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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Family-friendly Barcelona head to Inter Milan as bashful Buffon makes return: Uefa Champions League talking points

Ian Hawkey looks ahead to the latest round of fixtures in the European Cup as Tottenham, Benfica and Monaco cling on to survival

Gianluigi Buffon, right, alongside Kylian Mbappe before Paris Saint-Germain's Ligue 1 match against Lille on Saturday. Reuters
Gianluigi Buffon, right, alongside Kylian Mbappe before Paris Saint-Germain's Ligue 1 match against Lille on Saturday. Reuters

Buffon, bashful and unbanned

More than 22 years after his debut in a European club competition, Gianluigi Buffon will rack up another milestone on Tuesday, when he makes his first appearance for Paris Saint-Germain in the Uefa Champions League, a competition which, despite 15 previous attempts in the colours of Parma, and mainly Juventus, he has yet to win.

That tantalising backstory - including two lost finals with Juve, and an impeccable set of other medals that include a World Cup and every domestic Italian honour - partly explains Buffon’s tantrum at the end of last season’s quarter-final against Real Madrid, when, after conceding a late penalty at the Bernabeu, Buffon’s Juve were eliminated.

The veteran goalkeeper was red-carded and he followed his dismissal with a unseemly rant about referee Michael Oliver. Hence the three-match ban he carried with him to Paris when he joined the French champions, aged 40, last summer.

That is now served, and Buffon presented his contrition to Italian TV ahead of his return to the European Cup, PSG manager Thomas Tuchel having assured him of a starting place at Napoli on Tuesday.

“I was furious and I completely lost it,” said the former Italy captain of his splenetic outburst last April. “It was the Buffon of Carrara you saw.” Carrara is his birthplace; the reference was to the young, tough, and hot-headed Buffon.

The older version is required to be more temperate. His role at PSG, says Tuchel, is to “be a leader”, and sometimes to be patient. His outings in Ligue 1 have been limited, the keeper’s jersey being shared with France international Alphonse Areola. They have played six league matches each so far in 2018-19, the latest for Buffon Saturday’s 2-1 win against Lille.

The teen machine

Reiss Nelson has scored five goals this season while on loan at Hoffenheim from Arsenal, the latest coming against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. AFP
Reiss Nelson has scored five goals this season while on loan at Hoffenheim from Arsenal, the latest coming against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. AFP

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, some expectant teenagers are hoping to make a mark in club football’s leading theatre this week. The exciting Hoffenheim forward, Reiss Nelson, presses his case for a place in the XI ever stronger.

Nelson, 18 and on loan from Arsenal, scored a wonderful goal from long distance on Saturday at Bayer Leverkusen, his fifth strike of a Bundesliga season in which he has started just four times.

So far in Europe, he has come off the bench twice, in the second half, but as the German club chase a first win, and survival in the Champions League, at Olympique Lyonnais, they may look to the nimble, in-form Nelson to make a longer impact.

Then there’s Vinicius Junior, apparently chief beneficiary of the new caretaker coach at Real Madrid, Santiago Solari. Solari, promoted from Castilla, the club’s reserve team, to replace the sacked Julen Lopetegui a week ago, gave Vinicius, 18 his first senior start last week in the Copa del Rey, at Melilla.

He set up two of Madrid’s four goals. He the came on in La Liga at the weekend and effectively broke a stubborn deadlock at home to Valladolid, his shot-turned-cross after a slaloming run deflecting in for the first goal of Madrid’s 2-0 win.

A Champions League debut for the €45 million (Dh188m) recruit from Gremio looks imminent, perhaps at Viktoria Plzen on Wednesday.

Family-friendly Barca

Lionel Messi watched Barcelona's match against Inter Milan at the Camp Nou from the stands with his son. Reuters
Lionel Messi watched Barcelona's match against Inter Milan at the Camp Nou from the stands with his son. Reuters

Luciano Spalletti, the Inter Milan manager, returned from Barcelona, and a 2-0 defeat between the two leaders of Group B 11 days ago puzzled by the relaxed approach of his opponents, he reports.

“They came out on the pitch to warm-up for just 10 minutes before the game, and my players tell me they had been to pick up their kids from school that afternoon before driving to the stadium,” said Spalletti, who evidently prefers a more intense build-up for his footballers. “If we prepared for games like that, we’d lose them 18-0.”

At Camp Nou, the Barca victory featured a very cosy family scene: the injured Lionel Messi watching with his children from seats close to pitch. Messi’s fractured arm is healing, and he may even be available for the trip to San Siro, where a Barcelona win would guarantee their finishing top while an Inter win would seal progress for Spalletti’s less laid-back disciplinarians.

Make-or-break time

Tottenham Hotspur are on the brink of a group stage exit from the Uefa Champions League. Reuters
Tottenham Hotspur are on the brink of a group stage exit from the Uefa Champions League. Reuters

None of 32 contestants are without at least a point so far, one encouraging sign for those who fear the competition’s divide between the top clubs and the minnows is broadening.

But several will find their hopes of progress ended by the end of Wednesday. Tottenham Hotspur, with one meagre draw from three games, are very vulnerable unless they win at home to PSV Eindhoven. Likewise Benfica, unless they can defeat an Ajax who will guarantee their progress with a victory in Lisbon.

Thierry Henry’s Monaco, yet to claim a victory in any competition after four games under their new manager, will be ruled out of finishing in the top two of Group A even if they beat Bruges on Tuesday, should Atletico Madrid also overcome Borussia Dortmund in Spain.