WINNER: GONZALO HIGUAIN
Just over a week ago, Gonzalo Higuain was under immense pressure. He had endured a very difficult start to the season for Juventus, scoring just four goals in the opening 12 matches in all competitions. This was despite the Bianconeri making their best goalscoring start to a campaign for over half a century.
Higuain looked slow, out of shape and was even dropped by Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli ahead of their do-or-die World Cup qualifiers in September and October. Some critics even started to question whether, with the ex-Real Madrid man set to turn 30 next month, we were starting to witness the decline of ‘Pipita’.
Real Madrid 11/2 to win the UCL
However, Higuain is now well and truly back. In the space of just six days and three games, he has rattled home four goals. A characteristically clinical double versus AC Milan on Saturday night saw Juventus defeat their big-spending rivals 2-0 at San Siro. Then, on Tuesday, the striker scored one of the most important goals of his Juve career so far.
Trailing 1-0 against Sporting with 11 minutes to go in Portugal, the Champions League finalists were in big trouble. A defeat by that scoreline would have seen Juve fall to third position in Group D with just two games remaining, behind Sporting on head-to-head record and with group leaders Barcelona to play next.
Higuain received a pass from Juan Cuadrado and brilliantly dinked the ball over onrushing goalkeeper Rui Patricio to earn Juve a point that will probably prove to be the difference between qualification and elimination.
“Juventus paid €90 million for nights like these,” Sporting coach Jorge Jesus rightly sighed after the game.
WINNER: EUSEBIO DI FRANCESCO
After Roma had fortuitously earned a 0-0 draw at home to Atletico Madrid on matchday one, the knives were already out for new coach Eusebio Di Francesco.
At the end of a game in which the hosts had managed just one shot on target, boos rang out around the Stadio Olimpico, while Edin Dzeko publicly complained about how isolated he was now feeling in attack, having scored freely under previous boss Luciano Spalletti.
There were even reports that owner James Pallotta was “not satisfied” with the team’s tactics. It had been Di Francesco’s first taste of Champions League football and there were suggestions that the former Sassuolo coach was out of his depth.
How quickly things change!
After Tuesday’s resounding 3-0 victory over Chelsea, Roma sit top of Group C, one point ahead of the Blues and, more significantly, five clear of Atletico with just two rounds remaining. Veteran midfielder Daniele De Rossi was in no doubt as to who was responsible for the Giallorossi’s remarkable turnaround.
“This coach has changed the way we attack the opponents and it’s obvious to see,” the captain enthused. “We are aggressive against all the opponents, even sides who in previous years we might’ve feared or sat back to invite forward.”
Far from being a defensive coach, Di Francesco has rid Roma of their long-held inferiority complex against the biggest and best sides in Europe. They were the better side in their 3-3 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge but were punished for poor defending, so the coach went to work on his defence, resulting in three consecutive 1-0 wins in Serie A, and another shutout in Tuesday’s return clash with the Blues.
Di Francesco declared afterwards, “I believe in myself and the work I do.” Now everyone else at Roma does too.
It was nearly 2am in Baku when the full-time whistle blew in Qarabag’s 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano but the late hour didn’t dissuade the club’s fans from taking to the streets to celebrate a historic result.
In the Spanish capital, meanwhile, captain Rashad Sadygov was overcome with emotion. “I do not know what to say right now,” he enthused. “I need time to take it in.”
It was hardly surprising. Just two weeks after stunning the footballing world by holding Atletico to a 0-0 draw in Baku, Qarabag, the Champions League rookies had taken another point off a side that reached the final in 2014 and 2016.
They had again done so with 10 men, with Pedro Henrique having been sent off with 32 minutes to play, but this time they had also scored, with Michel having put them ahead just before the break. In the end, they were forced to ‘settle’ for a draw, which is in itself a remarkable show of just how far Qarabag have come just since the start of their first ever appearance in the Champions League group stage.
In their opening fixture in Group C, they were routed 6-0 by Chelsea. Since then, they suffered a narrow 2-1 loss to Roma before recording back-to-back draws with Atletico. As a result, they now can’t wait to meet the Premier League champions again, this time in Baku on November 22.
“We’re enjoying the Champions League so much,” coach Gurban Gurbanov admitted. “We’re learning a lot. This draw will help us so much and we’ll be respected playing games like these. We’ve got two points but want to try and get more.”
Antonio Conte & Co have been warned!
That Benfica are still mathematically capable of qualifying for the knockout stage says everything about the dire quality of Group A, as the Portuguese outfit have lost all four of their games.
However, with Manchester United sweeping all before them and matches to come against Basel and CSKA Moscow – both of whom have six points – the Eagles could, in theory, still progress to the last 16.
Coach Rui Vitoria stated after Tuesday’s 2-0 loss at Old Trafford, “With two wins we could continue in the Champions League, go to Europa League or go nowhere.” The chances are, they’re going nowhere.
Indeed, Benfica have scored just once so far, conceding 10 times in the process, and it would not be a surprise if they failed to add to their goals tally, given they didn’t even manage a shot on target in two of their four outings thus far.
Their performance in Manchester was certainly better than their blunt showing at the Estado da Luz a fortnight ago but they still never looked remotely capable of claiming a positive result and this is now a historically bad campaign for the two-time European Cup winners, who have never before lost their opening four group games in the Champions League.
Benfica’s travelling supporters were once again a credit to their club at Old Trafford but, given their side also currently trail Porto by five points after 10 rounds of the Primeira Liga, it could be a very long and frustrating season for the fans.
LOSER: SERGIO RAMOS
There are many reasons for Real Madrid’s crisis – from the lack of goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to coach Zinedine Zidane’s struggle to give his team an identity. However, perhaps the biggest individual concern right now for the Blancos is the dreadful form of Sergio Ramos.
The 31-year-old endured a horror show on Wednesday night in the 3-1 loss to Tottenham at Wembley. He was culpable on all of Spurs’ goals, and the way he backed off as Dele Alli ran at him for the Englishman’s second strike was amateurish.
Ramos is supposed to be Madrid’s leader but he continues to behave like a spoilt little child, as evidenced by his brainless booking late in the game.
Madrid have now conceded five goals in their last two outings, and kept just two clean sheets in their previous 10 matches between La Liga and the Champions League. There is no one more responsible for this poor record than Ramos.
After the loss against Tottenham, he urged everyone to “remain calm”, but Ramos needs to wake up fast.