UEFA Champions League: 10 Things We Learned from Opening Matches
The race for European glory is on again as 32 teams compete once more in the UEFA Champions League. The prize: being named the greatest football team on the continent.
Every team played its opening match in the last two days, and whilst some fared better than others, what we did see was an interesting insight into the tournament ahead.
Here's 10 things we learned about the Champions League and the teams participating in it from the opening round of matches.
1. English Teams Won't Have It Easy
Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal all had mixed results throughout the opening round of competition, but what they all had in common was a shared sense of inconsistency.
Simply put, none of the English teams were impressive. None of them established themselves as genuine contenders this season.
Both United and Arsenal picked up wins—both one-goal victories where the opposing side had more chances and should have scored more goals.
Chelsea dropped valuable points at home to a Juventus outfit that looked very strong, whilst City couldn't finish off the match against Real Madrid, conceding two goals in the final few minutes of play.
None of this is to say that the English teams in the Champions League this year aren't to be reckoned with, but through the opening game, they certainly didn't inspire a whole lot of confidence.
2. The Group of Death Is Exactly That
When the Spanish champions, the English champions, the German champions and the Dutch champions were all drawn into the same group for the Champions League, we suddenly had one of the better (or worse) "Groups of Death" in any tournament throughout recent years.
Whoever is going to qualify through Group D is certainly going to earn it, with no fixture—home or away—considered an easy victory.
And with late goals giving the two home sides victory, it seems that these four teams are going to be very competitive right across the board. Dortmund scraped past Ajax courtesy of a late Robert Lewandowski goal, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo found the back of the net for Real Madrid to record a thrilling 3-2 victory over Manchester City.
Picking up wins at home is huge in the Champions League, and if the opening round of matches is anything to go by, the Group of Death is going to be a fascinating race to watch over the next few weeks.
3. This Is Why PSG Spent the Money
Over the summer transfer window, Paris St. Germain spent more on transfers than the rest of Ligue 1 put together—the reason being so that they could challenge in Europe's top competitions and be a genuine contender throughout.
The £130 million-plus they spent on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gregory van der Wiel, Marco Verratti and Lucas Moura was done so that they could be competitive in the Champions League, and after watching their opening match, you get the feeling that the French club could indeed surprise a few teams this year.
Their domestic form has been woeful, and they were at home to Dynamo Kiev, but the 4-1 victory was a statement that is bound to be noticed by other teams in the Champions League.
They should quality from Group A with relative ease, and they could even clinch top spot with a solid performance in their next away match to Porto FC, who are looming as the lone challenger in the group. If they can qualify atop their group, there's no reason PSG can't make a good run in the competition this year and prove to be a world-class team.
And if that does happen, the money will almost seem worth it.
4. Oscar Is the Real Deal for Chelsea
Perhaps lost in Chelsea's summer transfer of Eden Hazard and his sensational start to life in the English Premier League was Oscar, Chelsea's other 21-year-old superstar.
Well, after a Man of the Match performance and two goals against Juventus, you can guarantee that Oscar will not be forgotten any longer.
Oscar was sensational in the middle of the pitch—a move that forced Eden Hazard out wide and could have brought dire consequences on the Blues if not employed correctly. He was dominant in attack and effective in his passing game and proved that he is a player for the future at Stamford Bridge.
After his performance against Juventus, Oscar almost demands to be in the starting lineup for the London club, and it's almost scary to reflect on how strong and dominant the Brazilian international will be once he receives experience in both the English and European competitions.
5. Lionel Messi Is a Genuine Game-Winner
The greatest thing about Lionel Messi (for me, anyway) is that he is a genuine game-winning player, and he proved that again for Barcelona on Thursday.
The La Liga giants were trailing 2-1 at home to Spartak Moscow with 18 minutes to go and potentially heading for one of the more embarrassing upsets in the club's recent history. But courtesy of two goals from the Argentinian striker, Barcelona would go on to win the match 3-2 and give Tito Vilanova his maiden European victory.
Messi was the Spanish domestic league's top goal scorer for the past four consecutive seasons, but the manner and timing in which he scores his goals is what's most important for Barca. His two goals in this one could not have been more important, and that again proves why he one of the greatest players in the history of world football.
6. As Is Cristiano Ronaldo
And as is often the case, what is said for Lionel Messi must also be said for Cristiano Ronaldo, with the Madrid superstar netting a late game-winning goal against Manchester City to also give his side a thrilling 3-2 victory at home.
The Portuguese winger may have gotten a little lucky with the shot, with Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany seeming to not be on the same page as to who was saving the attempt. But the fact remains that at big moments in the game, the big players step up.
Ronaldo has endured a poor start to the season by his own admission and has been the subject of much speculation about his current performances and future playing career.
To put all of that behind him and lead his side to what will turn out to be a crucial three competition points is the mark of a true champion, as well as proof that he too is a genuine game-winning player.
7. AC Milan Just Can't Get It Together
Few sides in world football have started the season with the same lack of direction and purpose to their play as AC Milan have across all competitions.
The Rossoneri have struggled in Serie A so far—failing to score in any of their home games—and were left wanting again at the San Siro as they played out a scoreless draw to Anderlecht.
What's worse for the Italian giants is that the Belgian champions are probably the weakest side in their group. A home match should not have yielded anything other than three tournament points and a spot at the top of the group table.
They now must perform on the road in Russia—an incredibly difficult fixture—if they are to have any hope in progressing through to the knockout stages of the tournament. I know it's early, but the signs simply aren't good for Milan and they must get it together sooner rather than later.
Bleacher Report's Robert Lewington unpacks the situation well, describing Milan as a rudderless side who look all at sea in Europe.
8. Isco Is a Player for the Future
Whilst Oscar might have been the Premier League's best performer in the opening round, Isco was certainly his Spanish counterpart, as the Malaga midfielder was instrumental in his side's victory.
The Spanish international netted two goals on just three shots and simply tore apart Zenit St. Petersburg's defense in the process—achieving a perfect 10 on WhoScored's match rating. He was strong on defense, created chances on attack and helped the club forget the name Santi Cazorla, who recently made a move to Arsenal in the Premier League.
Malaga's off-field issues have led many (including myself) to doubt them this year, but after watching the way that they played earlier this week, there is little doubt that they can indeed become a genuine contender and threat to the top teams this year.
That's especially if Isco continues the fine form that he is in. At just 20 years old, he certainly has a bright future ahead of him in world football.
9. Bayern Munich Should Cruise Through Group
After coming so close last season in the Champions League, German giants Bayern Munich entered this year's tournament as one of the teams to beat, and after watching the Group F matches in the opening round, there's little doubt that they can indeed challenge for the title again this year.
Bayern should cruise through their group, with Valencia their only real threat to the top spot. Lille were woeful against BATE Borisov, and neither of those two teams look able to take down Bayern in the group stage.
Valencia will cause the German side some troubles when they play in Spain later next month, but Bayern will handle themselves more than adequately away from home.
They are the team to beat in this group and one of the most dangerous sides to watch in this year's Champions League.
10. Good Teams Always Find a Way to Win
What appears most clear after watching the opening round of matches in the Champions League this year is the fact that the best teams in the tournament always fine a way to win, regardless of whether they are playing some of their best or worst football.
Arsenal, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona—all were incredibly lucky to an extent to pick up three points in their opening match because they were not the better team and were not playing their best football.
Yet all of them managed to pick up the three points, because that's what good teams do. I'm not saying that these are the five teams to watch this year, but especially in the group stages, picking up points is what matters most.
Chelsea last year is a perfect example. They were nowhere near as glamorous and slick as Barcelona, Real Madrid or even Bayern Munich, and yet it was their name on the Champions League trophy at the end of the tournament.
Winning is what matters, and the best teams know how to get it done.
I think we'll see that reinforced throughout the group stages again this year.
What did you make of the opening Champions League matches?
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