Tuesday, March 9, 2021
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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Champions League Review: Running the rule over Africa’s stars in the Group Stage

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Goal looks at some of the notable African performances from the Group Stage of the UCL, for better or worse

The Group Stage of the Uefa Champions League is often considered something of a formality.

It will throw up the odd shock from time to time, but for the most part it simply serves the purpose of whittling away the “smaller” sides. Give them enough to foster a vague sense of inclusion, but not enough to truly matter.

Of the 16 sides to advance to the 2020/21 knockout round, 15 are drawn from Europe’s top five leagues.

A straight knockout format all the way through will, of course, never happen again. Cash rules everything, and the level of unpredictability that would foster is the very enemy of a reliable cashflow.

The most we can do, then, is celebrate what is offered. The Group Stage saw some notable African involvements, both good and bad. So Goal runs the rule over the good, the bad, and the ugly from the continent’s stars in the Champions League.

Rennes would ultimately see their inexperience count against them, as they finished bottom of Group E with one draw and five defeats. Julian Stephan’s side were far from embarrassed, however, and a lot of that owed to the excellence of Senegal international Alfred Gomis in goal.

The departure of Edouard Mendy to Chelsea may have seemed like a hammer blow, but Rennes’ remedy for a potentially crippling situation was almost amusingly straightforward: recruit his international compatriot. Gomis’ performances since have been an ode to the genius of simplicity, and the trip to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan was perhaps the pick of the lot.

Sevilla fired off 23 shots at the French side’s goal (16 from inside the penalty area), hit the target with 10 of them, and troubled the woodwork twice. Overall, the hosts fashioned four big chances, but they found Gomis in inspired form, withstanding and repelling everything thrown at him.

The highlight: a superb fingertip save that diverted a stinging Munir El Haddadi volley onto the crossbar.

Honourable mentions: Amadou Haidara vs Manchester United (H); Sadio Mane vs Atalanta (A); Chancel Mbemba vs Olympiacos (H)

The exception to the procession of top five league clubs into the Champions League Round of 16 was Porto, who racked up 13 points to finish second in Group C.

Their progress, however, owed a great deal to a defensive solidity that kept opponents to three goals over the course of six games. At the heart of this resistance was DR Congo international Chancel Mbemba.

The 26-year-old was a dominant presence at the back, helping the Portuguese champions to five straight clean sheets during the Group Stage. He was an ever-present too, a factor that gives him an edge over other prospective candidates for ‘Star Player’.

The highlight, without a doubt, came when Manchester City rocked up at Estadio do Dragao. What followed was a stirring rearguard action: despite 68 percent possession and a total of 18 shots, Pep Guardiola’s side could not find a way through, and Mbemba was at his impassable best, winning seven duels from seven and racking up 13 clearances.

Honourable mentions: Edouard Mendy, Zaidu Sanusi, Sadio Mane, Ze Luis

There is some sympathy here for the 22-year-old, given the inscrutability of Antonio Conte’s decision-making on Champions League nights.

The former Juventus and Chelsea boss continues to divine new ways to fall short on the big stage; this time, it was a bottom-place finish in Group B, behind both Shakhtar Donestsk (a side they soundly trounced in the semi-final of last season’s Europa League) and Borussia Monchengladbach.

That said, it is still true that Inter paid a sizeable fee to bring Hakimi to San Siro, and he was expected to seamlessly integrate into a system geared toward bringing the best out of wing-backs. However, over the course of five appearances, the Morocco international only managed one assist, and by the end of the Group Stage, he finds his place in the starting lineup under threat from Matteo Darmian.

In back-to-back meetings with Real Madrid in November, Hakimi did little to indicate his hometown club had erred in letting him go. There is no doubting his potential, and the incompetence at Inter is pervasive, but his own individual performances fell well short of the billing.

One assist and zero goals might not exactly leap off the page, but Koita is a special player whose performances during the Group Stage are worthy of mention.

Even as Red Bull Salzburg finished third in Group A, the Guinea youngster thrived with mature, intelligent performances as part of a front two.

Koita is, simply put, a chance creation machine. His low centre of gravity and flair allow him to thrive in small spaces, and he produced strong showings against Lokomotiv Moscow and Bayern Munich.

He is a breath of fresh air: in a bid to meet European demand, African football has pretty much stopped exporting players in his mould. Watching him pirouette past challenges has been a highlight, and there is room for more still.

The classic case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, perhaps.

Last season, Choupo-Moting was a part of the Paris Saint-Germain side that contested the final with Bayern Munich.

This season, he is turning out for the Bavarian side, taking some of the load off Robert Lewandowski. The reigning champions are likely to go all the way once again, even allowing for the loss of the influential Thiago Alcantara.

There is just so much quality there, and they have brought their best to the Champions League once more, only dropping points to Atletico Madrid – and that after qualification had already been secured.

Choupo-Moting pitched in too, scoring in the routine 2-0 win over Lokomotiv Moscow on Wednesday night. With Bayern Munich going strong, it could be second time lucky for the Cameroon forward.

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