Courtois comes up big at San Siro; Kroos, Bayern too much for Arsenal
There may not have been many goals, but there was drama aplenty as the Champions League Round of 16 games continued with Bayern Munich beating 10-man Arsenal 2-0 while Atletico Madrid persevered at the San Siro by a 1-0 scoreline.
Here is what caught our eye from the games:
Player of the Day: Thibaut Courtois, Atletico Madrid
Chelsea will have to make a decision sooner rather than later on Thibaut Courtois, the brilliant Belgium goalkeeper who is on loan at Atletico Madrid. Still only 21, Courtois kept his side in it at the San Siro, as Milan bombarded the visitor's goal in a surprising first-half onslaught. But every time, Courtois was up to the challenge: tipping a Kaka curler onto the crossbar and then, even more impressively, stopping Andrea Poli's point-blank header from Adel Taarabt's cross.
Courtois went on to deny Kaka (again) and Mario Balotelli in a frustrating first half for the host. The game ended 1-0 and Atletico had Courtois mostly to thank (and goal scorer Diego Costa, as well).
The two sub-plots to his performance are his future with the team -- he has said he expects a conversation with Chelsea in March but has made it clear that he will only return if he is No. 1-- and his ongoing public row with Belgium's second-choice goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, which flared up again Wednesday. Courtois told Sport/Foot magazine that he felt under attack from Liverpool's Mignolet, who has frequently said he deserves a place in the team.
"If someone says that he is unfairly left out of the Red Devils' goal, I see that as an attack," Courtois responded. "It shows that you do not accept the coach's current choice and at the same time that you show no respect for the current No one."
The English press has reported that Chelsea might consider selling Courtois to Atletico as part of a deal that sees Costa join the club this summer. His coach Diego Simeone has said he would pay €24 million for the goalkeeper and, if it happens, Chelsea may live to regret letting Courtois slip through its fingers. He is surely already in the top five in the world and is 10 years younger than Petr Cech (and would probably cost less in wages too). Chelsea has first dibs on Courtois and should take him.
Moment(s) of the Day: Two Emirates penalties
After nine minutes at the Emirates, Mesut Ozil ran onto Jack Wilshere's through ball in the area and jinked the ball past Jerome Boateng, only to be brought down. Clear penalty, and a yellow card. The immediate problem for Arsenal was who would take it? First-choice taker Olivier Giroud had been surprisingly left out: the subject of tabloid revelations about his personal life, and coach Arsene Wenger went with Yaya Sanogo, a 21-year-old making only his second start for the team.
This was not so much an indictment of Giroud's personal situation (Wenger said the decision was a sporting one) but of the coach's own recruitment strategy. Giroud has made 33 starts this season and is playing as though he is shattered. But still Wenger chose not to sign another striker. Second-choice penalty taker is Mikel Arteta, out of the side through injury.
Ozil had missed his last penalty, in the Champions League against Marseille back in November, and never looked likely to score this time. Factor in that his opponent was Manuel Neuer, a player he grew up with in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, and who would know his patterns and trends, and it seemed a strange selection. As Frank Lampard, who has failed to score from penalties against his England colleagues David James, Joe Hart and Rob Green, would testify, if the goalkeeper has any relationship with the kicker, it gives him a competitive advantage.
Ozil went off a short run-up and stuttered, just as he did in Marseille, but Neuer stood firm and when he did dive, he kept his right arm in the center, able to punch away Ozil's kick down the middle. As Neuer told German TV after the game: "I know Mesut Özil likes to alter his shot late so stood up tall as long as I could."
The save knocked the stuffing out of Ozil, who spent the rest of the half in a daze. It also quietened the crowd and as the half went on, Bayern Munich took a foothold in the match.
Expect the game's post-mortem to focus heavily on referee Nicola Rizzoli, who chose not to show Boateng a second yellow for a bookable challenge on Wilshere in the first half, and then sent off Wojciech Szczesny for taking out Arjen Robben when he was clean through. That red card forced David Alaba to wait a long time to take the penalty: Santi Cazorla, subbed off, took an age to leave the pitch and new keeper Lukasz Fabianski grabbed the ball and bounced it, to disrupt Alaba's routine. Did it work? The penalty was taken around four minutes after it was awarded, a long time for any player to wait. Alaba hit the post.
Major Takeaway: Toni Kroos will not be leaving Bayern Munich
There was excitement last month when Toni Kroos angrily threw off his gloves when he was subbed off with his team 1-0 down to Stuttgart. The incident came in the midst of stalled contract negotiations and led to the English press, in particular, believing that Kroos was holding out for a move to Manchester United.
His agent might have been, because since then Sport-Bild has reported that 14 players are paid more than Kroos's annual €4.5 million salary. The problem Bayern had was awarding new signings Mario Gotze (€12 million, level with top dog Franck Ribery) and Thiago Alcantara (€8 million) big contracts. As it stands, Kroos wants parity with the team's higher-earners, like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm, in the €8-€10 million bracket.
And after a performance like this, why not? Kroos was outstanding throughout and it was his goal, curled with his right foot from outside the post into the top corner, that broke the deadlock. Kroos may not have started had Schweinsteiger been fully fit, but given his habit for these crucial edge-of-the-box goals (he scored one very similar in the same tie 12 months ago), the 24-year-old is proving an important player for Pep Guardiola.
How the Second Legs Shape Up
This was a week when the importance of finishing top of your Champions League group showed; and it also showed the class of the sides that did finish top. Bayern's win at Arsenal was almost a carbon-copy of Barcelona's at Manchester City 24 hours earlier: host down to 10 men, away side takes the lead and host stuck not knowing whether to try and sneak an equalizer and risk conceding or hold out.
Arsenal looked close to holding out, but Thomas Muller's late header could have the same effect as Dani Alves's goal at the Etihad. That said, Arsenal did beat Bayern in Munich 12 months ago; the difference this time around is Pep Guardiola, who is unlikely to let that happen again.
Atletico also needed to be at its fittest to break down Milan, whose midfield duo of Nigel de Jong and Michael Essien tired as the game went on. Diego Costa's late header made it four away wins out of four for the week, and gave Atletico the edge for progression to the last eight. Oh, and goals scored by the home sides this week? Zero.
Ben Lyttleton is the author of the soon-to-be released book Twelve Yards, The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty.