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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Going into qualification playoffs
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.
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.
Chiesa, Son among 5 Ballon d'Or snubs
The finalists for the 2021 Ballon d’Or award were unveiled Friday, with many of football’s biggest stars occupying a spot on the prestigious list.
As is the case every year after France Football releases its 30-man shortlist, there are a handful of controversial omissions.
Here are five of the biggest snubs for the 2021 Ballon d’Or award:
Heung-min Son (Tottenham/South Korea)
On the heels of another sensational season at Tottenham Hotspur, Heung-min Son somehow failed to make the cut for the revered honor.
Son was brilliant for Spurs last term, forming a dynamic partnership with Harry Kane on his way to finishing the 2020-21 Premier League campaign with 17 goals and 10 assists. But even though his statistics eclipsed the figures that earned him a place in the top 30 two years ago, the South Korean’s best season in north London went unrewarded by the French outlet.
Federico Chiesa (Juventus/Italy)
There’s not much more Federico Chiesa could’ve done to earn his place among football’s elite.
The 23-year-old winger developed into an integral component for both club and country last season. But even after playing an influential role in spearheading Italy’s journey toward capturing the Euro 2020 title and emerging as a star for Juventus, his heroic efforts weren’t enough for some, apparently.
Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich/Germany)
Joshua Kimmich is perhaps the most puzzling omission of the lot. The versatile German is one of Bayern Munich and Germany’s most consistent players, yet he’s been overlooked by France Football for the second time running.
There’s no doubting the 26-year-old will eventually get recognized in the near future. But there’s also no doubt that, right now, Kimmich is arguably one of the most important and talented players for a Bayern Munich side that habitually competes for – and wins – titles.
Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid/Slovenia)
There wasn’t any room for Jan Oblak in this year’s list of Ballon d’Or contenders, with Italian Gianluigi Donnarumma singled out as the lone representative of the goalkeeping brotherhood.
While there are cases to be made for other goalkeeper snubs – such as Manchester City’s Ederson, Liverpool’s Alisson, Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, and Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy – Oblak’s exclusion may be the most egregious considering his commanding performances in helping Atletico Madrid end their seven-year wait for a La Liga title.
Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain/Brazil)
A trophy-less season at Paris Saint-Germain could be one of the explanations for overlooking Marquinhos. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good reason to omit one of the world’s top defenders.
While it was a disappointing season overall for PSG, Marquinhos was a force throughout the campaign before going on to play a vital role during Brazil’s journey to the Copa America final last summer.
Honorable mentions: Marcos Llorente (Atletico Madrid/Spain), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich/Germany), Edouard Mendy (Chelsea/Senegal), Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich/Germany), Kyle Walker (Manchester City/England)
This weekend in European soccer: Previews, predictions for 5 must-see games
Every week, theScore picks the five most exciting matches to watch in Europe and the U.K. This weekend’s slate features a battle of perennial title contenders in England and a meeting of Italy’s two most entertaining sides.
Manchester United vs. Everton
When: Saturday, Oct. 1 (7:30 a.m. ET)
Where to watch: NBCSN (U.S.), DAZN (Canada)
As long as Cristiano Ronaldo is healthy, there’s a chance for Manchester United to win. He hasn’t even needed a high volume of shots to score decisive goals. His 22.7% conversion rate since joining the Red Devils is easily above Ronaldo’s career average. But that could also make it unsustainable. He’s overperforming his expected goals average by 1.3 and therefore prone to a correction.
That’s bad news for United as they struggle to click elsewhere. Mostly desperation has come from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, and while that provides good drama, it doesn’t seem like the making of a Premier League champion.
Last weekend’s 1-0 loss to Aston Villa was troubling not because it came against an opponent United had dominated for many years, but because Solskjaer’s team lost control of its fate even with 60% possession. Only four of United’s 28 shots actually hit the target.
Luckily, Everton are a bit unsure of themselves too. They lost 3-0 to Villa a week prior, and their three victories thus far have come against teams in the bottom five of the table. Rafa Benitez has yet to find the right balance between defense and attack, a vulnerability United know all too well.
Prediction: A high-scoring draw that does neither side any favors.
Liverpool vs. Manchester City
When: Sunday, Oct. 2 (11:30 a.m. ET)
Where to watch: NBCSN (U.S.), DAZN (Canada)
Liverpool and Manchester City are hoping to enter the international break on a high note after a week of ups and downs.
Liverpool canceled out last weekend’s topsy-turvy 3-3 draw at Brentford with an emphatic 5-1 victory over Porto in the Champions League. But the opposite was true for City, whose 2-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain wiped out all the goodwill from a 1-0 result at Chelsea.
Still, Jurgen Klopp’s side is in first place in the Premier League, with City sitting just a point behind. Sunday’s clash feels like a title-decider, even if it’s too early to significantly impact the final standings.
Liverpool have quietly resurfaced as a legitimate contender on all fronts while overcoming a string of earlier 2021 losses to find their mojo again as an all-action unit. They’re unbeaten since mid-April – a run of 18 matches across all competitions – and Klopp has shown a greater willingness to rotate, giving 25 players 90-plus minutes this season.
If anything, City are the ones facing scrutiny. The frustration in Paris reignited criticism of the club’s transfer policy, and particularly its failure to sign Harry Kane, or any other viable center-forward. Raheem Sterling is still struggling at the domestic level, and even with his winning effort against Chelsea, Gabriel Jesus is fighting for Pep Guardiola’s respect. A lot rests on the creative abilities of Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, and Jack Grealish.
Prediction: Liverpool’s counterattack decides this cagey encounter.
Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona
When: Saturday, Oct. 1 (3 p.m. ET)
Where to watch: ESPN+ (U.S.), TSN 5 (Canada)
Ronald Koeman might not get to coach his last match as Barcelona’s manager. The Dutchman will serve the second half of his two-game suspension Saturday for reaming out the referee during last week’s goalless draw against Cadiz. He’s gone from dead man walking to dead man sitting in the bleachers.
A win over Atletico may not even be enough to save Koeman’s job. The 58-year-old has publicly jousted with club president Joan Laporta, suggesting he hasn’t received enough protection or backing from the higher-ups. All of that may be true, but the on-pitch results are still poor. The players seem demoralized, with Gerard Pique saying recently, “We are what they are.” It feels like there’s no way of reversing the rot.
Koeman himself has urged the fans to be more realistic about Barcelona’s chances of winning anything. But it’s not just about victories. Barcelona need an identity on the field, and Koeman has failed to create one with this rag-tag group.
Atletico aren’t feeling much better about themselves. They’re only two points ahead of the Blaugrana thanks to a humiliating 1-0 loss to bottom side Alavez, and Atletico has scored only seven goals in five league matches. Antoine Griezmann has yet to register a shot on target in La Liga, but his superb goal against AC Milan in the Champions League should provide a confidence boost.
Prediction: A boring goalless draw seals Koeman’s fate.
Atalanta vs. AC Milan
When: Sunday, Oct. 2 (2:45 p.m. ET)
Where to watch: Paramount+ (U.S.), TLN (Canada)
Milan’s high-octane approach makes them one of Europe’s most fascinating teams, and on Sunday they’ll put their credentials on the line against an Atalanta side hoping to recapture the same attacking spirit that made them appointment viewing in recent seasons.
Milan may have lost to Atletico in midweek action, but that was hardly their fault. Dubious refereeing robbed the Rossoneri of its first win in a Champions League match since November 2013. Their performance still stood out, though, with center-back Fikayo Tomori and midfielders Sandro Tonali and Ismael Bennacer showing incredible poise and energy while down a man.
After struggling throughout the 2020-21 campaign, Rafael Leao is also emerging as a protagonist while helping out defensively and scoring goals in big moments. Unlike his first two years in Milan, the 22-year-old has discovered a newfound appetite for tracking back, and he’s far more purposeful when in possession.
Atalanta used to put opponents in similar trouble. Unfortunately, manager Gian Piero Gasperini has so far been unable to get his players to produce the same intensity that propelled the provincial side to three consecutive top-four finishes. Losing dynamic full-back Robin Gosens to a long-term injury certainly doesn’t help.
Prediction: Leao scores the winner in a back-and-forth affair.
Lille vs. Marseille
When: Sunday, Oct. 2 (11 a.m. ET)
Where to watch: beIN SPORTS (U.S.), fuboTV (Canada)
Arkadiusz Milik’s return from injury comes at the right time. Marseille fired blanks in two of their last three games, getting little to show for their superior possession.
Contrasting the club’s recent performances with Milik’s from last season, the Polish striker scored nine goals in 15 appearances while converting 21% of shots taken. That should offer supporters hope of a quick turnaround.
Especially against Lille, who have yet to keep a clean sheet in Ligue 1 in 2021-22, despite entering the campaign as defending champions. At 37 years old, Jose Fonte is showing his age, putting more pressure on Sven Botman to shore up Lille’s creaky defense.
Lille, however, can still bank on center-forwards Jonathan David and Burak Yilmaz to produce offense. The two start up top in Jocelyn Gourvennec’s 4-4-2 formation and have notched eight goals between them in all competitions.
Prediction: Milik and David score in a 1-1 draw.
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