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UCL talking points: PSG the biggest letdown; best young player not named Bellingham

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Published in Soccer
Thursday, 30 November 2023 04:45

Matchday five of the 2023-24 Champions League group stage provided goals galore, comebacks and drama all across Europe. Manchester United have left it all to do on the final matchday when they face Bayern Munich. Barcelona and Atletico Madrid clinched their spot in the round of 16, while Group F's second spot is for the taking between AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Newcastle United.

We asked our writers Gab Marcotti, Mark Ogden, Sam Marsden and Julien Laurens to answer some of our burning questions.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)


1. PSG, Newcastle and Milan have all struggled during the group stage. Who are you most disappointed with and why?

Mark Ogden: This may be stating the obvious, but the answer is PSG every time. A club with ambitions of winning the Champions League, with a coach (Luis Enrique) who has won the competition and arguably the world's best player (Kylian Mbappé), PSG have been so bad in Group F and they are by no means guaranteed to get the result they need away to Borussia Dortmund on matchday six to qualify for the Round of 16. AC Milan over-performed to reach the semifinals last season and Newcastle are a team of rookies playing in the competition for the first time in 20 years, and both still have a chance of reaching the knockout stages. For PSG to be in this position of needing a win in their last game to qualify is a major failure for all concerned at Parc des Princes.

Julien Laurens: Unfortunately, it's my beloved PSG. They have made too many mistakes defensively (the most recent from Gianluigi Donnarumma against Newcastle), have missed too many chances offensively (the most recent ones by Bradley Barcola against Newcastle) and have a manager who makes weird choices at times (4-2-4 at St James' Park, Goncalo Ramos on the bench until the 85th minute on Tuesday.) And despite some positive things at times in the competition, they have been too disappointing because of their lack of efficiency and consistency in a group that is actually not that strong.

Sam Marsden: PSG, by some distance. There was a lot of upheaval at the club over the summer, both on the bench and on the pitch, but they were still favourites to progress from the group, despite its complexities. Thirteen years into the Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) ownership, they don't look any closer to winning the competition. The only hope they have is that this is a case of taking one step back to take two steps forward, with Lionel Messi and Neymar making way to allow coach Luis Enrique to build a new, younger side, based on the team rather than superstars. And, they still have qualification in their own hands. If they make it through, not many teams will want to face them.

Gab Marcotti: It has to be PSG. Performances were always going to take some time given the summer overhaul and the arrival of Luis Enrique, but you'd at least expect results. And yet they lost to both Newcastle and Milan. Newcastle and Milan have been hit really hard by injuries and, especially in Milan's case, an inability to turn the many chances created into goals (they should have won their first two games).

play
0:54
Can Jude Bellingham maintain his blistering to start at Real Madrid?

Craig Burley heaps yet more praise on Jude Bellingham after he scored in Real Madrid's 4-2 win over Napoli in the Champions League.

2. Which young players (21 or younger) have most impressed you this campaign?

Marcotti: It's Real Madrid's Jude Bellingham for me as well. Had he scored zero goals this season, his contribution in midfield would still have been sensational. Instead, he has scored 15 goals in 16 games in all competitions. That's the kind of scoring rate we've seen from guys named Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the past ... and Bellingham is a midfielder. RB Leipzig midfielder Xavi Simons is special too and you feel like there is a ton to come from him. I'd throw in FC Salzburg's Oscar Gloukh, Manchester City's Rico Lewis, Madrid's Eduardo Camavinga and PSG's Warren Zaïre-Emery as youngsters who impressed, maybe not consistently, but enough to want you wanting more. Rasmus Højlund has been up and down, like his team, but you can't ignore the sheer number of goals he has scored (five in five games.)

Ogden: We have to start with Bellingham. It's crazy to think that he is still only 20, but he has dominated for Carlo Ancelotti's team this season and scored again against Napoli this week. But he's the obvious pick. Away from Bellingham, Roony Bardghji sealed a 4-3 win for FC Copenhagen against Manchester United earlier this month with a stunning late goal to justify the hype surrounding the 18-year-old. And Lewis Miley produced an exceptional performance of maturity and quality for Newcastle against Paris Saint-Germain at just 17 years of age. But nobody has come close to the impact that Bellingham has had at Madrid.

Marsden: Bellingham is so far ahead of the field that it is almost unfair to name him alongside the other youngsters in the competition. Looking elsewhere, Real Sociedad winger Ander Barrenetxea is perhaps one of the names you would not have expected to see on this list. He is a constant threat out wide. They're out, but Royal Antwerp midfielder Arthur Vermeeren has also impressed. The deep-lying midfielder will be at a bigger European club soon. Shout-outs too for PSV Eindhoven's Johan Bakayoko and some more familiar names: Bayern Munich's Jamal Musiala and Man City's Lewis.

Laurens: There is only one answer here and it's Bellingham. So, to be different, I will say Pablo Barrios who has done very well in the three games he has played so far for Atletico Madrid in the competition. He gave a great assist off the bench on Tuesday against Feyenoord in his team's win. and he scored a big goal away at Lazio to get a draw too. At 20, he is so promising in midfield.

play
1:32
Why Man City's defending is a real concern

Craig Burley is not convinced by Manchester City's defending after they conceded seven goals in the last three games.

3. Which of the undefeated teams (Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Real Sociedad, Inter, Atletico Madrid) have been most impressive and why?

Marcotti: Manchester City have looked head-and-shoulders above the competition for me. They've had their low points, struggling in first halves against Red Star Belgrade and RB Leipzig, but they've always come back and looked convincing. They just seem effortless right now. Real Madrid also have five wins in five for a reason, but they haven't come close to hitting the same heights (injuries haven't helped, of course.) In terms of the football played, big shout-out to Real Sociedad who maybe have played the second-best football of the group stage, after City.

Laurens: Unlike Gab, I don't think that City have been that impressive in either game against Leipzig, the only opponents of quality they have faced so far. So I will go for Real Sociedad. I never thought they would top their group with a game to go. They have played some really good football and they are a great club with heritage, identity and history. They were unlucky not to beat Inter Milan, last season's finalists, and the only reason why they didn't beat Salzburg on Wednesday was because of the heavy rotation made by coach Imanol Alguacil.

Marsden: There are different categories here. City are, for me, the most impressive side in the competition, although they haven't hit top gear yet. They are in a group of their own out in front, followed by a clutch of clubs in which I would include Bayern and Madrid. Atlético and Inter are probably in the next group. Both have done well to remain undefeated, especially as Inter had to come from 3-0 down against Benfica to preserve that streak and are capable of beating most teams in the competition over two legs on their day. However, the most impressive in many ways has been Real Sociedad. They failed to win a game the last time they were in the Champions League in 2013 and were not fancied to get out of their group this year. And yet, with one game to go, Alguacil's unbeaten side sit top, ahead of Inter, Benfica and Salzburg, and are already assured of a place in the last 16. They are attractive to watch, built on home-grown talent and boast a crop of talented young players, including Barrenetxea, Take Kubo and Martín Zubimendi.

Ogden: Sorry to go against the grain here, but I don't think any of them have been super impressive to the point of being the outstanding team of the group stage. City, Real and Bayern have all conceded way too many goals, but their attacking strength has got them out of difficult positions. Let's see if they can do it against really strong opponents in the knockout phase. Considering Real Sociedad aren't Champions League regulars, their success in being unbeaten at this stage makes them the most impressive, but I'm not impressed to the extent of predicting them to go beyond the round of 16.

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