Graham Potter, the manager who a month ago confessed he thought he had never so much as attended a Uefa Champions League fixture, will on Tuesday be pacing the touchline at one of the European Cup’s great venues. His road to San Siro, where Potter’s Chelsea aim to put themselves a step closer to the knockout phase at the expense of AC Milan, has been travelled at a rapid pace.
Even quicker has been Xabi Alonso’s sudden re-acquaintance with a tournament he won twice as a player, but barely suspected, a fortnight ago, would be offering him a tempting opportunity at instant hero status as a novice coach.
Alonso will tomorrow guide Bayer Leverkusen, who appointed him as head coach last week, into a high-stakes collision with Porto. Both clubs are tied on three points with Atletico Madrid: Alonso has been thrust into a proper dogfight for second place behind runaway Group B leaders FC Brugge.
Five managers who began the season relishing the challenge of the Champions League have been sacked since matchday one, and four were at clubs – Chelsea, Sevilla, RC Leipzig and Leverkusen – who would instinctively target a place in the last 16, at least.
Getting there brings significant income, and if the target recedes, executives calculate the cost of paying off a sacked manager – even one as high-earning as Thomas Tuchel, Potter’s predecessor – against the likelihood of so-called “New Manager Bounce” – a swift uplift in form which could put the team back on track for qualification.
Potter, who took over from Tuchel a month ago, seems to have brought some bounce, on the evidence of Chelsea’s 3-0 victory over Milan seven nights ago in London, correcting a poor start to the European campaign.
Hours after Tuchel oversaw a shock 1-0 defeat at Dinamo Zagreb, he had been fired. Potter’s first ever outing as a Champions League manager was a 1-1 draw with Salzburg, who lead a group in which Chelsea are now installed in runners-up spot.
Beat Milan again, and Chelsea would give themselves a three-point cushion over the Italian champions. And from there? In the Champions League, momentum counts, and it’s a competition that can be generous to coaches who have joined during a season, in an emergency.
Chelsea 3 AC Milan 0 – player ratings
CHELSEA RATINGS: Kepa Arrizabalaga 7: Never had save to make until first-half injury-time when he blocked De Ketelaere but would have been relieved to see Krunic fail to finish rebound. A spectator for most of match. Reuters
Just ask Hansi Flick, promoted from assistant coach at Bayern Munich in November 2019. He, like Potter a month ago, had never taken sole charge of a Champions League match before guiding Bayern to eight successive triumphs including the final against Paris Saint-Germain.
The following season, Tuchel was dismissed by PSG in December, hired to replace Frank Lampard at Chelsea in January, and in May was celebrating a European Cup victory in the final against Manchester City.
Potter will also note that both Chelsea’s European Cups were won with a new man, fresh to the job, on the touchline. Roberto di Matteo had been in charge for barely two and half months at Stamford Bridge when he had his hands on the 2012 European Cup.
Some “New Manager Bounce” has been hinted at at Leipzig, who waved farewell to Domenico Tedesco after the opening match-day defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk. His successor, Marco Rose, has overseen two thumping wins in the Bundesliga, and gathered the first points of the European campaign at home to Celtic. A replica of that victory, tonight in Glasgow, could drive Leipzig, semi-finalists in 2019-20, back into the slipstream of Real Madrid, who lead Group F.
There can be less optimism for Jorge Sampaoli, who last week began his second stint at Sevilla, replacing Julen Lopetegui immediately after a 4-1 loss to Borussia Dortmund. Sampaoli takes over a team with one European point so far and occupying the relegation zone in La Liga.
“We need to use each game as a chance to improve,” he said ahead of tonight’s re-match with Dortmund in Germany. It was an acknowledgement that the prospect of clambering out of a group headed by Manchester City, and with Dortmund on six points, is slender.
Sixty kilometres away, in Leverkusen, the mood for the newest boss in the Champions League is more positive. Xabi Alonso’s debut in his first job as a senior head coach, having replaced Gerardo Seoane last Thursday, was dazzling, a 4-0 win over Schalke 04. Take that energy into the Champions League, as Alonso said, “and we can build up our chances of reaching the last 16”.
If Leverkusen cannot make second place, Alonso will hardly be blamed: “What happened in the first three games counts,” he pointed out of the two defeats under Seoane. But if Alonso rescues that bad start, he’ll have huge credit in the Bayer bank.
Updated: October 11, 2022, 4:01 AM