x

Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Chelsea's Conte returns to Roma and Premier League clubs setting pace: Uefa Champions League talking points

As Uefa Champions League returns this week, Ian Hawkey looks at big talking points set to dominate action

Despite a costly error against Manchester United, Benfica’s Mile Svilar - consoled by fellow Belgian Romelu Lukaku - has a bright future ahead of him. Carl Recine / Reuters
Despite a costly error against Manchester United, Benfica’s Mile Svilar - consoled by fellow Belgian Romelu Lukaku - has a bright future ahead of him. Carl Recine / Reuters

Gloves, gaffes and a generational shift

There was a touching scene at the end of Manchester United’s 1-0 win at Benfica on Matchday 3.

Romelu Lukaku, the United striker made a point of giving an encouraging pep talk to his Belgian compatriot, Mile Svilar, who had a testing Uefa Champions League debut.

Svilar is 18, and his goalkeeping error, misjudging how close he was to his line when he clutched a Marcus Rashford free-kick, caused the game’s only goal.

By starting ahead of the veteran Brazilian Julio Cesar, a former European Cup winner, Svilar broke the record for the youngest keeper to play in the competition, held since 1999 by the great Iker Casillas.

Ironically, Casillas, now at Benfica’s rivals Porto, has been dropped by his Portuguese club, having just set his own record of appearing in the Champions League for 19 successive seasons, most of them during his decorated career with Real Madrid.

Casillas, 36, still harbours ambitions of going with Spain, who he captained while they were and European champions, to the next World Cup. He will not achieve that from the bench at Porto, who like Benfica face a fierce fight to even make the knockout stages of this Champions League.

At least Svilar, as Lukaku reminded him, has many attainable targets in his long future – perhaps even Russia 2018 – with Serbia, where his father comes from, trying to entice him away from Belgium, for whom he is a youth international.

______________

From Andy Mitten

Mourinho's side a far cry from class of '66

______________

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte may have unfinished business at Roma. Toby Melville / Reuters
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte may have unfinished business at Roma. Toby Melville / Reuters

Conte’s Roman Remains

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has mixed memories of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, where he takes his Blues for a potential red-carpet evening.

The last time Conte, a Juventus hero as player and manager, was involved in a Champions League match at the Olimpico was the 1996 final, playing for Juve against Ajax.

Conte finished that night with a gold medal, although he was in excruciating pain, substituted when his leg swelled up after a collision with Ajax’s combative Edgar Davids. Conte ended up in hospital, in – as he put it – “the worst pain I ever experienced as a player".

His Juve reached the next two finals, lost both, and lost another in 2003.

The Champions League felt just as bittersweet for him in three seasons as Juve manager. Roma, who came back from 2-0 down to lead at Stamford Bridge in a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw 13 days ago, have already tantalised him in his first stab at Europe with Chelsea.

Monaco have been weakened by a few high-profile exits, such as that of Kylian Mbappe to PSG. Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters
Monaco have been weakened by a few high-profile exits, such as that of Kylian Mbappe to PSG. Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

Monaco downsized

Monaco, thrilling semi-finalists last season, are in serious danger of crashing out at the first hurdle, as they travel to group leaders Besiktas. The evidence of how weakened their squad was by summer sales is spread out before them.

Kylian Mbappe, who left for Paris Saint-Germain, is breezing to the next round, where he may well be joined this week by Bernardo Silva, sold to Manchester City, and Tiemoue Bakayoko, who departed Monte Carlo for Chelsea.

Chelsea could be one of many English clubs to make the next round of the Uefa Champions League. John Sibley / Reuters
Chelsea could be one of many English clubs to make the next round of the Uefa Champions League. John Sibley / Reuters

Premier League pacesetters

Still celebrating the fact that England are the new Under 17 world champions and holders of the U20 World Cup, English football contemplates another boost to self esteem.

By Wednesday night, it could have four clubs – the two Manchesters and both Londoners, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur – assured of a place in the last 16 of the Champions League, with two matches to spare.

Liverpool also top their group.

______________

From Richard Jolly

The Premier League team of the week

______________

Could Barcelona's Spanish defender Gerard Pique be playing for Fifa-recognised, independent Catalonia? Lluis Gene / AFP
Could Barcelona's Spanish defender Gerard Pique be playing for Fifa-recognised, independent Catalonia? Lluis Gene / AFP

Catalans Empowered

Might Uefa soon be making space for a new country?

Events in north-east of Iberia have been interpreted by campaigners for a Catalonia national football team – recognised by Fifa and independent of Spain – as a step towards their dream.

Catalonia, where political secession has become a defining issue, would certainly be competitive on the pitch and could field a useful XI just from eligible players at Champions League clubs.

Try this line up: In goal, Kiko Casilla, of Real Madrid; a back four of Aleix Vidal, Gerard Pique (both Barcelona), Marc Bartra (Dortmund) and Jordi Alba (Barca); the Barcelona pair Sergi Roberto and Sergio Busquets alongside Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas in midfield; up front, Barca winger Gerard Deulofeu, plus the Monaco duo of Keita Balde, the ex-Lazio speedster who was born and grew up near Girona, and Jordi Mboula, the 18-year-old signed from Barcelona and now pressing for his senior Monaco debut after four goals in his last three Uefa Youth League matches.

  • Subscribe to iTunes to download The National's Extra Time podcast.