Arsenal are simply too flawed
It was obvious that Arsenal were in trouble before the match started. It was obvious not because David Ospina was picked for the game, but let’s discuss that for a moment. Petr Cech is supposedly good enough for the vast majority of the games all season, except for the games in the most prestigious competition in the world. Right. Having been an adequate goalkeeper all year, Cech was dropped in favour of Ospina. This is a goalkeeper who is unable to catch the ball, which – given he is a goalkeeper – is a problem.
This might not have led to a specific disaster, but it sets the tone, and hints why Arsenal were obviously in trouble. This is a side that were, by their boss’s own admission, not mentally ready for a home match against Watford. Having drawn level with Bayern through a generous penalty award, they then threw away that gift by collapsing to a 5-1 defeat, a defensive shambles, in the second half. Everyone knew this was coming, because the manager plainly doesn’t take this competition seriously, because otherwise he’d pick his best ‘keeper, and because the players can’t even take Watford seriously.
Real Madrid again look like favourites
Zinedine Zidane was, after Rafael Benitez, the least convincing manager to win the Champions League. When he did it with Real Madrid last year, it was almost regarded as a fluke. Here was one of the greatest players of all time, but nevertheless an unproven manager. He took over a shambles of a side and let them play. It didn’t win them the league, but it won them the tournament that Real Madrid’s bosses prefer anyway.
They have demonstrated a talent for excellence in the league this season, too. This is one of the most Real Madrid sides that has been around for a while. They don’t loath Benitez anymore. They’re not at the throats of Jose Mourinho anymore. They’re not managed by the benign but staid Carlo Ancelotti, either. They just seem confident in the knowledge that they are some of the best players in the world, and there is no need to let anything slip. Going down 1-0 to Napoli would have rattled Real under previous managers (though they might have still won). This Real, Zidane’s Real, just calmly and efficiently picked off the opponents. A beautiful volley from Casemiro, and a simply, deftly executed move for Toni Kroos showed themselves and everyone watching – this is a team capable of winning it twice in a row.
Di Maria shows the value of motivation
You can argue it both ways and, probably, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. You look at Louis van Gaal and how he upset a series of players at Manchester United and the tedious football he produced, and you can understand why Angel Di Maria failed to produce his best form for Manchester United. When you’re not engaged at work, you don’t perform. It’s not simply a matter of money, no matter how rich or dead inside you are. But then, if you are going to get a fortune every week for a job you profess to love, you should at least perform close to the average of your ability.
At Real Madrid, Di Maria proved that he could be a superb player. Devastating in attack, full of hard work and exceptional technique. Get him pointing in the right direction and working hard, and that would improve your entire left side. In his first season at Paris Saint-Germain, Di Maria took a while to get to work, perhaps realising that Paris isn’t much warmer than London, and Laurent Blanc was no charismatic force. For all the problems that PSG have since endured under Unai Emery, against Barcelona, Di Maria was back to his best, leading a side that is slowly improving but still misfiring. Di Maria deserves criticism when moodiness overtakes his contributions, but in turn he should be praised when he is at his best.
Lionel Messi was the symbol of Barcelona’s misfiring approach
To be fair to Luis Enrique, he did win the Champions League and get Lionel Messi smiling again. An increasingly sullen player, with notably few pleasant anecdotes about him, Messi is a sympathetic character only if you love Barcelona. There is something oddly cold about his thrilling genius. In contrast, Cristiano Ronaldo seems like a pretty decent bloke, even if his approach to the game is devoted to statistical legacy.
Against PSG, Messi once again recalled a time that he could be accurately compared to Wayne Rooney. Sadly, it was because this was a performance of mistakes. Of nothing going right and no indication that it would ever come right again. Misplaced passes and sloth in thought. This is not a swaggering Barcelona side – it is a vulnerable one. The problems do not end with Messi, but when the best player in the world is struggling, it suggests that there are serious problems at the club. As Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique, two other veterans, fail to carry the side, it appears that this could be the last season for this iteration of Barcelona, and also for Enrique.
Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang struggling for Dortmund as he did for Gabon
Aubameyang has been regarded as if it is destiny to have a free choice of his next club. He wants to play for Real Madrid, but there isn’t a club who would turn down the chance to sign him. At the African Cup of Nations this winter, Aubameyang had the weight of expectations that he could lead the host side close to the final, if not winning the whole thing. He struggled, and he again struggled against Benfica. Benfica are an excellent defensive side when at home, and this is only one game, but Dortmund will be hoping that he has not been thrown off by international struggles.