Europe’s Elite Return- Notes from the UCL R16 1st legs.


Injury-hit PSG were too good for United in the first leg (Image: Action Images via Reuters)

  • Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria shush Old Trafford


How great is this kid? Ability wise, he surely is the heir apparent to Messi and Ronaldo. But also because the Champions League is his home and his competition. A couple years ago, he broke out onto the world stage with huge performances and goals leading Monaco on a great run in Europe.


And now, he’s leading PSG in the very same competition. Against Manchester United, he made all the difference in their 2-0 win at Old Trafford. Playing as the Number 9 with Cavani and Neymar out, the frenchman showed just how good he is when he sprinted ahead of the defenders to get the second goal of the game on a cross from the left side. 


Di Maria in action. (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

Angel Di Maria played a big part in the victory as well in his return to Manchester. Every time he touched the ball, boos and jeers rang from the crowd. But as fate would have it, he sent in a corner which led to opening goal and in celebration mouthed “fuck off” to the crowd and shushed them. He then got another assist on the second goal which sealed it.


He also picked up a beer bottle thrown on the field and mocked the fans by acting like he would drink it and then threw it to the side. All in all, Di Maria got the last laugh at Old Trafford. 


Manchester United’s midfield trio of Matic, Herrera, and Pogba before the game looked to be a key factor that would get them a win. But, they got outplayed by an out of position Marquinhos and unfit Marco Veratti which only adds to show how much the Parisians controlled the game. PSG thoroughly handled everything Ole Gunnar Solskjaer threw at them without problems.


Read More: The Premier League Should Embrace Streaming, Not Shut It Down.


Mbappe celebrates after scoring PSG's second. (Image: Getty Images)

But back to Mbappe. How did he not win the Ballon d’Or? Interpol should be searching for Luka Modric for committing an international heist because Kylian Mbappe is the best player on the planet.


I know, I know. Messi and Ronaldo. But as they age, the Paris native is quickly becoming the guy, even moving in front of his club teammate Neymar. If PSG go on to win the Champions League, Mbappe will make more of a difference than the Brazilian. 


Before this game, everyone knew Mbappe was a world star. But at such a young age, for club and country, and against the world’s most famous club at the Theater of Dreams, he deserves praise for a fantastic performance.


With two away goals for PSG, it’s a 90 degree vertical uphill battle for the Red Devils to come back in the second leg. Insurmountable? No. Likely? Also no. 


  • Poch, Son, and Spurs.


Jan Vertonghen and Son Heung-min (Image: REUTERS)

First credit to Spurs and Mauricio Pochettino as they exploded in the second half for a 3-0 win over Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund. The first half saw Dortmund have the better chances, but never found the back of the net. Then at halftime, Poch changed things tactically and won the game for Spurs. 


Their defense nullified Jadon Sancho and Christian Pulisic outside and the attack took advantage of Dortmund’s ride side aggression. Future Premier League Player of the Year, Heung Min Son, opened the scoring getting on the end of a Jan Vertonghen cross. The Belgian was only getting warmed up and he wonderfully volleyed in the second. And substitute Fernando Llorente sent Wembley into a riot with the third. 


Son and Llorente delighted with Spurs' win over Dortmund. (AFP/Getty Images)

Spurs deserved this win as they crushed the second half and put Dortmund in a huge hole going into the return leg. 


For Spurs fans, what’s more important? Winning a trophy or getting to a Champions League quarterfinal or dare I say semi final? The board certainly favors the UCL progress because of the financial rewards. Understandable. But what about the fans? They without a doubt enjoyed today’s win and if they continue in the competition, this question will become relevant.


Second, pump the breaks on the Spurs hype as they had two away goals in the first leg against Juve last year and took the lead in the second leg at home. Then what happened? Juve scored two and won 4-3 on aggregate. 


Read More: A Pathway into the First Team.


Dortmund are not out of this. They blew away Atletico at home in the group stage this season only to lose on the road in the reverse fixture. Dortmund had the better of the chances in the first half and carved up the right side with Jan Vertonghen playing in an unfamiliar left wingback position. 


Top class defender Vertoghen. (EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Despite getting goose egged tonight, Dortmund know how to score so they can easily get three or four goals in the second leg. But allowing goals will be the issue. Without an away goal, they either need to shutout Spurs or win by two. Tough circumstances for the Black and Yellows.


  • Roma v Porto


Zaniolo is congratulated by team-mate Stephan El Shaarawy following his second goal for Roma. [Reuters]

This tie was a toss up from the moment they got drawn together. And that’s exactly how it played out as the home team won 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico. Just from the stat sheet, Roma deserved the win, but also from the game. 9 shots on target not including the ones that hit the frame, which by the way makes no sense that shots which hit the posts or crossbar are not considered “on target” but that’s a gripe for another day. 


The Premier League uniquely has a world wide audience, where most domestic leagues don’t.


However, the Champions League brings a global stage to teams, especially in the knockouts. With that being said, is Nicolo Zaniolo the next player to breakout thanks to this competition? He scored both second half goals for his team in quick succession and Twitter blew up immediately with praise for the 19 year old. 


Read More: Higuain hails under-fire Chelsea boss Sarri.


Should he score a few more big goals, how many of the big teams will come calling? It’s common now for teams to make a move for a young player after only 1 good year before his transfer value rises too much and the same could happen here for Zaniolo. 


Couple that with Roma’s recent trend of selling their top players, i.e. Mo Salah, and it’s definitely a possibility. 


Lopez celebrates with team-mate Andre Pereira after giving Porto a boost. [Reuters]

Porto did score the all important away goal which gives them a legit shot at overturning the deficit in the second leg at home as Roma is fighting for its life domestically to even qualify for Europe again next year. 


Does Di Francesco push for top 4 or a deep Champions League run? He’s been on the hot seat all year so why push for top 4? If they don’t make it, he loses his job. Even if they do qualify for Europe next season, he may still lose his job. Where if they go for the Champions League, he builds his resume for the future. 


Finishing top 4 in Italy is in Roma’s best interest, but their manager’s best interest may be advancing as far as possible in Europe. We’ll see what happens in three weeks. 


Real Madrid vs Ajax


Marco Asensio celebrates. (REUTERS)

Of course Real Madrid won. Was there any doubt? Ajax had good spells throughout the game and could’ve taken the lead on two different occasions, including the VAR ruling. More on that below.


But it’s Real Madrid. Ronaldo may have left, but they’re still Real Madrid. They went into the Johan Cruyff Arena and did exactly what they’re supposed to in the Champions League by winning 2-1 against a young, exciting, and talented Ajax team.


There’s nothing more to say about this game really. Yes, Vinicius continues his great form of late with a great run and assist for Karim Benzema’s goal. Both teams’ subs made an impact with Marco Asensio getting one for the holders and Kasper Dolberg twice coming close to earning a draw for the hosts. 


Karim Benzema (R) scores (AFP/Getty Images)

But again, it’s Real Madrid. They’ll win at home and go to the quarterfinals.


  • VAR [Video Assistant Referee]


THEY GOT IT RIGHT! SO STOP B@#*HING! 


Ajax’s Nicolás Tagliafico saw his header disallowed by VAR when the score against Real Madrid was 0-0. [Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images]

To all you losers who wanted VAR because it’s about “getting it right” and then got mad that Real Madrid benefited from it, shut up. Don’t piss and moan because the right call favored Madrid and you hate Madrid. 


I’m against VAR because I find it philosophically at odds with the game. Soccer is a not a game obsessed with exactitudes. Stoppage time, throw in location, they’re all estimates. So if a ref misses a call, get over it. Another call this game or maybe another game will go your way. That’s why I’m not in favor of VAR. 


VAR denies Ajax opening goal. [Getty]

I understand the argument for “getting it right” but I’m not fighting that. Instead, I think VAR doesn’t fit the game itself. To me, playing without it and having some bad calls is better than playing with it and fundamentally changing the game. 


The reality though is that VAR exists in the game now. And with that, the rules apply to both sides. My twitter blew up with remarks of “of course the first VAR call is for Madrid” and stuff of that nature. 


People wanted it. And of course now that it’s here, they bitch that it’s helping a team they don’t like. 

The refs got it right. Suck it up. Stop moaning. 


Written by Drew Pells [@DrewPells]



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