‘Man Utd’s predictable exit on dismal evening
“Too many years without a trophy, without really fighting for trophies,” said David de Gea afterwards. “We need to be clear, we want to be fighting for trophies, not fighting for top four, and going out before quarter-finals. This club is too big for where we are now.”
There was little realistic chance of Manchester United pulling off something extraordinary in this Champions League. The Premier League table reveals the gulf between them and their domestic rivals even before the best clubs from continental Europe are considered.
However, this was still a dismal evening for United because it was so predictable. Punished on the counter-attack after being exposed in the wide areas, what followed was grim. United trying to find a way through Atletico Madrid’s defensive block. Ideas lacking.
“One thing we cannot do against Atletico is concede the first goal,” said Ralf Rangnick. “From normal play, we did not produce enough chances. We brought all the offensive players we had off the bench, but it was difficult against this wall of defensive players.”
Rangnick knew what he could not do. Diego Simeone knew what he could. “In the second half, we controlled the game and that made us more comfortable. We knew the opponent likes to play on the counter-attack so we decided to deny them the spaces.”
Sit back and let United have it, in other words. They passed it to one side and then to the other. Crosses came in. Fodder for these centre-backs. An increasingly desperate Cristiano Ronaldo tried to knock it past a defender and run round him. Maybe 10 years ago.
The fans at Old Trafford were vocal in their support at the start, seeing their side press their opponents. There was a real sense of occasion and signs that the team were up for the challenge. But once behind, familiar frustrations began to sour the atmosphere.
Harry Maguire’s distribution was sloppy and his cumbersome movements are beginning to antagonise frustrated fans. He is a strong character but this is an awkward situation for him now. He is in danger of becoming a symbol of the club’s decline.
It is a club ripe for a rebuild, but one built to win now. It is mid-March and the 37-year-old Ronaldo has no trophies to play for. Maguire is 29, Raphael Varane is 28. Bruno Fernandes is in the worst form of his Manchester United career and Marcus Rashford is struggling badly.
Securing Champions League qualification will be the focus now but this was a night to remind everyone that merely qualifying is not enough for this club, the aim must be to construct a team capable of doing rather more than this once they are in it.
That demands difficult decisions about players’ futures and correct ones about the future of the manager. Rangnick cannot stay but Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Tag, seen as the two strongest candidates for the job, have both been eliminated already too.
For De Gea, the exasperation was clear. “We all want the best for this club, especially myself,” he added. “I have been here many years, I love this club. I really believe, I don’t know when, that this club will be back at the top.” But the wait goes on.
Tried and tested tactics still paying off for Atletico
There was something fitting about seeing Antoine Griezmann, one of the most feted forwards of his generation and not to mention one of the most expensive players of all time, seemingly spending most of the second half of Atletico Madrid’s win at Manchester United on Tuesday night as a right wing-back.
This was like 2016 all over again, with Griezmann, back working under Diego Simeone after his Barcelona move went sideways, providing the moment of inspiration in attack for Atletico – in this case, the assist for Renan Lodi’s goal – before joining his team-mates in the trenches as they ground out a clean sheet and a win to progress in the Champions League.
Six years ago that tactic saw Atletico go all the way to the final – where they were beaten by Real Madrid for a second time in two years – and the Spanish champions are now just four matches away from repeating the feat.
The 2015/16 season saw Atletico concede just five goals on their way to the Champions League final, while Griezmann provided the spark, scoring the goals that saw them past Barcelona in the last eight and Bayern Munich in the semi-finals.
While nobody is under the impression that this version of Simeone’s side is as good as his 2016 vintage – they have already conceded more goals this season than in any other campaign under the Argentinian – the fact that his tried and tested methods continue to reap rewards on Europe’s biggest stage has to be admired.
As is often the case under Simeone, Atletico has less of the ball than Manchester United at Old Trafford, as well as fewer shots and a lower expected goals total – yet they won and, in truth, never looked like losing once they went in front.
Players may have come and gone in the last six years, and Simeone has even embraced a new formation, but Atletico’s combination of star quality up front, an all-hands-to-the-pump mentality in defence and, as Ralf Rangnick put it, “time-wasting antics”, is still frustrating Europe’s heavyweight sides.
Cesar Azpilicueta is the embodiment of what Thomas Tuchel calls the “football-first” mentality at Chelsea.
The Blues captain led by example in their 2-1 win at Lille which sent them through to the quarter-finals with a 4-1 aggregate victory – and he even scored the crucial second goal in the second leg.
The 32-year-old has been with the club for 10 years but could be leaving in the summer with his contract set to expire and Chelsea unable to extend it due to government restrictions amid Roman Abramovich’s departure.
Nonetheless, Azpilicueta is continuing to be a model professional which has been installed in him since he arrived at the club.
“He is used to focusing on football and that’s the key point why it’s possible now to stay focused because the club has the mentality that sharpens the attitude, the mentality of the players,” said Tuchel.
“If you are in there like our skipper for so many years, you do what is needed, you step up and it’s normal to focus, making it possible even in difficult times.”
Jurgen Klopp had made the point when speaking to Sky Sports on the eve of the game he has options now in the forward positions, a flexibility that enables him to rotate even in the biggest of games.
“Yes, we can do that now,” he says. “It is always in our thoughts because of the load and the intensity of the period we are in.”
There could hardly have been a clearer example of those options than in Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Arsenal on Wednesday evening, a victory that takes them to within one point of the Premier League leaders Manchester City and has many believing they will now win the title.
Mohamed Salah was named among the substitutes but the forward line still looked strong. Sadio Mane had a goal disallowed. Diogo Jota scored what turned out to be the winning goal. Roberto Firmino came off the bench to put the result beyond doubt.
Luis Diaz was trusted with this big game and Klopp has been keen to point out the form of Takumi Minamino and the continued presence of Divock Origi in the squad. It helps to explain why Liverpool have one trophy already won and three more in their sights.
“Now if someone is having a poor game, you know someone is going to come on and improve Liverpool from the bench,” Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports. “That is a massive difference that this team has never had.”
Will it be the difference in the Premier League title race? That is too early to say and given Manchester City’s quality, there can be no guarantees. But what is apparent is that Liverpool are stronger now. This win over an in-form Arsenal underlined that.
You could sense the excitement in the air before kick-off.
There was a buzz, an anticipation as in-form Arsenal welcomed title challengers Liverpool. After a run of five straight wins in the Premier League, were the Gunners finally ready to make a huge statement in the race for the top four?
In the first half, that expectation rose as Arsenal caused Liverpool plenty of problems. Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka looked real threats in behind Liverpool’s high line. However, Arsenal lacked a cutting edge with their final ball off all night.
Then came the big moment.
Early in the second half, Alexandre Lacazette pounced on Thiago’s sloppy back pass before teeing up Martin Odegaard, who was denied by a crucial save from Alisson.
Liverpool, who were never going to be as poor as they were in the first half, then showed how clinical you have to be in these big matches. Where Alisson had come to Liverpool’s rescue, could Aaron Ramsdale come to Arsenal’s?
Diego Jota’s shot squeezed past him at the near post before Roberto Firmino’s deft touch put the game to bed.
Suddenly, the Emirates Stadium was flat. The optimism was gone.
The reality, it was another false dawn for Arsenal in terms of them challenging the big boys of the Premier League. However, this result will not decide their top-four push.
The Gunners are still in an extremely strong position in fourth, but now the real test comes. Mikel Arteta will have to work hard to get a response from his side, starting at Aston Villa on Saturday as they bid to not let this result derail their Champions League push.
After thrashing Leeds 4-0 a few weeks ago, Antonio Conte said he is finally starting to see his ideas come to fruition on the pitch.
“It is the first time I saw my mark with this system… it means that the work is starting to work,” the Italian boss said in his post-match press conference.
While it has not necessarily carried on in a consistent manner – an FA Cup exit to Middlesbrough and 3-2 defeat at Manchester United for example – Spurs did show some grit and determination to fight for a top-four place at Brighton.
Yes, they were facing a side on a poor run of form and arguably running low on confidence, but Tottenham were hardly at their free-flowing best either.
Cristian Romero’s deflected goal was the first shot on target, with Conte’s side not really creating much until that point, bar a bizarre moment when Harry Kane could have found the net if he only had a better angle.
Brighton tested them defensively in the second half – although ended the game without a shot on target – but a textbook counter-attack saw Kane further write his name into Premier League history.
Was it up there with Tottenham’s best performance this season? Definitely not. But it was a professional, job-done performance that will arguably go a long way towards a top-four push. These are the kinds of results and gritty showings that will help push Spurs further towards their aspirations.
And so Brighton’s slump continues. Their 2-0 reverse to Tottenham on Wednesday made it six consecutive defeats for Graham Potter’s side, who have only won three of their last 24 Premier League games dating back to September.
It is relegation form – they are just fortunate they racked up so many points in the first few weeks of the season, when they won four of their first five games and the campaign ahead brimmed with possibility.
That early-season optimism has long faded. Brighton weren’t winning often enough before this losing streak but they were at least difficult to beat. Now, they look brittle and toothless.
Brittle because of the sloppiness which has crept into their game; toothless because of their inability to convert chances. Against Spurs, they had 15 shots but not one on target, with Neal Maupay, without a goal in seven games, the main culprit.
A lack of cutting edge is not a new problem for Brighton but never has it been quite as pronounced as this. The strengthening of their forward line must be a priority in the summer, but there are nine games still to get through before then.
On 33 points, there seems little danger of relegation. But much more of this and Potter might find himself under pressure. A season that promised much is petering out.