing of beauty. The departures of 12-year veteran and captain Lorenzo Insigne, record scorer Dries Mertens, starting keeper David Ospina, star centre-half Kalidou Koulibaly and midfield lynchpin Fabian Ruiz could have collapsed the entire operation – and indeed absolutely would elsewhere.

Throw in the exits of less obviously influential but still important squad figures such as Faouzi Ghoulam, Andrea Petagna, Adam Ounas and Arkadiusz Milik, and a whole-scale rebuild was required.

Against Ajax, five of the starting line-up was signed this summer and two more came off the bench. Kim Min-jae and Mathias Olivera excelled in defence, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa thrived in midfield and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Giacomo Raspadori bewildered in attack.

Giovanni Simeone rounded off the scoring as a substitute, ably accompanied by Tanguy Ndombele.

That level of pre-season upheaval, as well as the continued injury struggles of leading striker and most expensive player Victor Osimhen, makes this one of the most impressive Champions League results in the last few years. Hell, Napoli are top of Serie A and unbeaten in all competitions since April. Luciano Spalletti is working wonders.

Jurgen Klopp
A necessary change in an established Liverpool system
brought a fourth clean sheet in their last 17 games and offered hope that the unscheduled rebuild turns out only to be a couple of foundational tweaks.

The standard of opposition has to be taken into account. Rangers were subdued and strangled by Liverpool as they continue to struggle for consistency.

But the hosts put in one of their best overall performances in months, both individually and as a collective. Klopp’s post-match explanation that he “set it up slightly different, closed different gaps” was interesting. He treated their defensive issues like holes in a boat, asking Liverpool not to plug more areas but to address the leakiest parts first. Rangers still had as many shots as Brighton (6) the previous weekend, but the quality, position and angle of those efforts favoured and flattered the Reds far more.

Marseille
Sure, big win and all that. Really important. Fair play. But look at the Premier League heritage in that team: Pau Lopez, Chancel Mbemba, Eric Bailly, Matteo Guendouzi, Jordan Veretout, Nuno Tavares, Cengiz Under and Alexis Sanchez in the starting line-up, with Dimitri Payet, Pape Gueye and Issa Kabore on the bench. Beautiful.

Reece James
Anything you can do, I can do better
. Or something. It was a performance that won’t be screamed quite as loudly, nor from such towering rooftops, but Reece James rose to the occasion and proved why he is trusted for his country as much as he is for his club.

The 22-year-old is not without his flaws but they are increasingly rare and easy to accommodate into any system regardless. Rafael Leao was the focus coming into this game, even for the Chelsea manager, but James shackled him with ease.

Milan had no answer to James at either end. He set up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal and took his own with remarkable confidence. No player on either side had more touches, only three completed more dribbles and just one made more tackles.

With his technical supremacy, physical gifts and all-round brilliance, there ought to be barely contained excitement at what he can become under Graham Potter.

Simone Inzaghi
One team really does stand out when examining a list of the opponents Inter Milan have beaten so far this season: Lecce, Spezia, Cremonese, Torino, Viktoria Plzen, Barcelona.

The Nerazzurri had lost every game when put up against sides of actual quality. Lazio, Milan and Udinese all put three past them, Bayern Munich barely broke a sweat and Jose Mourinho watched his Roma side raid the San Siro from a van in the parking lot.

The Portuguese would have been proud of his former club’s budget rendition of the 2010 Champions League semi-final, second-leg last stand at the Nou Camp. Inter had a similar amount of the ball – 28% on Tuesday compared to 24% 12 years ago – but there was a similar level of ease in keeping out an increasingly desperate Barca.

Simone Inzaghi was playing for his job. But so, too, were his players. They carried out his game plan impeccably to stifle Barca, whose already shallow pool of ideas was so exhausted that they managed only two shots – one blocked and another off-target – in the second half.

Inter’s last effort, by contrast, was their most telling. After Hakan Calhanoglu’s gloriously precise finish in first-half stoppage-time, they had no need nor impetus to attack. The sole objective was to defend a well-earned lead.

They did as such through the sort of organisation, cohesion and concentration with which Inter have hardly been synonymous this season. In terms of the hierarchy, and much unlike his older brother, Inzaghi might finally be back onside.

Sergio Conceicao
Each of Porto’s last three opponents have had a player sent off. It is an unsustainable tactic but one Sergio Conceicao is currently maximising.

Estoril were reduced to 10 men in the 77th minute while leading the Portuguese giants, who proceeded to equalise deep into stoppage-time. Braga’s hopes of a comeback were extinguished when Matheus received a red card at 3-1 down in a game Porto went on to win 4-1. And Leverkusen’s capitulation was confirmed with Jeremie Frimpong’s frustration-soaked second yellow as the hosts led 2-0.

That advantage was established through goals from Zaidu Sanusi and Galeno. While neither are prolific, their introduction in a double substitution changed the game entirely and revived Porto’s flagging campaign.

Jude Bellingham
The third-youngest captain in Champions League history. A scorer in three consecutive Champions League games as a teenager from midfield. He is special and, from an England perspective, he is ours. That bears repeating periodically.

Christopher Nkunku
As if the standard of those runs and finishes – both allowed and disallowed – were not absurd enough, Christopher Nkunku decided to casually pull out the inch-perfect 50-yard crossfield ball from his locker for Leipzig’s third. It will be fun to see how Chelsea ruin the 24-year-old before sending him back on loan after a year.

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Christopher Nkunku during a match

Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting
Now the highest-scoring Eric/Erik/Eirik in European Cup history alongside Cantona, who reached his eight goals in 13 more starts than Choupo-Moting.

Losers

Sevilla
Flames to dust, lovers to friends – why do all good things come to an end? Nelly Furtado’s seminal 2006 hit will be playing in the darkly-lit bedrooms of every Sevilla fan on Thursday morning, and Julen Lopetegui will doubtless be among them.

A devastating few months have halted a remarkable three years. Lopetegui steered Sevilla to two top-four finishes and their coveted Europa League title, restoring a reputation which had been shattered with Spain and Real Madrid in the process.

But Sevilla have not won consecutive games since February and only eight victories in their last 33 fixtures forced a change.

Wolves might be next for Lopetegui – who has probably earned a greater opportunity than a dormant Premier League relegation battle – but his Sevilla successor will be a brave man. They are 17th in La Liga, in a straight fight with Copenhagen for third place in their Champions League group and the squad has been hampered by short-sighted recruitment amid the usual sale of key players.

Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde were their first-choice centre-halves in 2021/22. Both were sold and replaced painfully inadequately; Sevilla have subsequently conceded 21 goals so far this campaign. A popular manager has lost his job as a result.

Xavi
It requires immense effort not to win a Champions League group game with Robert Lewandowski at your disposal. Before this season, the Pole had won 15 such matches straight while scoring 22 goals in that sequence.

Against Inter Milan, he was nullified at no great expense of effort. Lewandowski’s solitary shot elicited the most routine of first-half saves from Andre Onana and he offered nothing in attack otherwise.

That was the only wavelength he shared all evening with Ousmane Dembele and Raphinha. The former was heavily involved but still ultimately ineffective and the deployment of the latter as a sort of inverted winger was sub-optimal.

The officials provided Xavi with a convenient excuse in their questionable calls over the two handballs but Barcelona cannot blame referees for their downfall with a straight face. They knew Inter Milan would take a more defensive approach and the visitors had absolutely no answer. It is no coincidence that five at the back almost shut Barcelona out against Mallorca the previous weekend; the only difference in that game was a slightly more limited opponent and a phenomenal finish from Lewandowski.

As it is, Xavi has spent enough on transfer fees and wages to make pointing the finger elsewhere for their failures seem utterly laughable. One win in his first five Champions League games as a coach is frankly pathetic for the level of trust and investment he has been granted.

It’s easy to be “p*ssed off” at referees but a less headline-friendly post-match Xavi quote – “we have to be self-critical” – should be the focus. Barcelona need to master what they can control, starting with curious team selections and uninventive tactics, long before they lament what they cannot.

Bayer Leverkusen
Five of the managers who started this Champions League season will not be granted the opportunity to finish it. Domenico Tedesco, Thomas Tuchel, Jess Thorup, Lopetegui and now Gerardo Seoane have paid for perceived under-performance thus far and it does not feel as though that will be the last of them.

It is to Leverkusen’s credit that they gave Seoane so long to turn a rapidly sinking ship around. The promise of last season disintegrated with five defeats from their first eight in the Bundesliga, as well as an ignominious DFB-Pokal exit to a third-tier club and a stuttering start in Europe. Seoane himself could not have pretended it was good enough.

The sacking was mutually distressing but equally necessary. Despite the modest summer investment, this remains a strong enough hand for Xabi Alonso to play far better.

Ajax
“We are playing Champions League football. I don’t think Manchester United are playing Champions League football,” Ajax manager Alfred Schreuder reminded Antony in August. It seems the Brazilian’s choice ultimately came down to which far superior side he wanted to conceded six goals to.

After a seven-game winning run to start Schreuder’s tenure, Ajax have been beaten by Liverpool, lost to AZ, drawn with Go Ahead Eagles and now been hammered by Napoli. The last time the Dutch giants went four straight games without a win was August 2017, in their first weeks under the similarly inexperienced Marcel Keizer; he was sacked by that December.

Diego Simeone
Atletico Madrid have lost four of the six games in which they have had the majority of possession this season, winning three and drawing one of the four matches when their opponent has seen most of the ball.

Diego Simeone’s approach has delivered two Champions League finals and a semi-final but also only six wins in their last 22 European fixtures. Atletico are justified to expect more on the biggest stage from one of the highest-paid coaches in world football.

The club has come to terms with the sacrifice of entertainment, but only as a means to the ultimate end of results and success. Atletico are bottom of their Champions League group and already six points behind an unbeaten top two in La Liga. When his style works it is brilliant but when it doesn’t those questions are naturally asked louder than usual, and the answers are not flowing as freely as before.

Joe Hart
“He was very knowledgeable on my background, very knowledgeable on what we did, how I played football, it was a two-hour conversation that kind of ended with him saying ‘I can’t see this working’.

“I said ‘I thought that might be the idea, I don’t agree with you’. He said ‘I’ll be the first person to be proved wrong but what I see in you isn’t what I want from my goalkeeper’.

“I was like ‘it’s all very well saying that, but I’ve never been asked to do the kind of things I know you like your goalkeepers to do, so I think it’s only fair I be given the opportunity’. He said ‘of course you’ll be given the opportunity, but…’. As soon as there are any buts at the end you know there’s a decision.”

Joe Hart might understand Pep Guardiola’s point now. It could have been worse, mind…

 

Antonio Adan
One of the great calamitous Champions League performances. An absolute masterclass not in just being bad, but in completely undermining anything your team wants to do with an actively detrimental display.

Sporting opened the scoring in the first minute. Antonio Adan then thwacked a clearance directly into Alexis Sanchez’s meaty leg to make it 1-1, before giving the ball away and bizarrely remaining off his line for Marseille’s patient build-up, thus ensuring Amine Harit had a big enough target to aim his header at. 2-1.

With the pièce de résistance, an explicit handball outside the area during which he clattered into his own defender, Sporting’s perfect start was ruined. “These are days that happen,” said Adan after the game. Still probably best to check his bank account, just to be certain.

Adrien Rabiot
Daft sod could have been watching Scott McTominay from the bench and taking notes but no, he’d rather score twice in the Champions League. Pathetic.

Spurs
If more than a thousand words of high-quality, fatalistic but entirely acceptant Tottenham dread is really your thing, then boy are you in luck.

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