Key thoughts and analysis from Matchday 5 in the Champions League
EPL

Key thoughts and analysis from Matchday 5 in the Champions League

Nov 30, 2023

The Champions League rumbled on this week. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from a critical Matchday 5 in Europe’s premier club competition.

UEFA ‘apology’ falls on deaf Newcastle ears

UEFA has all but acknowledged that the decision to award Paris Saint-Germain a penalty deep into stoppage time of Tuesday’s eventual 1-1 draw with Newcastle United was incorrect. Tomasz Kwiatkowski, the video assistant referee who advised experienced compatriot Szymon Marciniak to review Tino Livramento’s 96th-minute handball and overturn his initial on-field decision, was scheduled to act as the VAR for another match on Wednesday but was swiftly removed from duty after the contentious incident in France.

That’s as close to an “oopsie” as you’ll ever get from the haughty organization.

It does nothing to help Newcastle, of course, and once again calls into question the understanding of the handball rule, one of the most mystifying regulations in all of sports. Marciniak and his Polish peer Kwiatkowski are among the most esteemed officials in world football; they both worked the 2022 World Cup final in the same roles they carried out on Tuesday at the Parc des Princes.

If even they can’t get it right, who can?

It also provides yet another example that UEFA’s Football Board, an advisory group comprised of former players and coaches, was right when it recommended in April that handball incidents involving deflections off a player’s body shouldn’t result in spot-kicks. That suggestion wasn’t implemented by UEFA, though. And here we are.

It’s certainly true that, on the basis of play, PSG probably deserved at least a point from Tuesday’s match. The French side dominated the second half, launching wave after wave of threatening attacks. Only some horrid finishing – Bradley Barcola was the main culprit – and brilliant goalkeeping kept them out before Kylian Mbappe stepped up to accept the gift from Marciniak in the waning seconds.

But the manner in which they were finally breached will leave Newcastle with a bitter taste, especially as Mbappe’s goal and the 1-1 result it secured took their Champions League fate out of their own hands. A 1-0 win would’ve left Newcastle in second place in the proverbial “Group of Death” and in complete control of their own destiny heading into Matchday 6. Instead, they now need to win and get some help to advance.

Kwiatkowski getting a one-day reprimand won’t soften that blow. – Gianluca Nesci

AC Milan’s cycle is effectively over

Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat at home to Borussia Dortmund leaves Milan with a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching the Champions League knockout round. That’s a huge blow for a club that only recently turned a profit for the first time in nearly two decades, due in large part to last season’s run to the semifinals of the competition.

But the fact is that Milan have been trending downward for the better part of the calendar year. Last season’s Champions League run masked significant issues, including a lack of scoring, significant frailties in defense, and a debilitating injury bug that continues to wreak havoc on the squad. Milan wouldn’t have even qualified for this season’s Champions League if Juventus weren’t docked points for false accounting. At various points, they’ve leaked up to five goals per game and failed to ignite their attack, sometimes going 20 chances before burying one.

A fix has so far eluded manager Stefano Pioli. Even with the help of a robust transfer campaign, in which he reportedly had a considerable say, he’s ultimately failed to restore any kind of balance to this squad. And it’s arguably the deepest squad he’s had since taking over in October 2019.

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Though there’s enough blame to go around – left-back Theo Hernandez, for one, has looked like a shell of the player who bombed forward with gusto last season – Pioli is the one responsible for keeping these players in playing condition. That hasn’t happened, and it isn’t just because of the sheer number of games in succession. Milan have racked up 25 injuries in four months alone – far more than any other Serie A team – and lost 89 man games to those injuries.

On Tuesday, Malick Thiaw became the fourth defender to join Milan’s bloated infirmary when he pulled his hamstring in a seemingly winnable footrace. Without any other center-backs at his disposal, Pioli had to play midfielder Rade Krunic out of position. It was no surprise to see a 1-1 game slip away from the Rossoneri. That’s how their entire season is slipping away.

An argument can be made that Milan stand to benefit from playing the rest of the season without Champions League obligations. How could they possibly remain competitive on multiple fronts without a fully functioning roster? But to say that is to undermine all the progress they’ve made in recent years. They should be competing on multiple fronts. They are built for it. They have the players for it. They have proved they can do it. So if they aren’t competing, then what exactly are they doing? – Anthony Lopopolo

Quick free-kicks

Cancelo accepts invitation to shine

NurPhoto / NurPhoto / Getty

Joao Cancelo is an unpredictable and slick dribbler, but he didn’t need to dig deep into his repertoire of tricks to dupe FC Porto right-back Joao Mario. The right-footed left-back switched the ball to his stronger foot – as right-footed left-backs tend to do – and easily exposed Joao Mario’s poor body shape and anticipation as he moved into the box and excellently slotted in Barcelona’s equalizer. The Porto youngster didn’t learn his lesson, allowing Cancelo to cut inside minutes after the break to set up a Joao Felix chance and also take a shot himself. And one of the few times Joao Mario blocked Cancelo’s route onto his right trotter, the relentless Barcelona star used his left peg to stab a cross under Joao Mario’s foot and to Felix, who duly netted the decisive strike in Barca’s 2-1 win. Cancelo had an excellent game – he even performed a wonderful trivela pass later in the second half – but he should reserve special thanks to Joao Mario for ensuring his evening was so enjoyable. – Daniel Rouse

Dortmund have a gem in Bynoe-Gittens

Jamie Bynoe-Gittens had to wait a couple of years before he could start for Borussia Dortmund. While Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham made the transition to German football seem easy, Bynoe-Gittens had to overcome torn knee ligaments and a spell at youth level before he could earn a shot at first-team football. That happened last season, and his case to start only strengthened after his performance in Milan on Tuesday. Bynoe-Gittens made mincemeat out of Davide Calabria, turning the Italian right-back inside out in ways Mbappe couldn’t quite manage earlier in the group stage. Bynoe-Gittens, who’s still just 19, won the penalty that gave Dortmund the lead and arrowed an accurate shot inside the left post for the winning goal. Expect more from the English talent, who’s one of Dortmund’s bravest dribblers and mature enough to handle more minutes in the Champions League. – Lopopolo

Onana errors leave Man Utd on brink

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Andre Onana didn’t do anything to ease the pressure on himself in Istanbul. The unsettled goalkeeper has been deservedly questioned after several suspect errors this season, but his latest shocker will sting the most if it ends up costing Manchester United a spot in the Champions League knockout rounds. Victory seemed inevitable after Scott McTominay made it 3-1 for United in the second half on Wednesday. But then, disaster struck again for a United outfit fresh off coughing up a two-goal lead in a losing effort in its last Champions League outing. After letting in a soft goal off Hakim Ziyech’s free-kick in the first half, Onana outdid himself on another set piece from the Moroccan that should’ve been comfortably saved. Onana clumsily batted the ball into his own net, paving the way for Galatasaray to score an equalizer shortly after. Now that he’s conceded a club-record 14 goals in the group stage, one has to wonder if Erik ten Hag is considering a change heading into Manchester United’s most important game of the season to date against Bayern Munich on Dec. 12. – Gordon Brunt

No parting gift from Monchi

Sevilla fans give Monchi the kind of reverence usually reserved for an all-time top scorer or a defensive stalwart who captains the club for most of their career. The former sporting director is viewed as the architect of the glory years, the man whose transfer deals at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan created serial Europa League winners. However, since he departed Sevilla for a second time last summer, joining Aston Villa as president of football operations, it’s clear that there wasn’t a great deal of succession planning in the squad he left behind. The average age of the starting XI that faced PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday was the oldest in Champions League history at 32 years and 19 days. Sevilla led 2-0, but Lucas Ocampos’ red card changed everything, and PSV eventually took a 3-2 away win. The Andalusians are positioned 15th in La Liga and might not even drop into the Europa League due to their disappointing Champions League group campaign. “The team loses out on a lot today,” Sergio Ramos said. – Rouse

Inter spoil Joao Mario’s big day

Mattia Ozbot – Inter / FC Internazionale / Getty

For 34 minutes, it felt like we were watching the Benfica of last season again. With the major caveat that Inter Milan rested several key starters – including talisman Lautaro Martinez – between league matches against Juventus and Napoli, Benfica, already eliminated from knockout-stage contention after losing all of their previous Group D matches, scored three times in just over half an hour at the Estadio da Luz on Wednesday. Former Inter midfielder Joao Mario, of all people, notched all of them. Benfica were moving the ball quickly, and Inter’s second-string XI was making defensive blunders all over the place. But the home fans (who were likely asking, “Where has this been all season?” in the first half) saw their team revert to type after the interval. Benfica lost their shape and, eventually, their three-goal lead, too. Last season’s finalists came all the way back for a 3-3 draw and nearly snatched the win when Nicolo Barella struck the post in stoppage time. Unfortunately for fans of the Portuguese side, this was more like what they’ve seen from their team in this season’s Champions League. The stalemate was Benfica’s first point of the group stage, but it felt like another defeat. – Nesci

Post-miracle slumps

Royal Antwerp likely never expected to progress from a group with Barcelona, Porto, and Shakhtar Donetsk. But since Antwerp earned their first league title in 66 years courtesy of Toby Alderweireld’s stoppage-time goal on the final day of the 2022-23 Belgian season, the dip has been considerable. Following Tuesday’s dreary 1-0 loss to Shakhtar, they’ve collected zero points from five group-stage matches, and they’re nine points adrift of league-leading Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in the Belgian Pro League. The comedown at Union Berlin has been worse: They’ve suffered 13 defeats and three draws over their last 16 outings after Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at Braga, leaving them with two points at the bottom of Group C, eliminated from the DFB-Pokal, and in the Bundesliga’s relegation zone. Still, were Antwerp’s miraculous title triumph and Union’s incredible rise after near-extinction worth it, considering what’s happening now? Of course, they were. – Rouse

Stat of the week

Considering some of the one-sided games the Champions League has offered up over the years, this is an impressive accomplishment from Arsenal, who qualified for the knockout stages with a 6-0 hammering of Lens.

Tweet of the week

Poor Louis van Gaal. Still catching strays during Manchester United matches.


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