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Champions League Review | Match Day 2

 

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Photo credit – Sport’s Illustrated

 

 

Match Day 2 of the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League is in the books, and not all has gone according to plan for a few championship hopefuls. Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and Atletico Madrid find themselves in early trouble, while Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, and Manchester City appear ready to challenge reigning champions Real Madrid.

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In Group A, Manchester United has lived up to their billing as heavy favorites, hammering CSKA Moscow 4-1 in Russia. While pundits have poured on the praise for new addition Romelu Lukaku (and deservingly so, having scored three goals in his first two Champions League appearances), Anthony Martial has shown a marked improvement over his 2016-17 campaign. Martial had a hand in all four goals yesterday, assisting Lukaku twice and gaining credit for a third assist when Henrikh Mkhitaryan put back a blocked attempt by Martial. He also scored on a penalty attempt after Mkhitaryan was fouled in the 17th minute. The way the Red Devils are clicking right now, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them pick up all 18 possible points.

The bigger surprise in Group A was Basel’s 5-0 drubbing of Benfica. With a goal differential of -6, the reigning Portuguese champions show just how badly they’re missing defenders Nelson Semedo and Victor Lindelof, having moved on to Barcelona and Manchester United, respectively. Even after a 3-0 loss to United in the opening match, Basel still occupies second place on goal differential over CSKA Moscow. Unless Benfica gets their act together, the Pot 1 team could see their European season over much sooner than originally anticipated.

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I don’t think anyone was shocked to see Paris Saint-Germain, who are finding themselves vilified by non-fans for their hideous abuse of Financial Fair Play, easily defeat Bayern Munich after losing superstar goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. The firing of Carlo Ancelotti, however, has sent shockwaves through the footballing world. A bit of a journeyman since leaving A.C. Milan in 2009, Ancelotti is out at Bayern after winning the Bundesliga by a staggering 15 points last season. The team sits in third place thus far this season, only three points back of first-place Borussia Dortmund. With few facts available as of now, speculation is Ancelotti lost the locker room and the players had a hand in his sacking. A permanent replacement has yet to be named, but the sexy pick right now would be former Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel, whose unceremonious departure after two top-three seasons at the club left many scratching their heads.

In Group B’s other match, Celtic dominated Anderlecht 3-0, drawing even on points with Bayern Munich, and trailing second place only on goal differential. I previously expected these clubs to be fighting to determine who will get the Europa spot and whose European season would end after six games; however, Celtic’s next fixture sees them travel to Munich. If Bayern struggles to gel with a new manager, or if their defense continues to lack without Neuer in goal, don’t be surprised to see Celtic in second place after two difficult away trips. Goalless through two matches, Anderlecht is dead in the water.

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In another match more fitting of a quarterfinal than group stage, Chelsea won an extremely difficult away fixture 2-1 at Atletico Madrid on Batshuayi’s goal in stoppage time. After two games, Atletico find themselves in an unfamiliar place considering their recent run of success in the Champions League. With their next two fixtures against Qarabag, don’t expect Atletico to stay winless in Group C. However, if Roma and Chelsea keep their current pace, leaving Atletico in third place, don’t be surprised if the reports of Antoine Griezmann leaving for Manchester United start early this year.

While in second place in Group C for the time being, Roma isn’t guaranteed to advance. Having fallen to Porto last year and failing to make the Champions League, finishing third in their group two years prior, and missing the previous three seasons of Champions league entirely, recent history isn’t on Roma’s side. Azerbaijan makes for difficult travel, but to only win 2-1 against first-time entrants Qarabag doesn’t impress anyone. If Roma is going to hold Atletico at bay, they’ll need to give Chelsea everything they’ve got over the next two matches. Momentum will be the difference between advancing to the knockout stage or ending up in the Europa league.

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Were it not for a 49th-minute own goal, Sporting CP would have held Barcelona to a scoreless draw, potentially creating a dangerously close group after two fixtures. Instead, Barcelona’s domination of time of possession was critical to their victory, and first place in the group. Sporting leads Juventus by virtue of goal differential, but with the clubs meeting in consecutive upcoming fixtures, expect last year’s runner-up to firmly cement themselves in second place.

The Italian champions simply have too much firepower to not advance out of group stage, finishing Olympiacos 2-0 and getting back to form after previously dropping 3-0 to Barcelona at Camp Nou. With nearly 70% time of possession, 91% passing accuracy, and seven shots on target, it really shouldn’t have taken Juventus nearly 70 minutes to put a goal on the board. Great teams score early and often, and if Juventus can’t take early advantages, they could struggle once reaching the knockout stage.

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Opening Group E with consecutive draws is certainly not the way Jurgen Klopp wanted to kick off Liverpool’s 2017-18 Champions League campaign. While their bitter rivals Manchester United arrived in Moscow with a thirst for blood, Liverpool struggled to take advantage of opportunities against Spartak. You can’t blame everything on travel, and Moscow is nowhere near as harsh in September as it could have been later in the group stage. The Reds will need to leave everything on the pitch in December’s rematch at Anfield, as well as show a more aggressive attitude against Maribor, if they want the Premier League to potentially field five teams in the knockout stage.

Sevilla, meanwhile, is doing exactly what needs to be done, making short work of Maribor behind Ben Yedder’s hat trick. With a whopping 80 dangerous attacks (per UEFA’s stat tracking), Sevilla didn’t fall victim to a trap and thoroughly controlled the match from start to finish. The Slovenian side should consider themselves lucky to earn another point in group stage, but has the potential to play spoiler for Liverpool if they park the bus, play for draws, and if Spartak can steal a few points from Sevilla. Aside from Maribor, Group E is still completely up for grabs.

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I’m not going to mince words – Manchester City is the class of Group F, and in the group stage, they have no equal. Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk aren’t exactly a weak team, previously dispatching of a very good Napoli team 2-1, but Pep Guardiola’s squad is just too deep in talent. The only real challenge for Manchester City, going forward, is coping with the loss of Benjamin Mendy, out with a ruptured ACL. If City continues to apply their Premier League strategy (attack so hard you really don’t need to worry about defense), expect them to cruise through the group and into the next round.

Napoli rebounded from their loss to Shakhtar, defeating Feyenoord 3-1 and taking second place on goal differential over the Ukrainian champs. At this point, Feyenoord is nothing to worry about. With one goal scored, seven conceded, and two losses, their season in Europe is effectively over. The second-place battle between Shakhtar and Napoli should be quite compelling, with the clubs meeting again on Match Day 5, likely knowing what needs to be done in order to advance to the knockout stage. The early advantage has to go to Napoli, since Shakhtar hosts Manchester City in the final match of group play, knowing even a single point will be hard to come by.

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At the time of the draw, Group G seemed to have the most balance and was the hardest to predict. After two matches, Besiktas has a convincing lead over the group with wins against Porto and, more recently, RB Leipzig. The Turkish champions, in spite of a less than stellar passing accuracy and time of possession, did not waste their chances, taking the lead over the Bundesliga runners-up in the 11th minute. Having already agreed to sell Naby Keita to Liverpool as soon as the English transfer window begins in 2018, and drawing heavy criticism from German media for his behavior, you have to wonder what kind of an effect the Guinean midfielder has on his club and whether or not his attitude is harming their chances to advance.

What a difference a year makes. Last season, Monaco comfortably won Ligue 1 and made it to the semifinals of the Champions League before ultimately falling to Juventus. This summer the club sold key pieces Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Tiemoue Bakayoko, and Kylian Mbappe, and while still holding on to second place in Ligue 1, the club looks utterly lost thus far in European competition. Porto hammered Monaco 3-0 in a match where the defending French champions only managed one shot on target out of eleven attempts. To have any hope of advancing to the knockout stage, Monaco captain Falcao will need to mirror his French form in European competition.

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On paper, Group H looked like the most deserving candidate for the “Group of Death” moniker, featuring the likes of Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and Tottenham Hotspur. After two matches, it’s only a two-team race for the top of the table. It should be to no surprise that Real Madrid is undefeated thus far, most recently defeating Borussia Dortmund 3-1 behind two goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and another from Gareth Bale. The defending champions have zero doubts about moving on to the knockout round and honestly should be favored to reach the final for the third year in a row.

Several pundits had Tottenham Hotspur on the outside looking in, favoring Borussia Dortmund to advance to the knockout stage alongside Real Madrid. Five goals in two matches for Tottenham striker Harry Kane have quickly thrown predictions out the window, as Tottenham is tied with Real Madrid atop the group table with 6 points, each team having scored six and conceded only one. The two clubs will face off in consecutive Champions League match days, so this result is unlikely to stand, but this will be the ultimate test for Tottenham. Are they truly ready for the best Europe has to offer, or is their quick start in Group H due to the weaknesses of their opponents?

As the groups stand currently, here are the teams I believe will advance: Manchester United, Basel, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Sevilla, Liverpool, Manchester City, Napoli, Besiktas, Porto, Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur. 

Teams that could potentially spoil one of the above’s chances: Celtic, Roma, Spartak Moscow, Shakhtar Donetsk, Monaco.

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