Welcome to the Champions League debrief, in which Jack Lang takes you through the big talking points — and things you may have missed — from around Europe’s premier club competition. This morning, he gets misty-eyed about a magical night in Istanbul, swoons over Lois Openda and bids farewell to seven clubs…
Crazy, stupid, love
“Hello, is that UEFA? I’d like to be put through to the complaints department, please. It’s about events at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium. Sure, I can hold.
“Oh, hi there. Yes, that’s me. Well, it’s a funny one, really. No, no, nothing like that at all. It’s… well, it probably sounds a bit stupid out loud, but here goes nothing. That match. That football match… it was actually too good.”
Yes, we begin in Istanbul, where Galatasaray and Manchester United put on a spectacle so ludicrous, so brimful of chaotic beauty that it threatens to cast a shadow over the rest of the season. It’s only November, granted, but come on. With a clubhouse leader like that, everyone else might as well go home.
Measured analysis, partisan hand-wringing and the usual dissections of tactics can take place elsewhere; we’re going full romantic poet here. No irony and no apologies. This, if you have even an ounce of joy lurking somewhere in the recesses of your soul, was a gift from on high.
I didn’t just enjoy this game. I wanted it to last forever. I wanted to elope with it. I wanted to hollow it out, create a nest and live in there. I wanted to build a future with it. If there is to be a blueprint for the sport moving forward, some sort of source code, let the power brokers alight here.
Sometimes you watch a match — usually Manchester City against someone — and are struck by just how hypermodern it all is. Top-level football, like pretty much everything under late capitalism, is sleek and fast, so rational that it appears inevitable. The product is nothing if not an advert for itself. We no longer need reminding by admen that the Premier League is the best league in the world; we go on about it ourselves.
It can all be a little featureless. Too many smooth surfaces. All control and no spontaneity. Then along come 90 minutes to remind you that beauty resides in the blemishes.
Did Galatasaray play well? Did United? Realistically not. Together, though, they produced a weird kind of outsider art that was no less alluring for its myriad incompetencies.
The setting helped. The “Welcome to Hell” tifo, the noise, the strikes of lightning slicing up the night sky at regular intervals. Not even the early kick-off could temper the overwhelming sense of peril.
There was so much happening on the field that it was hard to know where to look.
You had Andre Onana doing pirouettes in the centre circle and then simply inviting free kicks into his net. You had Galatasaray’s Premier League Flop Reunion midfield, gleefully receiving a fresh application from Sofyan Amrabat. You had stunners from Bruno Fernandes and Kerem Akturkoglu. You had Wilfried Zaha performing his external monologue after every chance missed. You had Antony… wait, this can’t be right… Antony playing… well?
More than anything, there was just this manic, untrammelled rhythm to everything. This was particularly true in the second half, when the remaining structure of the game just disintegrated, leaving behind pure anarchy. The teams seemed to have agreed just to take it in turns on the counter-attack. Players were — get this! — dribbling past people, ignoring simple passes, trying pot shots from distance. It was breathless. It was genuinely excellent.
Will the fans of the two clubs be delighted? Probably not. The managers will spend the rest of the week fretting about what went wrong. The rest of us, though, can enjoy the warm afterglow of what went right. This was a game of rare, raffish charm, and a reminder that perfection can never be an end in itself.
Auf wiedersehen, pet
We’ve reached that stage of a Champions League campaign at which we start saying a few more goodbyes. Union Berlin, Red Bull Salzburg and Benfica all bowed out after four rounds of group play, and they were joined by seven more teams after this week’s penultimate set of matches.
First up: Group H punching bags Antwerp, who have zero points on the board and will be remembered mainly for having given undisputed Tottenham Hotspur legends Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Janssen another crack at the Champions League. Red Star Belgrade and Young Boys offered only slightly more in Group G, although the latter at least have the consolation of a spot in the knockout phase of the Europa League after Christmas.
In Group E, both Celtic and Feyenoord are left wondering what might have been. Brendan Rodgers’ side were about as sturdy as an electricity pylon made of marshmallows in losing their three away matches by a combined score of 10-0, but will feel they could easily have taken more points from both Atletico Madrid and Lazio in Glasgow. Feyenoord, who have been impressive in flashes, will rue their haphazard finishing and defending against the Spaniards in Rotterdam on Tuesday.
It’s also farewell to Sevilla, beaten by visitors PSV Eindhoven last night despite holding a two-goal lead after 65 minutes and now left battling for a return to their happy hunting ground of the Europa League, and Braga, who had a bad night at the rock face at home to Union.
‘I visualised the stadium enclosed by rock’: How they carved Braga’s home into granite
King of the breakaway
It’s rare to see Manchester City’s defence reduced to rubble. They are a team who tend to hog possession, of course, but it’s also a tactical thing: Pep Guardiola wants his players to attack in a way that doesn’t leave wide-open spaces when they lose the ball. It’s like downing a pint of water between every alcoholic drink you have at the pub: a bit of a buzz kill but probably sensible in the grand scheme of things. Plus, even when things do get a bit wavy, human hangover cure Kyle Walker is usually on hand to get them out of trouble.
Not on Tuesday, however, when RB Leipzig forward Lois Openda did his thing at the Etihad Stadium. He opened the scoring after outwitting Manuel Akanji, then repeated the trick after a lightning-quick raid down the left. Not many people make Ruben Dias look silly but Openda did just that, levering him off the ball on the touchline before finishing coolly.
The Belgian doesn’t yet have much of an aura about him on the field — he runs with his head down, almost hunched over — but his record this season speaks for itself: he has scored four times in his maiden Champions League campaign, in addition to nine goals in 12 Bundesliga appearances. Despite the step up in level, he has maintained the momentum he built up last season in France’s Ligue 1 with Lens.
Leipzig coach Marco Rose was understandably disappointed to eventually lose the match 3-2 but was full of praise for Openda. “He’s physically strong,” said Rose. “That’s what we saw today against strong defenders. He won one-on-ones. He’s fast. He scores goals. We like him.”
Chances are that a good few scouts around Europe will be feeling the same way.
Goal of the gameweek: Mario Hermoso for Atletico against Feyenoord. Delicate little pass clipped into space: yes. Volley: yes. Shot from a ludicrous angle: yes. Ball looping over a goalkeeper who has time to consider his own irrelevance before it hits the net: yes. All of those things smashed lovingly together in one single goal, scored by a player whose name translates to Mario Handsome? I want to go to there.
Unlikely thriller of the gameweek: With his side already through to the last 16 and apparently not that fussed about finishing first in Group D, Inter Milan coach Simone Inzaghi rested most of his first-choice XI. In came a collection of players this column could have sworn were either retired or playing in Saudi Arabia (Marko Arnautovic! Davy Klaassen! Alexis Sanchez!), plus some ringer from the local park (“Yann Aurel Bisseck”). Their opponents, Benfica, had scored once in losing all four Champions League games. It looked like a sleepy goalless draw waiting to happen. Instead, it was a madcap festival of goals in Lisbon, a 3-3 draw featuring a lesser-spotted Joao Mario hat-trick and a heroic second-half comeback by Inter. Did it make any difference to the shape of the group table? None at all. But it was a throwaway classic.
Champions League gameweek five results
Galatasaray 3-3 Manchester United
Bayern Munich 0-0 Copenhagen
Arsenal 6-0 Lens
Sevilla 2-3 PSV
Braga 1-1 Union Berlin
Real Madrid 4-2 Napoli
Benfica 3-3 Inter Milan
Real Sociedad 0-0 Salzburg
Lazio 2-0 Celtic
Feyenoord 1-3 Atletico Madrid
PSG 1-1 Newcastle
Milan 1-3 Borussia Dortmund
Manchester City 3-2 Leipzig
Young Boys 2-0 Red Star Belgrade
Barcelona 2-1 Porto
Shakhtar Donetsk 1-0 Antwerp
(Top photo: Getty Images)
Christine Lake is a sports fanatic who lives and breathes athletics. With an extensive background in sports journalism, he covers everything from major league championships to grassroots sports events. When she’s not on the field or at the stadium, you’ll find Christine coaching youth sports teams.