Football News

“Did he mean it? Does it matter? What a goal!” – 10 things you might have missed from Europa League matchday four

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:45, 26 November 2020 | Updated: 9:34, 30 March 2021

In an exciting night of football, the Europa League took yet another step forward to the knockout rounds.

Matchday four of the group stages saw some quality football, dramatic comebacks and one storming long-range goal. What did you miss?

1. Napoli honour Maradona

Diego Armando Maradona passed away yesterday, one of the three greatest players to have ever played the game. A legend, an icon. And today his beloved Napoli took the field bearing shirts with his name and number on them. They observed silence, they applauded, and all around the city flares went up in loving tribute to their hero.

Napoli then played in what must have been an emotionally charged match, and fought through that turmoil to deliver a big win that took Napoli to the top of their group. It was 30 years ago when Napoli won this competition thanks to Maradona, and they would love to win it now in tribute to his enduring genius. But for now, they delivered a good win to honour their forever king.

2. Tanguy Ndombele: the key to Spurs’ next level

José Mourinho rotated out 10 of the starters from the win against Manchester City, leaving just Tanguy Ndombele out on the pitch against Ludogorets. You would assume that Ndombele would thus take it easy, not wanting to get injured before a big game against Chelsea at the weekend and perhaps even feeling insulted that he has to play in this game.

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Instead Ndombele took this as a chance to showcase his skills. The Frenchman was absolutely mesmeric against Ludogorets, dancing away from opponents with insulting ease and threading the needle with his passes.

One such pass was deflected into Carlos Vinicius’ path for the opening goal. A little later Ndombele capped a mazy run through the heart of the defence with a rasping shot from distance that was palmed out into the path of Dele Alli, who squared for Vinicius to score again.

Ndombele’s vision, technique and talent delivered Spurs’ first two goals of the night. The Frenchman was so impressive that he was withdrawn on the hour mark, preserving him for this weekend’s epic clash against Chelsea.

Spurs are already a superb side, but if José Mourinho can get Tanguy Ndombele to play at this level consistently, to bombard and bamboozle opponents, then the Frenchman can well and truly take Spurs to the next level.

3. Vardy to the rescue!

Leicester’s game with Braga was an absolute thrill ride as the Foxes traded goals with their hosts. The game seemed to be heading for a 2-2 draw when Fransergio took the ball into the box and hammered home an supreme finish to win it.

Or so he thought. Leicester showed some incredible backbone to keep fighting for an equaliser, and when Marc Albrighton sent a low cross fizzing into the box, who showed up to tape home a late, late equaliser? Who else but Jamie Vardy?

The 33-year-old striker bagged his second goal in as many appearances in the Europa League and secured a crucial point for the Foxes. Displaying that kind of mental strength and infallible technique is going bode so well for the rest of their season.

4. José played the kids!

Jack Clarke. Alfie Whiteman. Dane Scarlett. Harvey White.

Remember their names, because goodness knows when a game will come along where José Mourinho will play four youngsters at the same time again. Obviously the game was already over at 3-0 when Clarke came on, and then it was 4-0 when the other three arrived, but it was still a fantastic moment for them.

Dane Scarlett, in particular, stood out as a player with incredibly intelligent movement. He passed up two or three good chances to score by snatching at his shots, but this is a 16-year-old boy! He’s the youngest player to ever feature for Spurs in a competitive game and the dynamism he displayed was genuinely impressive. Keep an eye on this kid, he could go places.

5. Gerrard gets Istanbul’d again

Rangers knew that a win against Benfica would put them just one point away from qualification for the round of 32, and they played like they intended to get it. Steven Gerrard’s men were furious in their attacking approach and took the lead very early on through Scott Arfield.

That lead was doubled in fantastic fashion by Kemar Roofe in the second-half and Gerrard must have felt comfortable given how defensively solid Rangers have been at home. But just like in Portugal, Benfica refused to be beaten and clawed back the two-goal deficit.

First came an own goal from Tavernier, but the equaliser was a glorious team goal that saw Benfica pinball passes and work Pizzi into a clean shot at goal and the veteran forward showed no hesitation, rifling into the roof of the net. The result leaves Rangers still in a good position to qualify, but now they will likely have to win one of their last two games to confirm it.

6. Harry Alonso

While Ndombele was the best player on the pitch for Spurs, and while José Mourinho did in fact play four youngsters at the same time, the star of the show for Spurs was Harry Winks aka Harry Alonso. Yes, Winks had a game-high 125 touches. And yes, he had a game-high 105/116 passes completed (with 93 in the opponent’s half) but that’s not the main reason why he invites comparison to the great Xabi Alonso.

No, the reason for that is that just after the hour mark, Winks was next to the touchline approximately 55 yards from goal when he launched a laser of a shot that sailed through the air with the greatest of ease and pinged into the top corner, bouncing down off the bar and leaving everyone in the ground stunned. Alonso was famous for his long-range strikes, and Winks truly echo’d him tonight.

Did he mean it? Does it matter? What a goal!

Of course, as Winks himself admitted post-match, he didn’t mean it. The midfielder was trying to find Gareth Bale with a crossfield pass and simply mis-hit it into the net. But the lack of intent doesn’t make it any less outstanding and impressive and the ideal cap for what was actually a magnificent all-around display. Take a bow, Harry Alonso.

7. Arsenal’s wingers lead the way

Nicolas Pépé cost Arsenal £72m and he has, for the most part, played like a nervous youth teamer. There has been none of the cocksure swagger he showed at Lille, and as a result he has often looked a disappointment in red and white and in fact he got sent off during the weekend’s draw with Leeds.

Not so against Molde, however. Pépé was sensational from the start at the Emirates, driving at the visitors with intent and purpose. His control was crisp, his dribbling dynamic and they simply could not live with him. He scored, hit the post and was Arsenal’s best player.

The second-best performer for the Gunners was his opposite number: Reiss Nelson. The youngster was confident and carried the ball with intent, scoring his side’s second goal was a smart run and finish.

Arsenal’s starting XI is so often lacking the exact kind of dynamism provided by Pépé and Nelson that it will be a real shame if Willian waks back into the side. These two wingers need to be featured players because they could provide the spark of creativity that lifts the Gunners up to where they want to be. Hell, they so influenced Arsenal to play well that not only did Mikel Arteta bring Folarin Balogun on, but the teenager even scored his first Arsenal goal!

8. Celtic down and out

In contrast to their Glaswegian neighbours, Celtic are having a miserable time of things in the Europa League. The Scottish giants have lost three of their four games and today they got absolutely hammered by Sparta Prague which has officially eliminated them from contention. There are two games left but with all three teams above them there is no mathematical equation that sees them progress.

With Rangers flying high, it feels like a new era in Scottish football is about to begin.

9. PSV’s comeback puts Granada celebrations on ice

At half-time of tonight’s games little Granada were heading into the knockout rounds of the Europa League for the very first time. The Andalucian outfit was winning 1-0 (they won 2-1 in the end) and over in Eindhoven PSV were being beaten by PAOK.

Then Roger Schmidt’s boys went to work. Two goals in the first 10 minutes of the half, within three minutes of each other at that, put PSV back in the lead. A stunning comeback given they were 0-2 down after 15 minutes. Noni Madueke picked up a goal and an assist with the game-winner coming from who else but Donyell Malen.

The win put PSV back into second place in the group and means that Granada now have to wait to confirm their qualification. Next week’s showdown with PSV should be a truly epic encounter if their first match is anything to go by (where they came from 1-0 down to win 1-2).

10. The qualifiers

With tonight’s results, the following sides have qualified for the Europa League Round of 32:

  • Roma
  • Arsenal
  • Leicester
  • Hoffenheim