Pitchside

5 things we learned from this week’s Champions League

Pitchside

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A fascinating week of Champions League action saw mirror-image results: draws on Tuesday, home wins on Wednesday. Even the goals were scored at similar times. Here is what else caught our eye across Europe this week …

A bad week for Jose and Pep

So the two best coaches in the world, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, didn't have things all their own way for once. Guardiola came up against a Manchester United game-plan that saw David Moyes in his element: up against stronger opposition and not expected to win. Unfortunately in his role as United coach, that happens all too infrequently (you would say only against Bayern, Barcelona or Real Madrid) but credit where it’s due, he got it right.

And yet a 1-1 draw away from home in Europe is still an excellent result for the away team; Guardiola is a victim of his own success that it is seen as a disappointment. Even without the suspended Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez, Bayern should still progress, but in Munich, Moyes will have the odds stacked against him again. And that's when he often does best.

At half-time in Paris, meanwhile, the French press were sharpening their stylos to criticise Laurent Blanc, whose PSG side scored in the third minute and then sat back. This overly defensive mindset was reminiscent of Blanc’s previous biggest game in charge, the Euro 2012 quarter-final against Spain, when he talked beforehand about taking on Spain at their own game, but then bottled it in his selection, picking two right-backs to stem Spain’s flow, and lost 2-0.

But in the second half, PSG came out firing and Blanc’s decisiveness was apparent in his substitutions: Lucas Moura for Ibrahimovic, Yohan Cabaye for Marco Verratti and Javier Pastore for Ezequiel Lavezzi. Yes, it was €100m (£83m) worth of talent coming off the bench (as Mourinho will no doubt remind Roman Abramovich) but PSG went for it and Pastore, signed for €40m at the start of the QSI era, once again showed his talent for the big stage.

“With him it’s all or nothing and unfortunately for PSG fans, it’s normally nothing,” wrote France Football after the game. Pastore was surprised to get the nod to come on, but he had scored at this stage of the competition last year against Barcelona and he bagged another in PSG’s recent draw with second-placed Monaco.

With minutes left to play, even he could not have guessed what would happen next when gaining possession after a throw-in near the corner flag: wriggling past three markers, cutting inside Cesar Azpilicueta and firing a shot past Petr Cech’s near post.

“What always pleased me was his ability to take risks and put himself in danger,” said his first coach at Huracan, Angel Cappa. “That’s his great quality. Javier is not afraid to make mistakes, his superb technique allows him to suppress that fear.”

Blanc, too, seized his moment.

Courtois set to reveal his future

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Remember the fuss about Eden Hazard announcing on social media where he was going to play when he left Lille? He waited until after the 2012 Champions League final, which Chelsea won and by so doing, confirmed their place in next season’s competition. That, it is believed, swung the decision away from Tottenham Hotspur, and who knows where Hazard might be had he moved to N17 (probably on the bench)? Anyway, Hazard’s Belgium team-mate Thibaut Courtois is ready to reveal his future after spending the last three seasons on loan from Chelsea at Atletico Madrid.

In recent weeks, he has been linked to Real Madrid and Barcelona but he confirmed that the only two options for him to choose between were staying at Atletico or going back to Chelsea. “Next week I will communicate my future,” he told Belgian TV after the game. That in itself is strange timing, coming as it does in the midst of this dramatic title race.

Would Courtois really tell his team-mates that he’s off to Chelsea next season at such a delicate point in the campaign? Surely not, which is why the goalkeeper, once again outstanding against Barcelona, keeping out efforts from Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, looks likely to get a pay hike from Chelsea and an extended loan deal at Atletico. That way everyone is happy. “Courtois is so young, with such a big future,” said Simeone. “He has improved so much in his two years with us. And he can keep improving.”

The irony is that Courtois’ expected commitment to Atletico comes on the back of one of Cech’s most disappointing weeks for Chelsea; after conceding a poor goal at Crystal Palace at the weekend, Cech was not at his best against PSG, with one goal coming from a free-kick he could have managed better, and the third goal beating him at his near post. This week’s performances showed that on current form, Courtois is the better keeper. Chelsea won’t be making an error if they stick with Cech in goal; but they might be if they don't bring in anyone else to seriously challenge his number one spot.

Are the stars aligned for Atletico?

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Forty years after reaching their last European Cup final, La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid will fancy their chances in the second leg against a Barcelona side without Victor Valdes and Gerard Pique in the back-line. No one can doubt the positive influence of coach Diego Simeone, who has turned the Colchoneros into serious contenders domestically and in Europe. As midfielder Tiago said after the game: “Simeone is everything in this team: we follow him all the way.”

But there might be a potential crack in the smart Simeone veneer. It comes on the back of an interview Simeone gave to So Foot magazine, where he confirmed that he checked players’ horoscopes before signing them. “I do it because according to the signs, some characteristics will be similar to what we already have in the group,” he said. “You must remember that the sole purpose is to bring out the best of each individual: I love the brave ones.”

Now, perhaps for the first time, a comparison can be made between Simeone and Raymond Domenech, the former France coach who, despite taking Les Bleus to the 2006 World Cup final, is still seen as something of a laughing-stock. Domenech also admitted that astrology played a role in his selections (some cynics might say it was the major role) and once infamously said: “When I have got a Leo in defence, I've always got my gun ready, as I know he's going to want to show off at one moment or another and cost us.”

Simeone’s outstanding achievements with Atletico rightly protect him from any criticism of his work, but the similar outlooks are a reminder of how perception, and control, matters. When Simone, a leader to his core, says it, he’s smart and thinking of everything (just as most Mourinho comments are passed off as mind-games); when Domenech says it, he’s floundering and clueless.

The worry for Atletico has to be what happens to the club if and when Simeone leaves; his current deal runs until 2017 and he added ominously: “I always leave before I’m fired and I’m conscious every day that I could be fired tomorrow.”

Dortmund could benefit from Barcelona ban

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Barcelona’s two-window transfer ban, announced by FIFA on Wednesday, will have a huge effect on the summer transfer market – if it is upheld after a likely appeal – and not least in the Bundesliga, where Borussia Moenchengladbach goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen is reported to have signed a pre-contract agreement with the club. Ter Stegen will probably still leave the club (they have already done a deal with FC Basel’s Jorgen Sommer to replace him) but it means other possible targets might just stay put.

For Borussia Dortmund, that could mean Ilkay Gundogan and Mats Hummels remaining at the club for another season. And judging by an interview Hummels gave this week to Spox, he would not be too upset. “To me it’s very important that I’m enjoying myself professionally and can express my personal [playing] style within a team. If a club wants me and their way of playing does not appeal to me, then it would be a clear reason not to join them,” he said.

Hummels has been at Dortmund for six years and he added: “There are plenty of reasons to stay for a long time at a club. In the end, it always goes back to the question: What is most important for me as a player? Some players want to make money, others want to win a certain number of trophies. For some, like me, I want to play for a team that I can identify with from a sporting and a human point of view.”

Dortmund coach Juergen Klopp has not lined up with his first-choice back four all season – in fact he has fielded 15 different defensive line-ups – and it might be that next season, he might be able to reprise the 2013 vintage. Hummels embodies the Dortmund way but one wonders if his ‘human values’ will make him think twice if Barcelona came in for him next year.

The quiet, but more effective, reunion

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not the only former Inter Milan player that Mourinho came up against at the Parc des Princes. And while Ibra dominated the build-up but was ultimately disappointing before hobbling off with a hamstring strain, Thiago Motta was, in his quiet way, far more influential in controlling the midfield for the home side.

Motta’s career path has been a strange one: he is a former graduate of Barcelona’s La Masia academy, and grew up idolsing Philip Cocu in midfield. But, just as for Ibrahimovic, it did not work out for him at Barcelona and he had a horrendous, injury-interrupted six months at Atletico before begging Enrico Preziosi to sign him for Genoa. Preziosi did not regret it.

One year later, he was part of a €40m joint deal with Diego Milito to join Inter. The two players were vital elements in Mourinho’s Champions League-winning side in 2010. “He is one of the best players in Europe – he is a modern prototype, versatile, sets the pace of the game and has experience,” said the Italian FA’s vice-president Demetrio Albertini, twice a Champions League winner.

And while Marco Verratti continued his risk-taking style in midfield, often giving the ball away, it was Motta who calmly mopped up, as Chelsea created few chances on the counter. “Motta doesn't get the credit he deserves," goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu said last week. "He makes a true difference. He makes the guys next to him even better.” Next week at Stamford Bridge, his experience will be even more important.

Ben Lyttleton - @benlyt

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