Champions League: Atletico Madrid exorcise self-doubt with win over Lokomotiv Moscow; Mo Salah magic inspires Liverpool
A look at the teams who have had woolly mammoth-sized odds placed in front of them in the final game week but spoke their prayers into reality by their feet.
As the dust settles on another Champions League group stage finale, 32 teams have been cut down to 16.
Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid peppered Yuri Semin’s goal with 23 shots with 68 percent possession.
A full-strength Inter Milan, coached by Antonio Conte, capitulated against a young Barcelona team.
‘Those who can’t articulate a prayer may be able to dance it.’ — Harvey Cox
In the day time, the early men took the cue from meerkats to stand on their hind legs to rise above the Savannah grass line to note the ripples in the vegetation and locate the path of oncoming predators. In the nakedness of light they spent hours in fear and fragility, but when the pall of darkness fell, the drums boomed, flares were lit, chants rang out, and adorning the skin of their fallen prey a select few walked out god-like into the hunt for a woolly mammoth. The grassland became their arena and the moon above, the floodlight for their trance-like tryst with destiny.
Footballers today play out a similar reincarnation of the act of the hunt. As the dust settles on another Champions League group stage finale, 32 teams have been cut down to 16. We look at the teams who have had woolly mammoth-sized odds placed in front of them in the final game week but spoke their prayers into reality by their feet.
Results: Atletico Madrid 2-0 Lokomotiv Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen 0-2 Juventus
Lokomotiv Moscow, figuratively, faced a rain of flaming arrows in the Wanda Metropolitano. Diego Simeone’s Atletico peppered Yuri Semin’s goal with 23 shots with 68 percent possession as opposed to just three shots from the side of the Russian’s. But it wasn’t so straightforward — as touched upon in the preview, Atletico Madrid for long periods this season have suffered from a lack of a cutting-edge in their attack, despite the likes of Joao Felix, Saul Niguez, Alvaro Morata and Co. Even a penalty awarded to Kieran Trippier refused to go in: Anton Kochenkov’s gloves palming the effort onto the post and out.
Kochenkov, Lokomotiv goalkeeper’s joy was short-lived after some clumsy defending meant his team gave away another penalty in quick succession. Felix stepped up to the spot on the 17th minute, and this time planted the ball into the net. Thus un-creasing the anxiety-ridden face of Simeone and all the Atleti faithful.
The period between former Spurs man, Trippier missing the penalty and when the first goal went in was thick with tension. There was a sense of doom lingering until it didn’t. Anything less than a win on the night would have meant that their chances of advancing to the last-sixteen would be in the hands of the match being played out in Germany between Leverkusen and Juventus (the Italian visitors, already qualified with a game to spare, won by two goals with Cristiano Ronaldo and Higuain getting one each). The Spanish club uncharacteristic of a Simeone side has been suffering from bouts of self-doubt through the course of this season: having not scored in over four hours before Felix’s spot-kick, and only one win in their last eight games. Augusto Felipe exorcised any lingering demons by scoring on the 54th minute.
Juventus top the table (16 points) with Atletico Madrid in second (10 points). Leverkusen get Europa League football (6 points), while Lokomotive were knocked out.
Results: RB Salzburg 0-2 Liverpool, Genk 0-4 Napoli
Now, you may argue that Mo Salah hasn’t been his threatening best since he was brutally upended by an untoward challenge by Hamza Choudhury, leaving a damaged ankle. The injury still looks like its not letting the Egyptian’s feet occupy the spaces where the mind wants it to. But don’t be fooled: an off-form Mohamed Salah may look like most delightful next-door neighbour, exchanging small talk over the fence, or playing UNO with the family; but put him under the floodlights in a Liverpool shirt, surround him with roaring fans and he becomes ‘Mo Salah’, a relentless, single-minded predator running down the wing — and if you’re in his way, he’ll torch the earth you’re standing on with his pace. And a Salah at 70 percent is still better than some of the world’s best at 110 percent. He proved it in the decisive final group stage match versus Salzburg, that had a lot of Liverpool fans nervous.
In patches, it seemed like some Salzburg fan in the stands had made a voodoo doll out of Salah and made him miss some of the easiest chances that will ever fall on his way. But if just to accentuate his quality, the African Player of the Year scored a goal from an impossible angle down the right goal-line area… that too with his left foot (in the 58th minute, Liverpool’s second). Having rounded up the last man, Cican Stankovic the goalkeeper rushed in to narrow the angle and send Salah further away from goal and almost into the goalline. At best, Salah should have managed a cross, but armed with physics, he legged the ball across with backspin from 20 yards out as it astonishingly snuck into the side netting of the far corner in slow motion. Substitute Alex Oxlade Chamberlain held the goalscorer’s face and shouted into it with childish glee. As someone like many others who can’t even draw a straight line when asked to under duress, to fully comprehending the ability that effort took was humbling.
Liverpool’s other goal was scored a minute earlier: An Andy Robertson layoff took out Ramsus Kristensen out of the equation and freed Sadio Mane to loft a cross for Naby Keita to head into the net. The former Salzburg players combined to fend off the threat of the defending champions being knocked out at the group stage.
3rd (seven points) in the group and dropping into the Europa League, Jesse Marsch’s team, if they continue with the enterprise they’ve shown, could be favourites for the cup. Liverpool top the table (13 points), while Napoli sealed 2nd placed (12 points) with a convincing 0-4 win away at Genk (Arkadiusz Milik hat-trick, Dries Mertens penalty). Though the Italian side will now be without the guidance of three-time Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti as their manager, who was dismissed shortly after the qualification.
Results: Inter Milan 1-2 Barcelona, Dortmund 2-1 Slavia Praha
Memes abounded in the Inter sub-reddits. One of them read ‘Conte in the Serie A’ with a photograph of a superbly photogenic Adam Levine under it. Beside it, a photograph of goofy-looking Tancredi Palmeri (an Italian journalist infamous for his lack of credibility), and above the caption read ‘Conte in Champions League.’
Antonio Conte’s full-strength Inter Milan capitulated against a young Barcelona team despite having the reins of their last-sixteen chances in their hands, out-manoeuvred and out-played. A goal from Barcelona’s Carles Perez (23rd minute) was cancelled out by a reinvigorated Romelu Lukaku (44th minute) before La Masia starlet Ansu Fati became the youngest scorer in the Champions League. It’s a little short of a fairytale.
An ex-footballer, Fati’s father, an immigrant running away from the civil war in Guinea-Bissau used to beg for food in the streets of Andalusian town Marinaleda. Bori Fati pleaded to the mayor of that small Spanish municipality of that time, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo and eventually found a job driving taxis, whilst giving up on his dream of playing football. And at the San Siro, where giants of the game tread, his son found a place in history at the age of 17 (17 years and 40 days) by picking up a cross from Luis Suarez, and slotting it home four minutes before the end of regulation time to give Barcelona the winner, and vanquish the demons of their 2010 Champions League run that ended vs Inter. Almost a decade later, top-of-the-table Barcelona (14 points) knocked 3rd placed Inter (seven points) out and into the Europa League. He takes the baton on from the likes of Bojan Krkic.
Elsewhere, Borussia Dortmund rallied with the strength of their own young players in the shape of goals from Jadon Sancho (10th minute) and Julian Brandt (61st minute) negating the effort from Slavia Praha’s Tomas Soucek (43rd minute). The Black and Yellows held out to a win despite having Julian Weigl sent off a second bookable offence, and qualify in the second place (10 points) for the round of 16.
Results: Lyon 2-2 RB Leipzig, Benfica 3-0 Zenit
Lyon (eight points) and Leipzig (11 points) played out a captivating draw in France that assured both the teams qualification for the next stage. Two penalties for Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig were converted by Emil Forsberg (9th minute) and Timo Werner (33rd minute) pegged Lyon back but they had the answers in Houssem Aouar (50th minute) and Memphis Depay (82nd minute) goals.
It was so even that both sides ended the night with an equal amount of shots (13), with Leipzig slightly shading the possession, which doesn’t say much because both teams employed counter-attacking football to outwit the other in the stalemate. This result meant Lyon had to rely on Benfica to do the needful and win versus Zenit in Portugal.
An already ailing Zenit with half of their first-choice team either out injured or not close to matching fitness were duly put to the sword by hosts Benfica who had the small matter of the incentive to qualify for Europa League; and that they did (7 points). But the majority of the blows on Zenit were self-inflicted.
While Franco Cervi scored with little help in the 47th minute, Zenit conceded a penalty soon after unable to keep their nerves under the pressure. Luis Pizzi converted from the spot on the 58th minute but that was merely the start of the implosion: Zenit’s left-back Douglas Santos was sent off and second bookable offence, and Sardar Azmoun compounded the misery by scoring an unfortunate own goal on the 79th minute.
Results: Ajax 0-1 Valencia, Chelsea 2-1 Lille
Heartbreak for Ajax, relief for Chelsea. Both teams playing at their respective home stadiums had the different rub of the green. Propelled by the goals of Tammy Abraham (19th minute) and Cesar Azpilicueta (35th minute) Chelsea recorded their first win in the Champions League at their home ground in this stage since September 2017. Former Chelsea striker Loic Remy struck the solitary goal for Lille, in a lopsided match that had the London club fire 20 shots to Lille’s seven, and with almost double the amount of passes, in a nervy night where it was all up in the air. The result meant Chelsea rested second on the table (11 points) level on points with Valencia who caused one of the major upsets of the night away in the Johan Cruyff Arena winning the game 0-1 with a goal from Rodrigo, despite being on the back-foot for the majority of the match and looking like a rag-tag bunch. Ajax find themselves in the third spot (10 points) but have one of the most exciting Europa League campaigns to look forward to will all the other star-studded third-placed teams that will have joined them last night.
Elsewhere from Groups A, B, C, PSG, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and surprise package Atlanta have qualified for the last sixteen.
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However, the former England midfielder is hopeful the Blues fortunes can change for the better as quickly as they have deteriorated over the past month.
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Inter Milan are three points behind AC Milan, who beat Torino 2-0 on Saturday, with Roma a further three points behind in third.