Well, the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League group matchday 3 taught us absolutely nothing. No real surprises. Almost all chalk won.
There’s still plenty to discuss. On the latest High Press Soccer Podcast, Tyler Everett joins to cover:
- Is Chelsea legit? They sure looked it vs Ajax.
- Did Red Bull Salzburg blow there chance to advance?
- Did Jurgen Klopp stumble upon his dream attacking line-up for Liverpool?
- Why was El Clasico pushed to December?
- Are Tottenham back or will they get trounced by Liverpool this weekend?
We’ve called fun-to-watch teams “League Pass”-worthy* here at High Press Soccer plenty of times in recent weeks. But until now, we lacked an “official” ranking of Europe’s most intriguing clubs.
*-We’re borrowing stealing this concept from the annual rankings of NBA teams, based on entertainment value, that Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe used to do for Grantland. Lowe continues to do them for ESPN now. The short explanation is that these are the most must-see – but not necessarily the best or most well-rounded – teams in Europe.
What’s a soccer League Pass team?
There’s no specific formula for this. However, here are a few things any team reading this should emphasize if they aspire to join this illustrious group:
- young talent (Red Bull Salzburg and Ajax are prime examples)
- a fun style (think wide-open like Man City, as opposed to whatever Diego Simeone’s club is up to)
- big – but likeable (so not CR7) – personalities
- charismatic/expressive/goofy managers (fingers crossed a top European club calls Miguel Herrera or Diego Maradona soon)
- a propensity for off-field/locker-room drama (PSG and Real Madrid, anybody?)
- an ascendant quality, because teams on the way up are generally more interesting than those trying to remain elite.
HPS League Pass Teams for 2019-20 v1
Without further ado …
1. Red Bull Salzburg
Frequent readers of this site – and/or anyone who watched this team against either Genk or Liverpool – will not be surprised to see the Austrian club atop this list. They check all the “League Pass” boxes, or at least all the ones that help a team win. It starts with Erling Braut Haaland, but he’s just one of several talented pieces up top. Hwang Hee-Chan (23 years old), Takumi Minamino (24) and Patson Daka (21) also get theirs on a team with 47 goals through 11 games domestically. It’s also fun to watch an American manager with A) Jesse Marsch’s fire
“How many fouls have we committed? Maybe 2? It’s not a f–king friendly, it’s a Champions League match.”
Jesse Marsch’s halftime talk vs Liverpool has gone viral. Salzburg scored 2 goals right after this for 3-3, ended up losing 4-3. (Language warning.)pic.twitter.com/eE1NxiAzN2
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 4, 2019
(DEFINITELY not taking a subtle shot at Gregg Berhalter) and B) his apparent knack for getting the most from this players.
The only bad news on RBS is that after the loss to Napoli, they’re probably cooked in the UCL, so enjoy their last three group stage games – and fingers crossed they find a way to make it to the knockout rounds.
The purpose of this list is not to rattle off all the teams full of household names. Success, however, does not preclude a team from a high ranking here. Managers (especially not the game’s best) don’t get more fun to watch than Jurgen Klopp, whether you’re a fan of his teams or not.
In addition to his touchline antics, Klopp’s teams always play with a frenetic energy. That scheme + world-class players all over the pitch + the electric atmosphere at Anfield make it impossible to rank Liverpool lower than second or third.
How much time do you have? The darlings of last year’s Champions League appear to have an even bigger chip on their shoulder than they did a year ago. With many questioning what they could do after Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong left this summer, Ajax smoked its first two UCL opponents before Wednesday’s close loss to Chelsea. Hakim Ziyech would have a case to be No. 1 on a list of “League Pass” players, and he’s one of several guys on this roster who play absolutely beautiful soccer – Dusan Tadic is another human highlight reel. The chemistry on this squad isn’t bad either.
David Neres getting a slap in the face from Dusan Tadic in the Ajax goal celebrations 😂
— Photos of Football (@photosofootball) September 17, 2019
Few attacking trios can touch the ceiling that Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann can reach. These three are just now getting used to playing together, but if this group jells, it could recall – or surpass?? – the devastating work that Messi, Suarez and Neymar did before the Brazilian’s exit to PSG. Barcelona also boasts an excellent keeper in Marc-Andre ter Stegen and after flameouts the last two springs, the tension for this team’s knockout match-ups will make each game a hell of a spectacle.
Nobody’s playing better while relying more on teenagers than Frank Lampard’s squad. Winning at Ajax on Wednesday in the UCL was a massive feat. After that result, in addition to being just two points out of second place in easily the toughest league in the world, the Blues are currently tied atop Group H with Ajax.
They’ve also won four of five in the EPL and have scored more (19 goals through nine games) than anyone other than Liverpool and Manchester City. When’s the last time a top European team was getting it done while being so dependent on so many young players essentially breaking out at the same time??
6. Leicester City
The winners of the ’15-16 EPL have by no means fallen off the map since that Cinderella run. Claudio Ranieri might be long gone, but this remains a likeable, entertaining team – and one that also happens to be really good. At third place in the EPL and with a goal differential of +8, they’re not going anywhere. Even if this isn’t the first time they’ve pushed their far richer rivals, it’s still really entertaining. Go watch their narrow loss to Liverpool – or at least highlights of it — from October 5th and tell me you’re not in on James Maddison and Co.
7. Inter Milan
It starts with Antonio Conte, another of the rare managers who’s worth keeping an eye on as much as possible. They also have scoring talent both young (22-year-old Argentine Lautaro Martinez is on a tear) and not-so-young (Romelu Lukaku) who, it turns out, is actually only 26. That seems hard to believe. Anyway, Inter were probably going to get left off this list if they didn’t beat Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday to keep their Champions League knockout hopes alive. But with that win, they’re in the mix in Group F. The return, at some point, of a seemingly rejuvenated Alexis Sanchez will also give this team a lift.
8. Borussia Mönchengladbach
The first-place team in Germany is not Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund. Those two powers are currently third and fourth, respectively, behind second-place Wolfsburg. But let’s talk about the team with the easiest name to spell in Europe. They are not loaded with top names, but any underdog leading a top European league after eight games is worth checking out. And based on their goal differential of +8, they’re not going anywhere.
What the hell is going on with these guys? Only one team in Spain has a better differential than this club’s +7. With that in mind, you’d imagine they’d be no worse than about fifth in the standings, right? Instead, they’re currently in seventh place with just 14 points through nine games. They opened the season by drawing Granada 4-4. If that’s not a “League Pass”-type score, I don’t know what is. They also earned a draw vs. Real Madrid on September 1 and played Barcelona tough in a 2-1 loss. This is a team worth getting to know ASAP.
10. Real Sociedad
Staying in Spain (and forgoing well-known options like Manchester City, Napoli, etc.), Real Sociedad is in fourth place. Their place on this list is 90% about Martin Odegaard, who might be the best player in the league outside the big three clubs. OK, so he’s actually a Real Madrid loanee, but the 20-year-old is nevertheless making his current team one of Spain’s most intriguing. The long-hyped Norwegian’s numbers through nine La Liga games (two goals and two assists) do not do justice to the impact he’s having. There’s been a lot of buzz about Odegaard for a while, and he’s shown what all the fuss is about through the first two months of the ’19-20 season.
Note: This list will be updated as the season rolls along.
It may not be the answer that the fans who serenaded Red Bull Arena with “Armas Must Go” and “Fire Armas” chants earlier in the season wanted to hear, but it is the one delivered by Hamlett at Wednesday morning’s season ending press conference/media availability at the Red Bulls home.
It wasn’t a bad year, just an off year
It is easy to imagine those same hardliners reacting with something less than glee as well to Armas’s refusal to label the just concluded campaign as a “bad” season. Instead Armas noted that “half of the teams in the league don’t make the playoffs, they don’t make the cut, they’re not in it to win it. They have no chance, they’re not on the road scoring three goals. Those guys,” Armas contends, “have a bad year.”
“We didn’t have a bad year, we had an off year.”
It is a distinction not likely to thrill Red Bulls faithful, coming as it does just one season after the Red Bulls won the Supporters Shield under Armas.
The coach explained. “We didn’t achieve the goal,” Armas said before he citing several stats that “supported us sticking to who we are.” So why didn’t those favorable analytics lead to better results?
Armas conceded that, “maybe we just didn’t execute enough, all of us. Myself, the staff, the players. We put ourselves in games to win, had a lot of leads but we just didn’t execute enough.”
Perhaps it is just semantics but many a Red Bull fan will be scratching his or her head that Armas’s wouldn’t give in. “I would say it wasn’t a bad year,” the coach said. “Bad is harsh, we’re not happy with it, we’re not happy with mediocrity 14 and 14 (plus 6 ties).”
Conor Lade retiring and other changes
The day began with the surprise news that career long Red Bull Conor Lade was retiring. Both Hamlett and Armas opened their remarks by praising the 29 year-old defender, as did his teammates in subsequent remarks but perhaps Armas summed up the diminutive, hard working defender best of all when he said, “he set the example of what a Red Bulls player is.”
Every off-season in every sport brings change and the Red Bulls will surely be a different team next season. Team icon Bradley Wright-Phillips struggled through an injury plagued year this season and so the 34 year-old striker was asked – would he be back?
“I don’t know who it is that thinks I’m done,” BWP stated “but it isn’t me. I had an injury.”
Captain and goalkeeper Luis Robles played well despite surrendering four goals to Philadelphia in Sunday’s season ending defeat. However, the 35 year-old has been around long enough to know that nothing is guaranteed in professional sports.
“I understand that it could go either way,” Robles began when asked about his future with the Red Bulls. “I’m hoping that this organization sees that I still have a lot to contribute, not only as a player but as a person, and it’s my dream to finish out my days here as a player with the New York Red Bulls.”
The Red Bulls season was disrupted at least in part by rumors that some key players did not share Robles’ dream and were looking to greener pastures.
Midfielder Kaku was linked with Mexico’s Club America, and defenders Aaron Long and Kemar Lawrence also appeared to be headed for the door at various points in the year.
Is Aaron Long off to Europe?
U.S international Aaron Long described himself as “still grieving a little bit” when High Press Soccer inquired if the center-back was still thinking of a European move, adding that he had, “no real comment on that.”
So, will Long be back in Harrison next year? “Playing in the Premier League, of course, is a dream,” Long admitted, “and I think it is a dream for a lot of players. So, we will see.”
Jamaican international fullback Lawrence told High Press Soccer that exit rumors “shouldn’t be something that distracts us.” Echoing Long, Lawrence said, “it’s always a dream for any player to play in the best leagues in the world.”
The Reggae Boyz star had an interesting take on those rumors, saying “you always have to bring your best, so those rumors don’t only stay rumors, that they become reality. And the only way that it becomes reality is if you perform.”
“If you perform,” Lawrence notes sagely, “it wouldn’t be rumors, people would actually go out there and spend their money.”
Who: Liverpool vs Tottenham
When: Sunday, October 27th @ 12:30pm ET
Line: Liverpool -200 | Draw +350 | Tottenham +540
The positive UCL results came off of poor performances from both in the Premier League the previous weekend. Liverpool dropped points for the first time all season, drawing Manchester United 1-1. Tottenham dropped points for the 497th time of 2019, drawing last place Watford 1-1 at home.
Liverpool are getting an “A-game” performance from each team they face. Being champions of Europe will do that to you. Expect a feeling-good-about-themselves Tottenham side to come directly at the Reds.
Unlike their Champions League final in June, this should be an open, high-octane, counter-attacking affair.
Liverpool vs Tottenham match preview
Has there ever been a team that is unbeaten after 9 domestic games and assuredly going through their UCL group that has more doubters and lingering questions than Liverpool? The biggest issues:
- Their midfield lacks creativity.
- The attacking three look off.
- The defense is too casual.
Actually…all of those statements are true. Also true: Liverpool haven’t lost a Premier League game in almost a year and are 6 points clear of Manchester City.
Is the Genk line-up the template for future success?
Liverpool’s 4-1 win at Genk showcased all three of the above points but in different and mostly encouraging ways.
- Their midfield lacks creativity: The draw to Man U provided a template for how teams could shut down Liverpool. OGS neutralized Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. The midfield couldn’t create build-up that led to chances. Despite a hefty possession advantage, Liverpool only got 10 shots off. Before his injury, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided offensive punch to the midfield. And before he came to Liverpool, Naby Keita was a classic box-to-box do-it-all midfielder. Klopp inserted both into the line-up, and they helped drive Liverpool’s attack.
- The attacking three look off: When Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino are all clicking, Liverpool are unstoppable. They’re all capable of individual moments of brilliance that has saved some games this season, but rarely have all three been “on” at the same time. Against Genk, they started to gel more and more as the game went on. Maybe it was because Genk isn’t that good. Maybe it was because the were getting the ball in better spots thanks to their new midfield. Whatever it was, the second half was the first time in awhile when the three truly looked in sync.
- The defense is too casual: Ok, this is still a problem. Virgil van Dijk has had some concentration lapses this season that didn’t happen last year. Not sure what the fix is other than “stop being so lackadaisical and focus already.”
So what will Klopp do this match? Will he roll out Ox and Keita again, hoping what he saw wasn’t just a one-off inspired performance against an inferior opponent?
Ox is the first person since Lionel Messi last year to score two UCL goals from outside the box. He was also the fastest person on the pitch Wednesday. Did Klopp pull him after 72 minutes to save him for Sunday?
Keita had the most touches, passes, completed passes, and take-ons of the entire squad against Genk. Will Klopp let him build on that?
If he does, Liverpool could put 4 or 5 up at home against Spurs. However, given how front-footed that midfield is, the Reds could give up 2-3 as well.
Tottenham have quality not playing up to their potential
As for Tottenham, they’re a fairly WYSIWYG side. We know what we’re getting with them.
Harry Kane is no longer “2016-17 Harry Kane” but he’s still among the top 15 pure strikers in the world. Son continues his strong form from last year and looks like their best player again.
After those two, there’s a drop off in quality. Christian Eriksen doesn’t look focused. Harry Winks looks amazing one game and invisible the next. Dele Alli is talented but regressing. Tanguy Ndombele has pure class moments but hasn’t been consistent.
However, their two biggest issues are: 1) the backline isn’t good enough, and 2) the team at times appear to have quit on their manager, Mauricio Pochettino.
As for Poch, we’ve written extensively on that. The abridged summation is he’s an elite manager AND his team has tuned him out. That may be partly management’s fault, as too many players are at the end of their contract.
Whatever the reason, Spurs have too many concentration lapses. They’ve conceded 22 goals in 13 matches across all competitions this season. Teams like Liverpool are expert at converting on mistakes.
Another Spurs problem is they are not good defending attacks down the wings, especially since losing Kieran Trippier. TAA, Robbo, and Ox and Keita if they play will be marauders down the flanks for 90 minutes.
Regardless of what line-up Klopp rolls out, Spurs have won exactly ZERO road games this season. Not one. That’s not changing at Anfield on Sunday. Oddsmakers view this as a 3-to-4 goal game. Agree there. Expect a 3-1 Liverpool win.
The second half of 2019-20 UEFA Champions League matchday 3 games wrapped on Wednesday. It was a slightly more compelling slate of games than Tuesday. Like yesterday, we didn’t really learn much other than billion dollar casinos are built for a reason. Oddsmakers are usually right.
Ajax finally loses at home as Christian Pulisic shines again
One of the softest lines of matchday 3 (we thought) was Ajax only +125 at home to Chelsea’s +210.
Chelsea now move atop the group and are in good position to come out first.
Red Bull Salzburg blow it and Napoli is legit
The other line we thought was soft was Red Bull Salzburg as a home underdog (+175) to Napoli (+143).
Red Bull fought hard but Napoli was better, winning 3-2 and almost assuredly securing a top 2 group finish with Liverpool. Lorenzo Insigne’s celebration to give Napoli the lead just one minute after the game was leveled is classic.
Insigne's celebration was a little too much for Ancelotti 😅 pic.twitter.com/v5Ybj5dpH4
— Bleacher Report Live (@brlive) October 23, 2019
ERLING BRAUT HAALAND managed to tally another two goals though giving him 6 for the tournament. He’s 19 by the way.
Liverpool finally get their offense working against Genk
Liverpool haven’t been fluid offensively of late. Against a spirited Genk side though, Liverpool finally started connecting passes and finishing clinically. The squad continued to improve as the match went on as well.
Most encouraging for Liverpool is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had the “he’s back!” game we’ve been waiting on. He was utter class in all facets of the game.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain owned the day with two masterful goals from outside the box 💥
— Bleacher Report Live (@brlive) October 24, 2019
And Naby Keita was…wait for it…good!
Liverpool are still a point behind Napoli in the group, but with an upcoming home match against Genk, they should secure safe passage to the knockout rounds soon.
Inter keep pace
Inter Milan desperately needed to get on the board with a win. At home, they had a convincing 2-0 showing vs Borussia Dortmund.
It took three games, but the win puts them over BVB in the group (but behind Barcelona).
Barcelona survive Slavia Prague
The key to comfortably getting through UCL groups is beating the cannon fodder teams on the road. Do that once, hold serve at home, and you’re going to be ok.
It wasn’t pretty, but Lionel Messi scored early and Barca got a timely OG to get past Slavia Prague 2-1.
Messi already ⏰
— Bleacher Report Live (@brlive) October 23, 2019
Lille earned a draw that dings Valencia’s chances for advancing
Lille was thoroughly the better squad vs Valencia today. They out-possessed the Spanish side and massively out-shout them (27 / 6 to 6 /3). However at the 95th minute, Valencia was up 1-0.
Then this happened:
Gotta love 95th minute equalizers 🚀 pic.twitter.com/cBW0IbdHR0
— Bleacher Report Live (@brlive) October 23, 2019
While Lille have no chance advancing from the group, they almost certainly gave Valencia a mortal wound. Chelsea & Ajax are in the driver’s seat.
Group G may go down to the final matchday for all 4 teams
Before group play started, we said that G was the oddly most compelling and even bracket. It’s turning out that way. RB Leipzig (6 points) beat Zenit St. Petersburg (4 points) 2-1 to move atop the group. But Benfica (3 points) finally showed up, winning 2-1 at home vs Lyon (4 points).
Group G is the only one where all four teams have at least three points.
In what may have been Dome Torrent’s final game in charge of New York City FC, Toronto FC stunned NYCFC on a last minute penalty converted by Alejandro Pozuelo, advancing to the MLS Eastern Conference final on a 2-1 win.
It was a moment of foolishness from New York City fullback Ronald Matarrita gifted Toronto FC a penalty kick in the 89th minute when the fullback needlessly chopped down Richie Laryea. Moments later Alejandro Pozuelo fooled Sean Johnson with a softly chipped panenka and New York was all but done for.
Oh, NYCFC kept working, pushing for a late equalizer in the remaining minute of normal time plus five in added time and the home team nearly got that moment of magic only to see TFC keeper Questin Westberg pull off the fingertip save on a perfectly placed header from Vincent Castellanos.
Afterward, New York keeper Sean Johnson offered no excuses. “Simply,” Johnson began, “We just weren’t good enough today.” Johnson rued his team’s poor first half, noting, “we were lucky to escape 0-0 at halftime.”
It was a game rife with side stories, would CitiField be a true home field advantage for New York City FC? Was NYC’s long layoff better preparation than Toronto’s overtime win over DC United?
Given the opportunity, Johnson wasn’t prepared to use New York’s layoff as an excuse for their poor start versus Toronto. “To be honest,” Johnson said, “I don’t think we can make any excuse. The amount of time we had, not playing any meaningful games in that time period, you can write the narrative any way you want,” “but,” said New York’s number one, “at the end of the day, you have to take responsibility.”
In the early returns, neither question was answered in the affirmative for the New Yorkers, who had goalkeeper Johnson to thank for the 0-0 halftime score after being dominated for 45 minutes by the visitors.
Johnson was called upon to bail out his porous defense on several occasions in the first half and came up big, unfortunately, Johnson could do nothing to prevent Alejandro Pozuelo from opening the scoring in the 48th minute after an ill-conceived and poorly executed back header from Maxine Chanot.
It was an awful way for New York to start off the second half and it put NYCFC’s hopes of a deep playoff run in jeopardy. The home team responded well to that adversity by picking up their intensity, it seemed as if NY suddenly realized what was at stake.
Johnson concurred with that notion saying, “it really took us going down a goal to have some type of energy injected into our team, and it should never be that way.”
Just shy of the hour mark New York nearly got on the board from a delightful looking curler from Castellanos that went barely wide of the Toronto goal. Moments later a loose ball fell to Maxi Moralez but the Argentine’s shot was right at Westberg.
Coach Dome Torrent finally sprung striker Heber from the bench with 30 minutes to play. New York’s goal scoring leader has been recovering from an injury and Torrent had indicated that the Brazilian would likely be used in a sub’s role.
New York finally made the breakthrough in the 69th minute when Ismael Tojouri-Shradi alertly powered home a Maxi Moralez cross that was a touch too high for intended target Castellanos, bringing the already loud CitiField crowd loudly to life.
Then with time running out and extra time looking likely, Matarrita’s rash tackle silenced the crowd, ending New York’s Queens adventure and their season with it.
As for Torrent’s return, the genial Spaniard answered “I don’t know” when asked if he would return next season. “I have to go to Manchester,” Torrent explained, “because for me it is normal after the season to talk about what happened.”
Torrent then added somewhat cryptically, that “many things happened, many, many things. maybe you don’t know but I know.” Torrent said he would have to talk the owners of City Group and I don’t know what will happen.”
Torrent went on to tell the assembled media, “don’t worry, (because) if Dome is not here. the most important thing is the club.” Torrent went on to praise his team, saying NYCFC had “amazing players.” “The most important thing is not the coach,” Pep Guardiola’s longtime assistant noted, “it’s the players.”
So, on a day when the New York Red Bulls confirmed that its coach, Chris Armas, will be back, NYCFC supremo Dome Torrent has put his status for 2020 in doubt.