The Champions League is back! Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s action as this season’s group stage kicks off.
Newcastle still have a lot to learn
There’s a temptation to praise teams when they steal a point away from home. Newcastle United did it Tuesday against AC Milan, drawing a round of applause from various pundits for their “battling” performance at San Siro.
The truth is far less appealing. Milan outshot Newcastle 25-6 and outplayed the visitors in virtually every area of the pitch. Tuesday’s goalless draw was less a demonstration of Newcastle’s defensive brilliance and more an indictment of Milan’s careless finishing.
What we really learned is that Newcastle are well off the pace in the Champions League. They offered next to nothing offensively against Milan, who were beaten 5-1 by Inter Milan on the weekend. Newcastle’s first shot on target came in the 95th minute, and with just 11 touches in the penalty area, they rarely threatened to make any breakthrough. On the opposite end, Milan routinely broke Newcastle’s lines, wreaking all sorts of havoc in the 18-yard box. Sixteen of their 25 attempts came from inside the area, and if Rafael Leao and Olivier Giroud hadn’t had such an off night, Milan would’ve run up the score. It could’ve been embarrassing.
Newcastle manager Eddie Howe said afterward his team would improve, and it must if the club has any hope of qualifying out of this year’s group of death. Timid in the final third and too loose in midfield to control games, Howe’s side often relies on Dan Burn’s exceptional blocking and clearing and Kieran Trippier’s clean tackling to get results. But as a unit, Newcastle are conceding too many high-quality chances for a team with as much ambition as they have.
What’s most concerning about Newcastle is their tactical imbalance. Howe’s team doesn’t press very well, and neither Sandro Tonali nor Bruno Guimaraes look like they can carry the load in the centre of the pitch. They almost seem to step on each other’s toes, with neither knowing what their assignment is.
So there’s much more to learn from the club’s first Champions League match in two decades than there’s to praise. And that’s OK. A lot of people at Newcastle – Howe included – hadn’t experienced a night like this one before. But there was a bit too much luck about this draw for Howe or any one of his players to fall for the usual cliches about such desperate performances. – Anthony Lopopolo
Rodri’s influence keeps on growing
It took some time for Rodri to settle at Manchester City. This isn’t surprising under a manager like Pep Guardiola, whose insistence on patterns and precision can be hard for some players to immediately understand and execute.
But it’s easy to forget that one of the main reasons the Spaniard was omitted from City’s lineup for their 2021 Champions League final defeat was because he was out of form – just two years before Rodri won it for his club against Inter to conclude an influential 2022-23 campaign.
Wind back a couple of years, and Rodri was guilty of dwelling in possession and could surrender the ball in dangerous areas. Sometimes he lacked the vision to consistently turn defense into attack. He didn’t always use his size effectively when shielding the ball. Simply put, he was struggling to be Fernandinho.
Tuesday’s 3-1 comeback victory over Crvena Zvezda was yet more evidence of how much he’s grown as a player. It’s difficult to name a better No. 6 on the planet, with his ability to progress play now reminiscent of Fernandinho while his brawn and assurance on the ball harks back to peak Yaya Toure.
His increased attacking threat was on display when he coolly bypassed his marker and sidefooted the ball into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. He also ranked joint-third for shots in the match (five), completed three dribbles, was on the mark with all three of his attempted long balls, and, of course, touched the ball more times (117) than any other player.
And that’s perhaps the strongest indicator of how valuable Rodri is to Guardiola’s team – they’re getting him on the ball as much as possible. Last season, he averaged 101.2 touches per 90 minutes in the Premier League. That number has risen to 128.5 touches per 90 minutes over the opening five matches of City’s latest English title defense.
“He is a top class player,” Guardiola reflected on Rodri’s latest performance. “The goal is top class but defensively (and) offensively he reads the play and spaces and knows exactly where men are free. Close to the box he is so dangerous.” – Daniel Rouse
Felix enjoying his football again
It’s nice to see Joao Felix smiling.
After enduring a miserable spell at Atletico Madrid, and an even more disastrous loan stint at Chelsea, the Portuguese forward seems genuinely happy at Barcelona. Felix said it was his “dream” to play for the Catalan club prior to sealing his temporary switch from the Spanish capital, and, at least thus far, it’s going as well as he could possibly hope.
He was the standout performer in Barca’s 5-0 shellacking of Royal Antwerp on Tuesday, scoring twice, including a slick opener in which he cut inside and fired a textbook low shot back to the near post. The brace gives him three goals in his last two matches – both 5-0 Barcelona triumphs – and he’s establishing himself as a dangerous weapon on the left side of Xavi’s attacking trio.
Felix, still only 23, is objectively talented. Whatever you think of Atletico Madrid’s decision to spend €126 million to sign him in 2019, there’s no denying his quality. Can he consistently show it off is the question that will determine whether he can reestablish himself as one of the game’s most exciting forwards. It wasn’t that long ago he was viewed as a future superstar, after all.
Under Xavi’s tutelage, and free of the more rigorous defensive demands of Diego Simeone at Atletico, Felix is in the ideal environment. This is his best opportunity to thrive since his Benfica days, and he knows it.
“Getting to this level, it’s not the most difficult thing, it’s maintaining it,” Felix said after Tuesday’s stroll in Montjuic. “We all have to work hard to do that.”
Barcelona, looking to recover from two consecutive – and humbling – group-stage exits in Europe’s premier competition, need Felix to keep delivering just as much as he needs them right now. It’s a dream match. – Gianluca Nesci
Provedel’s memorable moment
Is this the moment that jolts Lazio’s season to life? Goalkeeper Ivan Provedel’s 95th-minute equalizer against Atletico Madrid was a bolt from the blue. The netminder, almost as if in a daze, didn’t know how to celebrate after glancing a header beyond counterpart Jan Oblak to secure a 1-1 draw. Lazio supporters haven’t had much to get excited about in the early stages of the campaign. They lost their first two league matches in upset fashion, and their away win over Scudetto holders Napoli was immediately followed by a timid defeat to Juventus, halting any momentum Maurizio Sarri had hoped to gain. Provedel’s tally, the first by a goalkeeper in the Champions League in over a decade, should provide a much-needed spark. How could it not? – Nesci
Signs of progress for PSG
Paris Saint-Germain have gotten off to a rocky start under Luis Enrique, as the new-look squad – particularly up front – takes time to gel; going into their Champions League opener against Borussia Dortmund, they had won just two of their first five league games. But there were finally signs on Tuesday that the expensively assembled attack is starting to figure things out in the wake of losing Lionel Messi and Neymar. Kylian Mbappe, Randal Kolo Muani, and Ousmane Dembele should be one of the most electric trios in world football. With Goncalo Ramos also in the mix, it’s only a matter of time until PSG morphs into a devastating unit. – Nesci
Tomori deserves more respect
Are you watching, Gareth Southgate? Perennially overlooked by England’s manager, Fikayo Tomori showed against English opposition just how brave of a defender he can be. The 25-year-old stuck to Alexander Isak like taffy on Tuesday, rendering Newcastle’s pacey striker powerless in an incredible man-marking display. Tomori also stepped out of defense whenever he could, ensuring none of Newcastle’s attackers could turn easily into Milan’s half of the field. He certainly took risks – every one of his challenges had to be perfect – but reaped the rewards. Whether Southgate sees Tomori as a solution at the back is another thing. The defender has made just three appearances for England in the last four years. He’s paid his dues. – Lopopolo
All aboard the Simons hype train
The hype over Xavi Simons continues to grow. The 20-year-old didn’t have a goal or an assist in Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Young Boys, but the promising RB Leipzig star played well enough in his Champions League debut to pick up the Man of the Match award. He was a constant threat in possession, fearlessly driving at defenders and helping to create opportunities against the Swiss side courtesy of his great vision and passing. It was a continuation of the versatile Dutchman’s red-hot start to his first Bundesliga season after joining Leipzig on loan from Paris Saint-Germain. – Gordon Brunt
Glazer’s Jekyll and Hyde night
The hasty manner in which Crvena Zvezda boss Barak Bakhar jettisoned goalkeeper Milan Borjan over the summer seemed distasteful given the veteran donned the gloves for six consecutive Serbian SuperLiga titles. But Omri Glazer’s first-half performance at Manchester City helped explain Bakhar’s thinking. The Israeli shot-stopper pulled off seven saves – keeping Haaland off the score-sheet and producing one remarkable piece of athleticism to deny Nathan Ake – to help his team take a surprise 1-0 lead into halftime. However, it was a mixed evening for the 27-year-old, who duly punched Julian Alvarez’s free-kick into his own net for City’s second goal. – Rouse
Stat of the day
It is, officially, the end of an era in the Champions League.
Tweet of the day
Chelsea are still struggling and Thiago Silva turns 39 on Friday. Are the Brazilian defender’s Champions League days over?