The Champions League rumbled on this week with a dramatic slate of action. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Matchday 2 in Europe’s premier club competition.
Besiktas’ reserves do themselves proud
“Besiktas are looking for a miracle,” major Turkish newspaper Hurriyet declared when previewing Tuesday’s trip to Ajax. And it wasn’t an outlandish statement.
Sergen Yalcin’s side traveled to Amsterdam off the back of a sobering defeat to Altay and, most critically, with 11 first-team players unavailable for the tie. The manager had to improvise, nudging promising left-back Ridvan Yilmaz into a more advanced role ahead of Umut Meras, who was starting for the first time this season. Berkay Vardar – an 18-year-old who was making his senior debut and represented the club in the UEFA Youth League earlier in September – later replaced Meras.
Ajax, on the other hand, were flying. In addition to the 5-1 win over Sporting CP to open their Champions League campaign, the Dutch giants boast 30 goals in seven Eredivisie matches.
So, was a 2-0 defeat really so bad given the circumstances? True, Besiktas have no points after their first two matches of the group stage. But collecting four points from their two meetings with Sporting CP plus a point from either of the return fixtures against Ajax (at home) or Dortmund (away) is attainable and would be enough to parachute them into the Europa League knockout rounds.
The performances from Besiktas’ backup players should serve as encouragement for the next four contests.
By the numbers: Sheriff’s historic victory
Naturally, much of the focus will be on Real Madrid suffering arguably the greatest upset in Champions League history. But Tuesday was Sheriff Tiraspol’s day.
Below are some standout numbers from the Transnistrian club’s incredible feat.
1 – Sebastian Thill became the first Luxembourger to score a Champions League goal when he smashed in the 90th-minute winner at the Santiago Bernabeu.
4 – Sheriff are the fourth team to win their first European Cup or Champions League match at Los Blancos’ home. Juventus (1962), Arsenal (2006), and Liverpool (2009) beat them to it.
10 – Goalkeeper Georgios Athanasiadis made an incredible 10 saves in Real Madrid’s backyard, significantly boosting his reputation during a loan spell from AEK Athens.
24 – Sheriff defenders Gustavo Dulanto and Danilo Arboleda bludgeoned 24 clearances between them. Real Madrid players have collectively cleared the ball 20 times over their past three Champions League fixtures.
€12,000,000 – Approximate value of Sheriff’s squad. Real Madrid’s David Alaba earns around the same amount in a year.
Florentino Perez takes a big ‘L’
When the ill-fated European Super League was birthed – before crumbling in record time – in April, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, the most outspoken proponent of the breakaway competition, confidently proclaimed that the Champions League group stage was a waste of time.
“The Champions League is attractive from the quarterfinals, that’s all,” he told Spanish talk show El Chiringuito, via ESPN. “We play against small teams that aren’t attractive. Young people prefer to entertain themselves with other things.”
Ask any young football fan, though, and they almost certainly found Tuesday’s miraculous upset in Madrid entertaining. How could you not?
In Perez’s ideal world, the likes of Sheriff Tiraspol would never get the chance to sniff the same air as Real Madrid, let alone bring the 13-time European champions to their knees. At the Santiago Bernabeu, no less.
It served as a stark reminder that the sport, at its core, is for everyone and has the potential to be a great equalizer. That’s a point that Perez, more than most, should be reconciling with right now.
More to come from Messi, PSG
Paris Saint-Germain’s 2-0 victory over fellow Champions League hopefuls Manchester City, while encouraging, didn’t exactly answer all the questions that have been hanging over Mauricio Pochettino’s team since the club’s lavish summer. The vaunted attacking triumvirate was extremely isolated – PSG often defended with an amusing 7-0-3 formation – and City dominated for large stretches of the match despite being shut out.
There’s work to be done for Pochettino, who knows as much.
Tuesday’s win, however, did provide a glimpse into just how terrifying PSG can be when all the pieces come together. Lionel Messi’s gorgeous goal, his first for the side, had some hallmarks of his Barcelona days as the little Argentine went on a long burst, linked up with a fellow attacker on the edge of the box – in this case, Kylian Mbappe – and picked out the top corner.
It was always going to take time for Messi to get acclimated after spending his entire career – and the majority of his life – at Barcelona. It’s still very early, but the signs suggest it’s just a matter of time.
“I am gradually adapting to my new team, to my teammates,” he said after the contest. “The more we play together (with Neymar and Mbappe), the better it will be. We must all grow together, increase our level of play.”
Liverpool flying under the radar
The shock of Sheriff’s triumph in the Spanish capital and the brilliance of Messi’s maiden strike for PSG dominated the headlines on Tuesday, meaning Liverpool’s stupendous 5-1 victory at FC Porto didn’t get the attention it deserved.
It’s not exactly a new storyline – Jurgen Klopp’s outfit won its previous two visits to the Estadio do Dragao 5-0 and 4-1 – but there was an understanding among the Reds players and some individual performances that suggest the Merseyside club could go deep in this competition.
Maybe it’s time to consider Liverpool as one of the competition’s favorites.
Mohamed Salah was incredible once more, bagging a brace in 66 minutes of work. Fabinho made the most of the space Porto afforded to him and spread the ball well from the base of midfield. And Curtis Jones – called into the lineup after Harvey Elliott, Thiago Alcantara, and Naby Keita were injured – was the best of the bunch, having a hand in each of Liverpool’s five goals while working hard off the ball to reduce Porto’s threat.
Referees get too much protection
Video replay is a good thing. But the people reviewing the footage can’t ignore what they’re seeing.
Referee Cuneyt Cakir made two dubious calls in AC Milan’s 2-1 loss to Atletico Madrid that deserved greater scrutiny from the Video Assistant Referee. Cakir issued a second yellow card to Franck Kessie for a foul that rarely results in a booking at the best of times, but the VAR on duty decided not to recommend a correction, and Cakir chose not to review the footage or verify if he’d made the right interpretation. So Kessie was essentially sent off for clipping a player – or, in other words, doing something that happens several times a game.
Later in second-half stoppage time, Atletico’s Rodrigo De Paul got away with a clear stamp on Sandro Tonali’s foot. To be consistent, Cakir had to give De Paul a yellow card here. He didn’t even give a foul.
Finally, Cakir called a penalty in the 93rd minute based on what he determined to be a handball by Milan defender Pierre Kalulu. But replays showed Thomas Lemar had moved his hand toward the ball before Kalulu even made contact.
Instead of taking ownership of the situation and reviewing the incident on the pitchside monitor, Cakir let the VAR relay the information to him. He made no attempt to confirm a call that could’ve eliminated Milan’s chances of advancing to the knockout stage. Cakir had the duty of care to check the penalty himself.
Of course, neither he nor UEFA explained what led to the decision, and there was no attempt to be transparent about the call. Referees, as Brighton captain Lewis Dunk said in February, “hide behind their bubble,” while coaches and players have to give interview after interview about it.
Ole’s United take time to get going, again
There should’ve been no better motivation than the Aston Villa defeat. Not only was Saturday’s Premier League setback unexpected and embarrassing for Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claimed an offside when Kortney Hause’s header found the net, and Emiliano Martinez’s antics unsettled Bruno Fernandes before he skied his last-gasp penalty.
These apparent injustices should’ve fueled United from the first whistle against Villarreal.
But Manchester United’s response to the Villa result was slurred, particularly in the first half. Wednesday’s 2-1 home win delivered the three points the Red Devils craved after their group-opening loss to Young Boys, but the relief was palpable at Old Trafford.
Villarreal deservedly led at the interval after Arnaut Danjuma dizzied Diogo Dalot with the United midfield largely non-existent – two clear problems that indicated major glitches in Solskjaer’s system. United roared back with Alex Telles’ beautiful 60th-minute strike and Cristiano Ronaldo’s dramatic 95th-minute winner, but it was once again individuals stepping up rather than an all-around team performance.
What could United achieve if they had that late-game intensity from kickoff? Is their tendency to start games poorly a motivational or tactical issue?
Barcelona stuck in reverse
Things are going to get much worse at Barcelona before they get better.
Ronald Koeman’s side looked dull and uninterested in Wednesday’s 3-0 shellacking against Benfica. In fact, the Portuguese hosts were so superior it hardly felt like an upset. Barcelona showed little desire to win second balls or create anything other than hopeful crosses into the box. Poor Frenkie De Jong, one of the only bright spots in Barcelona’s sad-sack midfield, tried to increase the tempo with a couple of defense-splitting passes, but the rest of the team played like it had no intention of winning the match.
Nothing seemed to work. Benfica’s second goal came mere seconds after Koeman brought on Philippe Coutinho, Ansu Fati, and Nico Gonzalez, a triple change that should’ve injected life in Barcelona’s attack. It instead destabilized the team.
Lionel Messi papered over the cracks in this side for so many years, and now, we’re seeing just how deep they are. Koeman’s probably going to lose his job, but what happens after that? A number of players don’t belong at Barcelona, including new signing Eric Garcia, whose blundering performance against Benfica ended mercifully with a red card. Busquets doesn’t have the same presence in midfield, and striker Luuk De Jong is too ineffective to lead the line.
Chiesa has taken the leap
There were some eyebrows raised when Juventus opted to allocate €60 million to sign Federico Chiesa in 2020. Undeniably skillful in the extreme, there were factions of fans and pundits who were unsure if the rapid winger could make the jump required to be the guy at one of Europe’s top sides.
Less than two full seasons into his Juve career, any lingering concerns have been firmly put to rest.
After announcing himself to the world at Euro 2020, Chiesa has elevated his game at club level, too; the 23-year-old is arguably Juventus’ most important player already, providing a unique spark with his combination of blistering pace, trickery, hustle, and an improved finishing ability that he lacked at Fiorentina. All of the Italian’s talents were on display Wednesday as he carried an understrength Old Lady to a rousing 1-0 victory over Champions League holders Chelsea, scoring a clinical goal seconds into the second stanza.
“My game has to develop even more and I have to show a lot more,” he told Jason Burt of The Telegraph prior to the match. “The demands are getting higher because I have just won a tournament, I am playing at Juve but that is also what I want. I want to give my best.”
He’s doing just that. Without him, Juve look slow and turgid. With him, there’s always a chance he can make something magical happen.
Just a blip for Chelsea?
After looking invulnerable in the opening weeks of the season, Thomas Tuchel is getting his first taste of adversity at Chelsea.
The Blues came out on the wrong end of 1-0 results to Manchester City and Juventus in the last four days, an exceedingly difficult two-game stretch that has coincided with an ill-timed spate of injuries and absences; Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante, and Reece James were all unable to feature in Turin on Wednesday.
The German bench boss has built up more than enough goodwill to weather this mini storm – winning the damn Champions League will do that for you – but Chelsea’s checkered managerial history shows even a grand accomplishment won’t save you forever if things deteriorate. Just ask Roberto Di Matteo, who was sacked, coincidentally, after a defeat to Juventus just months after he delivered the big-eared trophy.
A return to full strength will almost certainly see the Blues recover their mojo, but Tuchel has to find solutions for the inevitable stretches of the season when key players are missing. Chelsea, despite dominating possession, managed just a single shot on target at the Allianz Stadium and struggled to get Romelu Lukaku involved until too late in the affair.
There’s no reason to panic in west London, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement for a team that expects to win multiple trophies this year.