As the Uefa Champions League returns this week, Ian Hawkey takes a look at the big talking points set to dominate the action.
Man City and Napoli in battle of pace-setters, Mourinho back where it began: Uefa Champions League talking points
Italy versus England, Parts One and Two
Over the course of the season, Manchester City and Napoli have been in a joust at arm’s length. Which of them is playing the most attractive, expansive football in Europe? Who’s setting the better pace in their domestic title race? It’s close. City pumped up their swollen goal difference even further on Saturday by hitting seven against Stoke. Napoli, with 26 goals from eight games, extended their 100 per cent record in Serie A.
Tuesday’s showdown at the Etihad Stadium is one to savour, for the fluency of both teams, for the individual duels, like the battle of the Belgians, in-form Kevin de Bruyne against the dynamic Dries Mertens. Unlike City, Napoli have lost already in the Uefa Champions League, raising the suspicion their priority is a Serie A title, something they have lacked since 1990.
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And which is harder to win, the English league or the Italian? Where are standards set higher? City v Napoli, the collision of the league-leaders, might hint at an answer.
So might Wednesday’s Chelsea-Roma. Both these capital clubs regard themselves as domestic title contenders. Both have recently lost at home to their league pacesetters, City and Napoli. There’s another spicy battle of Belgians here too, with Roma’s combative Radja Naiggolan aiming to put the brakes on Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.
Black Eagles, Dark Horses
Not a bad weekend for Eagles, what with Crystal Palace, who go by that nickname, finally scoring in the Premier League, and Lazio, the so-called Eagles of Rome, beating Juventus.
The highest fliers of the species in the Champions League are Besiktas, aka the Black Eagles. The Turkish club have maximum points, and find themselves, after an impressive win at Porto and the brushing aside of a nervous RB Leipzig, poised to take command of an intriguing Group G.
They visit Monaco, flamboyant semi-finalists last season but vulnerable. Monaco lost 3-0 at home to Porto last month; if the Eagles of Istanbul prey on Monaco, who have just one point so far, the French champions will be scrambling to catch up.
Mourinho, back where it all began
On the subject of Eagles, the most feted of them have had their wings horribly clipped. Benfica, where mascot named Vitoria flies across the Estadio da Luz before home fixtures, suffered a shocking 5-0 hammering at Basel last time out. Without a point, they prop up Group A.
“They are still our most dangerous opponents in this group,” insisted Jose Mourinho, whose Manchester United seek a third win in three in Lisbon on Wednesday.
Was he being sentimental? Mourinho has a Benfica past, and although it is a footnote in his illustrious career, he learned some hard, useful lessons there. He managed Benfica for 11 games, his first gig as a senior club manager, back in 2000, when he was a young, ambitious 37.
It was with Benfica he managed a team in Europe for the first time. It was at Benfica that Mourinho learned the dangers of assuming a managerial job in mid-season – he joined them in late September and had left before Christmas – and of making sure he knew who his boss was. The president who appointed him Benfica manager was ousted, via elections, a few weeks into Mourinho’s brief stay. That president later served time in a Portuguese prison.
Mourinho meanwhile went onto, well, soar like an eagle. Benfica fans recognise him as the one that got away.
Jupp Heynckes, the unretiring caretaker
A week after the second leg of the semi-finals of this Champions League, on May 2, Jupp Heynckes will turn 73. Bayern Munich hope he will have a live interest in the final, which would be Heynckes’s fourth in the competition.
Four years ago, ending his third spell as Bayern manager, Heyckes won his second European Cup as a manager and bade a farewell to football. “It’s great way to end. I have no ambitions to coach again,” he declared.
Really? Heynckes has just agreed to take over Bayern for a fourth time, following the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti. The repairs began with a 5-0 win on Saturday against Freiburg. His first European match since Bayern’s win over Borussia Dortmund at Wembley in 2013 is at home to Celtic on Wednesday.
Win and Bayern will be back on track after their humbling by Paris Saint-Germain, and for Heynckes, who guided Real Madrid to the European Cup in 1998, to start counting down the nine matches left before he might match Ancelotti’s record of three Champions League titles as a manager.
Kane setting the pace for a Golden Boot
“Ronaldo and Messi do it every week. That’s what I aspire to.” So says Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane. At the moment, Kane is scoring his European goals at a rather better rate than every week. His five have come at one every 32 minutes. He’ll be able to watch from close quarters as one of his role models, Cristiano Ronaldo – for six seasons out of the last 10 the best marksman in the Champions League – sets about catching up. Ronaldo, whose Real Madrid host Spurs, has four from 180 minutes so far.