Winners and losers from Matchday 4 of Europa League

Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang reacts after he failed to score by free kick during the Europa League group E soccer match between Arsenal and Sporting CP at Emirates stadium in London, England, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Frank Augstein/AP)

Matchday 4 of the Europa League was packed with drama, goals and entertainment.

A few clubs booked their spots in the knockout stage, others boosted their chances, while a select group is facing an uphill battle in the final two rounds of games.

Here are four winners and four losers from Thursday’s action.

WINNERS

Olivier Giroud

With Alvaro Morata slowly returning to form, Olivier Giroud had an opportunity to stake his claim in Maurizio Sarri’s lineup.

Bagging the winning goal in a 1-0 victory over BATE Borisov may not be the determining factor, but it must have boosted Giroud’s stock.

The Frenchman hadn’t scored since May, so he also snapped a long drought. However, Giroud’s hold-up play and his activity on the ball (he registered 14 touches in the box with six shots) surely pleased Sarri.

Giroud’s touch map (via WhoScored)

Worst case scenario for Sarri, he now has two effective strikers who can seamlessly slide into the starting 11.

Ryan Christie

There are no superlatives to describe Ryan Christie’s performance in the midfield on Thursday.

The 23-year-old midfielder completely dominated the match as Celtic topped RB Leipzig 2-1 to boost their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stage from Group B.

Christie was only playing in his 10th match of the season for the club in all competitions. He ended up finishing with 10 tackles, one for every appearance, and three interceptions. His vital defensive display helped keep a high-pressing and energetic Leipzig side at bay for most of the 90 minutes.

Without the injured Olivier Ntcham, Scott Brown and Eboue Kouassi, Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers had to utilize a makeshift midfield, anchored by Christie. It was a big gamble, but it paid off.

Mathieu Valbuena

Ever since Fenerbahce sacked manager Phillip Cocu, Mathieu Valbuena has been scintillating.

The French international was involved in both goals as Fenerbahce shut out Anderlecht 2-0, which pulls them one step closer to the knockout stage.

The goal and assist were almost carbon copies of each other, too, as Valbuena curled the ball into the net for the opener midway through the second half. Then, three minutes later, he delivered a sumptuous pass for Michael Frey.

That is now two goals and two assists for Valbuena over the last two matches, including the come-from-behind 2-2 draw against fierce rivals Galatasaray.

Ever Banega

When Ever Banega is on form, it makes for appointment viewing.

That was the case as he buried the winning penalty for 10-man Sevilla, defeating Turkish side Akhisarspor 3-2 on the road. That could be a decisive victory as the top three teams in Group J are separated by three points through four matches.

As for Banega, he was sublime. Even after Sergi Gomez’s red card, the Argentine ran the midfield and led all players with 86 passes (95 per cent accuracy). He nearly covered as much ground as the three Akhisarspor midfielders.

Banega’s heat map (right) compared to Akhisarspor’s midfield trio. (via WhoScored)

Banega is unique because not only can he dictate the tempo of a game and control possession, he can also hit killer through balls on a dime. All three were on full display on Thursday.

LOSERS

Arsenal’s finishing

Sporting CP’s defence deserves some credit for shutting out Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. However, the Gunners also wasted some quality chances of their own.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had two prime opportunities in the box, only to misfire at the crucial moment. It ultimately cost Arsenal the three points.

Manager Unai Emery will be somewhat satisfied that Arsenal didn’t lose ground to Sporting in Group E. The North London outfit is three points clear of the Portuguese side and has booked a place in the last 32. Still, there was an opening to wrap up the top spot and it went awry.

Real Betis attack

Another game, another poor display from Real Betis’ attack.

Despite heavily outplaying AC Milan in the first half, Betis had to settle for the 1-1 draw at home. While chance creation was high, it was the final product that proved costly.

Betis’ attempts were either blocked or fired wide of the goal, and this allowed Milan to salvage a draw in the second half.

Real Betis’ shot map vs. AC Milan (via WhoScored)

It’s clear that Betis still lacks a quality goal-scoring striker. Without one, the Seville-based side is only one point above Milan and Olympiacos, which could change on Matchday 5.

Marseille defence

This has not been happy period for Marseille.

Last season’s Europa League runner-up is now eliminated from contention for the knockout stage after falling 2-1 to Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico, and it was the defensive issues that ultimately sunk Marseille.

Sure, losing Andre-Franck Zambo Anguissa to Fulham and failing to address an already depleted defence didn’t help manager Rudi Garcia whatsoever.

However, it’s summer signing Duje Caleta-Car – a central defender – who continues to falter. He was beaten far too easily in the air by Marco Parolo – who isn’t renowned for his aerial ability – on the opening goal. Adil Rami wasn’t much better, as he was constantly burned on the dribble by Ciro Immobile and Joaquin Correa.

Then there is Luiz Gustavo, primarily a defensive midfielder, who has had to move to centre-back to address the lack of depth across the back line.

Rudi Garcia may receive the abuse, although sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta should receive the brunt of the abuse for the lack of signings for the defence.

Rangers midfield

Neutrals who watched Spartak Moscow’s 4-3 win over Rangers were thoroughly entertained.

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard? Not so much.

The midfield was completely overrun throughout the 90 minutes, as Rangers generated most of their attacks down the flanks. Meanwhile, Spartak focused on the centre of the pitch, and it was evident.

Spartak Moscow’s team heat map (left) and Rangers’ team heat map (via WhoScored)

Rangers are still in a great position to advance. However, the midfield has struggled when the Glaswegians lose. Gerrard has to correct this for the final two games of the group stage.

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