Ahead of the penultimate round of Uefa Champions League group stage fixtures, Ian Hawkey offers his thoughts on some of the points dominating the build-up.
Dortmund in the doldrums as Conte launches unwarranted fixture rant: Uefa Champions League talking points
A year ago this week, a new goalscoring record was established in club football’s most glamourous competition. Twelve of them in a Uefa Champions League match; eight different scorers, and none of them the prolific Pierre-Emerick Aubamayeng who only joined the party that was Borussia Dortmund’s 8-4 win over Legia Warsaw with 20 minutes left.
Fast forward 12 months and Dortmund, who reached the quarter-finals last season, are in freefall. They host Tottenham Hotspur on the back of three successive Bundesliga defeats, the latest, at Stuttgart, dropping them to fifth in the table. “The way we’ve been letting goals in has been almost laughable,” said Peter Bosz, the manager.
Bosz looks likely, by the end of Tuesday night, to be overseeing Dortmund’s first group-phase exit in five years. Even if they beat Spurs, who are already through, a Real Madrid win at Apoel Nicosia in Cyprus will consign Dortmund to third spot at best.
And Bosz, who guided Ajax to the Europa League final last May, cannot bank on being in the Europa League come new year, either. Apoel sit below the sickly yellow-and-blacks only on goal difference.
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Antonio Conte, the Chelsea manager, is indignant. Again. Ahead of his club’s trip to Qarabag – and, yes, it is a long journey to Azerbaijan – he complained about the cruelties of the fixture list.
Once back from Baku, and a match which has qualification for the last 16 at stake, his squad face a rapid turnaround before playing at Liverpool in the Premier League on Saturday.
“Is that normal?,” asked Conte. “I don’t think so. If people want more balance in the league, they must pay more attention to the fixtures.”
Which may sound a little rich to the other contenders in Chelsea’s group. Both Roma and Atletico Madrid endured what they regard as the most pressurised fixtures of their domestic calendar on Saturday, gruelling city derbies, ahead of meeting one another on Wednesday.
Roma edged Lazio 2-1, Atletico drew 0-0 with Real Madrid. Chelsea? They played struggling West Bromwich Albion, and cantered to a 4-0 away win.
Nobody so far in this Champions League has supplied more assists than Liverpool left-back Alberto Moreno. Who would have predicted that back in July, when the Spaniard looked like third-choice in the position at a club where erratic displays drew spiky criticism and, it seemed, diminishing trust from his manager, Jurgen Klopp?
Moreno’s renaissance has meant a recall to the Spain national team, for whom he won his first cap in three and a half years last week and he returns to his native city on Tuesday ready to show the Sevilla he grew up at that their hunch that Moreno the young attacking midfielder could develop into a fine modern full-back was a shrewd idea.
Zlatan’s next milestone
Back from injury, ready to make a Champions League mark for Manchester United, Zlatan Ibrahimovic needs one more goal to reach his 50 – two more, if you discount his one goal in qualifying games – in the competition.
But there’s one landmark the much-travelled 36-year-old Swede seeks above all. Ibrahimovic has the unwanted distinction of having played for six different clubs – Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona and United – who have all been European champions, and yet never won the title himself. United, who can assure progress to the knockouts tomorrow at Basel, offer him a decent chance.
It has not been a good month for the self-esteem of Italian football, with the crushing failure of the national team to reach a World Cup for the first time in 60 years. Juventus, serial Serie A champions and suppliers of the backbone of the Azzurri, certainly feel it. At the weekend two of their Italy stalwarts, Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Barzagli, were left out of the line-up at Sampdoria, apparently suffering the after-effects of the play-off loss to Sweden.
They watched Juve go three goals behind - before scoring twice in injury time – and drift to four points off the top of the domestic table.
Next up? Barcelona, who lead a group in which Juventus still have work to do to qualify and make sure Italian football is not very thinly represented in the last 16.
For Napoli, top of Serie A but defeated three times so far in the Champions League, qualifying is well out of their hands, while Roma, narrowly leading their group, go to Atletico Madrid knowing the Spanish team could still sneak above them.