By: Rusty Gorelick
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the UEFA Champions League (UCL), world soccer’s greatest club competition, has begun its group stage. Fans no longer have to wait for seven painful days between matches since the planet’s best now square off midweek, kicking off at the perfect time to help you ride out your last few hours of work or class.
Among many notable events, round one of UCL fixtures saw Leo Messi at his best, Cristiano Ronaldo at his worst, Inter Milan and Tottenham slug it out, and the Manchester clubs switch personalities for a match. Last year’s finalists both earned three points against tough opponents, and Real Madrid gave the world a sneak peek at the players who will replace CR7.
This competition serves both as a venue for superstars to further cement their legacies and as a way for clubs to hand lesser-known players opportunities to start meaningful matches. Sometimes, lineup rotation can lead to an unknown player ascending to stardom. Other times, it leads to upsets due to managers getting too arrogant.
Disappointment occurs for many teams each year while ending in sheer joy for Real Madrid more often than not. But the beauty of the Champions League is in the journey, so here are some notes from the first step of it.
Liverpool, PSG entertain in an electric match
Two of the most entertaining offenses in soccer clashed on Tuesday: Liverpool, led by Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, clashed with Kylian Mbappe and Neymar’s PSG side. The English club brought back former England international Daniel Sturridge after a series of injuries and a loan away from Anfield, and the 29-year-old scored the opening goal off an Andy Robertson cross.
James Milner doubled the Reds’ lead with a 35th-minute penalty, but their two-goal cushion lasted for just four minutes before Thomas Meunier pulled one back for the Parisians. Salah almost made it 3-1 in favor of Liverpool after 57 minutes, but a kick to the abdomen of PSG ‘keeper Alphonse Areola meant the score stayed unchanged at that point.
Things became heated in the last ten minutes of the match. Mbappe intelligently moved into the perfect spot to receive a layoff from Neymar, and he fired home clinically to tie the match in the 82nd minute. Trent Alexander-Arnold, of all players, missed by mere inches on a free-kick in stoppage time, but Roberto Firmino bailed him out with a great finish from a tough angle after an impressive series of evasive dribbles.
Ronaldo sees red
In his first-ever Champions League appearance for Juventus, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner picked up a red card for essentially rustling a Valencia defender’s hair. It was a weird choice by the referee, for sure, and UEFA will announce whether or not he will miss his return to Old Trafford on Sept. 27.
Juve still managed to win 2-0 with 10 men, scoring through two Miralem Pjanic penalties. The Italian giants controlled the game even without their best player: they held the ball for 54 percent of the match, took 26 shots, and won 10 corners.
Obviously, the worldwide reaction to the decision caused plenty of headlines, but no take was hotter than the one from Ronaldo’s sister, who made it sound like UEFA had declared her brother a person of interest for some absurdly bad crime. Love him or hate him, every fan should hope UEFA lets him play against Man U at Old Trafford in a couple weeks.
Momentary lapses cost Manchester City
Lyon visited the Etihad Stadium to play against reigning Premier League champions Manchester City, who continued their good form in this match, except for two instances that cost them the game. The underdogs’ efficiency made the difference in the match, as they turned both of the Citizens’ mental lapses into goals.
The scoring opened when Nabil Fekir led a counter-attack down the left side. He crossed it towards Maxwel Cornet on the right side of the box, but Fabian Delph was on hand to clear it. He messed that up, so Cornet struck it into the back of the net with his left foot. For their second goal, Fekir took the ball off an unsuspecting Fernandinho, ran past David Silva, and slotted the ball into the back of the net in the 43rd minute.
For years now, City has struggled in European competition despite their nearly limitless bank account. The Sky Blues dominated possession (70-30 percent), shots (22-11), and corners (7-1), yet preventable mistakes led them to a loss in their opening match in the tournament. They cannot afford to beat themselves, particularly in the Champions League, where the level of competition is the highest. Pep Guardiola’s style of play is beautiful, but it’s all meaningless if they give away preventable goals and lose games they should win.
Renato Sanches is back
Bayern Munich took care of business against Benfica, the former club of Bayern’s 21-year-old midfielder many used to consider as one of the best young players in the world. He had a throwaway season with Swansea last campaign, but this term under the leadership of new manager Niko Kovac, the midfielder looks reborn.
Though Sanches’ goal against his former team made the headlines, his team felt his presence all over the field. He completed 93.6 percent of his 47 pass attempts, constantly broke apart his opponents’ midfield with incisive passes and ambitious runs with the ball. His goal came at the end of a long sprint: he carried the ball through the Benfica midfield, laid it off to Robert Lewandowski on the wing, continued his run to the six-yard box, and found himself in perfect position to finish the attack he started.
The Portuguese midfielder has all the talent in the world, but without the right manager and environment, all of his skill could go to waste. With Kovac, who is more likely than previous Bayern managers to give his young players a chance, the EURO 2016 star could see the hype that surrounded him 18 months ago return.
Real Madrid will be fine without Ronaldo
Post-Ronaldo Real Madrid is a beautiful thing. Last Wednesday, Marco Asensio almost broke the internet, Luka Modric split the Roma defense repeatedly with four key passes and an assist, Gareth Bale tore up the right flank, Isco froze Roma’s Robin Olsen on a free kick, and Mariano gave the world a glimpse at why he deserves Ronaldo’s old No. 7 shirt.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s individualistic style of play worked well, as he won four Champions Leagues in his time at the Bernabeu, but without him, the supporting cast finally has the chance to step into the spotlight. Isco, Asensio, Modric, Bale, and Toni Kroos are all capable of dominating a game by themselves, but when they combine with each other, they perform even better.
Roma is clearly Real’s biggest competitor for top spot in Group G, and the way Los Blancos disregarded them and thoroughly outplayed them shows the Spanish giants have not lost a step while adjusting to life after losing their best player. If they keep up this form throughout the group stage, they should be considered favorites when the knockout stages start.