MCN to LOL: the New Super Forward Lines Set to Dominate the Champions League

League

London – When Paris Saint-Germain signed Neymar from Barcelona for £198m this summer they not only broke the transfer record but also destroyed one of the most successful attacking trios of all time.

Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez – nicknamed MSN – had terrified defenses across Spain and Europe for the past three years before PSG managed to lure the Brazilian to the French capital and then add Kylian Mbappé from Monaco to form their own super forward line.

That trident has now been given its own name MCN (with Edinson Cavani completing the lineup) while in Spain there is still the BBC of Real Madrid (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo). As for Barcelona, they recruited Ousmane Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund and even though they have not yet been given an official nickname, someone jokingly suggested LOL.

Whatever the lineup there seems to be a plethora of superb forward lines across Europe and as the Champions League kicked off The Guardian Sport takes a look at the 14 strongest of the teams involved.

Paris Saint-Germain (rating 9.5/10)

“He could become the next Pelé. He has no limits.” Hyperbolic or not, Arsène Wenger has a point, Kylian Mbappé has everything; terrifying speed, unerring finishing and an alarmingly quick change of direction. Worryingly for the rest of Europe this simply amounts to more of the same for PSG. Between Mbappé’s pace, Neymar’s irresistible swagger and Edinson Cavani’s ninja-like movement, Unai Emery’s front three have a variety of ways to insight panic and potentially provide an avalanche of goals. Assuming, that is, the clinical Cavani of the spring holds off the infuriatingly wasteful Cavani of last autumn. Are they good enough to lead Paris to Kiev? €465m says they are.

Barcelona (9/10)

For many, it was the best front three of all time but it has gone. No more MSN. Neymar will be missed by Messi and Suárez, off the pitch as well as on it where they were good friends. The president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, described Neymar’s departure as an “opportunity” to tilt the balance back towards midfield and some agreed – they had lost a little of their identity, so dominant were the front three. And yet €145m has been spent on a player who, in theory, is a direct replacement (if a downgrade) on Neymar. It could less a frontline of three, though, with Messi now playing deeper as a playmaker, passer, dribbler and goal scorer in one. It’s legitimate to ask how long Suárez has left and just how good Dembélé will be remains to be seen but this is still potentially a hell of a forward line. Because Messi is … well, Messi.

Manchester City (9/10)

Pep Guardiola’s embarrassment of glittering forwards means Sergio Agüero, the Premier League’s most prolific goalscorer since 2012, may struggle to be a regular pick against continental rearguards, yet Saturday’s demolition of Liverpool may make the manager think twice before putting the Argentinian on the bench again. The manager’s difficulty in packing in all of his attack-minded talent is further illustrated by Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva now operating in a less advanced role as quasi-traditional central midfield string-pullers. Raheem Sterling is a further quick-footed forward who may receive unwanted bench time under the midweek bright lights of the Champions League. No defence will fancy facing this cadre.

Real Madrid (9/10)

Time for Real Madrid to change the channel? For so long, it was the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano) up front, with Zidane admitting that they were non-negotiable picks if fit, but no more. One newspaper has taken to calling them the bbC on the basis that only Ronaldo is really worth the title any more, while the performances of Isco – since he was given a chance in place of the injured Bale last season – make things far less clear cut now, as he dropped in behind the forwards and led them towards a double. Madrid looked a better team with that shift in style and personnel. With a more populated midfield came control and less of a counterattacking style. Add to that the emergence of the brilliant Marco Asensio, plus Zidane’s taste for rotation, and it’s not clear what their preferred forward line is now. One thing is for sure – it’s supremely talented.

Juventus (9/10)

The group of forwards who propelled Juventus to the final last season was already exceptional. Paulo Dybala is a one-of-a-kind talent, Gonzalo Higuaín a world-class No. 9, and Mario Mandzukic a furious competitor who recently scored one of the greatest goals in European Cup history. If Juan Cuadrado was perceived as the weak link, then how about the mercurial Douglas Costa – a man with a half-century of appearances in this competition – as an alternative? Federico Bernardeschi is new to this stage but has the talent to thrive in a deep-lying role.

Bayern Munich (8.5/10)

Robert Lewandowski is still there, as is Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller, Kingsley Coman and Franck Ribéry – and perhaps that is part of the problem. While the Pole is at the absolute peak of his game, the people around him seems to be stagnating or possibly be on the way down. Bayern are favorites to win the Bundesliga and are expected to go far in the Champions League but all is not well in Bavaria. Last weekend, they lost 2-0 to Hoffenheim and looked a little devoid of ideas (although admittedly against a very compact side). Lewandowski recently criticized the club for not spending more than €40m on any player – for which he was rebuked by the club’s chief executive, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge – but maybe the striker has a point. Müller appears to have lost his magic and it still remains to be seen whether James Rodríguez, a two-year loan signing from Real Madrid, can find a way back to his 2014 World Cup form.

Chelsea (8.5/10)

Chelsea’s forward line has changed complexion without Diego Costa in the ranks – the Brazil-born striker has not been included in their Champions League squad – but, in Álvaro Morata, they still boast a Spain international of pedigree to lead the line. He will work defenders in a different way but his threat has already been clear in the Premier League and, once Eden Hazard is fit and firing, and with Willian or Pedro stretching teams on the right, Antonio Conte has a potent front three. The worry is a lack of depth. Michy Batshuayi has been only a bit-part player and the failure to secure Fernando Llorente on deadline day as a very different kind of option could still be felt.

Liverpool (8.5/10)

As Hoffenheim discovered to their cost in the play-off second leg, Liverpool possess forwards capable of obliterating opponents in the Champions League. There was no clearer demonstration of the speed of thought and movement in Jürgen Klopp’s attack than the devastating 21-minute spell at Anfield that secured Liverpool’s passage into the group phase. The intelligence of Roberto Firmino, the skill of Sadio Mané and the pace of Mohamed Salah provided an ideal balance and, with Philippe Coutinho returning to the fold, the supply line will only improve.

Manchester United (8.5/10)

This frontline has already returned eight goals in four Premier League outings with José Mourinho’s headline summer signing Romelu Lukaku registering half of those. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s direct replacement to an attack that fired United to the Europa League title, the Belgian adds greater pace and a lesser tendency to drop deep. This allows Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial more chance to cut the opposition apart, a threat Champions League opponents are sure to study. It is the addition of the holding midfielder Nemanja Matic that may be key to the line flourishing as the Serb’s penchant for clever passes is creating opportunities that did not exist last season. Juan Mata’s guile and Jesse Lingard’s directness can be potent weapons from the bench, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic to add yet another dimension once fit.

Napoli (8/10)

If we were assessing only starters, then Napoli’s score would be higher still. Dries Mertens’s emergence as a No. 9 has upgraded Napoli into a relentless scoring machine, with Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón carving in from either flank. Undersized they might be, but these “Marvellous Smurfs” have made Napoli into Serie A’s most prolific side. Arkadiusz Milik can provide strength and aerial prowess when a different tack is required but there is a lack of depth on the flanks.

Atlético Madrid (7.5/10)

Antoine Griezmann stayed, insisting it would have been “dirty” to leave Atlético amid their transfer ban. He is the star, a special talent, and miles ahead of his team-mates. Who he plays with is still unresolved: Ángel Correa impresses from the bench, skillful and clever, more subtle than the rest, but tends to be less significant as a starter. Yannick Carrasco plays wide rather than in a forward line but is fast and talented. The 33-year-old Fernando Torres offers a physical presence but is now used less by Diego Simeone. Kevin Gameiro is, in theory, the most likely to threaten with his pace, directness and finishing, yet even he inspires some doubts. Luciano Vietto may get a second chance but so far Simeone appears unsure. Vitolo will arrive in the winter to play wide. Chelsea’s Costa is the man they really want and the feeling is mutual but there is still no sign of that becoming a reality.

Monaco (7.5/10)

To say Monaco escaped the summer relatively unscathed seems ludicrous. But despite losing the effortless guile of Bernardo Silva and the lightning Mbappé, this is the case. Marquee sales are occasionally a necessary part of the way Monaco conduct themselves and these were losses they foresaw – keeping Thomas Lemar and Falcao are sizable victories. The shrewd additions of Stevan Jovetic and the bulldozing Baldé Keita as well as the burgeoning talent of Rony Lopes allow Monaco to retain much of the youthful exuberance, technical panache and attacking flair of last season. Underestimating Leonardo Jardim would be a terrible mistake to make twice.

Borussia Dortmund (7/10)

A potent front three, but without the devastating speed and trickery of the departed Ousmane Dembélé, lacks a little something compared with best forward lines in Europe. Christian Pulisic, only 18, has accepted the challenge of replacing Dembélé in Dortmund’s starting XI with Maximilian Philipp starting on the left and Andrey Yarmolenko also to be integrated following his £23.1m transfer from Dynamo Kyiv. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is still the focal point of the attack with Marco Reus out yet again with another long-term injury. Milan wanted Aubameyang this summer but he stayed and has looked sharp. “It is proof of what a professional player he is,” said the Dortmund chief executive, Hans-Joachim Watzke, after the Gabon striker’s five goals in five games this season. The new manager has several options from the bench too, including André Schürrle, Alexander Isak and the 17-year-old Jadon Sancho, who joined from Manchester City in the summer.

Roma (7/10)

For now we can only guess at Roma’s first-choice attack under Eusebio Di Francesco. Appointed in the summer, he has not yet had a full squad at his disposal. Patrik Schick arrived at the very end of the transfer window, while Alessandro Florenzi – who has played at full-back in recent seasons, but previously operated as a wide forward – is just back from a cruciate tear. Edin Dzeko was Serie A’s top scorer last season but he will miss the assists provided to him by the departed Mohamed Salah.

*The Guardian Sport

Champions League: Group-by-Group Analysis

League

London – Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United all look likely to reach the last 16 of the Champions League, but Tottenham have been dealt a harsh hand with favorites Real Madrid. The Guardian Sport examines the draw with a group-by-group analysis of who will likely qualify to the next round and who will leave the tournament early:

Group A
Benfica, Basel, Manchester United, CSKA Moscow

José Mourinho will be pleased with the draw, no doubt. United have bought wisely in the summer – Romelu Lukaku has added goals and will be joined by Zlatan Ibrahimovic if they get through the group – and Nemanja Matic looks an inspired piece of business to strengthen the midfield. Benfica are still the best Portuguese team in the competition despite selling Ederson, Victor Lindelof and Nélson Semedo this summer. Bruno Varela is a very good replacement for Ederson and they have kept Pizzi and Álex Grimaldo. CSKA, meanwhile, have had a relatively poor start but have improved in the past few weeks. Igor Akinfeev has finally kept a clean sheet in the Champions League after 11 years of failing to do so and in the new manager, Viktor Goncharenko, they have a more attack-minded man in charge compared to Leonid Slutsky. Basel, who have just been hit by the retirement of club legend Matias Delgado could well finish bottom. Ricky van Wolfswinkel now leads their line.

Prediction 1 Manchester United 2 Benfica 3 CSKA Moscow 4 Basel

Star player Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)

Group B
Bayern Munich, Anderlecht, Paris St-Germain, Celtic

All eyes will be on the French club this season as they have finally, after years of trying, made the kind of signing that should see them elevated to the level of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The impact of Neymar’s arrival on PSG cannot be overestimated and it is easy to forget now that they came within minutes of eliminating Barça last season, even without the brilliant Brazilian in their team. In Bayern they have a superb group opponent but are the German champions stronger than last season? Arguably not with Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso having retired. Corentin Tolisso has arrived from Lyon for £36.4m and James Rodríguez joined on loan from Real Madrid, but he has struggled to recapture his 2014 World Cup form. Celtic can probably snatch third place from Anderlecht – and possibly trouble Bayern and/or PSG at home – but this, sadly, looks like quite an uneven group.

Prediction 1 Bayern Munich 2 Paris Saint-Germain 3 Celtic 4 Anderlecht

Star player Neymar (PSG)

Group C
Chelsea, Roma, Atlético Madrid, Qarabag

Atlético Madrid are the team to beat considering their Champions League record of two finals in the past four years. They are working under a transfer ban and have had to loan out their only summer signing, Vitolo, who arrived from Sevilla for £31.8m. At least Antoine Griezmann decided to stay. Chelsea looked out of sorts against Burnley and then back to their defensive best in their 2-1 win against Tottenham, however Antonio Conte had two attempts at the Champions League at Juventus but was eliminated in the quarter-finals in 2012-13 and at the group stage the following year. Roma have had a summer of wholesale changes under their new sporting director, Monchi. Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rüdiger (to Chelsea) and Francesco Totti will be hard to replace but they have brought in 10 players. Qarabag became the first team from Azerbaijan to qualify for the group stage. The manager, Gurban Gurbanov, has been there since 2008 and prefers to play three up front with the South African Dino Ndlovu as the focal point.

Prediction 1 Atlético Madrid 2 Chelsea 3 Roma 4 Qarabag

Star player Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)

Group D
Juventus, Olympiakos, Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon

A horribly competitive group with Juventus favorites having eliminated Barcelona in the quarter-finals last season. Both teams, however, have lost important players with Leonardo Bonucci joining Milan in a shock move and Neymar jumping the Barça ship for Paris Saint‑Germain. Juve looked defensively shaky in the Italian Super Cup defeat against Lazio but they still have a superb squad and have added Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a whopping £35.7m. There is unhappiness among Barça fans after a summer during which they failed to secure Marco Verratti and signed the former Spurs midfielder Paulinho instead. They are still pursuing Philippe Coutinho and have signed Ousmane Dembélé, though. Olympiakos should finish third and are enjoying a renaissance under their new manager, Besnik Hasi. The Greek club have spent almost £20m on players this summer; Sporting, third in Portugal last season, will struggle to compete against the other three teams and Jorge Jesus’s side could still sell the midfield linchpin William Carvalho.

Prediction 1 Juventus 2 Barcelona 3 Olympiakos 4 Sporting

Star player Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

Group E
Spartak Moscow, Liverpool, Sevilla, Maribor

An even group with Liverpool slight favorites ahead of Sevilla, who are on their third manager in three years. Sevilla, who beat Liverpool in the 2016 Europa League final, now have Eduardo Berizzo in charge and while they have sold Vitolo to Atlético they have signed Éver Banega, Jesús Navas and Nolito. Jürgen Klopp has assembled a squad with an enormous amount of speed up front but they are still suspect at the back. Spartak were outstanding last season as they won their first title since 2001 but are 11th in the league and Massimo Carrera (Antonio Conte’s former assistant) may get the sack. The Dutch winger Quincy Promes, though, is a huge threat. Maribor have won one of 12 Champions League group games in their history and the former Leeds manager Darko Milanic has a huge task to improve on that record, especially as they have lost their best player, the attacking midfielder Dare Vrsic, after failing to agree a new contract.

Prediction 1 Liverpool 2 Sevilla 3 Spartak Moscow 4 Maribor

Star player Sadio Mané (Liverpool)

Group F
Shakhtar Donetsk, Napoli, Manchester City, Feyenoord

There can be no excuses for Pep Guardiola this season. He has spent more than £220m this summer with an astonishing £128.5m on full-backs. They should qualify comfortably but already, this season, Everton have exposed weaknesses at the back. Napoli are one of the most exciting sides in Europe, Maurizio Sarri’s side crushing Nice 4-0 on aggregate in the play‑offs. Goals can come from everywhere with Dries Mertens, José Callejón, Lorenzo Insigne, Arkadiusz Milik and Marek Hamsik all in the squad. Shakhtar won the Ukrainian league by 13 points last season but they have lost their best Brazilians, such as Alex Teixeira and Douglas Costa, in recent seasons. Playing in Kharkiv rather than Lviv should help the atmosphere. Feyenoord won the Dutch title for the first time in 18 years last season under Gio van Bronckhorst but they are now without arguably their three most influential players in Dirk Kuyt (retired), Terence Kongolo (Monaco) and Rick Karsdorp (Roma).

Prediction 1 Manchester City 2 Napoli 3 Shakhtar Donetsk 4 Feyenoord

Star player Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)

Group G
Monaco, Besiktas, Porto, Leipzig

One of the more even groups with, frankly, all teams capable of going through. Monaco are the favorites despite losing some of their key players, with Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Tiémoué Bakayoko all joining Premier League clubs. And there has been the saga about Kylian Mbappé’s future. Not helpful. Porto have a new manager, Sérgio Conceição, and have sold the prolific André Silva to Milan but have retained the even more prolific Tiquinho Soares. Rúben Neves, of course, has joined Wolves. RB Leipzig will make their Champions League debut having kept Naby Keïta and Emil Forsberg but they lost their first league game of the season, against Schalke, and looked lackluster. Big-spending Besiktas will hope to do well as part of their president’s plan for a more global profile. They have won the past two league titles and have a competitive team with this summer’s additions of Álvaro Negredo, Pepe, Jeremain Lens and Gary Medel among others.

Prediction 1 Monaco 2 Porto 3 RB Leipzig 4 Besiktas

Star player Youri Tielemans (Monaco)

Group H
Real Madrid, Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund, Apoel Nicosia

The reigning champions look favorites to complete the first hat-trick of European Cup wins since Bayern Munich in 1974-76. All their stars have stayed and are now being pushed to even greater heights by younger players such as Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos. Dortmund are still a force to be reckoned with but there is no doubt the departure of Ousmane Dembélé has cast a long shadow over the club. Thomas Tuchel has been replaced by Peter Bosz as manager while Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang is staying and Julian Weigl is fit again. Spurs’ chances probably depend on whether they can perform at Wembley and why shouldn’t they be able to now that they are playing league games there, too? In Harry Kane and Dele Alli they have a pairing that can hurt most defenses. Apoel are likely to finish last in the group, having lost Pieros Sotiriou, their top scorer last season, to FC Copenhagen.

Prediction 1 Real Madrid 2 Borussia Dortmund 3 Tottenham 4 Apoel

Star player Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

*The Guardian Sport

Arsenal Put at Risk in the ‘Red Zone’ by the Lack of a Commanding Midfielder

The Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka, left, failed to track Jesé Rodríguez, right, leading to Stoke’s winner.

It turns out the switch to a back three was not a magic bullet, after all. It is early days still, of course, but already the sense is that for Arsenal the move to the tactic du jour was just the 2017 version of their regular upswing in April and May. Nobody has monetized mediocrity quite so well: they are masters at stimulating optimism at just the right moment to maximize season‑ticket sales.

The familiar tropes are already being wheeled out: the excellent record at Wembley (nine wins in a row if you include penalty shootouts, a run that presumably makes Tottenham’s struggles there all the more amusing for Arsenal fans); the terrible record at Stoke (one win in eight games); and perhaps most gallingly, the endlessly fragile midfield.

To an extent Arsenal were unlucky at Stoke last Saturday. Alexandre Lacazette may have been a fraction offside when he had a goal ruled out, but many officials would have regarded him as being level with the last defender. They had six shots on target to Stoke’s four – or, if that feels old-fashioned, they won 1.74 to 0.68 on Expected Goals. It was, to an extent, just one of those days; it’s just that Arsenal keep having those days, particularly in Stoke.

And through it all, one thread endures. Arsenal may have started spending (relatively) big on players. They may at last have brought in a high-grade centre-forward (even if there are doubts about Lacazette’s contribution outside the box); they may finally have, in Sead Kolasinac, a physically imposing presence; they may even for once hold on to a wantaway player (although it is probably best to reserve judgement on that for another week or so); but they still lack a commanding central midfielder. Temporary solutions may at times have been patched together, but Patrick Vieira has never truly been replaced. That’s hardly a new insight and its discussion may provoke sighs of weariness but it remains as true as it has been for more than a decade.

Ottmar Hitzfeld, who won Champions League titles with both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, often spoke of the “red zone”, the central area just outside the penalty area. A team’s first priority must always be to protect that, to try to avoid, as far as possible, opponents generating shooting, passing or dribbling opportunities from that area. That can be done by pressing, squeezing the space between the lines, or it can be done by having one or more holding midfielders sitting there, but what cannot happen is for central defenders to be isolated against an opponent with space in front of him.

One of the reasons for the recent success of 3-4-2-1 is that it has such a stable base: three central defenders protected by a screen of two holding players – the same trapezium shape that was the base of the W-M formation and that has returned to fashion as full-backs have begun to shuck off their defensive responsibilities, placing greater strain on the center-halves.

Towards the end of last season, the shape seemed to bring some stability even to Arsenal. Yet Leicester rampaged through that space again and again on the opening Premier League game of the season as the two nominal holding midfielders, Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny were too often drawn upfield. Jesé Rodríguez enjoyed that space for Stoke as well, but his goal was less to do with shape than with Xhaka not performing the utterly basic task of following his run into the box.

Xhaka is a divisive figure but it is hard to see why. He may have averaged almost 90% pass completion last season while making 2.4 tackles per game (although given he also conceded 1.2 fouls per game that is perhaps not quite such an impressive figure as it may initially appear) but again and again seems to lose concentration, exposing the defenders behind him. His apologists claim that his role is to create the play, keeping the ball moving, and there may be some truth to that, but nobody, whatever their role, can just let a forward run off him as he allowed Jesé to. Besides, if that is Xhaka’s role, why doesn’t he have a more robust, ball-winning presence alongside him, somebody to act as a breakwater for opposition attacks? The issue is particularly acute at Arsenal given the lack of defensive cover offered to the back of the midfield by Mesut Özil.

In a world of increasingly universal players, in which they are all expected to be able both to pass and to perform basic defensive functions, Arsenal seem increasingly anachronistic, the problem exacerbated by Arsène Wenger’s refusal to sign the holding player who might mitigate the problem. It seems increasingly likely that history will judge that William Carvalho’s most significant act in football was to remain unsigned by Arsenal.

It is an area likely to be particularly exposed on Sunday as Arsenal travel to Anfield. Last season they leaked seven goals over two league games against Liverpool. In both matches Roberto Firmino prospered by dropping deep into precisely that space: if Arsenal cannot deal with a threat into that zone coming from in front of them, they struggle even more when it comes from behind them. If defenders follow Firmino that in turn creates space for wide men to cut into. Given the arrival of Mohamed Salah means Liverpool now have pace on both flanks, Sunday could be horribly messy for Arsenal as the same failing repeats once again.

(The Guardian)

Arsène Wenger Confident Arsenal Can Prosper from Champions League Absence

Wenger

London – For Arsène Wenger, the boot is on the other foot – well, almost. The Arsenal manager flagged up a trend at the end of last season when he noted that Chelsea and Leicester City, the two most recent Premier League champions, were unencumbered by the demands of European football during their triumphant campaigns.

“Because the league is so physically difficult, maybe it is very difficult to cope with both,” Wenger said. “We will see how Chelsea respond next season.”

Arsenal’s league campaign ended in frustration when they finished fifth, meaning they missed out on Champions League qualification for the first time since 1997. But at least they had freed themselves up for a clear run at the domestic title. Not quite.

One of the keys to Arsenal’s season will be how they contend with the Europa League, with the unique Thursday-Sunday scheduling that it entails. Will Wenger rest his first-choice players to have them firing for the more serious business of the league? Yes, he suggested. That would be the plan.

“I will always play a team that has a good chance to win the next game,” Wenger said. “In the Europa League, if we can afford sometimes to rest some players, we will do it. But we have to adapt to the level of the competition and see, first, what kind of group we play in.”

Wenger had earlier been asked how he felt before a season with no Champions League football. “For us, it is a good opportunity to focus completely on the Premier League,” he replied.

The manager has signposted his intentions and it may be a popular move to give some of the club’s younger players – such as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock – an opportunity in the Europa League. Wenger intends to sell a clutch of players, including Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs and Lucas Pérez, but his squad will remain extremely deep.

Wenger offered further insight into his feelings towards the Europa League when he said the winners ought not to be granted entry into the Champions League. He even revealed he had voted against the proposal, which came into force in the 2014-15 season. To him, a big club should not view the Europa League as a kind of insurance policy in terms of Champions League qualification.

“You cannot go into the season and think that,” Wenger said. “I was always against it [the Europa League winners qualifying for the Champions League] because, at some stage, it can influence the championship. If a team is in a position in April where they have more chance to win the Europa League, they can let some games go in the championship and not completely focus on the regularity of the competition.

“Apart from Manchester United last season, who won the Europa League [having started in the competition], all the years before it was always a team who was kicked out of the Champions League [that won it]. That’s why, when we voted in Geneva [for the route into the Champions League], I was always against it.”

Wenger’s numbers do not bear scrutiny. Since the format of the Europa League – then the Uefa Cup – was changed in 1999-2000, only seven clubs have lifted the trophy after dropping down from the Champions League. Arsenal almost won it in that first season, after entering through the Champions League, only to lose the final to Galatasaray on penalties.

Wenger’s team finished last season 18 points adrift of Chelsea but they showed in the FA Cup final they could get the better of them over 90 minutes. “Last year, Chelsea did not play in the European Cup and, certainly, they were a bit more consistent in the Premier League,” Wenger said. “In the final, we have shown that the gap was not as high, maybe. I expect Chelsea to fight for the championship again and for us, when we have made 75 points, as we did last season, the target is to get 10 points more. With 10 points more, you are in there.”

Wenger is still there, in situ at the Emirates Stadium after all of the uncertainty over his contract renewal last season, and he is gripped by that eternal optimism. “I am sorry I am still here,” he said, with a smile. “I can understand that you want to kill me but, at the moment, I survive.”

The Guardian Sport

Real Madrid Crowned Kings of Europe after Historic Triumph

Madrid

Cardiff – Cristiano Ronaldo continued on writing history by scoring twice in the Champions League final on Saturday, making Real Madrid the first team to retain the European title in the league era.

Goals by Casemiro and Marco Asensio completed Real’s 4-1 victory against Juventus in Cardiff to seal the Spanish capital’s record 12th Champions League title.

The Portugal superstar’s opener was cancelled out by an astonishing Mario Mandzukic strike, but goals from Casemiro, Ronaldo and Asensio secured Madrid’s third Champions League triumph in four years.

Now a four-time Champions League winner, Ronaldo finished as the competition’s top scorer for the fifth season running, substantially enhancing his chances of matching fierce rival Lionel Messi’s tally of five Ballon d’Or crowns.

“We’re very happy to be the first team to win the Champions League in two consecutive years,” said Ronaldo, who has now scored exactly 600 goals for club and country in his extraordinary career.

“I finished the season very well. It is another record, a record that these players deserve and we are delighted.”

Zinedine Zidane, a head coach for only 17 months, became the first boss to oversee back-to-back European Cup successes since Arrigo Sacchi’s fabled AC Milan team won the tournament in 1989 and 1990.

“It’s a tremendous joy for the players and for this immense club,” Zidane told beIN Sports Spain.

“I am happy because it is not easy to win things like La Liga and the Champions League, and this year we did it with hard work and desire.”

Victory crowned a glorious season for Madrid, who have pulled off a La Liga and European Cup double for the first time since 1958, having also won the Club World Cup and European Super Cup.

Zidane’s joy was his former club Juve’s despair, Massimiliano Allegri’s side crashing to a fifth successive defeat in Champions League finals and seventh in total, extending their own desperately unwanted record.

The first Champions League final to be played beneath a closed roof saw Juve hit their heads against a familiar ceiling as they missed out on a chance to complete the first Treble in their history.

The Italian champions had substitute Juan Cuadrado sent off after he was shown a second yellow card for a gentle push on Sergio Ramos that drew a lamentable overreaction from the Madrid skipper.

“We thought we had enough to win the game. I cannot explain why we played like we did in the second half,” said Juve captain Gianluigi Buffon, now a three-time beaten finalist.

“Real Madrid deserved to win in the second half. They showed their class and the attitude needed to play in this kind of game.”

Following an elaborate pre-match ceremony involving American pop act Black Eyed Peas at the Principality Stadium, Juve settled first.

Gonzalo Higuain worked Keylor Navas twice, while Miralem Pjanic’s snappy half-volley forced the Madrid goalkeeper into a smart one-handed save.

Madrid drew first blood in the 20th minute when Ronaldo flicked the ball wide to Dani Carvajal before artfully sweeping the Spaniard’s return pass into the bottom-left corner via a nick off Leonardo Bonucci.

It was a fine strike, and it made Ronaldo the first player to have scored in three finals in the post-1992 Champions League age, but it was quickly cancelled out by Mandzukic’s masterpiece.

Bonucci’s flighted pass from deep was volleyed into the box by Alex Sandro and Higuain chested the ball down before teeing it up for Mandzukic.

The Croatian forward took a touch with his chest and then, as he fell, hooked a sublime volley over Navas’s despairing dive and beneath the crossbar.

But after the break, it was Zidane’s men who set the tempo and in the 61st minute Casemiro put them ahead.

The Brazilian midfielder unleashed a shot from 25 yards that flicked off the heels of Madrid old boy Sami Khedira before spinning past the helpless Buffon.

Three minutes later it was game over as Ronaldo netted his 12th goal in this season’s tournament, moving him a goal clear of Messi, and 105th overall.

Luka Modric sped to the byline on the right and crossed as Ronaldo darted ahead of Bonucci at the near post to guide a shot past Buffon.

Cardiff native Gareth Bale made an appearance as a late replacement for Karim Benzema, having been out since April 23 with a calf injury.

Sandro headed wide from a Dani Alves free-kick, but Juve’s fire went out when Cuadrado was given his marching orders and substitute Asensio added to their misery with a late tap-in from Marcelo’s cut-back.

Marcelo, Dani Alves Make Champions League Final a Battle of the Full-Backs

Marcelo

London – “Three months ago some people wanted to strangle him,” Massimiliano Allegri said with a smile, but that night they just wanted to hug him. The story goes that when Dani Alves arrived at Juventus, Gigi Buffon took him to one side and asked him to teach them how to win the Champions League. He might not be able to do that exactly but Allegri was speaking just after Alves had taken them to Cardiff, delivering the pass for the first goal and volleying home the second in Monaco. He had already provided two assists in the first leg of the semi-final in Turin, one with a superb backheel. Juventus were in the final again, two years after they lost to Barcelona in Berlin– when Alves was on the other team.

On the other side this time, facing him, will be Marcelo, who after Real Madrid’s recent clásico defeat bemoaned: “It’s my fault.” His crime: not committing the foul that might have prevented Lionel Messi from winning it. Few noticed then that he had provided the late assist for James Rodríguez to equalize in the first place – but they did when six days later he scored late to tighten Madrid’s grip on the title. Five days before that, he had finally broken Bayern Munich, in the 109th minute of the Champions League quarter-final, weaving through, hurdling challenges and leaving Ronaldo an open goal to finish off the German champions.

And so here they are, meeting again, this time in Cardiff on Saturday. International team-mates and for so long opponents in club football’s biggest rivalry: two “defenders” who are so much more than that. Full-backs? Footballers, full stop. Brilliant, too. Brazilians, both. Different, breaking the mold. “I don’t want to be just another player,” Alves says, and he is not. Nor is Marcelo. Automatons? No, thanks. Better to embrace the game, enjoy it – and, lest it be forgotten, win it too. Between them they have 53 trophies in total, soon to be 54. They are key men, arguably even the key men, in the best two teams in Europe.

Over the years it has not been hard to find their critics, but seek them among their own and it is a different matter; even some will admit these are men who can take a bit of getting used to. They cannot defend, detractors say, but that line is as facile as it is flawed. It also feels as if it goes beyond football: if you dare to smile, as they do, the accusation deepens, as if the sport has to be a deadly serious business, as if enjoying it means you are not committed, when they clearly are.

Every squad needs personalities – “contagious” is the word Zinedine Zidane uses to describe Marcelo – and fun does not equal frivolous; you do not play for eight years at Barcelona and a decade at Madrid without dedication. Juventus do not sign you and Barcelona do not decline without you; if they thought they would not miss Alves, they were wrong. “People automatically think that because you attack, you can’t defend. Not true,” Alves said. That was five years ago but it could have been yesterday. He has not changed; it is others who have, some recognizing his contribution late, a process that finds parallels with Marcelo, now more than ever.

It should not have taken so long. It is not just that it is false that they cannot defend; it is, Alves says, that the terms need tying down. “What,” he asks, “is ‘defend’? That no one ever dribbles or attacks? Bloody hell, football would be boring, wouldn’t it? You can prepare [only] to defend but then the guy dribbles past you anyway … what, you think you’re the only one that’s quick? If you ‘defend’, you don’t attack; if you ‘attack’, you don’t defend? What’s football for? To win. And to win you have to score more. The winner isn’t [just] the team that defends incredibly; if you defend well but don’t score, it’s worthless.”

Even in Brazil, they have not always rushed to embrace the pair. There may have been occasional doubts – Marcelo did not start the 2014 final against Atlético Madrid in Lisbon and Alves’s relationship with the Barcelona board was always fraught – but what they offer far outweighs any flaws. If they attack, it is because their managers want them to, because they are good at it. They are following orders, not breaking them. They have played well over 1,000 games between them, at the most demanding clubs on earth.

Marcelo started playing what Brazilians call futsal and Spaniards fútbol sala – indoor five-a-side – at the age of four. His brother-in-law plays professionally and in his first couple of years at Madrid Marcelo would often escape to play too, even joining competitions. In an interview with a futsal magazine, among the few he has given, he admitted he would like to see out his career on the court rather than the pitch, back where it began. Marcelo’s brother-in-law highlights his “dribbling and technical skill, the ability to improvise to get out of difficult situations when no one thinks he can”.

In part, that is inheritance rather than coincidence: Marcelo and Alves are products of their environment and experience. Futsal is played with a smaller, heavier ball that flies round the court, almost always on the floor; a game of touch, speed, technique and thought. “I had the pleasure of playing futsal at school,” Alves said. “And what it gives you is intelligence: it’s a sport where you need to use your head. There’s very little space, the marking is very tight, so you need to be smart, very quick thinking. In football people who have that intelligence have a big advantage over others.”

It is not just that they are “defenders” who attack; it is that they are defenders who play; it is the way they attack. Full-backs bombing up the line are one thing, Alves and Marcelo are something else: they come inside, take responsibility, create, seek one-twos, take people on – and not just with the drop of a shoulder and a burst of speed, as if they were No10s, only in the wrong position. “Full-back” is just a clue and sometimes it is a red herring.

This season Marcelo has been arguably Madrid’s best player. At Sevilla everything went through Alves. At Barcelona he provided more assists than anyone in Spain, after Messi. At Juventus, he has created more chances than anyone in the Champions League. “Did you see him?” asked a beaming Allegri after he performed so superbly against Monaco. “Did you see his assists? That’s what a central playmaker does.”

It is similar to what Marcelo does too. Jorge Valdano says: “He brings the ball out with outstanding naturalness and ease; he goes through the middle of the pitch as if it was his own home and, when he gets to the top of the pitch, he has the solutions a forward has. We’re used to full-backs like Gordillo or Roberto Carlos who plough the wing; Marcelo goes by planting flowers.”

As for Alves, Giorgio Chiellini admitted he was “crazy for our culture” and that assimilating him was “hard at first”, but he was “like Messi”, on “another level technically”. So here they are, Brazilians of similar spirit, players who love to play. In purple is Marcelo, seeking his third European Cup in four years; in black and white Dani Alves chasing his third treble in eight seasons, and his 34th major title. It is not bad for two defenders who cannot defend. Who wins no one knows yet but it should be fun finding out.

The Guardian Sport

Kasper Schmeichel’s Champions League Brilliance Confirms His Rise to the Elite

Kasper Schmeichel is congratulated by team-mate Ben Chilwell after helping his team reach the Champions League quarter-finals.

There was something a little eerie about Kasper Schmeichel’s penalty save towards the end of Leicester City’s uproarious Champions League defeat of Sevilla. Mainly it was the element of real-time deja vu about the whole thing. Not just because Schmeichel had also kept out a penalty from Joaquín Correa in Seville. This was a save that seemed oddly inevitable from the moment the kick was awarded, to be already happening even as Steven Nzonzi frowned and placed the ball on the spot, Schmeichel bobbing on his toes and doing that funny little Bruce Lee-style beckoning gesture with his fingers.

Schmeichel knew what was about to happen. Nzonzi definitely knew: his kick was terrible, a flaccid, scuffed thing lacking any menace, spite or basic human will to live. It almost bounced twice before it got to Schmeichel, who had to wait before grabbing it, the only danger that he might be deceived by the lack of pace, like a batsman playing too early at a slower ball.

Nzonzi has never scored a penalty in his career. He may not take another. Although he will, you imagine, get to see this one again in those moments after he closes his eyes and starts to drift off to sleep. In the stands Leicester’s supporters celebrated with a sense of gathering triumph. In the press seats harassed, sweating newspaper hacks began to batter away with sudden conviction at their early-edition copy. From that point it was clear Leicester were going to win this tie on the details.

The most obvious of which is that in Schmeichel they have a goalkeeper who has proved beyond any doubt, a decade into a picaresque career – the Falkirk years, that Darlington adolescence – that these high-pressure moments really do lift his game.

Even the most talented sportspeople can fade into the action at the highest levels. Others are able to find that rare space beyond the nuts and bolts of actual talent (which is, as they say, overrated) where victory becomes an act of spirit and champion will.

Schmeichel has made fewer saves per game in Leicester’s Champions league run than he has in the Premier League. Against Sevilla on Tuesday he made three all night, each a key moment in isolation. Very good goalkeepers will tell you this is the sign of a very good goalkeeper. Afterwards Craig Shakespeare, who knows Schmeichel well, was asked if there was a better keeper in Europe. “Possibly not,” Leicester’s manager replied without missing a beat.

Comparing top-class goalies has always been one of the more fruitless aspects of football’s urge to rank and list. Beyond a certain threshold so much depends on form and luck and the players in front of you. Plus, of course, there are some very good goalkeepers around the place these days, the position itself energised by the trend for keepers who can drive the game from the back, from Hugo Lloris’s sweeper-keeper schtick to the comedic regista-manqué stylings of Claudio Bravo.

Schmeichel’s brilliance across both legs of the Champions League last-16 stage confirms his own rise, aged 30, to the elite goalkeeping caste. No doubt further rumours of a move from Leicester – Barcelona and Real Madrid have been mentioned, a little fancifully, in the past – will mushroom in time.

Signing Schmeichel would instantly improve at least four of the current top seven. Peter Schmeichel, his father, was once such a huge Liverpool fan he told the club he would pay his own travel costs from Denmark if they offered him a trial (Graeme Souness turned him down: he already had David James). Liverpool also seems the most likely destination for Schmeichel Jr should he become available, and indeed an excellent fit.

If such man-of-the-moment recognition has been quite a long time coming, Schmeichel has also impressed wherever he has been on his 10-year meander through the divisions. Another oddity of Schmeichel v Nzonzi is that in a bizarre parallel world they might even have been England team-mates had the Football Association’s overtures towards both men been successful.

Schmeichel was sounded out as a possible England player as long ago as 2007, the same year he made a Premier League debut in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Manchester City team. Joe Hart’s emergence stopped his progress and two years later Schmeichel moved on to Notts County, where he had the grace and generosity to tear up his own contract when the club hit the buffers.

There is a sense of the world turning his way in recent years. Goalkeeping itself has changed a little. Schmeichel is hardly a titch at 6ft 2in. But the one real doubt in his younger days was the idea he might fail to “dominate his area”, to provide a genuinely imposing old-school physical presence.

Ten years on from his City debut the best keepers tend to be mobile, integrated into the defensive back line, agile rather than imposing.

Schmeichel is the same height as Marc-André ter Stegen, taller then Bravo, and just two inches off Manuel Neuer. If he doesn’t quite have the eye-popping ball skills of Neuer or Ter Stegen his distribution is at least decisive and precise. Stats suggest Schmeichel has the longest kick of any goalkeeper in the Champions League. His ability to launch hard, flat accurate passes 60 yards downfield is key to the way Leicester play when they play the way Leicester ought to play, all deep defence and fast breaks.

This is the other side of Schmeichel’s wonderful performance against Sevilla. There will be a temptation to announce that none of the other teams left in the Champions League will want to play Leicester City now. In fact the opposite is true. All of the other teams left in the Champions league will want to play Leicester City. Show me a plucky underdog: I’ll show you an underdog.

On the other hand, if Sevilla’s possession-heavy impotence at the King Power tells us anything it is that Leicester’s style may just be a good fit with the remaining Champions League teams. Most of the European grandees left tend to commit players forward as a matter of seigneurial right. Deep defence, an excellent goalkeeper and swift accurate forward passes are the best response. More of the same from Schmeichel, Leicester’s best player in Europe this year, and they may just have a chance of bloodying another nose along the way.

(The Guardian)

Neymar Stands Apart to Make the Impossible Possible for Barcelona

Neymar celebrates after Barcelona’s triumph.

“As long as there’s a 1% chance, we’ll have 99% faith,” Neymar wrote in the aftermath of Barcelona’s 4-0 destruction in Paris – but by the time he stood over the ball the odds didn’t even look that good. They didn’t to everyone else, anyway. 1%? If only. Their first comeback had failed, crushed by Edinson Cavani; the second had barely started and was surely beyond them now: Paris Saint‑Germain’s away goal had left them needing three goals in 30 minutes and 27 of them had passed.

Even the goal, Barcelona’s fourth, should have been an afterthought. Neymar’s free-kick felt almost as cruel as it was perfect, curling into the top corner by the near post, a moment that would ultimately prove meaningless, a brief and empty hope inevitably taken away. The crazy thing was that somehow there was substance. When his right foot connected, the clock said 87.22 and everyone “knew” it was still impossible. But, as Neymar wrote afterwards: “Nothing is impossible for those who believe.”

It was easy to say then, of course, but he had said as much after Paris and now he had made it so. PSG crumbled. Terrified, they completed only four passes from the 85th minute on – and three of those were kick-offs. Barcelona completed an epic comeback that Luis Enrique said he could not explain in words. “No one will ever forget this. Football is for crazy people, unique,” he said.

There were explanations, although none were entirely adequate – not even when they were put together. Images of the impossible: Marc-André ter Stegen, who produced a decisive slide tackle 20 yards inside the PSG half to go with the saves. The back three, exposed but immense. PSG’s extraordinary loss of nerve. Sergi Roberto, who Luis Enrique joked couldn’t score in a goal the size of a rainbow. And, yes, the referee, Deniz Aytekin: Javier Mascherano later admitted fouling Ángel Di María, and there had been a handball, too, while Luis Suárez dived to win the penalty for Barcelona’s fifth. Then, the single most compelling explanation of all, there was the man wearing No11.

In seven minutes 17 seconds, Barcelona scored three times. Neymar was at the heart of them all. “This was the best game I’ve played,” he said. All night he had led, taking responsibility and taking hits, rolling with them. Much has been made of his lack of goals this season but that hides a huge contribution. Just as his tumbles and his skill – superfluous at times, the accusation goes – hide his competitiveness and bravery. The way that his runs relieve his team, giving them the chance to breathe, gets overlooked. The death of Raymond Kopa led to a description resurfacing that could usefully be applied to Neymar, too: “A collective individualist.”

At times here he was in effect a wing‑back, covering the left alone. Always available, hyperactive, he completed 60 passes and four times he ran past opponents he was determined would not run past him when the pitch tilted the other way. He scored two goals, was brought down for a penalty and created the winner. His eight assists in this Champions League are a record – and all from open play. “We played without fear, with happiness,” he said. That may not be true of them all, indeed this epic comeback felt a little un-Barcelona, but it was true of him. At the end, the calmness and confidence stood him apart.

It was not only about those final seven minutes but they may be among the best anyone has ever played. The most decisive, certainly. Three times Neymar stepped forward and each time the impossible became that little more possible until, incredibly, it actually happened.

He stepped forward … it would be tempting to add: “just when his team needed him”, except at first it didn’t feel like a moment of need. It didn’t feel like a moment at all, although it turned out to be exactly that. When the sixth went in, Leo Messi leapt into the fans. The photos of that moment, Messi holding his heart, screaming, may well become the image of this match but this time it wasn’t the Argentinian who had rescued them; it was the Brazilian, who only recently turned 25.

The same Brazilian, by the way, who after the game told everyone not to worry, that Messi would definitely stay. He was the bearer of good news, that’s for sure. The bearer of the cheeky response, too. After the first leg, Adrien Rabiot and Layvin Kurzawa had posted a picture on Instagram, Rabiot holding up four fingers, Kurzawa doing a two-fingered V for victory. Neymar reproduced it on Wednesday night, with the message: 4+2=6.

One radio station in Spain opened its coverage of the game saying the only way Barcelona could do this was if Messi was inspired but it was Neymar instead. It was not only that he curled in the free-kick and scored the penalty; it was that he even took them. And with that pressure, it was not “only” a penalty: he admitted that he had to compose himself but he had wanted it. Then in the last minute, when the ball came back to him, he did not simply sling the ball back in the box. He paused, cut inside and clipped a measured pass to Roberto to send the place wild.

Neymar had told Roberto to move. He would look for him: not Gerard Piqué, Samuel Umtiti or Suárez, but Roberto. He had told them all that there was a chance, even if it was only 1%, but no one believed him. So he showed them.

(The Gurdian)

Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola: If We Do Not Score in Monaco We Will Go Out

Pep Guardiola, pictured with Sergio Agüero, says of the first leg against Monaco ‘it is special for football when two teams play like that’.

Pep Guardiola said Manchester City will be eliminated from the Champions League if they fail to score in Monaco, despite holding a 5-3 lead from an extraordinary encounter at the Etihad Stadium.

The City manager vowed to maintain his commitment to attack at Stade Louis II on 15 March after a breathless first leg against the French league leaders, who twice led and missed a penalty before conceding three goals in 11 minutes late in the game. Even the Monaco coach, Leonardo Jardim, said he enjoyed the spectacle, if not the final result.

Guardiola described the contest as “beautiful” and an example of what can happen “when two teams want to be the protagonists” but also revealed mistrust of the City defense against the highest scoring team in Europe’s top divisions. After Nicolás Otamendi, John Stones and Willy Caballero endured a difficult night against Radamel Falcao and the eye-catching 18-year-old, Kylian Mbappé, the City manager admitted he could not send his team out to defend a 5-3 advantage in Monaco.

“We attack in small spaces and defend huge spaces behind, that’s why the people contracted me to come here,” Guardiola said. “It is special for football when two teams play like that. I am happier than my colleague from Monaco because at 2-0 [two goals behind] we are out. If one team can score a thousand million goals, it’s Monaco. They arrive with six or seven players in the box and it is tough to control that on the counterattack.

“Of course we have to improve. The first goal was a mistake, the second was a mistake but today the lesson is that we never give up. We were lucky in some aspects of the second half and very unlucky in some aspects of the first half. They will attack more and more and we have to defend better. But we will have our chances. We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. We are not going to defend that result. We now know each other better. We will adjust some things, they will adjust some things but we have to score goals. If we don’t score a goal in Monaco we will be eliminated.”

Guardiola refused to comment on the Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz’s decision to book Sergio Agüero for a perceived dive over Danijel Subasic in the first half when the Monaco goalkeeper made contact with the striker inside the area. “Next question, next question, next question,” he said. “I want to go to Monaco.”

Agüero, who scored twice and set up Leroy Sané’s fifth goal for City, commented: “He touched my foot but these are things that happen. The referee told me that he wasn’t going to give it. It happens and sometimes you can get it wrong but you have to accept it.” The Argentina international also reiterated his intention to remain at City beyond this season. “I’ve always said I want to be here at the club. I’ve always said that at the end of the season it won’t be my decision. The truth is that with these things it’s the club that handles everything and obviously it’s always my intention to stay.”

Hundreds of City fans missed kick‑off because of problems gaining entry to the stadium, accounting for the empty seats dotted around the ground at the start of the game. Guardiola’s squad flew to Abu Dhabi after the game for warm-weather training, with the manager adding: “I am satisfied it is 5-3 because we could be sat here out of the competition because the line was so fine. Now we will go to Abu Dhabi and rest for the Huddersfield game and Monaco.”

(The Guardian)

Bayern’s Manuel Neuer: ‘I’ve Seen Arsenal Play Quite Often. I’m Prepared’

Manuel Neuer has offered Bayern Munich reassuring stability during a period of upheaval. Photograph: Florian Jaenicke for the Observer

It’s the morning after the night a minor earthquake tore through the club, but you would not know it from the languid mood at Bayern Munich’s Säbener Strasse training complex. An hour before a mildly paced training session that will be watched by a couple of hundred shivering supporters in woolly hats and scarves, the scene inside the glass-fronted media center overlooking the main pitch is more backstage at a pop concert than embattled football team.

Here’s Joshua Kimmich, posing with a bunch of balloons for a magazine photo shoot. In another corner, Javier Martínez steps into an interview booth clutching a bowl of muesli – a working breakfast for the Spanish international.

And then, there’s Manuel Neuer, taking up an entire section of the room with his deadpan semi-smile and Die Hard henchman frame, six feet and three inches of self-assured, rock-ribbed impassivity that look like they should be perched on a pedestal.

Last night’s upheaval – the captain Philipp Lahm’s surprising announcement of his retirement at the end of the season and of his decision to turn down the offer of a sporting director role at the Bundesliga champions within minutes of a labored 1-0 win in the DFB Pokal over Wolfsburg on Tuesday – has left Neuer completely unfazed. “I would have enjoyed playing alongside him a bit longer,” he says. “I respect his decision.”

Unlike the two vexed club bosses Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness, the 30-year-old had been tipped off in advance by his team-mate, as one of only two Bayern players – Thomas Müller was the other confidant – but that is not the real reason Neuer appears calm to the point of seeming uninterested.

He is always like that, supremely impervious to what is happening around him, whether that is hardcore Bayern fans staging a protest against him – they did not like his teenage past as a Schalke 04 ultra when he arrived in 2011 – or plenty of behind-the-scenes tension concerning power struggles in the boardroom and the team’s many unconvincing performances under Carlo Ancelotti thus far.

That’s not to say he will not address the problems at hand, however. A few days before the first leg of the Bavarian club’s habitual meeting with Arsenal in the Champions League – they face each other at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday – it would have been easy to dismiss complaints about a drop in performance levels since Pep Guardiola’s departure with a bored shrug and sharpish reference to the Bundesliga table, which presents Bayern top, with one defeat and a seven-point lead over RB Leipzig after Bayern won 2-0 at Ingolstadt while their rivals fell at home to Hamburg on Saturday.

Neuer is too honest and too ambitious for that, however. “We know that we haven’t quite arrived at the point we want to be at,” he says. “We want to play very good football, very dominant football. Not just good football. Opponents in the league have become a bit more confident against us right now, they sense that they might get something from the game. We have to really put a stop to that, and show that we’ll decide what happens on the pitch at all times.”

Is everyone perhaps a little too relaxed with the affable, unhurried Ancelotti in charge? Neuer shakes his head. “I don’t think so. We know what it’s all about, we want to win trophies. The new coaching team haven’t come here and said: ‘Let’s all chill a bit and then we’ll see what happens’. That’s not the case. They are as eager to succeed as we are. Anybody who thinks they can take it easy here is in the wrong job.”

They have a saying in Germany: a good horse won’t jump higher than it has to. Bayern have long been known as masters of such minimal effort, but after the relentless drive towards excellence and total control that defined the Guardiola era, the regression towards a more ponderous, ordinary state this season has come as a bit of a shock.

Neuer believes that the difficulties are “a matter of details, for example keeping the right distance between players and parts of the team” rather than the result of more fundamental issues. “It’s not about trying harder, or running more. If the positioning and organisation are right, you have to run a lot less.”

Still there is a worry, openly discussed by dressing room leaders, that Bayern may not be able to move up a gear or two in time for the crunch matches in Europe. For the first time in five years, they have not won their Champions League group. A run of indifferent performances since the winter break has not allayed doubts, either. “When the floodlights are on, concentration levels are a bit higher, but you mustn’t assume that you’ll automatically do better,” Neuer warns.

“We know from experience that anything can happen in games against strong opponents, nuances can make the difference. Arsenal like having the ball. So do we. Like us, they have had highs and lows this season, moments of outstanding and some poorer games. They’re not the perfect draw for us. But we’re not the perfect draw for them either.”

Bayern have always come out on top over two games against Arsenal in previous meetings but these have frequently been edgy affairs. For Neuer, familiarity has bred content, in terms of amassed scouting data: “I consider that part of my job as a pro, to know who you’re up against and how the attacking players play, what kind of characteristics they have, their qualities, how they move, their preferred foot.

“I’ve seen Arsenal’s players quite often, some of them in national teams as well, some of them are my team-mates in the German national team. Therefore, I’m prepared. And we will analyze those who are unfamiliar.”

Arsène Wenger, in turn, will have noticed that Bayern’s less precise passing game and occasional lack of cohesion are not the only things that have changed: Ancelotti has put Neuer back in his box. Interventions by the “sweeper-keeper” interventions outside his area have become rarer now that his team keep a much deeper, more orthodox line.

“We’re closer to our own goal, I don’t have to rush out as often, I need to use my hands more now,” says Neuer. “But I don’t mind. As a goalkeeper, you like to be called upon.”

Fourteen clean sheets in 29 games – with Saturday’s at Ingolstadt his 100th in 181 Bundesliga games for Bayern – would suggest he has indeed been answering the call with typical diligence. His team might be a slightly diminished force this season but the icily dispassionate Manuel Neuer certainly is not.

Bayern’s very own Monument Man stands determined to prove an effective obstacle to Arsenal’s progress once more.

(The Guardian)