The UEFA Champions League and its younger brother the Europa League will be progressing from the group stage to the Rounds of 16 & 32. Teams have battled for their places in these final rounds and they got there because of some fantastic individual performances within the collective. We analyze some of the top performances from the week of European football. This list does not take into consideration their weekend performance. We sift through the European games to praise performances that stood out.
Real Madrid needed a win to secure qualification and top spot in their group. Zinedine Zidane and his team have been here before – back against the wall, they produced a dominant performance to seal qualification and their 35-year-old maestro was at the heart of it. Modric was crucial in all phases of the game for the royal whites.
In the first phase, he would drop deep to help build play out from the back. This deep movement drags a player from midfield and it opens passing lanes for teammates. His ball-carrying also helped Madrid to escape the pressure of Borussia Monchengladbach on different occasions. Modric’s guile, poise, and energy were necessary for control against the German side. His short and long passing was essential to the quick movement of the ball out to the flanks where Los Blancos peppered Die Fohlen with crosses. He also fired a fantastic shot which Yann Sommer saved.
After his Ballon d’Or win in 2018, he was criticized for his performances and an underwhelming 2018/2019 season. However, with some changes to his workout and diet routine, the 4-time European champion is maintaining his fitness levels and delivering the impressive box-to-box performances that we know him for. It was a performance that earned him the praise of fans, his coach, and even the opposition coach Marco Rose.
Patience. Sabali. Sometimes we forget to allow youngsters to develop before we begin to place massive expectations on them. The youngster was well-known by scouts from his time at Genk and he was followed by clubs like Chelsea & Barcelona before he moved to Bayer Leverkusen. He started strong as he scored 9 goals and recorded 6 assists while creating 9 big chances across 30 Bundesliga games. The numbers began to decline, his play that was once direct and effective became chaotic and silly. Across the next two league seasons, he scored 10 goals and recorded 4 assists. This is normal if you are not Kylian Mbappe, Ronaldo De Lima, or Lionel Messi. Injuries played their part too.
This season, Bailey’s development is back on track. He already has 2 goals and 3 assists in the league and his performances are better than anything he has shown in the last two seasons. In the Europa League, he scored a brace to secure top spot in the group ahead of their opponents Slavia Prague. The 2 goals take his tally in the competition to 5 goals and 2 assists this season. He was a constant threat to the Czech side from the left and when he pops up on his favored right-side you have to be watchful. His searing pace and dribbling cause problems for the opposition and his eye for goals means you have to watch him a lot off the ball.
From his position on the left side, he steered Karim Bellarabi’s cross home for the opener while scoring the second from a run through the center. If Bailey can keep this form and reach double digits for this season, then a move to a bigger club could be on the cards for him in the summer. He is also a good set-piece taker, ask Bayern Munich. Bailey delivers great corner kicks too which means he ranks high for key passes.
A move to Manchester City was doing the rounds last summer but with the signing of Ferran Torres, that may not be possible. A big move will still come, his tendency to deliver big performances in big games will come in handy when the scouts zoom in. Whoever gets him will be getting a dynamic, creator, goalscorer, and an electric dribbler. We are wary of his step-father, agent, and guardian in negotiations though, he is a bit of a dickhead.
Jens Petter Hauge
Paolo Maldini and Ac Milan’s new approach to the transfer market is interesting. They are now focused on buying young talents and developing them rather than pumping millions into restoring the reputation of the 7-time European champions. Rafael Leao, Ismael Bennacer, Theo Hernandez, Alexis Saelemaekers, and now Jens Petter Hauge are some of the gems that they have picked up. This young team is currently top of the Serie A table and secured the top spot on the last day as Celtic beat former group leaders Lille to allow Milan to leapfrog into 1st. Milan beat Sparta Prague by a single goal from the 21-year-old Norwegian.
If you have not watched Glimt this season then you do not know what you are missing. The current champions of Norwegian football are a delight under Kjetil Knutsen. In 29 league games, they have scored 100 goals and in 3 Europa League qualifiers, they scored 11 times. It was in one of those displays that Jens Petter Hauge put the eyes of the world on him. The match was against Milan and he put on a fine display. It was so good that within a week Milan signed him (they were monitoring him since last year though). JPH already scored 14 goals and provided 9 assists while creating 7 big chances in the Eliteserien in 2020.
He is still adjusting to Italian football but he is asserting himself. Against Sampdoria, his introduction led to Milan’s 2nd goal in the 2-1 win. He played the pass to release Ante Rebic who crossed for Samu Castillejo’s goal. Leao is ahead of him and will take back his place now that he is fit. But he will get the game time. In Europe, Hauge is already showing that 5 million Euros spent on him is a bargain. In 4 Europa League appearances, he has scored 3 goals and provided 1 assist.
The 6ft winger is terrific in 1v1 situations as his coach Stefano Pioli mentions. His actions can come very fast for a boy of his size leaving his opponents flat-footed. It is easy to forget that the youngster was playing and delivering on the right 2 years ago with the way he performs on the left. In the 23rd minute, he picked up the ball from Diogo Dalot, he entered into the box with some fantastic footwork and curled a finish beyond Milan Heca in goal. That is his favorite way to score. He was Milan’s best player on the night in a rotated side and he will be looking to eat up as many minutes as possible. A top performance.
Since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema has become the primary goalscorer for Madrid and he is carrying them with those goals. In the 2018/2019 season, he scored 30 goals and recorded 9 assists in all competitions. Last season he scored 27 and assisted 11 as Madrid won the La Liga title. The closest attacker to Benzema on the scoring chart was Rodrygo with his 7 goals and 3 assists. At 32, the Frenchman is aging like fine wine, delivering his best in the latter stages. He scored the 2 goals in the 2-0 win and showed his world-class level. The cream truly rose to the top as Benzema joined Messi and Ronaldo as the only players to score more than 50 goals in the UCL group stages. 57 goals and 24 assists in 106 UCL games for Lyon and Real Madrid.
As usual, his link-up play was fantastic to watch. Whether dropping into midfield or drifting to the left to overload or open central spaces, Benzema exuded class. Benzema is decisive for this side and with their backs against the wall, they delivered a mature, dominant game led by their star forward. His touches were delicate, his dribbling immaculate, leading the 2 youngsters on either side of him and giving them space to penetrate and shoot. A fine performance capped with two top-notch headers. In general, the Real Madrid performance was great but Benzema was again the decisive factor. One of the golden strikers of his generation, we hope for more years of these performances.
A hat-trick, a mesmerizing display of close control, skill, balance, and technique, Neymar put on a show as PSG put Istanbul Basaksehir aside in a 5-1 route. The Match restarted in the 14th minute after a crazy incident led to the postponement of the game and Neymar took the bull by the horn. His hat-trick takes him to 6 goals in the competition this season, tying Alvaro Morata, Marcus Rashford, and Erling Haaland. In 65 Champions League games since his move to Europe, he has scored 41 Champions League goals and provided 29 assists. He is the first player to score at least 20 different goals for 2 different clubs in the competition (21 for Barcelona and 20 for PSG).
It is amazing to see how far the dazzling starboy from Santos has come. This week 7 years ago he scored a hat-trick against Celtic and remembering both performances, you are thankful to the football gods for him. Playing as a false 9, he took up positions in zone 14, that sweet playmaker spot in front of the 18-yard box. His first goal came from there. From playing as a forward he pulled a Basaksehir defender Carlos Ponck with him, the marking from the Cape Verdean was lax and Neymar smelled blood. As he took in Marco Verratti’s short pass, he changed direction and with a nutmeg, he was past Ponck. From the line of the 18-yard box, he curled a magnificent effort beyond Mert Gunok off balance.
The 2nd was a more conventional finish. He took a pass from Mbappe and he took his time to shoot past the keeper. Minutes later, he won a penalty which he allowed Kylian Mbappe to take. Mbappe was on a UCL goal drought but that penalty broke the deadlock for him and he added another goal later in the game. Neymar’s 3rd was all quality, pulling out to the wide left he carried the ball in and exchanged a pass with Angel Di Maria in a central position before firing past Gunok. He is still one of the best players in the world and we dare to say that he has improved since his move to France. At Le Parc des Princes, he put on one of his most memorable displays, one packed with moments of magic & individual brilliance only found in the top echelon of football hierarchy.