The Champions League is back! Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s action as this season’s group stage kicked off in Europe’s premier club competition.
The jinxed jersey
Thomas Tuchel hasn’t tried to lessen the weight of Chelsea’s No. 9 shirt. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The head coach has repeatedly branded the digit a “curse” at Stamford Bridge.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Hernan Crespo, and Tammy Abraham are the club’s most successful No. 9s this century, but Crespo and Abraham’s fruitful spells were only brief. Fernando Torres, Radamel Falcao, Alvaro Morata, and Gonzalo Higuain are among the players who’ve disappointed while donning the number, which is traditionally reserved for goalscorers.
“We demand a lot from our strikers in terms of defending. We want to be a physical and hard-working group, one that’s not shy to make it a physical game and not only a skillful game. That maybe plays a part,” Tuchel offered in February of how Chelsea’s traditional playing style could contribute to Romelu Lukaku’s struggles.
But deadline-day arrival Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had no problem with inheriting Lukaku’s shirt. If the 33-year-old is to break the curse, he’ll have to do better than he did in Tuesday’s 1-0 loss at Dinamo Zagreb.
Aubameyang struggled to make a positive impact in his debut, showing none of the conviction that Chelsea so desperately need in the center-forward position. Instead, he strayed offside three times and failed to fire a single shot on target. Armando Broja replaced Aubameyang after 60 largely frustrating minutes.
His face mask may have narrowed his vision, and after sustaining injuries during a violent break-in attempt at his home near Barcelona, he may need some time to regain his confidence. But he shouldn’t need too much time to adapt to Tuchel’s tactics. The 49-year-old coached Aubameyang for two seasons at Borussia Dortmund, and it was in Germany where the former Gabonese international learned how to play his best football, operating as well up front as he would out of possession.
Based on his performance in the Croatian capital, Aubameyang has a long way to go before he can become that player once again.
New season, same PSG?
Now more than ever, there are no illusions about Paris Saint-Germain’s aspirations. It’s Champions League title or bust.
And, not for the first time, some of the early signs were enormously promising. PSG toyed with Juventus for much of their 2-1 win Tuesday in the French capital. Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, and Lionel Messi seemed to be playing a different sport at times, connecting with intricate tricks and flicks and making a mockery of the Juve backline. Neymar’s scooped pass for Mbappe’s early goal, and the Frenchman’s thunderous volley itself, belong in the Louvre.
Leading 2-0 after just 22 minutes and in complete control, PSG should’ve gone for the jugular. They could’ve blown Juve away and made a huge statement of intent, even if beating this version of the Old Lady isn’t quite the accomplishment of previous years. Still, a marker could have been laid down.
Instead, PSG became complacent after the interval. The smooth, slick, devastating unit from the opening 45 minutes disappeared and let Juventus back into the match. PSG were, and are, comfortably the better team, but after Weston McKennie halved the deficit, doubt started the creep in for the hosts. The defense, untested in the first half, looked nervous and susceptible whenever a cross was whipped into the penalty area.
The scenes were somewhat reminiscent of PSG’s collapse against Real Madrid last season, only this time, Karim Benzema wasn’t there to punish them. A relatively feeble Juventus side worried PSG when it played on the front foot. How will Christophe Galtier’s men handle the pressure against better teams in the knockout stages? The question, yet again, lingers.
Allegri holding Juve back
Passive. Timid. Apathetic.
Juventus fans and pundits alike had their thesauruses out after the opening half of Tuesday’s eventual defeat to PSG, with Massimiliano Allegri’s team completely outclassed and overawed by the pace, skill, and intensity of Mbappe and his teammates. Juve, who have looked turgid in Serie A this season, struggled to string multiple passes together.
The knives were being sharpened for the Italian manager, whose monotonous tactics have come under heavy criticism of late.
Then, suddenly, McKennie’s aforementioned goal in the 53rd minute seemed to flip a switch. Juve pressed forward, Leandro Paredes started to dictate the tempo and spray passes across the pitch, and the Italian side found pockets of space between the lines instead of playing repetitive, low-risk balls out wide and simply recycling possession over and over again.
Ironically, that improvement is part of the issue. Juventus can play more aggressive, attractive football. The talent is there, even without the injured star trio of Federico Chiesa, Paul Pogba, and Angel Di Maria. Allegri can’t wait for all three to return before he takes the handbrake off; the former pair likely won’t be back in full force until January, at the earliest.
The players need to take some responsibility, of course, but Allegri is being paid very handsomely to put his team in a position to win. Being overly conservative, even if it will occasionally deliver results, isn’t the right approach to get the best out of his team.
If things haven’t changed by the time PSG visit Turin in the reverse fixture in early November, the Tuscan manager could be in trouble.
Is Akanji one of the top summer bargains?
You wouldn’t have guessed it was Manuel Akanji’s Manchester City debut. He didn’t need to do much defensive work in his new side’s 4-0 win at Sevilla, but he was unhurried when he had the ball, using both feet as he moved it along to his new teammates. He completed 71 passes, creating two chances along the way.
It all seemed very familiar to Akanji.
Pep Guardiola likes to rotate his lineup, but he prefers to have a set center-back duo for most of his team’s matches. Ruben Dias and John Stones were his last regular pairing, but injuries and the occasional off-color performance from the latter have loosened that partnership’s hold on two spots in the lineup.
Nathan Ake has improved following some unconvincing displays earlier in his City career, but he seems to get injured just when he’s strung together a few starts. Meanwhile, Aymeric Laporte’s increasingly common spells on the sidelines may be the main reason City swooped for Akanji on deadline day; the Spaniard might not be back until mid-October after knee surgery.
So, Akanji could be very busy in his first few weeks in Manchester, and, based on his debut display, that’s no bad thing. He has the intelligence, awareness, and selflessness that should set him up well for Guardiola football, and at around £17 million, he could prove to be the bargain of the summer.
Well, that’s if Erling Haaland – who already has 12 City goals after his double against Sevilla – didn’t cost just £60 million.
Salzburg no pushovers in Group E
AC Milan learned Tuesday night that Red Bull Salzburg are a serious threat in Group E.
Salzburg, after all, are playing in the Champions League group stage for the fourth consecutive season. They routinely develop some of the world’s most promising talent, most notably Haaland, and press as relentlessly as the very best teams in Europe. It should come as no surprise they held Milan to a 1-1 draw – they managed to do the same against Bayern Munich last season.
Given Chelsea’s early struggles, Salzburg can envision a path into the round of 16, especially with Swiss forward Noah Okafor developing into a fine scorer and dribbler and 19-year-old forward Benjamin Sesko showing promise in advance of his move to sister club RB Leipzig.
Salzburg took the game to Milan early in the first half, pressing the Rossoneri and limiting their time on the ball. The hosts had a goal and nine shots by the half-hour mark despite only having 35% possession. It was a devastating display that set the tone for the rest of the game. Salzburg’s defenders double-marked Rafael Leao, knowing they had to cut off an artery of Milan’s attack to stand a chance against the Italian champions. Though the Portuguese winger assisted the equalizer, he could’ve done a lot more damage.
By the end of the night, Salzburg’s players covered an average of 11.09 kilometers, trumping Milan’s 10.8 kilometers per outfielder. Even after starting the game so aggressively, the Austrian side sustained itself throughout the 90 minutes, doing the majority of its work off the ball.
23 most exciting youngsters to watch in 2023
Over the next 12 months, a fresh crop of footballers will establish themselves atop the men’s game. Here, theScore looks at some talented youngsters – aged 21 and under – who are set to flourish in 2023, while deliberately excluding those who made our lists in previous years.
Previous selections: 2019 | 2020 | 2021 (Part one and two) | 2022
Karim Adeyemi ??
Club: Borussia Dortmund | Age: 20 | Position: Winger
Excitement over Adeyemi’s potential surged last season when he scored 19 goals and contributed five assists during Red Bull Salzburg’s title-winning campaign. He hasn’t hit the ground running since swapping Austria for Germany, with a nagging foot injury harming his transition, but you can trust Dortmund to do a good job in giving the pacey frontman plenty of minutes against the best teams in Europe.
Benoit Badiashile ??
Club: AS Monaco | Age: 21 | Position: Center-back
Badiashile, on the brink of joining Chelsea, is ready to test himself away from Ligue 1 and possesses the physical attributes that should make him a good fit for Premier League football. His age, left-footedness, and experience of 106 appearances in France’s top flight add to his appeal, and he’s skilled at progressing play from the back with measured passes. One of his finest attributes is his knack for outpacing forwards and ushering them off the ball – it looks so effortless for him.
Alejandro Balde ??
Club: Barcelona | Age: 19 | Position: Full-back
Xavi was so impressed with Balde’s performances during preseason that he immediately tasked the young left-back with challenging for Jordi Alba’s starting spot in the Barcelona lineup. Balde was picked for Barca’s second match of the season and repaid his manager’s faith by quickly setting up Robert Lewandowski’s first La Liga goal. The teenager seems determined to make up for lost time after injuries disrupted his progress last season. He was included in Spain’s World Cup squad and appeared four times at the competition.
Armel Bella-Kotchap ??
Club: Southampton | Age: 21 | Position: Center-back
The biggest risk to Bella-Kotchap’s development is his club. Southampton didn’t feel stable throughout Ralph Hasenhuttl’s four-year reign, and his successor, Nathan Jones, has had a rough start to his tenure. Nevertheless, Bella-Kotchap impressed enough with the Saints to earn his first Germany call-up in September. He puts his acceleration to good use, shutting down attacks early or mopping up for his teammates when they’ve been beaten.
Club: Palmeiras | Age: 16 | Position: Striker
Unless you’ve got access to Brazilian football on your television, you’re not going to see Endrick regularly until he joins Real Madrid in July 2024. The teenage forward is a phenomenon, scoring three goals over seven outings as Palmeiras finished top of the Serie A standings. His rise since his professional debut in October has been spectacular, and he’ll relish the prospect of joining Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo in Los Blancos’ attack.
Enzo Fernandez ??
Club: Benfica | Age: 21 | Position: Midfielder
Fernandez already hinted at his unbridled potential in the Champions League group stage when he outclassed his contemporaries at Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus. Then he was one of the best midfielders in Qatar as he helped Argentina capture its third World Cup, keeping the team ticking with his mature use of the ball while proving to be a tigerish opponent out of possession. His goal against Mexico wasn’t bad either.
Alejandro Garnacho ??
Club: Manchester United | Age: 18 | Position: Winger
There were concerns over Garnacho’s attitude and defensive work earlier in the season, but he’s a player who gets fans off their seats. He oozes confidence, running at opponents and daring them to challenge him. He can create and finish as well: In the space of 10 days in November, he became Manchester United’s youngest non-English goalscorer in Europe, assisted twice in the League Cup, and nudged in a 93rd-minute winner in the Premier League.
Josko Gvardiol ??
Club: RB Leipzig | Age: 20 | Position: Center-back
You’ve all heard of him by now. Gvardiol’s domineering displays at the back provided the foundation for Croatia’s run to the 2022 World Cup semifinals. His 6-foot-1 frame is intimidating, but don’t write him off as an old-school defender: He produced the second-most interceptions in Qatar and ranked third for total passes by a Croatian behind Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric. RB Leipzig could demand a world-record fee for a defender when the time comes to sell.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia ??
Club: Napoli | Age: 21 | Position: Winger
Kvaratskhelia’s style is somewhat unrefined – and that’s not a bad thing. Rather than adhering to strict tactical lessons in a lavish European academy, his impulsiveness and trickery flourished while he played in Georgia and Russia. He could take risks and make mistakes. He was allowed to entertain. That increasingly rare introduction to the game has created one of the most watchable and unpredictable players on the globe: like legendary Georgian playmaker Georgi Kinkladze with a dirt bike engine.
Marcos Leonardo ??
Club: Santos | Age: 19 | Position: Forward
Marcos Leonardo is determined to make Brazil’s No. 9 shirt his own. There’s plenty of evidence from his first season as a Santos regular to suggest he could claim the coveted jersey in time for his country’s 2026 World Cup campaign. He’s full of cheek, charm, and class. He scored 13 goals over 35 appearances during the 2022 Brazilian Serie A season and has a wide repertoire of finishes, including powerful drives and audacious lobs.
Rico Lewis ?gbeng
Club: Manchester City | Age: 18 | Position: Full-back
Lewis only turned 18 in November, but he’s already playing significant minutes at right-back for Manchester City ahead of Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker. He scored in his full Champions League debut against Sevilla and played one half of that game in an inverted role before staying wide as a traditional, overlapping full-back in the other half. It seems he’s already mastered the Pep Guardiola playbook.
Ian Maatsen ??
Club: Chelsea | Age: 20 | Position: Full-back
Ben Chilwell’s injury issues and Marc Cucurella’s underwhelming start to life at Stamford Bridge could work out well for Maatsen. The versatile Chelsea youngster previously had spells on loan at Charlton Athletic and Coventry City, and he’s now thriving in Vincent Kompany’s attack-minded Burnley side. He can sometimes be erratic and predominantly spends time in the opposition’s half, so he could be a strong left-wing-back option for Chelsea next season.
Nuno Mendes ??
Club: Paris Saint-Germain | Age: 20 | Position: Full-back
Mendes is already establishing himself among the best left-backs on the globe. He initially boosted his reputation at Sporting CP after becoming a regular starter following the departure of Alex Telles. His speed, close control, and strong link-up play encouraged Paris Saint-Germain to swoop in the summer of 2021, and he quickly claimed the left-back spot ahead of Juan Bernat in the French capital.
Fabio Miretti ??
Club: Juventus | Age: 19 | Position: Midfielder
Juventus have recently been blessed with a flood of talent from their youth academy, and Miretti might be the best of the lot. He’s missed just two Serie A matches this season as he pushes to be a starter in Massimiliano Allegri’s side and has showcased his fine vision, ability to find space between the lines, and impressive decision-making in the final third. Allegri has praised Miretti for playing like a veteran.
Mykhailo Mudryk ??
Club: Shakhtar Donetsk | Age: 21 | Position: Winger
Shakhtar Donetsk’s asking price for Mudryk rose sharply during the 2022-23 Champions League group stage. The Ukrainian caused chaos down the left flank, tearing strips off right-backs with his searing pace and notching three goals and two assists over six appearances. Mudryk’s end product still has room for improvement, but his overall quality after just a season and a half in his country’s top tier is jaw-dropping.
Joao Pedro ??
Club: Watford | Age: 21 | Position: Forward
Given his success while recruiting for Brighton & Hove Albion, it’s wise to trust Newcastle United sporting director Dan Ashworth’s moves in the transfer market. Newcastle tried to sign Joao Pedro for £30 million last summer, and the Brazilian’s form in the Championship has dispelled any reservations over the size of that fee. He’s scored eight times and assisted twice for an underperforming Watford side and only ranks behind Sheffield United’s Iliman Ndiaye in England’s second tier for successful dribbles.
Goncalo Ramos ??
Club: Benfica | Age: 21 | Position: Striker
Ramos had no problem with replacing Portugal icon Cristiano Ronaldo in the starting XI, scoring a hat-trick as the Selecao obliterated Switzerland in the World Cup round of 16. It was the perfect way for Ramos to mark his first international start. His heroics in Qatar came as no surprise to Benfica fans, who’ve witnessed the 21-year-old rack up 14 strikes in 22 appearances across all competitions this season. His goals have helped ensure Darwin Nunez wasn’t missed after his big-money move to Liverpool.
Club: Real Madrid | Age: 21 | Position: Winger
With Vinicius down the left and Rodrygo on the right, the edges of Real Madrid’s frontline should be set for the next decade. But, unlike Vinicius, Rodrygo is yet to become a bona fide starter for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, with an untimely hamstring injury midway through the 2021-22 season and Federico Valverde’s immaculate form denying the 21-year-old regular playing time. Rodrygo can be a super sub, but he can also be so much more.
Georginio Rutter ??
Club: Hoffenheim | Age: 20 | Position: Striker
Rutter’s basic numbers are underwhelming: two goals and two assists over 15 Bundesliga appearances. Still, the attacker – who progressed through the Rennes ranks with Eduardo Camavinga – has been one of the most impressive youngsters in Germany’s top flight. His defensive work out of possession is reminiscent of Roberto Firmino, who also improved rapidly at Hoffenheim, but Rutter provides more flair and mobility for his team’s counterattacks.
William Saliba ??
Club: Arsenal | Age: 21 | Position: Center-back
Saliba had to bide his time at Arsenal, but after three separate loan spells away from the club, the defender is a key element of the Gunners’ surprise charge for the Premier League title. He’s proactive without being impulsive. He’s forceful without being reckless. And, importantly for a team that likes to play out from the back, he’s extremely comfortable with the ball at his feet and regularly picks the right pass.
Joe Scally ??
Club: Borussia Monchengladbach | Age: 19 | Position: Full-back
Scally was fast-tracked into senior football when New York City FC signed him to a Homegrown Player contract at 15, but he then found it hard to usurp Anton Tinnerholm in the MLS club’s lineup. That didn’t prevent Scally from earning a move to Europe, and the natural right-back drew plaudits when he made his Bundesliga debut at left-back in a 1-1 draw against Bayern Munich in August 2021. There are plenty of areas where Scally can improve, but being a Monchengladbach regular at just 19 could allow him to reach his potential.
Kiliann Sildillia ??
Club: Freiburg | Age: 20 | Position: Center-back/Full-back
France’s conveyor belt of talent is relentless. Sildillia wowed onlookers in the Bundesliga with his versatility, work rate, and maturity during Freiburg’s marvelous opening half to the 2022-23 campaign. He’s willing to carry the ball or release the midfielders ahead of him with wise passes and can rapidly halt opposition attacks with his pace, brawn, and aerial ability. It’s rare that someone so young is so important to a team.
Kenneth Taylor ??
Club: Ajax | Age: 20 | Position: Midfielder
This list is incomplete without an Ajax player. Taylor enjoyed a breakout campaign under Erik ten Hag as Ajax won the Eredivisie title last season and has proved he’s comfortable in a variety of midfield positions. After making a single substitute appearance for the Netherlands at the World Cup, Taylor will look to kick on in club football and add to his tally of five goals and three assists in the league this term. Ajax chief executive Edwin van der Sar has called Taylor a “gem.”
The incredible numbers that underline Pele's excellence
Pele is gone but his influence lives on.
One of the greatest sports stars of all time died in Sao Paulo on Thursday. He was 82 and had undergone treatment for colon cancer since 2021.
It’s impossible to condense the life of such a transcendent figure into a few statistics. But here, theScore tries to provide a snapshot of Pele’s on-field brilliance via some of his most notable numbers.
Pele holds the distinction of being the only player to win the World Cup three times.
He triumphed with Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970. The only blot on his record on soccer’s greatest stage is the Canarinho’s first-round elimination in England in 1966, where he was subjected to rough treatment from opponents.
In total, Pele scored 12 World Cup goals, leaving him sixth on the all-time list behind Miroslav Klose, Ronaldo, Gerd Muller, Just Fontaine, and Lionel Messi.
Pele achieved a lot as a 17-year-old.
The prodigal forward set World Cup records that still stand today, becoming the youngest player to score a goal (17 years and 239 days), to score a hat-trick (17 years and 244 days), and to score in a final (17 years and 249 days).
Not bad at all – especially when you consider he missed the opening two matches at the 1958 tournament in Sweden due to a knee injury.
Pele won 21 trophies with Santos, including six Brazilian league titles.
The four World Cups that featured Pele were among the few opportunities European supporters got to see the superstar play in person or on television. He was extremely loyal to Santos, claiming he spurned approaches from Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United, and Juventus to remain with the Brazilian giants.
He made his non-competitive Santos debut at 15 and, naturally, scored in that fixture against Santos’ great rivals Corinthians.
Pele shares the title of Brazil’s all-time top male scorer with Neymar, who equaled the icon’s tally of 77 at the 2022 World Cup.
It took Neymar 124 matches to match Pele’s long-standing record. Pele managed to rack up 77 goals in 32 fewer competitive matches, and struck 18 more times in unofficial matches for his country.
The number 77 appeared again when Pele’s career wound down, as 77,000 fans gathered in New Jersey to watch his final match – an exhibition game between the New York Cosmos and Santos – on Oct. 1, 1977.
Pele officially scored 767 goals in competitive fixtures during his playing days. If you include unofficial matches – such as the games he played during tours with Santos and the New York Cosmos – his total sum is 1,281 goals in 1,363 games, according to figures from FIFA.
Cristiano Ronaldo holds the official world record as the most prolific scorer in men’s football history with 819 goals and counting.
“Pele is the greatest player of all time,” Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany’s 1974 FIFA World Cup-winning captain who played alongside Pele for the Cosmos, once said. “He reigned supreme for 20 years. All the others – Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini – rank beneath him. There’s no one to compare with Pele.”
4 thoughts from Tuesday's Champions League action
The Champions League rumbles on with Matchday 5 this week. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s action in Europe’s premier club competition.
Unbeaten Potter still has work to do
It took a moment of magic to lift Chelsea into the round of 16, with Kai Havertz popping up out of nowhere Tuesday to add another crucial Champions League goal to his resume.
However, before Havertz broke the deadlock and eased concerns with one swing of his boot, there was legitimate concern that Chelsea’s dominating performance would go unrewarded. The same old issues in attack that plagued Thomas Tuchel near the end of the German manager’s reign as Chelsea manager seemed alive and well in the team Graham Potter inherited in early September.
Chelsea dictated the tempo throughout the contest but repeatedly came up short in the final third. And it wasn’t for a lack of chances – Potter’s men produced one of their most dominating halves under the English coach, slicing through Red Bull Salzburg’s defense effortlessly in the first half with slick passing and constant movement that made them difficult to mark.
In all fairness, Salzburg ‘keeper Philipp Kohn was a major factor in containing Chelsea, making several important stops. But the Blues’ end product on many occasions just wasn’t good enough – especially for the caliber of stars that they have on the payroll. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, for one, had a day to forget. The ex-Arsenal star continued to look conflicted in front of goal on an evening in which he should’ve scored at least two goals by halftime.
Despite the headaches, Chelsea left Austria with three points against a Salzburg side that hadn’t tasted defeat at home since February 2021 – a run of 40 matches unbeaten. And while Potter will be encouraged after his side extended its unbeaten run to nine games under his leadership, the English manager will need to solve what’s plaguing his attack if Chelsea are to mount a realistic run at the Champions League title in 2023.
Milan slowly finding their footing
AC Milan didn’t exactly get a free ride to start the season. Injuries to key players, including star goalkeeper Mike Maignan and club captain Davide Calabria, disrupted their rhythm. Summer signings Divock Origi and Charles De Ketelaere struggled to make any early impact. Questionable refereeing threatened to block their progress to the knockout round of the Champions League for the first time in nearly a decade. The reigning Serie A champions quickly learned they’d have to prove themselves all over again.
And that’s what the Rossoneri are doing. They’re just three points behind first-placed Napoli in the Serie A standings, and after Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb, they only need a point next week against Salzburg to advance to the round of 16 in the Champions League.
Their performance in Zagreb was as convincing as it was necessary. After losing back-to-back games to Chelsea – and conceding five goals in the process – Milan needed a strong showing to claw their way back into contention in Group E. Despite having only played on a handful of occasions this season, center-backs Simon Kjaer and Matteo Gabbia combined to clear their lines and block shooting lanes. Gabbia even scored his first goal for his boyhood club. Backup ‘keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu made all the saves he needed to make, and Rafael Leao created enough chances to double the final score.
Zagreb hadn’t lost at home in 31 matches. Milan made them look like they hadn’t won at home in 31 matches.
Now on a three-game winning streak of its own – its longest of the season to date – Stefano Pioli’s side has powered through weeks of adversity and achieved a level of consistency few thought it could attain with several starters out injured.
Ake earning respect at City
Nathan Ake didn’t have much luck in his first two years at Manchester City. He suffered an injury each time he appeared set for a run of games, restricting him to starting just a quarter of the matches across two Premier League campaigns. And when the big fixtures arrived, Pep Guardiola – a manager who appreciates balance in the middle of defense – would pick two right-footers rather than select the left-footed Ake.
How times change. In recent weeks, Manuel Akanji and Joao Cancelo have tired during games while John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, and Kyle Walker dealt with injuries. Ake, on the other hand, is the fittest defender in Guardiola’s throng and has become so reliable that he was picked ahead of Ruben Dias for the Manchester derby earlier in October.
“We need a right foot and a left foot,” Guardiola explained after the 6-3 win over Manchester United. Ake has won his boss’ faith.
Borussia Dortmund were dangerous down the right flank during the first half of Tuesday’s 0-0 draw, but City’s biggest weakness on that side wasn’t Ake – it was Cancelo, who’s lost form in recent matches. Cancelo was substituted, and Ake was moved to left-back at halftime, becoming more influential as the game went on.
What Guardiola likely admires most about Ake is his gait – his back is straight and his head is raised while he strides, always aware of what’s going on around him – and his ability to skim well-weighted balls to the midfielders’ feet. He led the Group G match in touches (158) and played 20 more passes than Niklas Sule, Mats Hummels, and Nico Schlotterbeck combined. Ake’s also a proactive player without the ball and won each of his three attempted tackles at the Westfalenstadion.
In a summer awash with good deals for City, Chelsea’s failure to sign Ake appears to be a blessing for Guardiola and a backline troubled by fitness issues and injuries.
Juventus’ downfall complete
Since reaching the final, and losing to Real Madrid, in 2017, Juventus have been going backward in the Champions League. They followed that soul-crushing defeat, their second loss in the showpiece match in three years, by faltering in the quarterfinals in each of the next two seasons. Three consecutive ousters in the round of 16, against a trio of underdog opponents, followed. The trend was obvious.
It reached a nadir Tuesday.
Juventus’ 4-3 defeat to Benfica – a scoreline that could’ve, and perhaps should’ve, been much worse, confirmed that Massimiliano Allegri’s team won’t even have the opportunity to underwhelm in the knockout stage this time around. The Europa League, at best, beckons.
A humbling defeat to Maccabi Haifa on Matchday 4 meant this was always the likely outcome, but it’s still jarring to see the math officially confirm what has looked inevitable since the beginning of the campaign.
Consistent mismanagement, both at the executive and field levels, has consequences. Puzzling transfer decisions add up. Riffling through managers has a destabilizing effect. All of that together, over a period of several years, has left Juventus in their current state. Once on the cusp of winning a trophy that’s become an obsession for the club after so many near misses, Juve are now further away than they’ve been in almost a decade.
This team, and club, is in need of rejuvenation. There was no clearer indication of that than the waning minutes of Tuesday’s defeat. Exciting youngsters Fabio Miretti, Matias Soule, and Samuel Iling-Junior, each 19 years old, came off the bench and injected life and verve into the Italian side, turning a lopsided 4-1 deficit into a respectable 4-3 defeat almost single-handedly.
There’s a clear path forward for Juventus. Can we trust them to actually take it?
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