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Champions League Seminfinal Winners and Losers

So, uh, is Mo Salah the best player in the world now? That and more from the week in European soccer.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ronaldo didn’t score, but Real Madrid did what they always do. And weirdly enough, so did Liverpool, as they hung five goals on their seventh different opponent during this Champions League campaign. We’re 180 minutes from the final, so here are your winners and losers from the first legs of the semifinals.


Winner: Mohamed Salah’s Ballon d’Or Campaign

The language of the “best player in the world” conversation went digital a decade ago. Press zero for Lionel Messi, 1 for Cristiano Ronaldo—and yes, those are your only two options. Since 2008, one of those two has won every Ballon d’Or; the only glitch in the coding came in 2010, when Messi finished first, and his Barcelona teammate Andrés Iniesta came second. Otherwise, the Portuguese and Argentine superstars have been nos. 1 and 2 in the balloting in each of the past 10 years.

As Iniesta bids a stylish farewell to Barcelona and his career recedes into the Chinese Super League, there’s finally another candidate to break up the duopoly. But Mohamed Salah isn’t here to just get invited to the party; he’s here to win the whole freakin’ thing:

After tying the record for most Premier League goals in a season over the weekend, Salah single-handedly pushed Liverpool to the brink of the Champions League final with two goals and two assists in 75 minutes against Roma, his former club. I’m not sure “Messi-esque” has ever not been irresponsible hyperbole, but there’s no other way to describe Salah’s performance in one of the biggest games of his life. There was the same kind of stuttering excitement whenever he got on the ball—every choppy step marking a staccato beat in a rhythm no defender could get hip to. In both of his goals, there was the same blend of disguised power and relaxed elegance. In both of his assists, there was the same kind of seconds-ahead vision and unselfishness that goal scorers, by definition, are not supposed to possess. And in the open field, there was the same remarkable ability to pause proceedings and offer up last rights in the middle of a game:

In domestic play, Salah has more goals (31) than anyone in Europe’s top five leagues. His goal contribution (assists plus goals) trails only Messi (40 to 41). In all competitions, he’s got a tied-for-Europe-best 43 goals and 15 assists in 47 appearances. In addition to the numbers, he might have the narrative, too: Liverpool have one foot and four more toes in the Champions League final. Plus, with Egypt being drawn into the easiest group at the World Cup with hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Uruguay, he could lead his national team into the round of 16, if not beyond.

The voting results of an arbitrarily determined award don’t matter. But for the first time in 10 years, it once again feels like a more-than-two-sided conversation worth having. And it’s not because Ronaldo and Messi aren’t still putting up ridiculous numbers as they’ve aged into their 30s. It’s just that there’s finally someone else who’s been just as good.

Loser: Your Wednesday

There isn’t much to say about Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid. It never came out of first or second gear, and, as Michael Cox pointed out on Twitter and Jonathan Wilson wrote for The Guardian a few months ago, it does seem like the cream of the European crop has begun to curdle. Can anyone tell me what style Bayern play? How exactly does Zidane’s Madrid approach the game? These teams have more resources than ever before, but Barcelona, Bayern, and Madrid all seem worse than they were five years ago. (One simple reason among many: Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Frank Ribéry, and Messi all got older.)

As for the game, Bayern put up some impressive-seeming numbers, but Madrid won anyway. There’s no process; just results.

If you want to chalk it up to Madrid’s “superior mentality,” then go for it. Maybe Bayern’s lack of fitness and the three injuries to Robben, Javi Martínez, and Jérôme Boateng made the difference. But I’ll stick with something closer to luck.

The first goal came after a half-cross was headed toward the top of the box by Dani Carvajal. Somehow, the ball bounced along the edge of the penalty area as Cristiano Ronaldo considered but then opted not to go for a bicycle kick. Then, amid a crowd of players, Marcelo smacked an off-balance volley into the lower-left corner. The second goal came on a two-man counterattack from Lucas Vázquez and Marco Asensio, but Madrid didn’t win the ball because of a systematized press; no, Rafinha just passed the ball to the other team.

Meanwhile, Bayern created three big chances (defined by Opta as “a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score”), and scored none. Madrid didn’t take their chances and then play out the final 30 minutes by retreating into a shell and holding their opponent at arm’s length. They scored twice, and then Bayern … just didn’t.

“Quality without results is pointless,” Johan Cruyff once said. “Results without quality is boring.” Anyone who watched Wednesday’s game knows exactly what he meant.

Winner: James Rodríguez

If there’s one notable, positive individual performance to remember from Madrid-Bayern, it came from the guy who volleyed his way into your heart four years ago in Brazil. After a handful of underwhelming seasons with Real Madrid, he’s got a new position, and he’s playing as well as he ever has.

In what’s become a trend at the top levels of European soccer, Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes took one of his attackers and turned him into a midfielder. Over the past month or two, James has functioned as the club’s second-deepest midfielder, ahead of Javi Martínez. It allows Bayern to pack their starting 11 with some extra attacking juice, which is especially useful for a team that possesses the ball over 60 percent of the time. Plus, as attacking midfielders are typically conditioned to push the ball forward and take more risks since losing possession in the final third isn’t as dangerous as doing it elsewhere, James brings some adventurousness to a position that often lacks it. And it all still works because he’s able to pump the breaks in the tempo when need be and also provide some resistance on the defensive end.

Against what is still technically his parent club—he’s on loan from Madrid, but Bayern seem likely to make the move permanent this summer—he set up the opening goal, created more chances than anyone else on the field, completed more passes than any non-defender, and also added in a tied-for-team-high four tackles. At 26, he’s become one hell of a player, and if Bayern are to overturn the deficit in Spain, he’ll likely be the one leading the way.

Loser: Eusebio Di Francesco

Here’s the thing: Liverpool and Barcelona are, uh, not the same team. And yet, on Tuesday Roma rolled out the same formation and the same approach that led to their famous 3-0 comeback against the La Liga leaders in Rome. In that game, Ernesto Valverde opted not to start anyone—including, ahem, £103.5 million summer signing Ousmane Dembélé—with any pace to get in behind Roma’s advanced back three. And 34-year-old Daniele de Rossi was able to pull the strings in the deep-midfield role because, for all of his virtues, Messi hasn’t ever contributed much defensively.

Liverpool, on the other hand, do two things as well as anyone: run in behind opposing defenses and put pressure on opposing midfielders. After the first 20 minutes, when Roma controlled possession and briefly pinned Liverpool into their own defensive third but struggled to create any quality chances, the hosts punted the visitors into outer space. From the 20th minute on through Salah’s substitution in the 75th, Liverpool made it seem like Roma were playing with seven or eight men. Just look at the numbers over that 55-minute stretch:

Liverpool vs. Roma Over 55 Minutes

Shots Shots on Target Final-Third Passes Passes Into the Box Goals
Shots Shots on Target Final-Third Passes Passes Into the Box Goals
17 10 80 16 5
3 1 28 3 0

Faced with Salah, Sadio Mané, and Roberto Firmino—statistically, the most devastating front three in Europe—Di Francesco opted to go three-vs.-three with his center backs, and his team got eaten alive. The system gave Salah, Mané, and Firmino tons of space to run into, and then it isolated them against bigger, much slower defenders. Liverpool feast on setups like this. It’s not like we don’t have a full season’s worth of evidence suggesting Di Francesco’s approach was a terrible idea!

After the game, Di Francesco pulled the old “my plan was sound, my players fucked up” line, saying that “we lost too many duels” and “we lacked quality.” His individuals might not have succeeded, but he put them in a position to fail. Sure, they clawed back some life with the two late goals—FiveThirtyEight now gives them a 6 percent chance of advancing—and yes, Liverpool seem like a much better team that may have steamrolled any alignment, but with his first-leg tactics, Di Francesco all but ensured that his team would require another second-leg miracle.

Winner: Whoever Can Afford Gareth Bale This Summer

Somehow, the guy who did this …

... couldn’t get a minute of playing time Wednesday. Despite being stapled to the bench, Bale is not, in fact, washed just yet. He’s played only around 1,500 minutes in La Liga this season, but his per-90-minute attacking numbers are better than anyone not named Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi, or Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes, he’s 28 and injury-prone—he hasn’t played 2,000 domestic minutes in a season since 2014-15—but whoever can afford the former £90.9 million man will get a few years of superstar play whenever he’s on the field.

Loser: England

While the actual affliction hasn’t yet been confirmed beyond the vagaries of a “knee ligament injury,” Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s season and summer are done after he collided with Aleksandar Kolarov early in Tuesday’s match. After coming over from Arsenal on a £35 million transfer in August, Ox spent the first half of the season getting up to speed in Jurgen Klopp’s demanding and idiosyncratic system, but he’s been a first-choice starter since the turn of the new year. And he’s been playing the best soccer of his life:

At just 24, he looks like the first English edition of a new kind of modem midfielder: able to press the opposition relentlessly, push the ball up the field with a vertical pass or a dribble, and provide a non-negligible number of goals and assists without playing in the front three. Lacking Ox, the national team doesn’t have many, if any, players who can progress the ball from midfield into the attack. And with noted goal thief Harry Kane now hobbling his way through the last few weeks of the season—he’s averaging more than 5.5 shots per 90 minutes on the year, but has taken just nine in the 373 minutes since returning from an ankle injury—that part of the field has its own question marks, too. So, ahead of England’s inevitable quarterfinal defeat to Germany or Brazil, we might already have our excuse: Blame Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino.

Winner: That Feeling of Temporary Superiority

At least until next Tuesday, when one of the more-talented teams with better underlying numbers officially clinches a spot in the final, Liverpool are the favorites to win the Champions League.

Champions League standings showing Liverpool in the lead

#KloppOut.