Manchester City’s final Champions League group stage game at RB Leipzig should have been a breeze for Pep Guardiola regardless of what happened on the pitch.
His side secured top spot in Group A after beating Paris Saint-Germain on matchday five, avenging their defeat at Parc des Princes and confirming to Europe that they will be serious contenders for the European Cup again.
Guardiola – who has often been critical of fixture congestion, injury/fitness problems and the use of only three subs in English football this season – had the chance to rest his big stars and perhaps lean on some of the talented youngsters coming through the academy he likes to talk about.
And in fairness, the Catalan coach did make seven changes, though that didn’t stop City’s starting lineup looking like one capable of storming to a Premier League title. A handful of academy products also made the bench, including Cole Palmer who has impressed already this season.
And yet, with nothing on the line, a 2-1 loss in an empty stadium in which Guardiola’s side made chances yet looked understandably ropey from the rotation, they still found a way to sour the overall mood – isn’t that just typical of City?
Kyle Walker put in one of the single worst performances in the Sheikh Mansour era (let’s not rewrite history and say City have been at this level forever). He lost the dangerous Dominik Szoboszlai for Leizpig’s opening goal, and late on with the visitors getting a foothold again, decided to try to obliterate the ankles of Andre Silva for seemingly no reason.
The challenge was so gratuitous that it may even be enough for UEFA to look at and add to Walker’s automatic one-match suspension, which would throw an even bigger spanner in City’s knockout stage works.
Tempers flared toward the end of the game in Saxony, but Walker – one of City’s most senior players – let the team down and has brought a level of attention that Guardiola surely would not have wanted.
A quiet night in Leipzig will see the coach asked about the conduct of one of his most trusted players, how will that affect the team, how it may be a reflection on a team known for their tactical fouling as a whole.
Walker’s done well to repair a reputation as a luxury liability in recent years, elevating himself to the top of the game and being well worth the £50m that City paid Spurs for him. And yet one awful and foolish display is enough to bring those doubts back to the surface. He has to own that for himself and his teammates.
Fenerbahce have denied that Hungarian defender Attila Szalai is close to joining Chelsea after his national team manager suggested a deal was all but done.
Reports emerged in Turkey in November linking the Blues with a £20m move for the centre-back, although that speculation had gone quiet until Hungary boss Marco Rossi referenced it earlier this week.
When asked which of his players he felt would do well in Serie A, Rossi responded: “It’s hard to name just one player, but right now I see very well Attila Szalai, who plays for Fenerbahce, but I think he is joining Chelsea.
“Clearly, he has been followed by important clubs in Spain, but apparently his move to Chelsea is a done deal. It would be a great player also for Italian football.”
However, the 23-year-old’s current employers Fenerbahce have perhaps unsurprisingly taken exception to the comments, moving to rubbish them in a statement.
“The allegations regarding the transfer of our player Attila Szalai, which have been made public in the last few days, based on foreign press and social media, do not reflect the truth,” it read, as quoted by Sky Sports.
“Our club has not made any transfer negotiations regarding our successful football player Attila Szalai. Our player continues his work completely concentrating on the goals of our team. We present it to the public.”
Where the truth lies with this one is not exactly clear. The Telegraph also report that Chelsea do not have an agreement to sign highly-rated Szalai and he is not even of interest at this stage.
Chelsea will likely have to pursue a new centre-back in the near future. The club is resigned to losing Antonio Rüdiger on a free transfer in 2022 with talks over a new contract at an impasse, although Villarreal’s Pau Torres and Sevilla’s Jules Koundé are higher on their shopping list.
Szalai is held in very high regard by those who work with him and has been tipped for a big move for a while now. Compared to Virgil van Dijk, Szalai – who cites Thiago Silva as his idol – has impressed for both club and country and has been linked with the likes of Juventus and Atletico Madrid.
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When looking at the squad that Mauricio Pochettino has at his disposal, the nauseating mediocrity that Paris Saint-Germain have passed off for ‘football’ this season has simply not been acceptable.
Recent weeks have epitomised the severe disappointment that the club has bestowed upon its fanbase. Despite sitting 11 points clear at the Ligue 1 summit they’ve been, well, pretty rubbish – and that, for hefty fee-paying fans, isn’t really fair.
A 0-0 draw with Nice before only just rescuing a point at Lens in their last two domestic outings seemingly signalled the death of any hope for their European campaign. Disjointed performances lacking in the collective spirit needed for Champions League success blatantly suggested the difficulty they’d face when lining up opposite the likes of Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool or Real Madrid.
But, just when the pressure was off and there was absolutely no need to put on a feast of a performance, PSG finally dazzled.
Tuesday evening’s 4-1 blitz of Club Brugge may not have been an important result, but it was certainly a vital performance in the big picture of Pochettino’s side’s campaign.
Where PSG had previously relied on individual stars to earn results, the side was clearly pushing in a unanimous direction and stepped up to the plate as a collective on Tuesday. Where a lack of intensity and desire had previously cost the side, it was an unmatchable pace that blew Brugge away. And where fans were previously left despondent, the Parc des Princes was absolutely rocking on a glorious Champions League occasion.
From the first second there was a buzz and determination surrounding the movement, link-up and overall creativity within the PSG squad.
Kylian Mbappe’s opening strike after just 70 seconds was suggestive of the night that Brugge had in store. Then his second goal, a stunning effort coming within seven minutes, confirmed the Belgian outfit’s prior fears.
Both goals were born out of increased urgency in the Parisians’ play. From more movement between the lines – creating more opportunity for quick-minded interplay – to a visibly developed understanding between the players themselves – facilitating said interplay – things just clicked. And, playing at the speed they were in the first half, Brugge couldn’t have been expected to handle their hosts.
Indeed, seven minutes before half-time, Lionel Messi scored a stunner to compound the visitors’ misery. Mbappe was once more central, doing superbly down the left wing before playing the ball inside to his Argentinian colleague. The little magician then took a few touches towards Simon Mignolet’s goal before curling the ball around Brugge’s helpless goalkeeper.
A first half, that would have felt an eternity for Philippe Clement and his men, went by in a flash for PSG-affiliated and neutral spectators alike.
The second was a little rougher, with Brugge enjoying a resurgent spell soon after the interval. Despite Clement’s side getting a deserved goal to pull one back, however, Pochettino’s men soon regained control, bossed their opposition and added a fourth for good measure.
Generally speaking, it was a performance stacked with composure, tenacity, desire, intelligence, cohesion and unearthly quality that reared its head in the build up to the first-half goals – in other words, qualities that you wouldn’t really have paired with PSG’s season up to this point.
The 4-1 victory may mean absolutely nothing to PSG’s final standing in their Champions League group but, on a wider level, it was definitely a little reminder that they can still play – and that when they want to play, they bloody do.
It’s been quite an underwhelming 2021/22 campaign thus far, but they’re definitely still in contention for their first European Cup.
Manchester City’s run of seven straight wins was brought to an end by RB Leipzig, losing 2-1 on the final matchday of the Champions League group stage.
City were already assured of top spot in group A heading into this one, but were very flat and carved open plenty of times at an empty Red Bull Arena.
The game started slowly and the first chance fell to Leipzig after 15 minutes, with the marauding Konrad Laimer nearly catching Zack Steffen out at his near post from the byline.
Kevin De Bruyne returned to the City starting lineup following a bout of coronavirus in November, and came close to giving his side the lead with a cute side-footed half volley just inside the Leipzig penalty area, but it sailed over the top of the bar.
Steffen had to be quick off his line to deny Andre Silva a golden chance after being slipped in behind the City defence by Christopher Nkunku, before Jack Grealish had a shot deflected over after a neat lay-off from Phil Foden.
And Dominik Szoboszlai had the ball in the net on the counter attack, darting into the space vacated by John Stones and rounding Steffen to give Leipzig the lead for a fourth successive Champions League game. After a VAR check, the goal was ruled onside and City were officially behind.
Emil Forsberg nearly doubled the lead for Die Roten Bullen just a couple of minutes later but Steffen was equal to his fierce strike, before the American produced a great reaction save to deny Silva from point-blank range.
City struck the post through Foden at the other end and De Bruyne forced a stunning save out of Peter Gulacsi from a free kick.
A quiet second half sparked into life when John Stones gave the ball away in the middle of the park, sparking a quick Leipzig counter attack which was eventually buried by Silva.
City thought they should have had a penalty when Raheem Sterling went to ground under a heavy challenge from Josko Gvardiol, but it didn’t matter as they pulled one back moments later anyway. Oleksandr Zinchenko’s deep cross was headed back across goal and into the net by Riyad Mahrez for his fifth Champions League goal of the season.
Pep Guardiola’s side had their tails up, but were brought crashing back to Earth again when Kyle Walker received a straight red card after booting Silva violently in the ankles.
De Bruyne had a curling effort go just wide of the post late on but that was as close as City came to finding an equaliser and Leipzig secured their place in the Europa League.
Steffen was on hand to save City several times / Boris Streubel/GettyImages
Zack Steffen (GK) – 9/10 – Quick off his line and made several good stops. Would have done exceptionally well to stop Szoboszlai from rounding him.
Kyle Walker (RB) – 0/10 – At fault for the opener and received a stupid, stupid red card to rule him out of the first leg of City’s last 16 tie.
John Stones (CB) – 2/10 – Left Szoboszlai with an acre to run into for the opener, though probably wouldn’t have mattered as much if Walker was alert to the danger. But the second goal was definitely on him, selling Fernandinho woefully short.
Nathan Ake (CB) – 5/10 – Didn’t necessarily do much wrong but he just doesn’t have the aura of City’s other centre-backs.
Oleksandr Zinchenko (LB) – 7/10 – Drifted infield quite a bit to help win the possession battle. Terrific assist to top his night off.
De Bruyne ran out of steam on his return to the starting XI / Maja Hitij/GettyImages
Fernandinho (DM) – 5/10 – Up for the fight but looked a bit leggy and relied on Zinchenko to do some of the sweeping in midfield.
Kevin De Bruyne (CM) – 6/10 – Played a lot more like his old self again in the first half, carving Leipzig open with ease. Wore down as the game went on.
Ilkay Gundogan (CM) – 6/10 – Caught on the ball a couple of times and didn’t have the physicality to hang in the midfield battle. Found joy roaming forward and probing between the lines.
Mahrez pulled one back / Maja Hitij/GettyImages
Riyad Mahrez (RW) – 7/10 – Made some good runs that went unnoticed but was quiet regardless until the goal.
Jack Grealish (CF) – 3/10 – Just isn’t a number nine – natural or false. Shifted out wide eventually and looked more comfortable.
Phil Foden (LW) – 7/10 – One of City’s best outfielders in the first half, giving Leipzig several headaches with his ability to play as a natural winger, wide forward and inverted playmaker. Hooked at half time.
Raheem Sterling (LW, 46′ for Foden) – 6/10 – One of City’s more lively players after coming on but didn’t have much luck in front of goal.
Despite having nothing to play for, Paris Saint-Germain dazzled the Parc des Princes on Tuesday with a stylish 4-1 victory over Club Brugge in the Champions League.
The evening’s outcome looked set in stone from the referee’s very first whistle, as the hosts took just 70 seconds to break the deadlock. Kylian Mbappe linked well with Nuno Mendes down the left-hand side before clinically slotting home the Portuguese’s rebounded cross into Simon Mignolet’s bottom corner.
PSG’s talisman doubled his and his side’s tally soon after, volleying in Angel Di Maria’s beautifully-weighted lofted pass to pretty much seal the result inside seven minutes.
If there were any doubts about PSG’s lead, Lionel Messi squashed them in the 38th minute. The Argentinian put the visitors out of sight with a sensational effort, collecting Mbappe’s pass, dribbling towards the opposition goal and curling the ball past Mignolet from range.
Philippe Clement’s side enjoyed a resurgence after the break and got a reward for their increased intensity and creativity. Noa Lang carried the move toward the Parisian goal, before releasing Mats Rits to calmly slide past Donnarumma with just over 20 minutes remaining.
The hosts soon regained control of the contest, however, and were awarded a penalty as Messi was quite clearly clipped by Ignace van der Brempt in the box. The Argentinian stepped up and made no mistake in notching his second of the night.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men had no difficulty in seeing out the well-earned win following their fourth, condemning their visitors to a fourth-placed finish in group A.
Here’s how PSG rated on the night.
Mendes had a decent game / Xavier Laine/GettyImages
Gianluigi Donnarumma (GK) – 7/10 – Solid performance from the Italian, looking confident at all times and making a few really sharp stops. Achraf Hakimi (RB) – 5/10 – Typically assured when marauding up the right-hand side but really left his defensive colleagues isolated at times.
Marquinhos (CB) – 7/10 – Read the game well and made Hakimi’s frequent absences from the ‘un-fun’ side of the game unnoticeable for the most part, showing typical composure in dangerous situations. Abdou Diallo (CB) – 8/10 – Quick and alert throughout, showing a good defensive instinct to make six ball recoveries, eight clearances and one block. Nuno Mendes (LB) – 7/10 – Stable on the back foot, making four ball recoveries, while also causing havoc up the left flank all evening, notably playing a large part in his side’s early opener. Disappointingly forced off through injury immediately after the interval.
Georginio Wijnaldum didn’t have his best game / BRUNO FAHY/GettyImages
Georginio Wijnaldum (CM) – 5/10 – Made some nicely-timed darts into the penalty area and beyond the Brugge back line, although seemed largely off the pace in his overall game.
Marco Verratti (CM) – 8/10 – Top midfield performance. Smooth, progressive and classy on the ball; gritty, destructive and the perfect amount of bite off it.
Idrissa Gueye (CM) – 7/10 – Put in a tenacious shift, covering a lot of ground to provide a stifling presence when facing up against Brugge and keeping things ticking along nicely when in possession.
Angel DI Maria (RW) – 8/10 – Looked much more creative and threatening than the weekend, demonstrating his brilliant passing ability to notch two key passes – notably grabbing a wonderful assist for Mbappe’s second.
Lionel Messi (CF) – 9/10 – Floated around elusively throughout, knitting moves together, dancing around in possession and just being Messi – epitomised by his fantastically-taken strike to make it 3-0 before getting a second from the spot.
Kylian Mbappe (LW) – 9/10 – A phenomenal display in every aspect, from his link-up play and movement to his tangible output. Grabbed a brilliant assist for Messi’s strike, after notching two stunningly-taken goals of his own.
Thilo Kehrer (LB) – 6/10 – Seemed to struggle with the game’s pace after his introduction, but livened up and worked tirelessly thereafter.