In this addition of In Focus, we track the performance of Barcelona forward Paco Alcacer who was given a chance to shine by boss Ernesto Valverde on Tuesday night.
With qualification to the knockout phase of the competition already secured and second-placed Juventus, realistically, being unable to catch Blaugrana at the top of Group D – the hosts made several changes for the visit of Sporting Lisbon – a side who were still in with a shot of progressing.
As it was, Alcacer – who replaced the rested Lionel Messi and led the line alongside Luis Suarez and Nelson Semedo, played the full 90 minutes in a comfortable 2-0 win.
The 24-year-old scored a second-half header from a corner following Denis Suarez’s assist. Former Barca defender Jeremy Mathieu, on his return to Catalonia, then netted an own goal in the dying minutes.
Here, we look at Alcacer’s performance in-depth:
Goals – 1
Assists – 0
Shots – 3 (1 on target)
Dribbles – 0
Passes – 50
Key passes – 0
Pass Accuracy – 80%
Touches – 64
Aerials Won – 3
While he has very much been a bit-part player since signing for the Catalan giants from Valencia at the beginning of last season, with options short in attack, Alcacer is a handy player for Valverde to have up his sleeve.
The 24-year-old, who scored an important brace last month in the 2-1 home league success over Sevilla, clearly needs to play more matches and definitely took his opportunity.
Alcacer may not be the most talented or technical frontman but there’s no doubting his eye for goal and willingness to stay in the penalty area – a fox in the box if you like.
His reward came in the 59th minute when the ex-Getafe forward showed clever movement and energy to get on the end of Suarez’s set-piece – glancing a header into the back of the net.
It has to be said that Alcacer is more suited to playing centrally, rather than on the left, but he is a useful back-up for Barca in a campaign where they’ve been short of alternatives other than the obvious.
Yet manager Jose Mourinho continually backed his first-choice striker, appreciating the United No. 9’s work rate and contribution to the cause even as the goals dried up.
Mourinho’s assertion that the goals would come soon enough may be about to come true, as Lukaku scored his 13th of the season to help United earn a come-from-behind victory against CSKA Moscow that ensured the Red Devils topped their group.
Here’s an in-depth look at how the star striker performed on Tuesday.
Goals – 1
Assists – 0
Shots – 3
Shots on target – 2
Pass Accuracy – 82%
Key Passes – 2
Touches – 31
Dribbles – 0
Lukaku held up the ball well and, in the first half, created two or three decent chances for his team-mates that should have seen United race out to a comfortable lead, although he missed the one presentable chance he had of his own.
The Belgian went missing a bit in the second-half as United’s best attacking play seemed to bypass him. That, was until, Paul Pogba picked him out with a perfect pass, a chance that Lukaku gobbled up to equalise. Soon after, he set up United’s go-ahead goal with a flick-on from a long ball.
4th min, CHANCE: Lukaku did well to control Juan Mata‘s pass, then turned and set about creating panic in the CSKA defence. Spotting Marcus Rashford‘s run across him, the Belgian found his strike partner with a cleverly disguised through ball, only for Rashford’s subsequent shot to hit the post.
20th min, SHOT: The 24-year-old probably should have scored. Luke Shaw hit a crisp volley which CSKA keeper Igor Akinfeev did well to save, but Lukaku was on hand for the rebound. The ball just wouldn’t come down quickly enough, forcing Lukaku to attempt a scissor kick which he couldn’t connect with cleanly, allowing Akinfeev to save again.
64th min, GOAL: Pogba floated in a delightful box, spotting Lukaku’s run, and the Belgian obliged by finishing the move off, stretching out his leg to get his outside of the boot onto the ball and guide it into the net.
There were times when you could see that Lukaku’s confidence was low, and others when you saw exactly why Mourinho has been quick to praise him. He linked up United’s attacking play well, created chances for his team-mates, and, although he missed his first opportunity to score, when another came to him, he buried it.
CSKA proved a more stubborn side than expected, given the 4-1 win United had gotten in Moscow in the reverse fixture, but Lukaku made sure his side got the win.
The 30-year-old Spain playmaker has won almost every major honour in his storied career with Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea and Spain, including the World Cup — but the European Cup is the exception.
Fabregas was initially out of favour last season in Conte’s first campaign. He had made only four appearances at this stage last year; this season it is 18 after he showed his worth.
“I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t really part of his (Conte’s) initial plans and at that point you can do two things.
“You can just give up and accept you are not going to be part of the team or the club in the future. The other is what I did, put your head down and be humble, show him that he’s wrong.
“My relationship with the manager (now) is fantastic. He trusts me. He knows exactly what I can give to the team.”
The Blues secured their place in the last 16 by winning at Qarabag last month and can finish top with victory over Atletico at Stamford Bridge.
“Hopefully it will be Chelsea’s year (in the Champions League),” added Fabregas, who reached the 2006 final with Arsenal and has also reached the semi-finals.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) December 4, 2017
“We’ll try our best to be consistent enough to reach the final and hopefully win.”
Atletico need to win to have any chance to advance, but are reliant on Qarabag avoiding defeat at Roma to reach the draw on December 11.
If the Azerbaijan side are beaten, Atletico would fall into the Europa League, irrespective of the result at Chelsea.
Asked if that would provide additional satisfaction, given the saga surrounding Diego Costa which saw the striker return after three years at Stamford Bridge, Conte was evasive.
The Italian, who is again without defender David Luiz (knee), said: “I think we must have great respect for Atletico Madrid and for the whole team, not only for one, two, three players.
“If the whole team after (Tuesday’s) game has to play Europa League, it can happen.”
Costa will be eligible to play for Atletico from January, when their transfer embargo is lifted.
Left-back Filipe Luis, who spent the 2014-15 campaign at Chelsea before returning to Atletico, said: “It is frustrating seeing him playing like an animal (in training), but he can’t play.”
Boss Diego Simeone insists Atletico’s sole focus will be on beating Chelsea.
“We don’t have to be looking about what happens in Rome,” Simeone said.
“We just have to think about us. It’s a personal challenge to fight for everything we’ve worked for these last few years.”