In the first matchday of 19-20’s UCL knockouts, Atletico gained a hard-earned 1-0 win over Liverpool, Dortmund beat PSG 2-1 at the Westfalenstadion. So what did we learn from the games last night?
Haaland is The Terminator
Erling Haaland came into this knockout rounds with a frankly ludicrous 8 goals. His group stage with RB Salzburg was fantastic, but no one expected him to continue on so easily in the knockout rounds (of the Europa League). No one perhaps, except Borussia Dortmund.
The German club snapped Haaland up and unleashed him in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. And for an hour PSG were doing an alright job of keeping him in check, but with 69 minutes gone Haaland showed his goalscorer’s instinct: when an Achraf Hakimi cross was deflected into his path, the giant Norwegian span in a circle, shifted his weight, and used his right-foot to deftly lift the ball into the roof of the net. It was a glorious poacher’s finish, the kind of tap-in he’s made a habit of scoring.
Then after PSG had equalised, sub Gio Reyna found Haaland just outside the PSG area. The big man shifted the ball onto his left-foot and then showed the other weapon in his armoury: a ridiculous cannon of a left-foot. Haaland hit the ball so god damn hard that it was already in the back of the net before Keylor Navas could even move. The Costa Rican simply fell over in the face of Haaland’s power.
That’s his 10th goal in seven games in the Champions League (he’s the fastest to ever do this). It’s also his 11th goal in just seven games for Dortmund. What the hell can you say about those kinds of numbers? No matter what you put in front of him, Erling Haaland will keep on coming. He doesn’t feel remorse, or sorrow, or pity. And he absolutely will not stop until he has scored a goal.
Neymar’s still good
There is so much hype around Neymar that it can often be hard to tell if he is, in fact, that good. For the first-half against Dortmund, Neymar looked like a player disinterested in performing. Looked like all the criticisms were true, that he was a spent force.
Then suddenly he woke up. He began moving faster, passing the ball with greater accuracy. Suddenly the Dortmund defenders were struggling to keep up with him. In fact Dortmund’s two goals came against the run of play as Neymar had led PSG to be the dominant side in the game. He led PSG in shots (6), key passes (3), and made 3/6 dribbles which only Layvin Kurzawa could better.
He also was in the right-place at the right-time to tap home Kylian Mbappé’s cross drawing PSG level. He couldn’t quite force another away goal although he did his best, hammering a shot off the post. In just his second Champions League knockout match for PSG, Neymar reminded us that he is a player who belongs on this stage.
Tuchel’s caution works, to a point
Tuchel has always been an attack-first coach. A disciple of Pep Guardiola, his teams have played with even more attacking abandon than Guardiola’s have. His PSG are a sensational attacking unit but have been caught out on the counter in the Champions League before.
Tuchel was obviously wary of Dortmund’s fearsome front-line, and abandoned his usual 4-2-2-2 formation in order to put out a 3-4-3 that mirrored Dortmund’s own shape. The idea of the system was clear: to stop Dortmund’s counter-attacks.
To do this, Tuchel had the three centre-backs stay narrow and defend the width of the box (often not even that). This allowed them to swarm Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho when the youngsters led the Dortmund break.
In turn, this meant that the wing-backs had to defend the wide areas, which Thomas Meunier did just fine but Layvin Kurzawa wasn’t as disciplined up against the engine that is Achraf Hakimi.
In the end, PSG’s shape was so defensive that it killed their potency as an attacking unit, but what it did do was limit how dangerous Dortmund were. The German side did create danger but for 69 minutes it was only through PSG players needlessly turning the ball over under a press or Kurzawa not tracking Hakimi.
And although Dortmund did score twice, the first goal was a lucky deflection and the second was an absolute thunderbolt of a shot. Dortmund never really opened them up, which must have been Tuchel’s big fear away from home. So Tuchel’s caution did work, kind of.
Salah & Mane went MIA
Massive credit must go to Atleti for their relentless work rate and the way they sat in and totally compressed the Wanda Metropolitano pitch to within an inch of its life on Tuesday. That undoubtedly had a huge effect on the performance of Mohamed Salah but, that being said, the Egyptian will still be livid at his own personal showing.
Salah was a shadow of his usual self, having just 36 touches of the ball, notching up a substandard 67% pass completion rate and looking completely isolated from the rest of his team.
Again, thanks to Atleti’s defensive solidity, chances were at a premium. But when they did come, Salah couldn’t deliver the goods as he so often does — his headed miss early in the second half from a wonderful Joe Gomez cross was symptomatic of his evening in Spain.
Mane was also completely ineffective during the opening 45 minutes in Madrid, failing to find any of the usual chemistry he often enjoys with Salah and Roberto Firmino.
Clearly not at 100%, Mane was then withdrawn at half-time, replaced by Divock Origi, and Klopp will now face an anxious wait over his fitness moving forward.
Saul called the game
Another night, another massive goal for Saul Niguez. The Spaniard isn’t exactly what you’d call prolific, but he scores with enough regularity to make him a real weapon for Simeone, and he once again came up with the goods here.
Saul opened the scoring after just four minutes, chipping a finish over the onrushing Alisson having received the ball rather fortuitously from Fabinho – it was his fifth Champions League knockout phase goal for Atleti in total.
It was also his 10th strike in this competition overall and every single one of them has been an opening goals. When Simeone needs someone to step up, Saul is so often there.
But his brilliance wasn’t just confined to an early goal on Tuesday. By the time the final whistle was blown, Saul had made three tackles, completed two interceptions and won three aerial duels. Placed alongside a very healthy 85% pass completion rate, this was a true all-around performance.
Hakimi, Partey… Those unsung heroes
Achraf Hakimi is a relentless locomotive of a footballer. Looking at him you’re not surprised that he’s strong, or technical, but the sheer speed that he can produce is breathtaking and is such a game-changing weapon for Borussia Dortmund.
Hakimi is Dortmund’s top scorer in the Champions League this season with 4 goals, and you can see how a full-back can pose such a goal threat when he hurtles forward on the counter-attack he can leave others in the dust.
What’s more is he works his socks off defensively, today he won 4 tackles and made 3 interceptions, both team-highs. PSG couldn’t get past him (Neymar had to roam to find his influence) and then he was a killer the other end, creating 2 chances (only Sancho had more) and almost scoring a third with a late shot.
And it wasn’t just Saul impressing in Atleti’s midfield on Tuesday night — Thomas Partey was absolutely outstanding from start to finish.
When you spend so much time out of possession, you’re bound to put some miles in on the pitch. Partey, however, took things to a whole new level against Liverpool, ending the match with six tackles — more than any other player on the pitch. For good measure, the Ghanian also won three aerial duels and was dribbled past just once during the entire match.
Sure, Partey’s passing was a little wasteful at times, but the sheer level of defensive work the 26-year-old got through was a comfortable caveat to that and just what his Atleti teammates needed on an incredibly testing night.
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