Dortmund's re-emergence among Champions League group stage's highlights

With the Champions League group stage at its halfway level, Michael Cox dives into what’s left to play for and what’s most intriguing about European nights beneath the floodlights earlier than the knockout rounds start.

Are Dortmund actually this good?

There’s little doubt about essentially the most spectacular aspect from this season’s Champions League up to now. Borussia Dortmund began slowly, with a 1-Zero victory over Membership Brugge courtesy of a late Christian Pulisic purpose, however then they thrashed Monaco 3-Zero earlier than recording an unimaginable 4-Zero win over Atletico Madrid.

That 4-Zero win over Diego Simeone’s aspect was an announcement efficiency that put Dortmund among the many favourites for this competitors, and has helped to banish the recollections of their disastrous efficiency final 12 months, after they managed simply two factors. Defeated house and away by each Actual Madrid and Tottenham, Dortmund additionally managed simply two attracts in opposition to Cypriot champions APOEL.

This time round, they’ve had no such issues. Mixed with their efficiency within the Bundesliga, the place they’re 4 factors clear on the prime, Dortmund are on hearth.

There may be, nonetheless, one main distinction from their home performances. Within the Bundesliga, Dortmund are conceding at a price of a purpose per recreation, not helped by some severe damage issues on the again, whereas in European competitors they’ve stored three clear sheets from three video games. It seems like their European document is the anomaly, and Dortmund’s aggressive fashion exposes the defence too readily, however the attacking part of the aspect gives sufficient goal-scoring energy to compensate.

Among the many hype round Jadon Sancho, the younger Englishman whose sensible performances as a super-sup have compelled Lucien Favre to start out him, and Spanish striker Paco Alcacer’s nice scoring price, it is a relative veteran who has been most spectacular this season. Marco Reus now captains the aspect and gives pace, clever motion and tranquility in entrance of purpose. A survivor from Dortmund’s run to the ultimate in 2012-13, Reus has praised the tactical consciousness of Favre, who modifications his aspect’s method each recreation with out shedding cohesion.

And, greater than something, this seems like a correct workforce. Dortmund’s eight Champions League targets have been scored by seven gamers, with solely Raphael Guerreiro — who has made only one look, as an alternative — registering greater than as soon as. This can be a dynamic, unpredictable, fast-paced aspect. By way of each fashion and outcomes, it is good to have a correct Dortmund aspect again difficult for Europe’s final prize.

Will Lyon proceed to outperform the their French rivals?

France triumphed at World Cup 2018, however whereas Spanish and German success in 2010 and 2014 was mirrored by superb European performances by Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively, there’s little signal that Paris Saint-Germain will win this season’s Champions League. Thomas Tuchel’s aspect have been arguably the underachievers to date.

In stark distinction to their home type, the place PSG have managed a record-breaking successful begin to the marketing campaign — the streak is now at 12 matches — Tuchel’s aspect have struggled badly in Europe. They began with a late 3-2 defeat at Liverpool, the place the defensive contributions of their all-star entrance three — Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani — had been negligible, the kind of angle that is not an issue in Ligue 1, however prices you dearly in Europe.

The 6-1 thrashing of Pink Star Belgrade was fully anticipated, however then PSG struggled at house to Napoli, solely taking a degree courtesy of Angel Di Maria’s late strike. Had been it not for that purpose, PSG would have discovered themselves three factors off the highest two slots in Group C. With a troublesome journey to Naples this week, adopted by a house conflict with Liverpool, PSG are nonetheless nonetheless in severe difficulties.

The efficiency of Monaco has additionally been disastrous. After defeats to Dortmund and Atletico, the 1-1 draw with Brugge was much more damning, which means that Monaco now seem like preventing the Belgian aspect for a Europa League place, slightly than difficult for the knockout levels. Thierry Henry’s appointment hasn’t produced any noticeable new supervisor bounce to date, and with Monaco’s struggles in Ligue 1, you wonder if Henry even needs to be competing within the Europa League come spring.

That signifies that Lyon, considerably surprisingly, are the one aspect at present on track to qualify for the knockout stage. Their shock 2-1 victory over Manchester Metropolis within the opening recreation underlined Lyon’s counter-attacking means, whereas the comeback to attract 2-2 with Shakhtar Donetsk proved their preventing spirit and a bonkers 3-Three with Hoffenheim confirmed their standing as among the many most fun groups within the competitors.

With seven targets from seven completely different scorers, and the likes of Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore all shining within the attacking third, it is harsh to focus on merely one star performer. However Tanguy Ndombele has been excellent in his box-to-box midfield function, storming ahead to supply flicks, tips and goal-scoring potential.

A victory in opposition to Hoffenheim this weekend would nearly assure development to the knockout part. For a membership who’ve seen their girls’s aspect win the Champions League thrice in a row, it is about time the boys upped their recreation.

Have Ajax returned as a severe drive?

It is robust to seek out many soccer followers — except for supporters of rival Dutch golf equipment — who haven’t got a smooth spot for Ajax. Arguably essentially the most influential membership within the tactical improvement of soccer, due to their Whole Soccer within the 1970s and their free-flowing attacking play of the 1990s, their current struggles to compete in European soccer have been a tragic reflection of the smaller leagues’ incapacity to compete with the large boys.

Final season was a brand new low. Ajax had been eradicated from each the Champions League and the Europa League qualifying course of, which means the membership had been out of European competitors by the point the group stage draw was made in late August. It has been a troublesome decade for Ajax in Europe. They could nonetheless be thought-about one of many continent’s main names, however Ajax have not really reached the knockout stage of the Champions League since 2005-06.

Now they’re, not less than partly, again. Ajax dispatched AEK Athens 3-Zero with few issues within the first group recreation, earlier than Noussair Mazraoui’s purpose gained a powerful level away at Bayern Munich, and the identical participant scored a late, deflected winner for the one purpose at house to Benfica. Ajax at the moment are in superb place in Group E — a degree on this week’s return match in Lisbon could be a very good outcome — and dreaming of their first Champions League recreation after Christmas in 13 years.

Ajax’s most spectacular performers have been on the again. Mazraoui has bought up and down the touchline properly and contributed two key targets, whereas left-back Nicolas Tagliafico managed two in opposition to AEK. Between them, 19-year-old Matthijs de Ligt and 21-year-old Frenkie de Jong are arguably the 2 most coveted younger centre-backs in Europe, each able to bringing the ball ahead from the again within the traditional Ajax custom, whereas Daley Blind has returned to supply but extra tactical intelligence from deep.

Very like with Dortmund’s superb begin to the European marketing campaign, Ajax’s wins really feel extra vital due to the fashion; it isn’t simply the return of Ajax as a successful drive, however the return of Ajax as a footballing id.


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