Thibaut Courtois and Marcelo highlight a slew of uncertain of Champions League Round of 16 ties.
Draw at the Donbass
Bayern Munich and Shakhtar Donetsk played to a scoreless draw on Tuesday in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie. The well-poised tie now heads to Munich on March 11th for the final leg.
Bayern are clicking into gear right now. The scoreline, or lack thereof, against Shakhtar is more than misleading. After giving Hamburg their worst ever Bundesliga defeat at the weekend by eight goals to nil, the German champs seemed to finally be wiggling, or rather rocketing, their way out of their post-holiday slump coming into Tuesday’s encounter. While ultimately fruitless in the way of goals, this match signalled an optimistic progression for Pep Guardiola’s side. The possession smothering was there, as it typically is. But the simple endeavor and quick build-up — things we saw in the Hamburg mauling — was there too, even if the clinic finishing wasn’t.
And it’s not as if there weren’t opportunities. In the 2nd minute of the match, Arjen Robben easily made an in-cutting run on his left foot — surprise — and chipped the defense to find a wide-open Bastian Schweinsteiger, who mistakenly chose to side-volley the lob rather than take a touch; the German would’ve been one-on-one with the keeper had he shown some aplomb. Less than ten minutes later, Thomas Muller — who left his shooting boots at the Allianz — had a creeping tap cleared off the line by Shakhtar defender Oleksandr Kucher. Muller then fired an inviting Schweinsteiger squared pass over the bar from 10 yards out in clumsy fashion in the 31st minute. Last weekend, these chances would’ve been buried with style and confidence, but neither could be found for the Bavarians in Donetsk.
The effort wasn’t missing, however. Even after Xabi Alonso’s 65th minute sending-off, the engine continued pumping in search of an opening that could lead to an advantage heading home to Germany for the second led. But it just didn’t come. All things considered, Bayern should’ve put something, anything, on the board against the Ukrainian Samba boys, and they’ll be disappointed to have not. But, deceptively or not, they’re hitting a stride. And if we’ve come to learn anything from Guardiola teams over the years, it’s that strides can very quickly turn into leaps.
‘Special’ Courtois saves Blues
Paris St. Germain and Chelsea played to a 1-1 first-leg draw on Tuesday in Paris. A first-half goal from the ever-so-clutch Branislav Ivanovic was cancelled out by a 54th minute Edinson Cavani header.
Thibaut Courtois supplied a Man of the Match performance as the Belgian’s snap-reflexed stops saved the Blues on multiple occasions. When asked if his goalkeeper was the difference in the match, Jose Mourinho put it simply: “Yes. Phenomenal.”
For all of Mourinho’s faults — and he has a few — he’s made unique lore out of riding for his players. Yes, he’ll throw shade at anyone, probably even his own grandmother, but when he feels a colleague deserves credit he’ll usually shower them with it. As was the case post-match on Tuesday, when he defended his sides’ fatigue: “Since the Everton game, Hazard, Willian, Oscar, Fabregas, and Ivanovic didn’t train.”
“We felt that a little in the second half, when Paris were closer to winning the game than Chelsea.”
Nevermind that Mourinho so often chooses fortunate 1-1 draws and such as the perfect opportunity to revere his players. Also disregard the truth or falseness of his statement, because, at the end of the day, it was said to drive home a specific point. Hell, you can even forget about the point it was meant to drive home. All that matters in his statement is that Jose went to bat for his boys in a moment where he didn’t really need to. Leaving the Parc des Princes with an away goal advantage against a team as talented as PSG is feather-cap-worthy at any time, let alone the first-leg of the CL knockout rounds. But this is why the Special One is truly special. He puts investments into his players through a variety of means; on this occasion, through unforeseen public praise. It earns results, too. Maybe not always on the day, but usually by the next one.
Marcelo makes his case
Real Madrid opened up a 2-0 first-leg lead on Schalke on Wednesday at the Veltins Arena. Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring in the 26th minute with his 58th CL goal in as many games. Marcelo then sealed the away victory with a sumptuous right-footed blast in the 79th.
Marcelo has steadily and stealthly been one of the best fullbacks in the world (inasmuch as Real Madrid’s first-choice left-back can ever be described as “stealthly” with a straight face). Perhaps a more fitting way to describe his function for Real is “more impactful than you may think.” In the same way that Dani Alves has long been for Barcelona, or Maicon was for Inter in the late Noughties, or, more appropriately, Roberto Carlos was for Real in the early Noughties, Marcelo’s constant presence on the left flank of defense for Los Merengues has transformed a good attacking team into a lethal juggernaut. Defensively, he’s fine; but for clubs like Real, the offensive output is where the real money and attention is paid, and that’s where Marcelo spreads his wings.
His goal on Wednesday was a conventional — in Marcelo’s world — run with an extraordinary finish. A wonderstrike like that isn’t normal, but like with his elder countryman’s legendary swerve free-kick, it’s something that should be labeled as part of his general arsenal at this point.
The Brazilian has notched over 200 appearances for Real Madrid since he first moved over from Fluminense as an 18-year-old. Still only 26 and entering his prime, it’s about time that we all start regarding Marcelo as a rare and elite talent. Maybe even the best left-back in the world. And maybe even, one day, as good as Roberto Carlos. (Said as I crouch behind my desk in fear of incoming tomatoes.)