African All Stars

Champions League: Kessie strives for decisive night for AC Milan in make-or-break Liverpool meeting

13:11 EAT 07/12/2021
Franck Kessie
The Serie A star leads the African storylines heading into the final round of games in Europe’s premier club competition

Eleven teams of the initial 32 that began this season’s Champions League are already through to the first knockout round, with five spots still up for grabs on Tuesday and Wednesday.

While AC Milan’s progress to the last 16 hangs in the balance, it is safe to say the Rossoneri will have taken this situation had it been offered to them after seven years away from the continent’s premier club competition.

Liverpool have dominated Group B — they are one of three sides with an unblemished record — but there is little separation among the other three sides— Porto, Milan and Atletico Madrid.

Having been away from rubbing shoulders with the continent’s finest for so long, Stefano Pioli’s troops still have their fate in their hands going into this week’s games.

Indeed, it is a position they would have accepted before their opening game against Jurgen Klopp’s Reds at Anfield, especially considering the toughness of the group stage draw.

They have overcome a discouraging start to the competition to put them one win away from arguably overachieving on their return by making it to the last 16.

In a sense, no player epitomises his team’s broader Champions League campaign than Franck Kessie, whose European inexperience was palpable as the Milan outfit were overrun and ineffectual early doors in that rip-roaring 3-2 defeat at Anfield.

There was a sense of injustice in the following game against Diego Simeone’s troops when the Ivory Coast midfielder was sent off for two bookable offences against Los Colchoneros in matchday two and a questionable penalty decision saw Atleti steal a 2-1 win at the death.

The second of those Kessie yellows was incredibly harsh and it ultimately led to the Rossoneri playing catch-up in the group.

Recovering from those initial setbacks and another defeat by Porto in Portugal to find themselves in a position to still qualify is creditable, even though the inability of the rest to take second spot by the scruff of the neck ought to be mentioned.

Indeed, it seemed fitting that Kessie — sent off wrongly against the Madrid outfit in Milan — was then decisive in the reverse fixture at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Admittedly, Junior Messias stole the headlines owing to his moving story, but it was no surprise the away side’s substitutes surrounded and serenaded the midfielder after his brilliant assist.

A strong showing against cellar-dwelling Salernitana at the weekend bodes well, with the midfielder scoring his first goal from open play since April in the 2-0 win. Owing to Milan’s ongoing, extended run without success against English sides (six, losing five), beating a Liverpool side that have picked up maximum points in every game will be no mean feat.

Zaidu Sanusi’s Porto represents the side in second spot looking to deny Kessie and Ismael Bennacer a place in the knockout rounds, with the Nigerian likely to feature against Atletico having already started four of the five group stage games.

In Group F, Samuel Chukwueze has not started a game for Villarreal since returning from a long-term injury but the Yellow Submarine wide attacker ought to feature in some capacity as the La Liga side travel to an Atalanta side they hope to pip for a runners-up spot.

Group G is laden with African interest, with a plethora of the continent’s stars involved for Red Bull Salzburg, Sevilla and Lille in a group that also comprises Wolfsburg. Any of the quartet of clubs in that section can still go through, so the final round of games will be fascinating.

While Juventus and Chelsea (Edouard Mendy and Hakim Ziyech) tussle for who tops Group H—they face Malmo and Zenit respectively—a more enjoyable storyline involves Ivory Coast’s Sebastien Haller who continues to match Robert Lewandowski in Europe.

The pair have netted nine goals apiece, a staggering return for the Ajax striker who had never played in the competition until this season.

No player has ever scored in each of his first six Champions League matches, a feat Haller could achieve by scoring against Sporting on Tuesday.

With the group stage largely done and dusted, Kessie and Haller are the standout African stars heading into matchday six. One is looking to help his Milan side progress to the elimination rounds, while the latter strives to attain the most unprecedented of goalscoring feats in Europe’s esteemed competition.