Welcome to the Champions League recap, where Jack Lang takes you through the important talking points – and things you might have missed – from across Europe’s premier club competition. This morning, he assessed the damage from Manchester United’s latest debacle, paid tribute to Shakhtar Donetsk and celebrated Milan breathing life into the Group of Death…
Sympathy for Ten Hag?
Manchester United’s misery is now so comprehensive and multi-faceted that it is difficult to choose the right metaphor for it. Dumpster fire? If anything, this seems a bit restrictive. Snowballs are so much fun. No, we are now in a runaway train world. Erik ten Hag is still on the ship but the controls stopped working three or four explosions ago.
At this point it’s probably worth clarifying: This won’t be an absolute kicker. This column has done it before and will no doubt do it again, but Wednesday’s defeat to FC Copenhagen was not a disaster on the level of some other recent performances, at least as far as Ten Hag is concerned. It was instead proof that sometimes these things have their own momentum, a kind of tragic internal gravitational force.
Chaos and disaster: How Manchester United twice threw the same game
For 40 minutes, United were – whisper it – very good. Compressed passes. Alejandro Garnacho and Marcus Rashford twisted the home defense into all sorts of bizarre shapes. Scott McTominay was running around, all great energy. Champions League specialist Rasmus Hoglund scored twice from close range and came close to scoring a hat-trick. This was the first time in this era that United could be described as rampant.
It clearly could not continue: Rashford was sent off and United, ignoring the basic principles of match management, managed to concede two goals before half-time. Even then, there was reason for hope. They came out after the break with renewed determination and, if only briefly, looked on course for a big away victory.
Is Tin Hag responsible for what happened next? His decision to withdraw Hoglund in the 84th minute was baffling, but it was the foolish individual decisions that really cost United.
Diogo Dalot could have chosen any of the remaining 22 hours of the day to drift into a state of reverie, but he chose to do so at the very moment when the man he was supposed to be watching was rushing after him. Four minutes later, Raphael Varane tried… Actually, sorry, I have no idea what he was trying. The ball that should have been cleared came back to Copenhagen and finally into Andre Onana’s goal.
Ten Hag can be a frustrating character. His credit with United fans has diminished during his second season in charge, and understandably so. It is up for debate whether he is the right man to take the club forward.
However, here it was difficult not to feel a little sympathy.
This was not a failure of tactics; United were the better team for large periods of last night’s game. This was arguably their best performance in the 2023-24 Champions League so far. And yet, here we are again, with the disaster scale rising toward 11 again.
This is the problem with runaway trains. You can drag these controls all you want, but the thing keeps running.
It is fair to say that names no longer jump from the cards of the Shakhtar Donetsk team as they did before. The local stalwarts are still there – literally, in the case of Taras Stepanenko – but the international luster of the project has long since faded. The war weighs heavily on the football club, as much as it does on the nation. Prospects shrink. What was once a playground for Brazilians is now even sadder. You don’t play there unless you’re willing to do things the hard way.
Shakhtar has been exiled from his city in the Donbas region since 2014, and things have become more complicated since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. They are now playing their home matches in the Champions League in the German city of Hamburg. They cannot fly to and from Ukraine directly, which means they must first travel by bus to an airport in Poland.
Bedouin life was imposed on them.
However, it did not drain their spirit.
Shakhtar came from a two-goal deficit to win against host Royal Antwerp in the second round and achieved another small miracle on Tuesday by defeating its guest Barcelona. The only goal of the match – a slow header from Danilo Secan at the end of a fluid move – was a great moment, but it is the sheer character of the team’s performance that will live long in the memory. Barcelona felt angry and angry but rarely seemed to impose themselves despite the gap in resources.
“The players were competing all the time,” coach Marino Pocic said. “That’s what I wanted to see: courage.”
Whether they end up qualifying for the next stage or not, Shakhtar have already proven they have it in spades.
Milan midline muscle
With their first three Champions League matches this season having resulted in two points and precisely zero goals, Milan looked set to fall out of the running for qualification from Group F. But on Tuesday, they roared back into contention thanks to an exciting team. Show at home to Paris Saint-Germain.
It would be easy to talk enthusiastically about Olivier Giroud, who is still scoring big goals – and still looking like a young star – at the age of 37. But the real stars of the show were playing a little further afield than the French striker.
Younes Musa, Tijjani Reynders and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were excellent at San Siro, as their physicality and energy helped Milan win the midfield battle. Loftus-Cheek was particularly good, carrying the ball forward with that wonderful, sinuous step and constantly asking questions to which PSG had no convincing answers.
With two games remaining, the four teams in the division – Newcastle and Borussia Dortmund – now share just three points.
Finally a death group worthy of this name.
Everyone salutes the goal
A day in the life of Harry Kane at Bayern Munich: Wake up, score goals on toast for breakfast, nice big mug of hot goals, quick scan of Goal Times, bus trip to Julesville, day spent selling goals at the local agent, back home to play A quick game with the kids, and a bottle of French Goals chilling in the fridge. lovable. Same thing again tomorrow?
(Kane scored his 18th and 19th goals of the season in Bayern’s 2-1 win over Galatasaray in Munich on Wednesday, by the way.)
Golden Old Man: Two weeks ago, Porto defender Pepe became the oldest player to play in the Champions League, at 40 years and 241 days. He went one better on Tuesday, scoring his side’s late second goal in the win over Antwerp to become the competition’s all-time top scorer. The strict diet of shank bones and brittle spirits – beautifully roasted with garlic and a few sprigs of sage – that he followed during his long stint as Real Madrid’s resident hatchet man has truly done wonders for his longevity.
Silver linings section: Newcastle suffered a harsh defeat against Dortmund on Tuesday, but there was consolation from the performance of Tino Liveramento. The 20-year-old was his team’s best enforcer on the right wing – not his usual position – and seemed completely unfazed by the experience of making his Champions League debut. Livramento would have registered an assist had Joelinton been half as tough as he likes to be, but this was a very promising display nonetheless.
Results of the fourth round of the Champions League
Bayern Munich 2-1 Galatasaray
Copenhagen 4-3 Manchester United
Arsenal 2-0 Sevilla
PSV Eindhoven 1-0 Lens
Napoli 1-1 Union Berlin
Real Madrid 3-0 Braga
Real Sociedad 3-1 Benfica
Red Bull Salzburg 0-1 Inter Milan
Atletico Madrid 6-0 Celtic
Lazio 1-0 Feyenoord
Borussia Dortmund 2-0 Newcastle
Milan 2-1 Paris Saint-Germain
Manchester City 3-0 Young Boys
Red Star Belgrade 1-2 Leipzig
Porto 2-0 Royal Antwerp
Shakhtar Donetsk 1-0 Barcelona
(Top image: Getty Images)
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