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Champions League

Key thoughts and analysis as Champions League last 16 concludes

The Champions League round of 16 came to an end this week, with the last four quarterfinal berths being decided. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from the week’s action in Europe’s premier club competition.

Napoli are genuine Champions League contenders

Napoli proved for the umpteenth time Wednesday they’re no fluke.

Feeding off their success in Serie A, the Partenopei tore Eintracht Frankfurt to pieces in the second leg of their already-lopsided last-16 tie. They outclassed the reigning Europa League champions with their intricate passing plays and on-ball confidence. Napoli had no intention of just sitting on their 2-0 lead from the first leg; they wanted to add to it. That’s what they did, and Frankfurt couldn’t do anything about it.

Winning any tie 5-0 is extraordinary. However, doing it with ease is something else entirely. Napoli aren’t just winning; they’re doing it with absolute class. The way they play from the back, string passes together, and hold onto the ball is just sublime. In possession, Napoli never look like they’re in a rush. But out of possession, they hunt the ball like wolves, jumping into the fray as soon as possible.


They have all the ingredients that make up a Champions League-winning side. In Victor Osimhen, they have a physically gifted and technically sound center-forward with 21 goals in his last 22 matches. In Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, they have a winger with a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. In Stanislav Lobotka, they have one of the most responsible midfielders in the game. And in Kim Min-jae, they have an aggressive defender who can win any ball and force turnovers in midfield.

Head coach Luciano Spalletti has fit these players into a sophisticated system that runs on collective spirit. They press as well as any team in Europe, and they have such a clinical edge. Napoli don’t really have any weaknesses; they’re solid from top to bottom.

Who’s to say they can’t win a historic double? Armed with an 18-point lead in Serie A and on their way to a first league title in three decades, the southerners have now reached the quarterfinal stage for the first time in club history.

Klopp gives up on midfield skirmish

The complaint has been played on repeat. Liverpool acquired Luis Diaz, Fabio Carvalho, Darwin Nunez, and Cody Gakpo over the past three transfer windows, while the only senior midfielder added over the past five windows was Arthur Melo last summer.

It’s safe to say that Arthur won’t live long in Scousers’ memories once he departs Merseyside in June.

Such is the staleness of Liverpool’s midfield; Klopp gave up on it altogether for almost an hour of his side’s 1-0 loss at Real Madrid. In some ways, the German manager’s hands were tied: Thiago Alcantara, Stefan Bajcetic, and Jordan Henderson were unavailable for the matchday squad, and Liverpool needed to attack while they were losing 5-2 on aggregate. But with Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain watching from the bench, Klopp deployed a midfield duo consisting of Fabinho and 37-year-old James Milner.

And that was it.


The two players were expected to cover ground. They were expected to tackle. They were expected to shift the ball quickly toward Liverpool’s attackers. But Fabinho and Milner weren’t seriously expected to compete with Eduardo Camavinga, Toni Kroos, and Luka Modric.

The result of this game plan was entirely predictable. Kroos was authoritative yet serene as he moved through the middle, Modric harried and hovered, and Camavinga – who’s still just 20 – maturely conducted play. Within the first 21 minutes, each midfielder had sauntered through space and attempted a shot from outside the area. It was far too easy.

It was only after the introduction of Elliott in the 57th minute that Liverpool tried to participate in this part of the pitch.

Liverpool exited Europe with a whimper – a 6-2 aggregate defeat will sting a club so proud of its continental pedigree. There’s plenty of hard work ahead. Signing Jude Bellingham from under the noses of many interested clubs would prove a spectacular piece of business, but he can’t be the answer on his own.

With the slump in form and the advancing years of so many in Liverpool’s midfield, the club needs to perform open-heart surgery in the summer.

By the numbers: Trying to make sense of Haaland

Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Alan Shearer, and every other striker who’s lit up English and European football throughout history, look away now. Erling Haaland has his eyes on your scoring records.

The Manchester City superstar netted five times in his team’s 7-0 obliteration of RB Leipzig, showcasing levels of anticipation and narrow-mindedness that only the best players in his position have possessed.

Sometimes, only numbers can paint the full picture. Here are the best stats and facts to surface after an iconic outing from Haaland:

1 – The Norwegian scored five goals in a game for the first time in his senior career.

2 – Haaland now has two Champions League hat-tricks to his name. Brazilian great Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, and Wayne Rooney managed only one apiece.

3 – Haaland became just the third player to notch five goals in a Champions League fixture. Messi was the first to achieve the feat when he spearheaded Barcelona’s 7-1 rout of Bayer Leverkusen in 2012. Luiz Adriano matched Messi’s outburst in Shakhtar Donetsk’s 7-0 triumph at BATE Borisov in 2014.

Michael Regan – UEFA / UEFA / Getty

5 – The former Borussia Dortmund marksman has scored three or more goals in five matches for Manchester City this season. That’s three more than any other player hailing from one of Europe’s top five leagues.

25 – Haaland is only 25 matches into his Champions League career. The competition’s records appear to be at the mercy of Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe.

30 – The second goal of Haaland’s evening made him the youngest and fastest player to reach 30 Champions League goals.

33 – The 22-year-old’s total Champions League haul of 33 is three more than both Samuel Eto’o and Wayne Rooney mustered during their glittering careers.

94 – Tommy Johnson’s 38 goals during the 1928-29 campaign stood as the single-season scoring record by a Manchester City player for 94 years. Haaland has beaten that tally in March, and he could still play in 19 more matches this campaign.

100% – Each of Haaland’s eight efforts at Leipzig’s goal was on target. He’s unerringly accurate, and he won’t stop trying to score. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” reads the famous quote often attributed to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.

Guardiola ensured City took control

Pep Guardiola previously stressed the importance of his side controlling the matches against Leipzig. “We don’t have the team to compete with them in the transitions, they are better than us, they are faster and quicker, except Kyle (Walker) and Erling (Haaland),” he said after the first leg, according to The Athletic’s Sam Lee.

Guardiola’s brave modifications for the relentless win over Leipzig helped his team take control. City’s goalscorer from the 1-1 first-leg draw, Riyad Mahrez, was on the bench alongside Walker, whose advanced position on the right flank was a key element of City’s tactics in the opening fixture. Phil Foden was surprisingly among the substitutes after averaging almost seven key passes per game since his reintroduction to the lineup two weeks earlier. An off-color Kevin De Bruyne started in Foden’s place.


The four center-backs protected City from counter-attacks at the Etihad Stadium. Rodri intelligently slotted between Ruben Dias and Manuel Akanji when extra protection was required or to assist with build-up play from the back. John Stones split his duties between right-back and defensive midfield, and Nathan Ake was solid defensively. Some of Ake’s play down the left proved how much he’s growing from an attacking perspective under Guardiola.

Ahead of this versatile yet solid defensive setup, the risky play of Mahrez – one of City’s best Champions League performers in recent seasons – was sacrificed to ensure the team lost the ball less frequently. It worked: City had 49% possession in the second half of the first leg, but that rose to over 66% for the full 90 minutes of the second leg.

When Guardiola makes unexpected changes to his lineup or approach and Manchester City don’t get a result, he’s accused of overthinking his tactics. It must irritate the Spaniard when similarly imaginative tweaks lead to a victory and don’t offset that negativity with widespread critical acclaim. His selection and subsequent in-game management in last month’s trip to Arsenal, and his lineup for Leipzig’s visit, are recent examples of Guardiola’s risks paying off handsomely.

Inter’s foot soldiers pave the way to quarterfinals

Inter certainly needed luck to reach the Champions League quarterfinals. Porto had a shot cleared off the goal line and hit the post twice in second-half stoppage time Tuesday, falling just a goal short of forcing extra time in this nerve-racking last-16 tie. Had they played an additional half-hour at the Estadio do Dragao, Porto, not Inter, would’ve had the momentum, and few would’ve bet against them to advance.

But that didn’t happen. Porto waited too long to create such excellent chances. They spent most of the 90 minutes patiently plotting a path through Inter’s back line. But a pathway never emerged. Porto were too casual for too long.

Eurasia Sport Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Inter, on the other hand, were all too happy to absorb pressure, knowing they could rest on their 1-0 aggregate lead from the first leg. Head coach Simone Inzaghi, who watched his team lose against relegation-threatened Spezia last Friday, didn’t need to take much of a risk anyway. Without Otavio – the Portuguese forward who was sent off in Milan and suspended for Tuesday’s decisive clash – Porto lacked any sort of cutting edge up front.

So the Nerazzurri simply held their line. Matteo Darmian, Inter’s unsung hero this season, was excellent on the right of Inter’s three-man defense. His tackle on Galeno in the closing stages was one of several impressive plays by the Italian defender. Federico Dimarco’s block on Evanilson also prevented Porto from gaining a lifeline earlier in the second half. And when Porto fired crosses into the penalty area, Francesco Acerbi and Alessandro Bastoni cleared the lines. Henrikh Mkhitaryan led all players with three tackles and three interceptions, and Hakan Calhanoglu, as industrious as ever in his newly acquired deep-lying role, remained calm amid all the chaos around him.

So maybe they earned their luck. They played like a team that was desperate to progress. And now they’re through to the quarterfinals for the first time in 12 years.

Quick free-kicks

Serie A is roaring back to relevance

Three Italian clubs will feature in the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time since 2006. That alone may not mean much to people outside of Serie A, but to the league’s teams, coaches, and executives, it’s an important milestone, one that could signal its return to consciousness. Important hurdles remain – Serie A is still struggling financially, and its stadiums are mostly outdated – but its best teams are showing they can compete with the best around. Right now, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Napoli are flying the flag in the Champions League, and each has demonstrated an ability to manage these big nights. Milan and Inter defended incredibly well in the round of 16, and on Wednesday, Napoli entertained onlookers who may otherwise have overlooked their excellence in Serie A. They are, in their own way, showcasing the renewed strength of the league.

Wrap Benzema in cotton wool

When Karim Benzema is on the pitch, he scores. Simple as that. The biggest problem for Real Madrid this season, though, is that their talismanic French striker has spent plenty of time on the sidelines dealing with myriad injuries; Benzema has missed 14 matches across all competitions this season. He returned from his latest ailment, an ankle issue, to start – and score – against Liverpool on Wednesday, bringing his tally to 19 goals in 28 games on the campaign. Real Madrid will be hoping it wasn’t a Pyrrhic goal after Benzema took an apparent knock on the play before finding the net; he was substituted shortly after. With Barcelona in a commanding position atop La Liga, it might behoove Carlo Ancelotti to give Benzema more rest than he otherwise would to mitigate injury risk and ensure the veteran is fit for the stretch run of the Champions League as Real Madrid look to retain their crown.

Alisson doesn’t dwell on first-leg error


The sight of Thibaut Courtois’ casual, clunky touches gifting a goal to Mohamed Salah was peculiar, but Alisson balancing the number of goalkeeping gaffes at the other end of the park – when he bounced a clearance off Vinicius Junior and into his own net – was arguably the oddest aspect of the first leg between Liverpool and Real Madrid. Although the Reds bowed out of the tournament at the Bernabeu on Wednesday, the usually impeccable Alisson made amends with some miraculous saves in the reverse fixture. His strong right arm denied Vinicius from point-blank range, he tipped Camavinga’s long-range effort onto the bar, and he also blocked a Federico Valverde effort after the versatile Uruguayan raced clear. Liverpool could’ve been on the end of another one-sided scoreline without the excellence of their goalkeeper.

Is a Milan derby possible in the quarterfinals?

It certainly is. Unlike in previous rounds, UEFA allows teams from the same country to face each other in the quarterfinals. That means AC Milan, who dispatched Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the round of 16, could meet crosstown rivals Inter in the next phase of the competition. They last met in the Champions League in 2005 when Milan ousted Inter 5-0 on aggregate in a tie marred by a flare-throwing incident involving former Milan goalkeeper Dida. Milan and Inter also squared off in the semifinals in 2003, with the Rossoneri advancing on away goals despite playing at the San Siro on both occasions. However, the Nerazzurri have form on their side. They’ve won three of the last five derbies, including a 3-0 shellacking in the Italian Super Cup in January.

KDB back to his best

De Bruyne’s below-par performances were a talking point before the return fixture with Leipzig, and he answered his doubters in spectacular fashion. Haaland demands most of the attention after his five goals against Leipzig, but De Bruyne’s determined display featured four key passes, 75 touches, and 14 crosses. His sublime, swerving finish in the dying embers of the game was the least he deserved. His emphatic return to form should sound a warning to Premier League title rivals Arsenal and the teams battling for Champions League glory.

What, exactly, did VAR see?

It was ultimately moot because of Haaland’s otherworldly scoring exploits – and it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of City advancing – but the decision to award the home side a penalty for what looked, on multiple replays, like a non-existent handball by Benjamin Henrichs deserves scrutiny, if for no other reason than to hold officials accountable. Players will almost always remonstrate with referees when there’s even a sniff of winning a penalty in their team’s favor. For none of the City contingent to react in the moment was a telltale sign that this was a questionable call, at best. The crowd didn’t protest the play, either. Replays on the broadcast weren’t even conclusive that Rodri’s header inside the box even deflected off the Leipzig player’s arm. The VAR, Alejandro Hernandez, must have seen an angle that wasn’t shared publicly for him to urge colleague Slavko Vincic to check the monitor. Henrichs said after the crushing 7-0 defeat that talking about VAR was pointless and that Leipzig “need to talk about our own performance” instead. In the grand scheme of the match, he’s right, but this is another in an ever-growing list of debatable VAR-aided decisions.

Stat of the week

Trent Alexander-Arnold must be sick of seeing Vinicius by this point.

Tweet of the week

Finally, something Erling Haaland seemingly can’t do …

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Champions League

Ranking 8 teams remaining in Champions League

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We’re down to the nitty-gritty in the Champions League.

Atletico Madrid capped off the round of 16 with a shootout victory over last season’s finalists Inter Milan, upsetting a red-hot team widely fancied to make another deep run in Europe’s premier club competition. Other teams will look to capitalize on Inter’s surprising ouster and challenge for the coveted big-eared trophy.

With that in mind, here’s how we think the field stacks up heading into Friday’s quarterfinal draw.

8. Borussia Dortmund

Edin Terzic’s men will be undisputed underdogs regardless of who they meet in the quarterfinals. An underwhelming last-16 victory over PSV Eindhoven did little to dispel the notion that Borussia Dortmund are the least intimidating team remaining. They needed a healthy slice of good fortune, and some wayward PSV finishing, to scrape past the Dutch outfit. Jadon Sancho’s first Champions League goal in three years does provide some reason for optimism, though. If the on-loan winger can stay fit, he still has the ability to be a game-changer who can potentially inspire an upset.

7. Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid are the most difficult team to judge of the eight remaining in the tournament. Almost every side goes through ebbs and flows during a match, and a season at large, but Diego Simeone’s feisty squad has been taking that to another level. Spurred on by a boisterous home crowd, they were at their aggressive best for parts of Wednesday’s entertaining clash against Inter Milan but also looked totally overwhelmed by the Nerazzurri’s pressure for large stretches. Their never-say-die attitude got them over the line, though. It may be a cliche, but even amid a patchy season, Atleti are a seasoned team that the other seven contenders would ideally like to avoid in the quarterfinals. Just ask Inter.

6. Barcelona

Xinhua News Agency / Xinhua News Agency / Getty

Just how far can the youngsters carry this team? Barcelona remain flawed – hence their position on this list. But the emergence of exuberant prodigies like Lamine Yamal, Fermin Lopez, and Pau Cubarsi, all of whom were outstanding in the last-16 second-leg triumph over Napoli, is providing a second wind for a club that looked deflated earlier in the season. Despite Barca’s notorious off-field mismanagement and uncertain managerial future post-Xavi, their famed academy has delivered once again. That’s unlikely to be enough for the Catalan side to reach Wembley for the final, but the mood around the team is on the upswing. What once looked like a lost season is far less bleak right now.

5. Bayern Munich

It’s been difficult to find the right center-back duo, and Thomas Tuchel has repeatedly moaned about his lack of a true No. 6, but Bayern Munich’s results haven’t been that bad. The Bavarians have 57 points in Germany’s top flight – the average points haul at this stage in the post-Pep Guardiola era is 58. Harry Kane has matched a 60-year-old record for goals in a debut Bundesliga campaign (30) with nine matches remaining and proved he’s a big-game player with two finishes to help overturn a one-goal deficit against Lazio in the Champions League last 16. This isn’t vintage Bayern by any means, but they shouldn’t be underestimated.

4. Arsenal

Nearly every other team on this list – save for Premier League rivals Manchester City, of course – is either cruising toward a league title or far enough away from top spot that domestic commitments shouldn’t interfere too much with their Champions League focus. Arsenal don’t have that luxury, but Mikel Arteta’s men have displayed a newfound mettle and maturity this season that suggests they can handle the rigors, both mental and physical, of high-leverage games across the two competitions. Porto delivered a big scare in the last 16, but that should serve the Gunners well; few teams ever totally cruise through the Champions League. The shootout win over Porto could turn out to be a seminal moment.

3. Paris Saint-Germain

Xavier Laine / Getty Images Sport / Getty

There’s something different about Paris Saint-Germain. Luis Enrique’s determination to instill discipline and form a solid, long-term foundation have risked upsetting Kylian Mbappe and the whole nation while the forward’s been handed reduced minutes ahead of his summer exit. Nevertheless, there is greater professionalism in PSG’s ranks. They work as a team rather than a discordant club of self-serving galacticos. Their dismissal of Real Sociedad in the round of 16 was impressive – especially when they weathered the aggressive, adventurous opening to the second leg from the Basque hosts. And with Mbappe hanging around for a few more months, PSG have to be billed as genuine contenders.

2. Real Madrid

Real Madrid looked genuinely terrible in the second leg of their narrow last-16 triumph over RB Leipzig. They were panicky and imprecise in possession, and weirdly lackadaisical in defense. It nearly cost them. It didn’t, of course, thanks largely to the individual excellence of Jude Bellingham and Vinicius Junior. Madrid, famous for using magical singular moments to undo all the sustained hard work of their opposition, can never be counted out for that very reason. Especially in this competition. Ominously for the rest of the field, they’re starting to get healthy, too, with Eder Militao and Thibaut Courtois both expected back after the upcoming international break, which will put them in line to play in the quarterfinals.

1. Manchester City

Manchester City are more vulnerable than last season. Quick balls played behind the backline have caused plenty of problems, and some defenders have struggled against direct runners. But this is Manchester City. Erling Haaland has 41 goals in 37 Champions League appearances; Kevin De Bruyne has registered 12 assists despite starting just seven matches since returning from injury in January; and Phil Foden is in the best form of his career. In addition to the wealth of talent, Pep Guardiola could hastily find solutions for his team’s deficiencies; he surprised everyone when he deployed four center-backs en route to securing last season’s treble.

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Champions League

Key thoughts and analysis from this week's Champions League action

Find the biggest stories from across the soccer world by visiting our Top Soccer News section and subscribing to push notifications.

The Champions League round of 16 rumbled on with four more first-leg matches this week. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from the quartet of intriguing fixtures.

A battle of fallen titans

On paper, a meeting between the current titleholders in Spain and Italy would be fitting of a Champions League final. What a treat, then, to get exactly that matchup in the round of 16. Except, Barcelona and Napoli are totally unrecognizable from the teams that dominated their respective domestic leagues and romped to trophies in 2022-23.

Though Barcelona dictated play for the bulk of Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, they lacked precision in key moments and any sort of cutting edge until Robert Lewandowski’s clinical finish opened the scoring on the hour mark. Playing against a hesitant team on its third manager of the season, Barca should have taken a stranglehold on the tie from there. Instead, an untimely gamble by Inigo Martinez gifted Victor Osimhen an equalizer that Napoli otherwise looked incapable of finding. It was an all-too-familiar failing for Barca, who’ve been defensively suspect all season after being so resolute during their title-winning campaign.

Jonathan Moscrop / Getty Images Sport / Getty

For all of Barcelona’s issues, Napoli are in an even more worrying state of disrepair. Enduring one of the worst title defenses in recent memory – they’re ninth in Serie A, sitting 27 points off the league lead – Napoli made another coaching change just 48 hours before Wednesday’s match, replacing Walter Mazzarri with former assistant Francesco Calzona. Anybody expecting an immediate “new manager bounce” will have been left disappointed.

The team still looks disjointed. The backline remains unconvincing without Kim Min-jae. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, while dogged as ever, isn’t taking over games like he did during his sensational breakout season. Stanislav Lobotka isn’t getting on the ball as often at the base of midfield. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa looks a little jaded. Even Osimhen, making his first club appearance in 2024 after returning from AFCON, spent much of the match throwing his arms up in frustration – he had just three touches inside the Barca penalty area and had the fewest touches overall of any player who started the contest. His goal was Napoli’s lone shot on target in the match. He took that one chance with composure, though, and Napoli will hope that his return, along with more time getting comfortable working in Calzona’s system, will be the catalyst for a late-season surge. It needs to be.

Inter built for another run at European glory

Simone Inzaghi has turned Inter Milan into an unstoppable force to begin 2024.

Inter have dominated their opponents in Italy to start the year, putting themselves in prime position to capture their first Scudetto of the Inzaghi era after eight consecutive victories in all competitions – including six in Serie A – before Tuesday’s meeting with Atletico Madrid. That run included victories over Lazio, Napoli, Fiorentina, Juventus, and Roma.

They kept it going on Tuesday with a 1-0 win.

While Inter were widely expected to emerge victorious from Tuesday’s contest, the match was gritty and unfolded how Inzaghi might’ve expected when he predicted his squad would have to be “good enough to react to problems” against Diego Simeone’s notoriously tricky Atletico side.

Inter’s stellar play comes after the club was heavily criticized on the heels of its run to the Champions League final for a lack of inspired signings amid financial problems last summer. But now, it’s hard to envisage this team without Marcus Thuram – who, as a free transfer, has been one of the best signings in all of Europe and formed a lethal partnership with Lautaro Martinez. New faces Benjamin Pavard and Yann Sommer have been excellent, too, while Carlos Augusto has been a key contributor off the bench.

Alessandro Sabattini / Getty Images Sport / Getty

However, it was another shrewd signing who helped take down Atletico. Journeyman striker Marko Arnautovic was brought on to replace Thuram, who exited at halftime with an injury. The 34-year-old – on loan from Bologna – should’ve had a hat-trick during his cameo appearance but missed twice from just yards away before banging in the eventual winning goal to send the San Siro into a frenzy.

Inter are perfectly positioned going into the final months of the season. Mowing down the competition domestically and building a healthy nine-point cushion atop Serie A, the Nerazzurri could opt to rest some stars in the coming weeks in order to throw everything they have into winning the return leg in Madrid next month and, in their ideal world, go one step further than last season in the Champions League.

Quick free-kicks

A victory for Porto and away-goal enthusiasts

Galeno’s goal was a moment of superb vision and immaculate execution, but it arguably wasn’t worth the wait for anybody who’s not an FC Porto fan. Porto and Arsenal had one shot on target between them before the Brazilian winger scored the only goal of Wednesday’s contest. Both teams feared making mistakes. The Gunners – who had struck 21 times across their previous five fixtures in all competitions – deliberately slowed the game while they dawdled during dead-ball situations and disappointingly refused to dip into their usually creative and effective repertoire of set-piece routines. It’s hard to imagine that the visitors would’ve been so conservative if the away-goal rule was still in force: A scoring draw would’ve been much more valuable than the 0-0 that Mikel Arteta appeared to be content with. In the end, Arsenal’s game plan backfired.

Galeno top of the pile

Michael Regan / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Still, that was some goal by Galeno. “When the opportunity arose, I didn’t hesitate,” he told DAZN post-match. The Brazilian winger is now leading this season’s Champions League with eight goal contributions (five goals and three assists), narrowly beating the English quartet of Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, and Bukayo Saka (seven involvements apiece). Galeno’s output in Europe proves he’s capable of hurting opponents in a variety of ways. Across two group stage meetings with Shakhtar Donetsk, he was alert to convert three close-range finishes, twice furiously ran down the flank before assisting Mehdi Taremi, smashed in a venomous shot from the edge of the box, and his near-post flick-on from a corner set up a Pepe tap-in. And now, he’s outdone all of his previous work with an outrageous effort that puts Arsenal’s Champions League bid under threat.

PSV can get famous result in Germany

PSV Eindhoven were in control for much of Tuesday’s visit from Borussia Dortmund so were rightly disappointed with their 1-1 draw. Ex-PSV favorite Donyell Malen opened the scoring with an explosive strike that rocketed in off the bar, but the hosts could’ve responded with more than Luuk de Jong’s equalizer from the penalty spot. Dortmund cowered in the atmosphere. “We should have brought much more calmness to the game. We let the heated atmosphere get to us too much,” Dortmund defender Mats Hummels admitted after the match. PSV should still feel encouraged going into the second leg despite Dortmund’s home advantage: The German side’s excellent group stage display was an unexpected boost during a frustrating domestic campaign, while the Dutch outfit has lost just twice across all competitions – away at Arsenal and Feyenoord – and is 10 points clear atop the Eredivisie.

Stat of the week

Signing of the season? Sommer’s arrival from Bayern Munich didn’t set pulses racing, but the 35-year-old has ensured Inter haven’t missed Andre Onana between the sticks.

Tweet of the week

Is it already time to revisit this rule change? (Yes, it is.)

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Champions League

Key thoughts and analysis from Matchday 5 in the Champions League

The Champions League rumbled on this week. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from a critical Matchday 5 in Europe’s premier club competition.

UEFA ‘apology’ falls on deaf Newcastle ears

UEFA has all but acknowledged that the decision to award Paris Saint-Germain a penalty deep into stoppage time of Tuesday’s eventual 1-1 draw with Newcastle United was incorrect. Tomasz Kwiatkowski, the video assistant referee who advised experienced compatriot Szymon Marciniak to review Tino Livramento’s 96th-minute handball and overturn his initial on-field decision, was scheduled to act as the VAR for another match on Wednesday but was swiftly removed from duty after the contentious incident in France.

That’s as close to an “oopsie” as you’ll ever get from the haughty organization.

It does nothing to help Newcastle, of course, and once again calls into question the understanding of the handball rule, one of the most mystifying regulations in all of sports. Marciniak and his Polish peer Kwiatkowski are among the most esteemed officials in world football; they both worked the 2022 World Cup final in the same roles they carried out on Tuesday at the Parc des Princes.

If even they can’t get it right, who can?

It also provides yet another example that UEFA’s Football Board, an advisory group comprised of former players and coaches, was right when it recommended in April that handball incidents involving deflections off a player’s body shouldn’t result in spot-kicks. That suggestion wasn’t implemented by UEFA, though. And here we are.

It’s certainly true that, on the basis of play, PSG probably deserved at least a point from Tuesday’s match. The French side dominated the second half, launching wave after wave of threatening attacks. Only some horrid finishing – Bradley Barcola was the main culprit – and brilliant goalkeeping kept them out before Kylian Mbappe stepped up to accept the gift from Marciniak in the waning seconds.

But the manner in which they were finally breached will leave Newcastle with a bitter taste, especially as Mbappe’s goal and the 1-1 result it secured took their Champions League fate out of their own hands. A 1-0 win would’ve left Newcastle in second place in the proverbial “Group of Death” and in complete control of their own destiny heading into Matchday 6. Instead, they now need to win and get some help to advance.

Kwiatkowski getting a one-day reprimand won’t soften that blow. – Gianluca Nesci

AC Milan’s cycle is effectively over

Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat at home to Borussia Dortmund leaves Milan with a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching the Champions League knockout round. That’s a huge blow for a club that only recently turned a profit for the first time in nearly two decades, due in large part to last season’s run to the semifinals of the competition.

But the fact is that Milan have been trending downward for the better part of the calendar year. Last season’s Champions League run masked significant issues, including a lack of scoring, significant frailties in defense, and a debilitating injury bug that continues to wreak havoc on the squad. Milan wouldn’t have even qualified for this season’s Champions League if Juventus weren’t docked points for false accounting. At various points, they’ve leaked up to five goals per game and failed to ignite their attack, sometimes going 20 chances before burying one.

A fix has so far eluded manager Stefano Pioli. Even with the help of a robust transfer campaign, in which he reportedly had a considerable say, he’s ultimately failed to restore any kind of balance to this squad. And it’s arguably the deepest squad he’s had since taking over in October 2019.

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Though there’s enough blame to go around – left-back Theo Hernandez, for one, has looked like a shell of the player who bombed forward with gusto last season – Pioli is the one responsible for keeping these players in playing condition. That hasn’t happened, and it isn’t just because of the sheer number of games in succession. Milan have racked up 25 injuries in four months alone – far more than any other Serie A team – and lost 89 man games to those injuries.

On Tuesday, Malick Thiaw became the fourth defender to join Milan’s bloated infirmary when he pulled his hamstring in a seemingly winnable footrace. Without any other center-backs at his disposal, Pioli had to play midfielder Rade Krunic out of position. It was no surprise to see a 1-1 game slip away from the Rossoneri. That’s how their entire season is slipping away.

An argument can be made that Milan stand to benefit from playing the rest of the season without Champions League obligations. How could they possibly remain competitive on multiple fronts without a fully functioning roster? But to say that is to undermine all the progress they’ve made in recent years. They should be competing on multiple fronts. They are built for it. They have the players for it. They have proved they can do it. So if they aren’t competing, then what exactly are they doing? – Anthony Lopopolo

Quick free-kicks

Cancelo accepts invitation to shine

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Joao Cancelo is an unpredictable and slick dribbler, but he didn’t need to dig deep into his repertoire of tricks to dupe FC Porto right-back Joao Mario. The right-footed left-back switched the ball to his stronger foot – as right-footed left-backs tend to do – and easily exposed Joao Mario’s poor body shape and anticipation as he moved into the box and excellently slotted in Barcelona’s equalizer. The Porto youngster didn’t learn his lesson, allowing Cancelo to cut inside minutes after the break to set up a Joao Felix chance and also take a shot himself. And one of the few times Joao Mario blocked Cancelo’s route onto his right trotter, the relentless Barcelona star used his left peg to stab a cross under Joao Mario’s foot and to Felix, who duly netted the decisive strike in Barca’s 2-1 win. Cancelo had an excellent game – he even performed a wonderful trivela pass later in the second half – but he should reserve special thanks to Joao Mario for ensuring his evening was so enjoyable. – Daniel Rouse

Dortmund have a gem in Bynoe-Gittens

Jamie Bynoe-Gittens had to wait a couple of years before he could start for Borussia Dortmund. While Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham made the transition to German football seem easy, Bynoe-Gittens had to overcome torn knee ligaments and a spell at youth level before he could earn a shot at first-team football. That happened last season, and his case to start only strengthened after his performance in Milan on Tuesday. Bynoe-Gittens made mincemeat out of Davide Calabria, turning the Italian right-back inside out in ways Mbappe couldn’t quite manage earlier in the group stage. Bynoe-Gittens, who’s still just 19, won the penalty that gave Dortmund the lead and arrowed an accurate shot inside the left post for the winning goal. Expect more from the English talent, who’s one of Dortmund’s bravest dribblers and mature enough to handle more minutes in the Champions League. – Lopopolo

Onana errors leave Man Utd on brink

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Andre Onana didn’t do anything to ease the pressure on himself in Istanbul. The unsettled goalkeeper has been deservedly questioned after several suspect errors this season, but his latest shocker will sting the most if it ends up costing Manchester United a spot in the Champions League knockout rounds. Victory seemed inevitable after Scott McTominay made it 3-1 for United in the second half on Wednesday. But then, disaster struck again for a United outfit fresh off coughing up a two-goal lead in a losing effort in its last Champions League outing. After letting in a soft goal off Hakim Ziyech’s free-kick in the first half, Onana outdid himself on another set piece from the Moroccan that should’ve been comfortably saved. Onana clumsily batted the ball into his own net, paving the way for Galatasaray to score an equalizer shortly after. Now that he’s conceded a club-record 14 goals in the group stage, one has to wonder if Erik ten Hag is considering a change heading into Manchester United’s most important game of the season to date against Bayern Munich on Dec. 12. – Gordon Brunt

No parting gift from Monchi

Sevilla fans give Monchi the kind of reverence usually reserved for an all-time top scorer or a defensive stalwart who captains the club for most of their career. The former sporting director is viewed as the architect of the glory years, the man whose transfer deals at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan created serial Europa League winners. However, since he departed Sevilla for a second time last summer, joining Aston Villa as president of football operations, it’s clear that there wasn’t a great deal of succession planning in the squad he left behind. The average age of the starting XI that faced PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday was the oldest in Champions League history at 32 years and 19 days. Sevilla led 2-0, but Lucas Ocampos’ red card changed everything, and PSV eventually took a 3-2 away win. The Andalusians are positioned 15th in La Liga and might not even drop into the Europa League due to their disappointing Champions League group campaign. “The team loses out on a lot today,” Sergio Ramos said. – Rouse

Inter spoil Joao Mario’s big day

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For 34 minutes, it felt like we were watching the Benfica of last season again. With the major caveat that Inter Milan rested several key starters – including talisman Lautaro Martinez – between league matches against Juventus and Napoli, Benfica, already eliminated from knockout-stage contention after losing all of their previous Group D matches, scored three times in just over half an hour at the Estadio da Luz on Wednesday. Former Inter midfielder Joao Mario, of all people, notched all of them. Benfica were moving the ball quickly, and Inter’s second-string XI was making defensive blunders all over the place. But the home fans (who were likely asking, “Where has this been all season?” in the first half) saw their team revert to type after the interval. Benfica lost their shape and, eventually, their three-goal lead, too. Last season’s finalists came all the way back for a 3-3 draw and nearly snatched the win when Nicolo Barella struck the post in stoppage time. Unfortunately for fans of the Portuguese side, this was more like what they’ve seen from their team in this season’s Champions League. The stalemate was Benfica’s first point of the group stage, but it felt like another defeat. – Nesci

Post-miracle slumps

Royal Antwerp likely never expected to progress from a group with Barcelona, Porto, and Shakhtar Donetsk. But since Antwerp earned their first league title in 66 years courtesy of Toby Alderweireld’s stoppage-time goal on the final day of the 2022-23 Belgian season, the dip has been considerable. Following Tuesday’s dreary 1-0 loss to Shakhtar, they’ve collected zero points from five group-stage matches, and they’re nine points adrift of league-leading Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in the Belgian Pro League. The comedown at Union Berlin has been worse: They’ve suffered 13 defeats and three draws over their last 16 outings after Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at Braga, leaving them with two points at the bottom of Group C, eliminated from the DFB-Pokal, and in the Bundesliga’s relegation zone. Still, were Antwerp’s miraculous title triumph and Union’s incredible rise after near-extinction worth it, considering what’s happening now? Of course, they were. – Rouse

Stat of the week

Considering some of the one-sided games the Champions League has offered up over the years, this is an impressive accomplishment from Arsenal, who qualified for the knockout stages with a 6-0 hammering of Lens.

Tweet of the week

Poor Louis van Gaal. Still catching strays during Manchester United matches.

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