Welcome to the Champions League debrief, in which Jack Lang takes you through the big talking points — and things you may have missed — from around Europe’s premier club competition. This morning, he assesses the damage of Manchester United’s latest calamity, salutes Shakhtar Donetsk and celebrates Milan breathing life into the group of death…
Sympathy for Ten Hag?
Manchester United’s misery is now so all-encompassing, so multi-faceted, that it is hard to pick an appropriate metaphor for it. A dumpster fire? That feels a little too contained, if anything. Snowballs and runaway trains are too jaunty.
At this point it’s probably worth clarifying: this isn’t going to be an absolute kicking. This column has done that before and will doubtless do it again, but Wednesday’s defeat to FC Copenhagen was not a distasterclass on the level of some other recent performances, at least as far as Ten Hag is concerned. It was instead proof that these things sometimes just have their own momentum, a kind of tragicomic internal g-force.
For 40 minutes, United were — whisper it — very good. For once, the passes zipped. Alejandro Garnacho and Marcus Rashford twisted the home defence into all sorts of strange shapes. Scott McTominay romped around, all big uni energy. Champions League specialist Rasmus Hojlund poached two goals from close range and came close to sealing a hat-trick. It was the first time in an age that United could plausibly have been described as rampant.
Obviously it could not last: Rashford was sent off and United, ignoring the most basic tenets of game management, managed to concede twice before half-time. Even then, though, there was reason for hope. They came out after the interval with renewed determination and, albeit briefly, looked on course for what would have been a hugely galvanising away victory.
Is Ten Hag to blame for what happened next? His decision to withdraw Hojlund was baffling, but it was daft individual decisions that really cost United. Diogo Dalot could have picked any of the other 22 hours of the day to drift off into a waking reverie, but elected to do so at the exact moment the man he was supposed to be marking was darting in behind him. Four minutes later, Raphael Varane attempted a… actually, sorry, I have no idea what he was attempting. A ball that should have been cleared ended up back with Copenhagen and finally in Andre Onana’s net.
Ten Hag can be a frustrating figure. His balance of credit with United’s fans has dwindled this season, and understandably so. It is up for debate whether he is the right man to take the club forward.
Here, though, it was hard not to feel a little sympathy. This was not a failure of tactics; United were the better side for vast stretches of the game. Arguably, it was their best performance of the Champions League so far. Yet here we are again, with the catastrophe meter ticking up towards 11 once more.
It is fair to say that the names do not leap off Shakhtar Donetsk’s team sheets as they once did. The local stalwarts are still there — literally, in the case of Taras Stepanenko — but the cosmopolitan glamour of the enterprise has long since faded. War weighs down a football club, much as it does a nation. The horizons shrink. What was once a playground for Brazilians is now something altogether grittier. You don’t play there unless you’re willing to do things the hard way.
Shakhtar have been exiled from their home in the Donbas since 2014 and things have become even more complex since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. They are playing their Champions League home games in Hamburg, Germany. They can’t fly to or from Ukraine, meaning they have to first travel by bus to an airport in Poland. The nomad life has been forced upon them.
It has not, however, sapped their spirit. Shakhtar came from two goals down to defeat Antwerp in gameweek two and produced another mini miracle on Tuesday night by overcoming Barcelona. The only goal of the game — a slow-motion, looping header from Danylo Sinan at the end of a slick move — was a great moment, but it was the sheer personality of the team performance that will live long in the memory. Barcelona huffed and puffed but rarely looked like imposing themselves despite the chasm in resources.
“The players were competing all the time,” said coach Marino Pusic. “That is what I wanted to see: courage.” Whether or not they end up progressing to the next stage, they have already demonstrated that they have that in spades.
Milan’s midfield muscle
Given that their first three games had yielded two points and precisely zero goals, Milan looked destined to be left behind in the contest to progress from Group F. On Tuesday, though, they came roaring back into contention courtesy of a stirring display against Paris Saint-Germain.
It would be easy to rhapsodise about Olivier Giroud, still scoring big goals — and still looking like a matinee idol — at 37. The real stars of the show for the Rossoneri, though, were playing slightly further back. Yunus Musah, Tijjani Reijnders and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were all excellent at San Siro, their physicality and energy helping Milan to win the midfield battle. Loftus-Cheek was especially good, carrying the ball forward with that lovely, loping stride and constantly asking questions to which PSG had no cogent answers.
With two games remaining, the four teams in the section — Newcastle and Borussia Dortmund are the others — are now split by just three points. Finally, a group of death worthy of the name.
All hail the goalnado
A day in the life of Harry Kane at Bayern Munich: wake up, goals on toast for breakfast, nice big mug of hot goals, quick scan of the Goal Times, bus ride to Goalsville, day spent selling goals at the local dealership, back home for a quick game of goals with the kids, bottle of French goals chilling in the fridge. Lovely. Same again tomorrow?
(Kane scored his 18th and 19th goals of the season as Bayern beat Galatasaray 2-1 on Wednesday evening, by the way)
Golden oldie: A fortnight ago, Porto defender Pepe became the oldest outfield player ever to appear in the Champions League, aged 40 years and 241 days. He went one better on Tuesday night, nodding home his side’s second goal against Antwerp to become the competition’s oldest ever scorer. The strict diet of shin bones and fragile souls — lovely roasted with garlic and a few sprigs of sage — that he followed during his long stint as Real Madrid’s resident hatchet man really did wonders for his longevity.
Silver linings dept: Newcastle were comprehensively beaten by Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday but there was consolation to be drawn from the performance of Tino Livramento. The 20-year-old was his side’s best outlet on the right wing — not his regular position — and looked completely unfazed by the experience of making his Champions League debut. Livramento would have registered an assist if Joelinton was half as ruthless as he is endearing, but this was a display of huge promise nonetheless.
Champions League gameweek 3 results
Copenhagen 4-3 Manchester United
Bayern Munich 2-1 Galatasaray
PSV Eindhoven 1-0 Lens
Arsenal 2-0 Sevilla
Napoli 1-1 Union Berlin
Real Madrid 3-0 Braga
Red Bull Salzburg 0-1 Inter Milan
Real Sociedad 3-1 Benfica
Atletico Madrid 6-0 Celtic
Lazio 1-0 Feyenoord
Borussia Dortmund 2-0 Newcastle
Milan 2-1 Paris Saint-Germain
Red Star Belgrade 1-2 RB Leipzig
Manchester City 3-0 Young Boys
Shakhtar Donetsk 1-0 Barcelona
Porto 2-1 Royal Antwerp