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10 thoughts from this week's Champions League action

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.

Anadolu Agency / Anadolu Agency / Getty

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.

Marc Atkins / Getty Images Sport / Getty

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.

(Courtesy: DAZN)

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.

(Courtesy: DAZN)

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.

NurPhoto / NurPhoto / Getty

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.

DeFodi Images / DeFodi Images / Getty

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.

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22 most exciting youngsters to watch in 2022

Over the next 12 months, a fresh crop of footballers will establish themselves atop the men’s game. Here, theScore looks at some talented youngsters – aged 21 and under – who are set to flourish in 2022, while deliberately excluding those who made our lists in previous years.

Previous selections: 2019 | 2020 | 2021 (Part one and two)

Yacine Adli ??

Club: AC Milan | Age: 21 | Position: Attacking midfielder

AC Milan quietly executed a shrewd piece of business by signing Adli this past summer. You can see why. The Frenchman, who’s spending the season on loan at Bordeaux to continue his development, can take you by surprise with the kind of mesmerizing quick feet that you don’t typically associate with someone of his rangy physique.

Julian Alvarez ??

NurPhoto / NurPhoto / Getty

Club: River Plate | Age: 21 | Position: Forward

Alvarez trained with Real Madrid before he was a teenager, but it’s at River Plate where he’s exploded with 19 goals and seven assists over his last 16 appearances. The attacker seemed destined to use Major League Soccer as a stepping stone into Europe, but his influential role in River’s league triumph may mean he bypasses North America on his way to the top.

Ander Barrenetxea ??

Club: Real Sociedad | Age: 20 | Position: Winger

Alexander Isak (22) isn’t the only rising star at the Anoeta right now. Barrenetxea, a tricky dribbler who typically operates on the left wing, has caught the eye in limited action for Real Sociedad this season. Able to cut inside and beat multiple defenders with one mazy run, the Spanish youth international is the latest to emerge from the Basque club’s famed academy.

Antony ??

BSR Agency / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Ajax | Age: 21 | Position: Winger

Ajax are one of the most exhilarating sides to watch in Europe thanks in part to the inventiveness and trickery of the left-footed Brazilian. Antony has made a habit of cutting in from the right wing and either finding the net himself or teeing up the likes of Sebastian Haller; the explosive youngster has racked up five assists in as many Champions League matches this season.

Armando Broja ??

Club: Chelsea | Age: 20 | Position: Forward

Broja had to bide his time for the first league start of his Southampton loan spell and his work ethic has been questioned by Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl, but he’s finally taking the chance to prove himself. He’s the club’s top scorer with six goals despite starting only nine matches across all competitions but needs to learn to use his 6-foot-3 frame more effectively when holding up the ball.

Maxence Caqueret ??

Eurasia Sport Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Lyon | Age: 21 | Position: Midfielder

Caqueret has been one of the few bright spots for a struggling Lyon side this season. A product of the club’s fabled academy, he captained the team at every level before leaping into the senior squad. Though slight and diminutive in stature, the French midfielder is smooth as they come on the pitch, and he reads the game so well that he always seems to be in the right place.

Jonathan David ??

Club: Lille | Age: 21 | Position: Forward

David is already a star. The forward has scored 12 times in the 2021-22 Ligue 1 campaign – just one goal behind his tally from Lille’s 2020-21 title-winning season – and he powered Les Dogues to the Champions League round of 16 with three strikes during the group stage. David’s seven goals and three assists in World Cup qualification have also put Qatar 2022 in Canada’s sights.

Charles De Ketelaere ??

BRUNO FAHY / AFP / Getty

Club: Club Brugge | Age: 20 | Position: Forward

De Ketelaere is ready for the next step. After establishing himself in the Club Brugge senior side over the last two seasons, the young Belgian forward is enjoying a true breakout campaign, scoring nine goals – all from open play – and adding six assists, both career highs, through 21 matches. An opulent transfer, likely in the summer, beckons.

Conor Gallagher ?gbeng

Club: Chelsea | Age: 21 | Position: Midfielder

Gallagher is a contender for the 2021-22 PFA Young Player of the Year award. His aggressive work off the ball for loan side Crystal Palace can be overlooked due to the brilliance of his energetic, incisive play at the other end of the park. Chelsea have a real talent on their hands, though his style is arguably a better fit for a team like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Gavi ??

Soccrates Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Barcelona | Age: 17 | Position: Midfielder

Like compatriot Pedri before him, fellow teen sensation Gavi has enjoyed a meteoric rise at Barcelona. Controlling the midfield for one of the biggest clubs in world football is a herculean task, let alone for a 17-year-old, but with a mixture of poise and technique, Gavi makes it look frighteningly simple. His feel for the game is innate, and that’s something you simply can’t teach.

Tino Livramento ?gbeng

Club: Southampton | Age: 19 | Position: Right-back

Livramento has played the most Premier League minutes for Southampton this term despite only making his top-flight debut on the first weekend of the campaign. Such is his attacking threat, Livramento is the most-fouled defender in the division, and his excellent form has forced right-back Kyle Walker-Peters – one of the Saints’ standout players last season – onto the left-hand side.

Lorenzo Lucca ??

NurPhoto / NurPhoto / Getty

Club: Pisa | Age: 21 | Position: Striker

Lucca won’t be playing in Italy’s second tier for very long. The mountainous center-forward, who idolizes Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is the top scorer for Serie B-leading Pisa this season. Either via promotion or transfer, the striker dubbed the “Tower of Pisa” should get an opportunity to show off his devastating aerial prowess in Italy’s top flight in 2022.

Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty ??

Club: Toronto FC | Age: 17 | Position: Winger

Marshall-Rutty’s recent training sessions with Liverpool have earned the admiration of Reds midfielder Harvey Elliott, who urged the Canadian teenager to “sign” in an Instagram response. Through his rise up Toronto FC’s ranks and 12 MLS appearances thus far, the winger has proven he can deliver pinpoint crosses, accelerate in an instant, and often make the right on-pitch decisions.

Gabriel Martinelli ??

Stuart MacFarlane / Arsenal FC / Getty

Club: Arsenal | Age: 20 | Position: Forward

The Martinelli hype has soared over his recent run in the first team. He’s scored three over his past four league starts and regularly gets more touches of the ball and completes more dribbles than his fellow attackers. “He’s come a long, long way because his energy, his passion, his commitment – it doesn’t get much better than that, ever,” Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta said in December.

Cole Palmer ?gbeng

Club: Manchester City | Age: 19 | Position: Attacking midfielder

Palmer is expected to get more game time for Manchester City following the sale of Ferran Torres. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne have given Palmer advice on how to play the No. 8 role in the past, but his early senior outings have mainly been in attacking positions. He impressed in a fluid frontline when he scored from 18 yards during a cameo against Club Brugge in October and was a false nine the following month for his first Premier League start in a 3-0 win over Everton.

Ricardo Pepi ??

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

Club: FC Augsburg | Age: 18 | Position: Striker

El Tren has already had his breakout year. In 2021, Pepi was named MLS Young Player of the Year for his team-best 13 goals for FC Dallas and U.S. Soccer Young Male Player of the Year for three goals and two assists since his international debut in September. In light of that success, the fearless and fiercely competitive striker completed a record-breaking move to Augsburg.

Yeremi Pino ??

Club: Villarreal | Age: 19 | Position: Winger

Nobody has appeared in more league matches for Villarreal this season than Pino, who continues to show why he’s regarded as a future superstar every time he gets on the ball. The Spanish club recently inked the exciting winger to a lengthy contract extension that, in true La Liga fashion, includes an €80-million release clause. That could eventually be a bargain.

Jesurun Rak-Sakyi ?gbeng??

Sebastian Frej/MB Media / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Crystal Palace | Age: 19 | Position: Winger

Rak-Sakyi may have to wait until next season for an extended run in the first team, but the departures of Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew – and potentially Jeffrey Schlupp – to the Africa Cup of Nations could present chances for him to be an impact sub in the coming weeks. He’s scored 10 goals in 13 starts for Palace Under-23s this season, underlining his rapid improvement over the past 18 months.

Jacob Ramsey ?gbeng

Club: Aston Villa | Age: 20 | Position: Midfielder

Ramsey’s a courageous midfielder who always looks to move his team forward, and he’s thriving since Steven Gerrard identified him as a key player following the Scouser’s appointment as Aston Villa manager in November. Ramsey’s younger brothers are also at the club: Aaron, 18, made his senior debut in August and Cole is making an impression in Villa’s younger ranks.

Nicolo Rovella ??

Gabriele Maltinti / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Juventus | Age: 20 | Position: Midfielder

The answer to Juventus’ longstanding midfield issues may already be in-house. Rovella, currently on loan at Genoa, is an assured central midfielder whose poise playing in front of the defense belies his youth. The feisty Italian is tidy in possession, has an impressive passing range, and balances that out nicely with significant defensive output.

Kamaldeen Sulemana ??

Club: Rennes | Age: 19 | Position: Winger

Sulemana has more successful Ligue 1 dribbles (50) than both Neymar and Kylian Mbappe this season, and he’s accomplished that feat despite touching the ball only 522 times; the Paris Saint-Germain duo come in at 756 and 877, respectively. That, in a word, is electrifying. The blossoming Ghanaian is nightmare fuel for full-backs.

Nico Williams ????

Soccrates Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Athletic Bilbao | Age: 19 | Position: Winger

The Williams legacy lives on at the San Mames. The younger brother of beloved ironman Inaki, Nico Williams is already establishing himself as a vital contributor at Athletic Bilbao; he’s one of only three players to appear in every league match for the club this season. The teenager is quick, skilled, clever with the ball, and plays with a passion that fans adore.

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Who's in, who's out? World Cup field taking shape after European qualifying

The European contingent for next year’s World Cup is nearly finalized.

Tuesday brought an end to the group stage of UEFA’s qualifying format, with the Netherlands securing the last of 10 automatic berths allocated to Europe for the showpiece tournament in Qatar; 13 European teams in total will partake in the event.

Below is a breakdown of the nations that already qualified, along with a complete explanation of the new playoff system, which will decide the final three European countries that will head to Qatar in November 2022.

Qualified for World Cup

The 10 group winners from qualifying can officially start booking their flights.

  • Serbia
  • Spain
  • Switzerland
  • France
  • Belgium
  • Denmark
  • Netherlands
  • Croatia
  • England
  • Germany

Going into qualification playoffs

PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP / Getty

With 10 nations earning a ticket to Qatar, that leaves three outstanding World Cup places for UEFA. Those berths will be determined by a new 12-team playoff format. The nations will be drawn into three groups of four – called “Paths” – and play one-off semifinals and a final to decide which teams get the last three spots.

The draw for the playoffs takes place on Nov. 26 at 11:00 a.m. ET.

  • Seeded: Portugal, Scotland, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Wales
  • Unseeded: Turkey, Poland, North Macedonia, Ukraine, Austria, Czech Republic

The six seeded nations will be drawn against the six unseeded teams to create the semifinal matchups; the seeded sides will play those respective games at home. The semifinal matches are scheduled for March 24.

The draw will also determine the potential finals for each of the three “Paths,” meaning each team will know its prospective opponent before a ball is kicked in March.

  • Path A: winner of Semifinal 1 vs. winner of Semifinal 2
  • Path B: winner of Semifinal 3 vs. winner of Semifinal 4
  • Path C: winner of Semifinal 5 vs. winner of Semifinal 6

The three finals are slated for March 29.

Aside from Russia and Ukraine being kept apart for political reasons, there are no restrictions on the draw. That means the two most recent European champions – Italy and Portugal – could potentially meet in a one-off final to determine which continental heavyweight goes to the World Cup and which one misses out.

Italy, which famously failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament by losing in a two-legged playoff to Sweden, could very well meet the Swedes again, too.

Notable absentees

Fran Santiago / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Erling Haaland won’t get the opportunity to play in his first World Cup, as Norway finished third in Group G by virtue of Tuesday’s defeat to the Netherlands, thus failing to earn either automatic qualification or a playoff spot. The Borussia Dortmund superstar missed the 2-0 loss due to injury.

Norway will be joined on the sidelines by the likes of Ireland, Hungary, Greece, Finland, and Iceland.

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10 thoughts from this week's Champions League action

The Champions League rumbled on this week with an entertaining slate of action. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Matchday 3 in Europe’s premier club competition.

What happens if goals dry up for Liverpool?

Liverpool’s exhilarating 3-2 win over Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday was arguably the best match of the competition this season. It had a little bit of everything: an electric atmosphere, great goals, a red card, a penalty, and wild swings in momentum.

And though Jurgen Klopp should be enthused by Mohamed Salah’s sizzling form and his team’s continued ability to fill the net (Liverpool have now scored 18 goals in their last five matches across all competitions), it wasn’t all positive for the German tactician.

After a ferocious start in which the Reds rocked Atletico during the first 15 minutes, Diego Simeone’s side steadied the ship and was the better team over the remainder of the contest. Looking beyond all the noise – the excellent finishing, Antoine Griezmann’s red card, and the late penalty incidents – Atleti probably should have come away with three points; Alisson was forced into some stellar saves on both sides of the halftime interval as Liverpool afforded an uncharacteristic amount of space, especially out wide, to the hosts.

Klopp, who correctly pointed out that winning “dirty” is an important attribute of successful teams, isn’t blind to the issues facing his squad at the moment.

“We are not that confident, to be honest,” he said after the match. “We know our struggles, we know our problems but we try to ignore them very often.”

In their last eight games in all competitions, Liverpool have conceded two or more goals in four of them, looking wobbly at the back against AC Milan, Brentford, Manchester City, and now Atletico. With Salah absolutely destroying his opponents right now, Liverpool can outscore their defensive issues, but at some point, they’ll have a spell when the goals don’t flow quite so freely. Hopefully, Klopp will have sorted out a suddenly susceptible backline by then.

PSG still lack a clear plan

With seven points from their opening three matches, Paris Saint-Germain are well-positioned to emerge from Group A and reach the knockout stages of the competition. But, not for the first time this season, the star-studded French side lacked cohesion and coherence, relying instead on individual quality from Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe to claim a 3-2 comeback win over RB Leipzig on Tuesday.

Mauricio Pochettino obviously has a plan for his team, but outside of scoring early and then using their elite attackers to wreak havoc on the counter, it’s been difficult to discern what, exactly, PSG want to do this season. Case in point: PSG had an open-net tap-in on the goal line – Messi’s first goal of the match – and still lost the overall expected goals (xG) battle when you exclude penalties from the equation.

Give the ball to Messi and Mbappe, and get the hell out of the way is, in fairness, an approach that will work more often than not. It was enough on Tuesday, after all. Conventional wisdom suggests that plan should be even more fruitful when Neymar is fit and involved, but something is still missing.

Great attacking tridents can carry a team very, very far – we’ve seen it happen in the past – but more than most sports, football truly is a team game. There needs to be balance all across the pitch, or the system crumbles. Barcelona’s famed “MSN” triumvirate, for example, was aided by an elite supporting cast, including a brilliant midfield.

Messi, Mbappe, and Neymar will deliver goals, but what Pochettino does with the rest of his squad will likely determine how successful PSG are this season.

Foden makes Manchester City tick

Amid doubts this season over Manchester City’s ability to get results without a traditional No. 9, victory in Belgium was proof that the Premier League club is doing just fine without a center forward in the fold.

In what was another example of Pep Guardiola’s tactical prowess, Manchester City produced one of their best attacking performances of the season in Tuesday night’s lopsided away win over Club Brugge.

VIRGINIE LEFOUR / AFP / Getty

With Phil Foden deployed as a false nine, City dominated en route to a 5-1 victory. The versatile 21-year-old was on another level, as his vision, passing, and movement off the ball caused problems for defenders all night long. This is a quality Brugge side that beat RB Leipzig and held PSG to a draw in its previous Group A matches, so such a thorough hammering is nothing to scoff at.

Foden’s confident display was one that City fans have come to expect from the exciting English international – and one that would be nearly impossible for just about any “traditional” striker in the world to replicate. With Ferran Torres out injured and Gabriel Jesus’ continued struggles with consistency in front of goal, Foden could be the target man of the future for Guardiola.

Toothless Milan on brink of humbling exit

AC Milan’s return to the Champions League has been nothing short of a disaster. Despite their impressive start in Serie A, the Rossoneri have struggled to get their Champions League campaign off the ground and now face the threat of an embarrassing exit after another frustrating night.

Stefano Pioli’s men arrived in Portugal with their best opportunity yet to secure their first Champions League point since 2014. Instead, a controversial goal from Luis Diaz lifted FC Porto to victory over the seven-time European champions, who were also the victims of very dubious officiating decisions that factored into their loss to Atletico Madrid on Matchday 2.

Regardless of their poor luck with the officials, Milan now have a mountain to climb just to avoid finishing last in Group B after losing their opening three matches; they sit four points back of Porto and Atletico, and nine behind leaders Liverpool.

The assignment was always going to be difficult given the strength of the quartet. But toothless displays such as the one on Tuesday night – when Milan managed only one shot on target – are likely to result in a humiliating departure from the tournament that fans were so desperate to see the club compete in again.

Just how far can Ajax go this season?

After years of consistently developing prodigious talents and selling them at huge profits, Ajax have often been relegated to underdog status during their recent Champions League endeavors. Based on some of their upsets, it’s a role the young Ajax teams of late have cherished.

But Tuesday felt like a turning point.

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Ajax thwacked Borussia Dortmund, claiming a resounding 4-0 win befitting of a juggernaut, not an underdog. That’s exactly what the Dutch side has looked like this season; between the Eredivisie and Champions League, Ajax have racked up 43 goals in 12 games, conceding only three times.

Erik ten Hag’s team is supremely skilled in virtually every area on the pitch, and the imposing Sebastien Haller offers a change of pace up front that is, somewhat surprisingly, jiving perfectly with his more technical teammates.

FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI) has the usual suspects rated as the best teams in this season’s Champions League: Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and Liverpool occupy the top three spots at the moment. However, Ajax are fourth.

Until we see evidence to the contrary, the storied club should be viewed as a legitimate candidate to make serious noise in the tournament.

Barca’s unspectacular win papers over cracks

It took them until Matchday 3, but Barcelona got their Champions League campaign up and running with a 1-0 win over Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday.

But the path to victory was rougher than it should have been against a team Barcelona would have historically been heavy favorites to beat. Less than a year after winning 4-0 on a trip to Ukraine, Barca had to grind their way to victory at the Camp Nou.

On an evening when the hosts struggled to generate scoring opportunities, it took the heroics of a defender to decide the match. Gerard Pique scored the winner and became the first player to register a Champions League goal for the club since Lionel Messi’s departure.

Despite getting the three points, it was a brutal performance that won’t fill fans with confidence ahead of the season’s first edition of El Clasico this weekend. If Koeman can’t inspire his men ahead of the showdown with Real Madrid, it could spell the end to the Dutchman’s time in charge.

Ronaldo rescues Solskjaer … again

Of course.

For the second consecutive Champions League match, Cristiano Ronaldo saved the blushes of Manchester United and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, delivering a late header to cap a stirring 3-2 comeback win over Atalanta.

Villarreal know the feeling, too.

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Solskjaer, who has come under increasing pressure amid the club’s poor run of form, was surely the most relieved person inside Old Trafford as he watched Ronaldo’s header hit the back of the net in the 81st minute. Though United created some chances in the first half, they again looked disorganized in defense and cumbersome overall, and the team, down 2-0 at halftime, was jeered off the pitch. The home crowd was growing restless.

Such a thrilling comeback will surely placate some – being able to turn that game around was no small feat, and praise is warranted – but getting into that situation in the first place should keep the alarm bells ringing. All is not solved, and the same pressing questions remain.

Does Solskjaer have the tactical nous to fix what’s ailing the team? Or, as has long been suggested by his detractors, is he more of a cheerleader who needs to make way for a more celebrated tactician who can get the best out of a very talented squad?

Welcome to the De Sciglio renaissance?

Mattia De Sciglio was an afterthought for many Juventus supporters following his return from a loan spell with Lyon, but the versatile Italian has shown in recent matches why Massimiliano Allegri continues to have faith in him.

The 29-year-old, never the most buccaneering full-back, has directly contributed to Juventus’ last two goals, whipping in delicious crosses against Roma this past weekend and Zenit St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Juve claimed 1-0 victories in both contests.

De Sciglio is often afforded plenty of space by the opposition, who have clearly identified him as the Bianconeri’s least threatening outlet, regardless of which flank he takes up. It’s not an unwarranted approach, to be fair, but if he continues to make worthwhile attacking contributions, opposing teams will eventually need to account for a player who some didn’t expect to see wearing a black and white shirt at all this season.

Time for Tuchel to get creative

Chelsea cruised to a 4-0 win over Malmo on Wednesday, but any delight was tempered after watching strikers Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner both leave the contest in the first half with worrying injuries.

Thomas Tuchel said after the victory that the Belgian star twisted his ankle, adding that the German speedster sustained a hamstring issue. He suspects the duo will miss “some games,” according to James Olley of ESPN. The extent of their ailments will be learned later this week.

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Barring a rapid recovery, Tuchel will need to get crafty with his lineup selections in the coming weeks. Kai Havertz, who found the net in Wednesday’s rout, figures to see some time as a false nine.

There’s never a good time for injuries, but the Blues will take solace in the fact that Lukaku and Werner’s setbacks come during the most favorable portion – at least on paper – of Chelsea’s schedule.

Adeyemi ready for big move

Karim Adeyemi will very likely be the subject of a bidding war in January.

The Red Bull Salzburg forward, 19, brought his tally to three goals in as many matches in this season’s Champions League, scoring an early marker in his side’s 3-1 triumph against Wolfsburg. The Austrian club is now sitting pretty atop Group G and will fancy its chances of reaching the knockout stage.

The German international’s explosiveness has been central to Salzburg’s success. In addition to his scoring prowess, the teenager has won four penalties in three games. Defenders can’t handle him.

Manager Matthias Jaissle should probably enjoy the next couple months while he’s able to call upon Adeyemi; a handful of Europe’s top clubs are apparently eyeing an opulent transfer for the youngster, who looks destined to be the next big star to come through the vaunted Red Bull pipeline.

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