There’s a certain mystique attached to defending in the Champions League that you just don’t get in England.
Whether it’s the butter-wouldn’t-melt-but-I’ll-rob-your-grandma approach of the Italians or the better-on-the-ball-than-your-no.10 composure of the Spanish, defending takes on a whole new meaning in Europe.
The usual candidates are up to their old tricks. Sergio Ramos is busy avoiding red cards for elbowing the opposition in meaningless games while Leonardo Bonucci is launching pitch-perfect assists from the safety of Giorgio Chiellini’s slipstream.
But what of Europe’s young pretenders?
The Champions League group stages offer some of Europe’s less heralded centre-backs a chance to come to the forefront.
The most prestigious finishing school in Europe- with classrooms stretching from Bern to Plzen- is well underway, and some students are impressing more than others.
Napoli’s herculean centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly has arguably been the best defender in the Champions League this season, which is saying something given the calibre of opposition he’s been asked to nullify.
The 27-year-old used ingenious methods to transform Kylian Mbappe into David Bellion, turning team-mate Mario Rui into a human cannonball.
He also silenced Liverpool’s much heralded attacking trio of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane in Napoli’s 1-0 win back in October- a result that could be pivotal come the end of the group stages.
It’s easy to look at Koulibaly’s 6ft 5in frame and dismiss him as a wrecking ball but the former Genk man is averaging an efficient 88.4% passing success in Europe this season.
Brains and brawn. Get yourself a centre-back that can do both.
Moving to Group B, Inter Milan’s Milan Skriniar’s performances against Barcelona, Spurs and PSV have inspired Luciano Spaletti to slap a £100million price-tag on the Slovakian’s head.
The 23-year-old, signed from Sampdoria in the summer of 2017, did a job against Spurs at right-back but it’s in the heart of defence, alongside Stefan de Vrij, that he’s thrived.
Like Koulibaly, you come for the imposing defending, whether on the ground or in the air, and stay for the composure in possession. Ed Woodward is writing a blank cheque to Inter as we speak.
Matthijs de Ligt is the latest fresh-faced contestant to stroll through Ajax’s Got Talent.
The 19-year-old passed his Bayern Munich audition with flying colours, marking Robert Lewandowski out of the game in a coming-of-age performance in front of a packed Allianz Arena.
Half of the goals Ajax have conceded in Group E have come via Mats Hummels, the man likely to be moved on if Bayern win the battle for De Ligt’s signature.
Life comes at you fast.
Another standout performance was 19-year-old Dan-Axel Zagadou’s bullying of Diego Costa in Borussia Dortmund’s 4-0 win against Atletico Madrid.
Zagadou left PSG in search of first-team football back in June 2017, a la Jadon Sancho. Coupled with Raphael Varane and Presnel Kimpembe, the future of France’s defence looks rock solid for the next decade.
A mention, too, for Porto’s Eder. The 20-year-old’s performances for Porto in Group D, aka the Hipsters’ Dream, have seen him break into the Brazil squad.
Porto have conceded just three times in four games against Galatasaray, Lokomotiv Moscow and Schalke, with Eder taking to the Champions League like a duck to attacking an innocent pensioner nibbling on an egg sandwich.
That’s your lot for today. School is dismissed.
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