Winners and Losers from UEFA Champions League, Matchday 3
We are somehow halfway through the Champions League group stage already.
The massive games keep on coming in a competition that can be summed up by the following two sentences: Some big teams are struggling. Some lesser fancied teams are smashing.
This week's selection of Winners and Losers carries on this theme in spectacular fashion…
Winners: The Napoli Reboot Narrative
How do you respond to losing the talismanic Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens in one summer? By starting the season with an 11-game unbeaten run across all competitions, racking up wins against Lazio, Juventus and Liverpool in the process. That’s how.
Napoli's 6-1 destruction of Ajax on Tuesday should put the continent on notice. Luciano Spalletti’s side catapulted into action after Mohammed Kudus gave Ajax the lead inside 10 minutes. From there, we got to witness the free-flowing, aggressive attacking output that has defined Napoli’s season so far.
Giacomo Raspadori’s header set the tone for what would become Ajax’s worst European defeat in 122 years. The Italian’s lethality in front of goal seems to be improving with each match, so much so that you could be forgiven for forgetting they are missing star striker Victor Osimhen.
Raspadori is also forming an excellent bond with Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who's arguably the breakout star of the season across Europe. The Georgian’s incision on the ball is forcing teams to double up, leaving space for the likes of Raspadori and Hirving Lozano to overload, supported by a midfield that continues to push the team forwards. Throw in a little Gio Simeone sparkle from the bench once again, and you’ve got fearlessness being flaunted everywhere.
Napoli are currently atop of Serie A and on three wins from three in the Champions League. While it’s too early to suggest trophies are on the horizon, Spalletti’s reboot is doing everything right at the moment.
Nobody will want to face Napoli in the knockout stages. That’s as much as you can ask for right now from a side who are an absolute joy to watch.
Losers: Barcelona’s Champions League Prospects
Just one week without mention of VAR, please! The questionable decisions are beginning to tot up against Barcelona, who suffered a damaging 1-0 defeat away to Inter on Tuesday.
Pedri’s goal was disallowed for an Ansu Fati handball, which, in the eyes of the law, looked extremely harsh. Inter goalkeeper Andre Onana touched the ball onto Fati’s fingertips from point-blank distance, so it’s bewildering to suggest the youngster intentionally touched it with his hand.
The decision was compounded moments later when Denzel Dumfries’ handball went unpunished in the Inter box. This was somehow deemed not worthy of a screen check, despite intense discussions between the referee and his officiating team. It is suggested Barca will submit a formal complaint after a string of strange decisions going against them.
Xavi’s side is now in a precarious position, sitting third in Group C, six points adrift of Bayern Munich at the top and three behind Inter. Next week’s rematch is a must-win. The Blaugrana simply won’t want to entertain the idea of dropping into the Europa League after the financial brinkmanship of the summer.
Winners: The Brugge Underdog Story
Be honest: How many of you predicted Club Brugge would have a 100 percent Champions League record after three games this season?
For those who still have their hands up, how many of you thought they’d keep three clean sheets in that time?
The Belgian side is making a mockery of experienced European opponents in Group B, currently sitting six points ahead of Porto, Bayer Leverkusen and Atlético Madrid. Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Atlético was led by Ferran Jutglà, their very own Spaniard, who is coming good after a frustrating start to his career in La Liga.
Brugge have an excellent tendency to dull their opponents’ strengths, a trait that is seeing them strike an unexpected consistency in the competition so far. Atlético lacked their usual fight and were uncreative in possession, perhaps not helped by Diego Simeone’s decision to bench João Félix once more. Antoine Griezmann’s missed penalty was somehow too casual, despite its aggression, a feeling that sums up the entire team right now.
That isn't Brugge’s problem, though. The underdogs are on the verge of clinching a spot in the knockout rounds for the first time in their history, a feat that should be considered a major success no matter what happens next.
Winner: Haaland Stat Lovers
Erling Haaland is very good at football. We are running out of ways to express this, so here are some stats to validate the point after Manchester City’s 5-0 win against FC Copenhagen:
Haaland has scored 28 goals in 22 Champions League appearances, a goals-per-game record at 1.27, per OptaJoe. This is better than 98 teams in the competition.
Haaland’s brace tonight means he has already scored more Champions League goals than Rivaldo and Luis Suarez, per Squawka
Haaland’s form made Pep Guardiola’s face do this.
What more is there to say?
Loser: Southgate’s Right-Back Conundrum
Should England boss Gareth Southgate take Trent Alexander-Arnold to the World Cup next month? It seems like he definitely won’t after recently indicating Kieran Trippier offers a better all-round game in a squad that will include Reece James and Kyle Walker if there are no injuries.
Wherever you fall on the Trent argument, there’s no denying England possess the best selection of right-backs in the world right now. Southgate will be slammed whether he picks Trent, doesn’t pick Trent, starts James, benches James…
He will be slammed no matter what.
Both Alexander-Arnold and James scored fantastic goals this week. Trent’s free-kick in Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Rangers was a timely reminder that he is a match-winner when in form.
James was rampant down the right side in Chelsea’s defeat of Milan, providing an assist for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and scoring a thunderbolt right after.
In the argument to put Alexander-Arnold into the England squad, it’s quite often forgotten that it could come at the expense of James’ playing time. Trent’s defending has been unforgivable at times this season both in this competition and the Premier League, where his tendency to float out of position has seen him caught napping. There’s some merit to the criticism, but then again, how many other defensive weapons of his caliber do the Three Lions have? One, and it’s Reece James.
Southgate can’t go wrong, but he definitely won’t get it right.
Winners: Juventus...Now That Di Maria Is Firing
On Sept. 18, Juventus lost 1-0 to Monza and Angel Di Maria received a silly first-half red card.
On Wednesday, during his first game back, Di Maria provided all three assists in the Old Lady’s 3-1 win over Maccabi Haifa. His range of passing, control on the ball and dynamism upped Juve’s level and built on the 3-0 weekend win over Bologna.
Juventus are still in a world of trouble in Group H. One win from the opening three matches puts them four points behind Paris Saint-Germain and Benfica with three games remaining. The away trip to Haifa next week simply has to end in three points if the Serie A giants want to continue in this competition.
Di Maria has sprung into life at the perfect time. Dusan Vlahovic found greater space with the Argentinian in the team and played with the kind of freedom that will remind fans of the man who scored 38 goals across his last two Serie A seasons with Fiorentina.
He went five games without a goal before bagging one against Bologna. Di Maria’s assist for the vital second against Haifa will only buoy Juventus some more. If Massimiliano Allegri’s team can halt the strange defensive lapses (which we saw again against Haifa), there might be something to salvage here. Di Maria has proven that he is key if Juve are to get their season back on track.