Football Features

From Dortmund’s dynamic duo to Juve’s brimming bulwark: Champions League student-teacher combos

By Ben Green

Published: 13:05, 23 February 2021

In a rather nondescript match between Barcelona and Albacete in May 2005, something magical happened in the dying embers.

Samuel Eto’o put Frank Rijkaard’s men ahead in the 66th minute and, as the match tenuously inched towards the full-time whistle, fans thought that was that, a match that was never going to live long in the Barca history books; a forgotten footnote in that title-winning campaign.

But, in the 88th minute, a diminutive, mop-haired teenager entered the fray; three minutes later he bagged his first Barcelona goal in front of a raucous Camp Nou audience, and the rest, as they say, is history. 16 years later and Lionel Messi has added another 654 goals to his name in a Barca jersey.

The goal was significant as it encapsulated the brilliance of two stars in one move: Ronaldinho, football’s aristocratic trickster and that year’s Ballon d’Or winner, and Lionel Messi, the creative padawan and future Ballon d’Or heir. The scooped assist and dink finish has gone down in football lore and is now a defining moment in Camp Nou history.

The student, Messi, following in the footsteps of his teacher, Ronaldinho, who he has previously described as his ‘mentor’ during his nascent years in Catalonia. Two dinks that typify the instinctive genius and improvised skill of both players, a moment when the torch was passed along.

So, as the Champions League knockout rounds enter the second week, we feast our eyes on some of the student-teacher combos currently gripping the continent.

Luis Suarez and Joao Felix

In what was a largely inconclusive maiden campaign in the Spanish capital, Joao Felix is now starting to emerge as one of Europe’s leading attackers and is beginning to vindicate his tag as La Liga’s second-most expensive player ever. That transition has been facilitated by the sagacious scoring guidance of Luis Suarez. 

Felix has already equalled his La Liga tally from last campaign with six goals, and it will come as little surprise that half of those finishes were assisted by Suarez, making this particular assist-to-goalscorer combo the second-most prolific in the Spanish top flight this season; only Lucas Ocampos to Youssef En-Nesyri has proven a more fruitful link-up (four goals).

Luis Suarez and Joao Felix comparison radar this season (Champions League and La Liga combined)

Suarez, now 34, is currently leading the race for this season’s ‘Pichichi’ with 16 goals and has left further egg on the faces of those in the Barcelona hierarchy, who have not only proven profligate with their spending, but now reckless and rather premature with their transfer outgoings.

With every passing week, the sale of Suarez to Atletico Madrid is looking more foolish, but their loss is Diego Simeone’s gain, and Felix is profiting from learning his trade alongside the world-class Uruguayan.

Giorgio Chiellini and Matthijs de Ligt

Last week’s debilitating 2-1 loss to Porto may have sent ripples across the continent as Italy’s perennial champions returned to Turin with their tail between their legs, but it offered a glimpse of Juve’s future, past and present: Matthijs de Ligt (the future), Giorgio Chiellini (the past) and De Ligt-Chiellini (the present).

It would not be entirely fair to brand Chiellini “the past” as Juve’s recent vicissitudes of fortune (excluding the past two games) have coincided with the return to fitness of their 36-year-old skipper, who is certainly not content with a cushy sinecure on the sidelines.

Giorgio Chiellini and Matthijs de Ligt comparison radar this season (Champions League and Serie A combined)

Chiellini, a vanguard of the ball-carrying centre-back, has formed the backbone of The Old Lady for the best part of 15 years; he remains one of the last vestiges of Antonio Conte’s ‘Invincibles’ in 2011/12 and is now offering learned support to a man 15 years his junior in De Ligt.

The Dutchman, like Felix, endured a difficult transition to one of Europe’s top five leagues last term, but he is now starting to make headway in Turin and will only improve, both with his technical game and leadership qualities playing alongside Chiellini, who will turn 37 in the summer, but you would never know it.

Axel Witsel and Jude Bellingham

Axel Witsel may currently be sidelined and is not expected to return for several weeks, but his impact on teenage phenom Jude Bellingham was evident last week as Edin Terzic’s temporary charges abandoned their attacking inhibitions in Andalusia and returned to the Ruhr district with a 3-2 win over Sevilla.

Erling Haaland was the standout star, Jadon Sancho was the balletic magician on the flank, and even Bellingham’s midfield partner Mahmoud Dahoud made the back pages with his showstopper strike, but it was the teenage Brummie’s tidy work that allowed BVB to play with such attacking freedom.

Axel Witsel and Jude Bellingham comparison radar this season (Champions League and Bundesliga combined)

The Witsel-Bellingham double-pivot has yielded some fantastic displays for Dortmund this season and made the 17-year-old’s transition to top-flight football a relatively seamless one. Witsel, now 32, plays with self-assurance and a stoic indifference to pressure, which was seen by Bellingham last week.

At 17, few possess the talent to shine on football’s grandest stage against Europe’s most in-form team, let alone the mental fortitude to cope with such an occasion. But, Bellingham took to the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan like a duck to water, and the parallels with Witsel’s game were striking on the night.

Lionel Messi and Pedri

The creative dynasty that has enveloped the Camp Nou since Johan Cruyff was elegantly strutting his stuff in the mid-70s looks set to continue, and at just the right time as Messi enters his twilight years. Pedri, who celebrated his 18th birthday in November, is already a mainstay in Ronald Koeman’s first team and the teenager’s blossoming relationship with the club captain has been a cornerstone of their successes this term, however few those may be.

The Ronaldinho-Messi double dink was the snapshot of football’s student-teacher relationship all those years ago, and for Pedri-Messi it was the 3-2 win over Athletic Bilbao last month. With the match delicately poised at 1-1, Pedri’s improvised backheel assist to Messi fired the Blaugrana back in front and had the football romantics weak at the knees.

Lionel Messi and Pedri comparison radar this season (Champions League and La Liga combined)

It was an assist of such instinctive brilliance that one can only reminisce at the parallels with Ronaldinho’s dink to Messi; not in execution, but in the cerebral awareness to try something completely out of the ordinary, and having the minerals to pull it off.

The duo floundered as PSG put them to the sword last week, but if any club can pull off a remontada then it is surely Barca, and if the Pedri-Messi link-up can reach full velocity in the French capital, then Koeman stands a solid chance of pulling off a historic turnaround.

Jordi Alba and Sergiño Dest

It was a chastening experience for Sergiño Dest last week as Kylian Mbappe stormed the Camp Nou, but even the evergreen Jordi Alba on the opposite flank had a sobering time against Everton loanee Moise Kean, who also found the scoresheet.

His performance was shaky to the nth degree and culminated in his eventual withdrawal, with French publication L’Equipe giving the young full-back a score of ‘2’ in their notorious player ratings. But, this was not a true measure of the tidy work Dest has been doing on the right flank this season under Koeman.

Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest comparison radar this season (Champions League and La Liga combined)

Attacking full-backs have always been central to Barca’s iconic press-and-possess system, and Dest certainly has a huge void to fill, with Dani Alves once holding the right-sided berth for eight trophy-spangled years, but the United States international has the attributes to go all the way.

The Alba-Dest full-back combination has been a success story for Koeman this season, and last week’s experience will only strengthen the latter going forward, who would be wise to study his more experienced teammate on the opposite byline and learn from his buccaneering exploits.