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Champions League Review | Match Day 3

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We’ve officially reached the halfway point of group play, and after a fairly straightforward match day the last time around, results this time were a bit less predictable, including one club registering its first Champions League points. While no groups are officially decided as of yet, some teams are already staring down Europa League relegation with little hope to move back into first or second in their group. Let’s start with Tuesday’s results.

Group E: Maribor 0 – 7 Liverpool.

firmino-liverpool-vs-maribor

The last gameday, I made the comment that Liverpool needed to “show a more aggressive attitude against Maribor” to get back on track. I think scoring four goals by halftime fits that bill pretty well. Liverpool wasted no time, netting their first in the fourth minute of play. Salah played out of his mind, scoring two goals and assisting on another, though he did seem to poach his second goal from Firmino. Not to be outdone, the Brazilian added a brace of his own in the 54th minute. Liverpool’s two hyphenates (Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexander-Arnold) added late goals to make this look more like FIFA 18 than real life.

These three points were crucial for the Reds, especially after such a lukewarm start to group play. Manchester United must have frustrated Jurgen Klopp to no end during their scoreless draw this past weekend, and Liverpool found their whipping boy to take all the frustration.

Group E: Spartak Moscow 5 – 1 Sevilla.

spartak-vs-sevilla
Photo credit: Prokeraia.com

Ouch. What happened to Sevilla? Holding Liverpool to a 2-2 draw, followed by a 3-0 victory over Maribor left the Spanish side at the top of the table after two match days, two points clear of Liverpool and Spartak. Meanwhile, Spartak drew Maribor 1-1 to start things off before putting up a similar result against Liverpool. It would have been completely reasonable to write them off after two ho-hum performances. Today’s result throws that notion out the window entirely after the Russian champions put up four second-half goals. Sevilla goalkeeper Rico was constantly caught out of position, and his reaction speed was poor.

Sevilla’s defensive collapse sees them in third place, with Liverpool and Spartak tied for first (with the Reds ahead on goal differential). A single point separates first from third place, so the group is still up for grabs, but Liverpool and Spartak are looking confident after blowout wins. If Sevilla expects to bounce back, they’ll need to rally behind their home fans in consecutive matches against the teams above them. As of right now, I still expect this group to be decided on the final day.

Group F: Feyenoord 1 – 2 Shakhtar Donetsk.

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Photo credit: Reuters

On paper, you may have expected a draw: 49-51 possession, 80-82 passing, 2-4 on corners, and 10-8 on shots. While Feyenoord got off to a quick start, scoring the first goal of the match in the 8th minute, Shakhtar Donetsk just had better luck in converting their chances and not letting disciplinary issues (5 yellow cards and a red) get in their way.

With no points through three matches, Feyenoord still has a mathematical chance to advance, but likely will finish last in the group. Shakhtar, meanwhile has lost only to Manchester City, and are favored to move on – especially considering the results of the group’s other match.

Group F: Manchester City 2 – 1 Napoli.

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Don’t let the final score fool you. Manchester City took the lead early, with Raheem Sterling scoring in the 9th minute after quickly reacting to a blocked shot. Four minutes later, Gabriel Jesus added a goal of his own. Kevin De Bruyne would have added a third goal, had he not been impeded by the crossbar. Napoli, meanwhile, didn’t score until the 73rd minute and did so on a penalty kick. This one was never really in doubt.

Even missing Benjamin Mendy, Vincent Kompany, and Sergio Aguero, City looked no worse for wear. This is still the team to beat in the group stage, and at this pace, City will be one of the favorites entering the knockout round. Napoli and Shakhtar still have the potential for a close run at second place, but realistically, Shakhtar could (for all intents and purposes) eliminate Napoli on November 1st with a win and another Napoli loss to Manchester City.

Group G: RB Leipzig 3 – 2 Porto.

After two uninspired performances, RB Leipzig finally got their act together and pulled out a win over Porto, whose manager Sérgio Conceição said after the match:

“We committed some uncharacteristic defensive mistakes tonight. However, whenever we got in range of their goal, we looked dangerous. We were lacking that certain extra bit of consistency in the defensive side of our game which, had we had it, would have made things more comfortable.”

That’s not exactly how I would’ve put it. Sloppy, inefficient play hindered both squads on both sides of the ball – Leipzig only completed 74% of their passes, which is still preferable to the paltry 65% completed by Porto. Looking deeper at the stats, it’s a wonder this match wasn’t more lopsided. Leipzig controlled corners 7-2 and dangerous attacks 60-27. RB Leipzig moves into second place after an ugly victory, while Porto falls a point behind, but still very much alive.

Group G: Monaco 1 – 2 Besiktas.

Who would have expected the reigning French champions, even after selling several players during the summer transfer window, to be at the bottom of their group with only one point in the standings halfway through group play? Falcao scored a beautiful goal to open the scoring in the 30th minute, but Besiktas equalized just 4 minutes later. The Turkish champions sit comfortably atop the group table and barring a collapse of epic (not quite PSG-Barcelona) proportions, should advance to the next stage.

Monaco just looks lost in the Champions League. With only two goals scored against six conceded, it’s highly unlikely Monaco turns it around and advances past their group stage. Right now, they don’t even look worthy of Europa. Monaco needs time to rebuild before being a threat in Europe again, which is especially sad to say after last year’s brilliant run to the semifinals. With only one point between them, RB Leipzig and Porto still have a long way to go before deciding which team will advance. They’ll meet again November 1st in Portugal in one of the more pivotal matches of the round.

Group H: Real Madrid 1 – 1 Tottenham Hotspur.

 

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One for old time’s sake.

 

Though the final score says otherwise, Tottenham won big. Yes, their goal was actually an own goal by Varane, but it came from a legitimate attacking position (instead of some goofball failure a la Omar Gonzalez) and in slow motion, it almost looks like Harry Kane deflects it into Varane. Regardless, Spurs went into the Santiago Bernabeu and walked out with a point and an away goal.

Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, earlier in the week, said, “This Tuesday we will have the opportunity to show why La Liga is better than the Premier League.” The opportunity was there, but Madrid just couldn’t convert. Tottenham keeper Hugo Lloris deserves a lot of the credit, as he put on a Master’s class against one of the strongest attacking teams in the world. Spurs and Real Madrid remain tied for first atop Group H and are set to meet again at Wembley Stadium on November 1 in what will be a much-hyped rematch of two of the world’s best clubs.

Group H: Apoel 1 – 1 Borussia Dortmund.

I think I owe Apoel an apology. In my last match day column, I didn’t even acknowledge their presence in the Group of Death. Imagine my surprise when, in the 62nd minute, the heavily-favored Borussia Dortmund finds themselves down 0-1. It was a comedy of errors from Burki, as he first cleared the ball to the wrong team, then allowed a deflection to be recovered by Apoel’s Pote and put back in for the first goal of the match.

The lead may not have lasted (Dortmund equalized a mere five minutes later), but I didn’t expect a single goal from Apoel, much less expect them to take crucial points away from Dortmund. With three matches left in group stage and Dortmund a whopping six points behind Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur, the Bundesliga leaders are in a lot of trouble.

For the most part, Wednesday’s favorites answered the call and lived up to expectations. However, an unexpected draw could see a perennial contender drop down into the Europa League.

Group A: Benfica 0 – 1 Manchester United.

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It wasn’t pretty, but the Red Devils put up another clean sheet and continued their winning ways on the road. Victor Lindelof was in the starting lineup against his former club, and by all accounts, had a solid performance in place of the injured Phil Jones. Marcus Rashford scored the only goal of the match in the 64th minute, a ridiculously long shot from a free kick that caught Benfica keeper Svilar off guard as he caught the ball over the line, jumping backward to attempt the save.

Manchester United really could have used Pogba or Fellaini today, as Ander Herrera and Henrikh Mkhitaryan both looked lost and ineffective tonight, the latter continuing a run of poor form saved only by the assists he’s created. At some point, he needs time on the bench to rest and refocus. Benfica, meanwhile, is all but eliminated after having lost all three matches thus far. The chance at Europa still exists, but no offense to speak of (one goal in three matches), it’s more likely the Pot A club will see their European season end after six matches.

Group A: CSKA Moscow 0 – 2 Basel.

In spite of losing the possession battle 57-43 and being less than stellar at passing, Basel kept their Champions League momentum going as they held Moscow without a single shot on target. Knowing that Manchester United has first place all but wrapped up at this point, Basel took full advantage by winning a difficult road fixture. Next up for these clubs is a rematch in Switzerland that could see CSKA Moscow demoted to the Europa league if they aren’t careful.

Group B: Bayern Munich 3 – 0 Celtic.

Has Jupp Heynckes righted the ship? The interim manager helped Bayern bounce back from an embarrassing loss to PSG with a home victory against Celtic that was never in doubt. Bayern attempted a whopping 26 shots compared to only 9 for Celtic, as well as comfortably winning the time of possession 56 to 44. Even Mats Hummels got in on the scoring action, heading in a cross in the 51st minute.

You have to admire Celtic for not just rolling over and playing dead. The rematch will take place in Scotland in a few weeks, and with three points separating the clubs, Celtic isn’t eliminated yet, but they have a better chance of defeating Bayern than they do PSG. Two wins out of the next three will be necessary if they aim to advance to the knockout stage.

Group B: Anderlecht 0 – 4 Paris Saint-Germain.

If you expected Anderlecht to actually show up and challenge the French Juggernaut, could I interest you in a condo on the moon? In all seriousness, if you thought this game would be close, please see your doctor for a CT scan. It wasn’t close. Not even a little bit. Kylian Mbappe opened the scoring in the third minute and PSG never took their foot off the gas pedal, with Cavani, Neymar, and di Maria adding goals of their own before the 90 minutes was mercifully up. Giving credit where it’s due, keeper Alphonse Areola made a few key saves that wouldn’t have given the match away but would have let it become too close for comfort.

Anderlecht remains the only team in the group stage that has yet to score a goal. At least they lose with consistency: 3-0 to Bayern, 3-0 to Celtic, and 4-0 to PSG. I honestly feel sympathy for Anderlecht, as they weren’t completely inept – just overwhelmed by a superior opponent. They actually managed to win the time of possession, completed 87% of their passes, and attempted 6 corners to PSG’s one. In the end, Anderlecht just couldn’t compete with world-class finishers.

Group C: Qarabag 0 – 0 Atletico Madrid.

I’m honestly not sure how to begin with this one, aside from my desire to pile endless amounts of ridicule on Atletico. You have 10 La Liga titles, 10 Copa del Rey titles, 2 Europa League championships, 2 UEFA Super Cups, and are 3-time Champions League Runners-up. Qarabag doesn’t have a single title outside of Azerbaijan and the former USSR. This match, on paper, should have ended the same way as that South Park episode where Stan coaches the pee wee leaguers against the Detroit Red Wings.

Instead, we ended up witnessing a painful scoreless draw that has to affect the confidence of the heavily-favored Atletico. I know Azerbaijan is a bit of a haul for an away match, but come on. Their performance was so bad it almost gets Dortmund off the hook – at least the German side managed to score once against an overwhelmingly inferior opponent. Atletico had chances (the Griezmann offside goal, Torres’ header), but their failure to convert leaves them in third place in Group C with half of the fixtures played. It’s not a good look. Unless, of course, Atletico have their sights set on a third Europa League championship.

Group C: Chelsea 3 – 3 Roma.

hazard-chelsea-vs-roma

Depending on how you like your football, this was arguably the most entertaining match of the day. Chelsea took a 2-0 lead in the 37th minute on an Eden Hazard goal (set up nicely by Morata) before allowing three unanswered goals by the 70th minute. Hazard again stepped up and equalized five minutes later, leaving this slugfest a draw. On paper, Chelsea should have lost this match after having been dominated in time of possession and creating 19 fewer dangerous attacks than Roma, but Hazard’s heroics earned Chelsea the point and kept Roma from claiming first place in Group C.

While this was an ideal result for Atletico Madrid (as no teams gained points/positioning on each other), Roma proved they can go toe-to-toe with the bigger, stronger, richer clubs in Europe. Chelsea still leads, and will likely win the group, but Roma will be taken much more seriously after such a strong effort. If Atletico doesn’t beat Qarabag at home next time around, consider them finished.

Group D: Barcelona 3 – 1 Olympiacos.

Another unsurprising result. Barcelona defends Camp Nou, and water is wet. Ok, I’ll say something nice about Olympiacos – they didn’t let a Barcelona player score until the 61st minute, making the match 2-0. That first goal? An own goal, as Messi crossed the ball into the shins of Nikolaou, crossing the goal line before goalkeeper Proto knew what had happened.

Remember months ago when everyone saw the buyout of Neymar as the beginning of the end for Barcelona? Glad to see that worked out for them. Barcelona is still the class of Group D, and even with another match with Juventus set to take place, the group is theirs. Olympiacos has yet to so much as draw – consider them eliminated.

Group D: Juventus 2 – 1 Sporting CP.

This match was much too close for comfort for last year’s Runners-up. Having equalized in the 29th minute to make up for an own goal, Juventus was in serious danger of only walking away with one point. Sporting goalkeeper Rui Patricio made several acrobatic saves, but ultimately gave up the winner in the 84th minute on a header from Mandžukić.

In spite of recording six points in two matches (and still being favored to advance to the knockout stage), Juventus just doesn’t look capable of the same magic as last season. Serie A is deeper and more difficult this season (as seen in Juventus’ current fourth-place standing), and domestic matches will take their toll.

Conclusions

Halfway through group play, the shortcomings of Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund have been the biggest surprise. With Celtic, Napoli, Sevilla, and Porto also currently in third place in their groups, the Europa league has the potential to add several high-profile teams and could feature a final with intrigue enough to rival the Champions League final itself.

A few thoughts in closing. Could the fact that five English teams are leading (or sharing the lead in) their groups signal the beginning of the end of Spanish dominance? Can anyone stop PSG from scoring and putting up clean sheet after clean sheet? Is Besiktas the best team nobody is talking about? And exactly how bad do you have to be to not put up a single goal against Qarabag? Seriously, I want an answer on that last one. Atletico really screwed that up.

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