The penultimate matchday of this season's group phase gets under way on Tuesday
Champions League talking points: Santiago Solari on the slide at Real Madrid, Bayern's bad movie
Solari on the slide?
A very bumpy season for the holders of the Uefa Champions League turned more muddied at the weekend. Almost everything had been looking more cheerful since Santiago Solari, the former Real Madrid winger, was promoted from his post in charge of Castilla, Madrid’s feeder team, to take over from the sacked Julen Lopetegui. Solari’s four wins in four matches revived Real, and made his transition from caretaker to manager inevitable.
But at Eibar on Saturday, Solari saw, up close, the downside of the job, and the weak underbelly of a Madrid who, having waved goodbye to Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer, have endured long spells of impotence. They lost 3-0 to the upstarts from the Basque Country, and now go from the embarrassing defeat at the 7,000-seater Ipurua stadium to a stern test at the 70,000 Stadio Olimpico in Rome without key men: Casemiro, anchor of the midfield and chief protector of a vulnerable defence, is out injured, as are Nacho, the centre-back, and Alvaro Orioloza, the right-back.
The difficulties further forward are about form. Gareth Bale has scored one goal in 11 matches since the middle of September; Marco Asensio, the other obvious beneficiary of first-team opportunities post-Ronaldo, has scored just once in all his 17 Liga and European fixtures, and the highlight of a messy campaign so far, the 3-0 win at the Bernabeu over Roma with which the European champions began their defence of the title, looks a distant peak.
Madrid, with nine points in Group G, could weather a loss in Rome. They could even lose and still qualify if CSKA Moscow, third in the table, do not beat Viktoria Plzen. But, at fifth in La Liga, and with the Fifa Club World Cup in UAE on the near horizon, Solari could do with a boost.
Bayern’s bad movie
Remember when Bayern Munich were known as FC Hollywood, a nickname evoking their habit of mixing glamour and ostentation with off-field stories of clashing egos and personal scandals?
The current picture is more mundane. In fact, as Leon Goretzka, the midfielder who left Schalke for the limelight of Bayern, put it after the 3-3 draw with Fortuna Dusseldorf at the weekend, “it is like a bad film.”
By which he meant repetitive: Bayern, who were 3-1 up against Fortuna, have now failed win any of their last four home matches in the Bundesliga, where they trail leaders Borussia Dortmund by nine points and four places in the table. “I have never experienced anything like this,” grumbled Thomas Muller, who has been at Bayern long enough to remember the FC Hollywood era but also to have known mainly sustained domestic domination.
Like Real Madrid, these heavyweights have a Champions League cushion to lean on through their domestic crisis. A draw at the Allianz Arena against Benfica means we will be watching this patchy German movie into the knockout phase.
Brothers in harm
Among Bayern’s recent problems has been the absence, with an ankle injury, of the gifted midfielder Thiago Alcantara. He has missed the last three league matches; Bayern picked up just two points from them.
In his ongoing recuperation, Thiago will at least have someone close to compare notes with, share morale-boosting gee-ups. Thiago’s brother, Rafinha has joined him on the injury list, the Barcelona midfielder sustaining cruciate ligament damage in the 1-1 draw at Atletico Madrid on Saturday. He will likely miss the rest of the season.
The Alcantaras are a football family of extraordinary gifts - father Mazinho won the World Cup for Brazil in 1994 - but not a lot of luck. Rafinha missed six months of 2015/16 and was out for half of 2017 with injuries. Thiago had long periods out injured in 2014/15 and last season.
Duel of the day
Showdown time in Group B, where Barcelona have already sealed their progress, leaving one place for either Inter Milan or Tottenham Hotspur who meet Wednesday at Wembley. All eyes on two strikers, a pair of 25 year olds with matching figurehead status at their clubs and similar form going into this collision: Spurs’ Harry Kane struck his 11th goal of the season against Chelsea on Saturday; Inter’s Mauro Icardi was rested from the starting XI, but has 10 goals in as many starts so far in 2018/19.
The Italians, on seven points, need only a draw for Icardi to lead Inter to the knockouts for the first time since 2012 and consign Kane’s club, on four points, to a likely Europa League spring.
Athens’ 12-year itch
Four matches into Group E and still no points for AEK Athens. It has seemed a very long wait. The last time they picked up a Champions League group phase point? December 6, 2006.