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Sports News of Saturday, 29 May 2021


Champions League awards: Africa's tops and flops of the UCL

Liverpool forward Sadio Mane Liverpool forward Sadio Mane

Saturday’s Champions League final, for the second time in three years, features two English sides doing battle for Europe’s most prestigious club trophy.

While for Manchester City it is the culmination of a long-held ambition, for Chelsea it is something of an unexpected boon.

Credit must go to both managers: Pep Guardiola for bringing City to the cusp of a truly historic first, and Thomas Tuchel for defying expectations (including those of his predecessor, no less) in guiding the Blues to the final for only the third time in their history.

To arrive at this point, both teams have been bolstered by stand-out performances by African stars, of course. So, in much the same way as for the Group Phase, Goal picks through the notable African performers in the Champions League Knockout Stage.

Star performance: Edouard Mendy vs Real Madrid (Semi-final 2nd Leg)

Following a 1-1 first leg draw at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, Chelsea’s semi-final second leg against Real Madrid was finely poised indeed.

Chelsea would ultimately prove too much for their visitors, running away with the game in the second half and creating chance after chance. However, given Madrid’s quality and need to score in order to remain relevant in the tie, shutting them out completely at Stamford Bridge was never a realistic expectation.

Los Blancos had spells of success in attack, especially in the opening period, but found Mendy in impassable form.

The Chelsea stopper had little to do in terms of repelling shots, but what he did have to he did with distinction.

In total, he made five stops, two from shots inside the penalty area, and one in particular that drew a disbelieving gasp from all watching.

Karim Benzema’s curled effort looked to be bending in, not least because Mendy was initially unsighted. However, the 29-year-old somehow propelled himself across his goal line, and showed strength in his wrists to divert the shot wide of the goal. A superb outing.

Honourable mentions: Youssef En-Nesyri vs Borussia Dortmund – Round of 16

2nd Leg; Riyad Mahrez vs Borussia Monchengladbach – Round of 16 2nd Leg; Riyad Mahrez vs Paris Saint-Germain (Semi-final 1st Leg)

Worst performance: Idrissa Gueye vs Manchester City (Semi-final 1st Leg)

There is some context here, in that in the first half, Gueye (and PSG) seemed to have the measure of their visitors at the Parc des Princes.

The Parisians had Manchester City flustered and harried beyond all recognition, and took the lead when Marquinhos rose highest to head home Angel Di Maria’s corner-kick.

All that changed in the second period, when Pep Guardiola’s side asserted their natural game, slowing down their possessions and stretching PSG more.

Suddenly, the hosts had longer distances to cover, and cracks began to appear. No one in navy blue typified this more than Gueye, who completely lost his head in the middle of the park. The Senegal midfielder is a terrier on the best of days, but can be impulsive and loose in his positioning when his discipline goes.

City levelled through a fortunate Kevin De Bruyne goal, but the winner – a Riyad Mahrez free-kick – was earned after a clumsy Gueye tackle. Six minutes after, he was shown a straight red card, effectively nixing any possibility of a comeback for PSG.

Star player: Edouard Mendy (Chelsea)

Chelsea’s remarkable ascension in status since Thomas Tuchel took over midway through the campaign has been built on a stout defence. The former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain manager has installed a back three and instilled a possession-heavy style that means the Blues’ rearguard is rarely troubled.

When breaches occur, however, opponents have found Senegal international Mendy nigh-on impossible to breach.

The West African has been absolutely tremendous between the sticks for Chelsea, keeping four clean sheets in six knockout appearances against the collective might of Atletico Madrid, Porto and Real Madrid. By no means has it been an easy run for the Blues, but as the challenge has intensified, so has their goalkeeper’s resolve.

There have been one or two precarious moments, mostly when playing out from the back as Tuchel demands (one incident in the quarter-final 2nd Leg against Porto comes to mind), but he has always recovered in time to forestall a concession.

When he has been breached, it has been via unstoppable volleyed finishes by Mehdi Taremi and Karim Benzema.

Honourable mention: Riyad Mahrez

Disappointment: Sadio Mane (Liverpool)

Liverpool went one better this term than last in the Champions League, but their exit had a similar tinge of disappointment to it.

On the face of it, losing out to Real Madrid in Europe is no shame. However, not only will the fact this was hardly a vintage Los Blancos smart, but the knowledge they did not do themselves justice will probably sting Jurgen Klopp’s men even more.

Over the two legs, very few stood up to be counted.

Mohamed Salah pulled one back in Madrid to buy some hope, but Liverpool huffed and puffed at Anfield to little effect and went out on a whimper. It was troubling to see an effervescent Liverpool attack lose all its fizz, best encapsulated by the fact that, when Mane was substituted with eight minutes still to play, it was an act of mercy.

The Senegal international has endured a poor season by his own standards and admission.

Although he scored in both legs of the Round of 16 tie against RB Leipzig, the performances were error-strewn and lacking in certainty on a number of occasions.

Against Real Madrid, it all just come to a head: Mane only managed one shot (off target) over the two legs, struggled to get the better of out-of-position winger Lucas Vazquez, and could not bring even his renowned physicality to bear on the tie in any meaningful way.