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Champions League

23 most exciting youngsters to watch in 2023

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 2023, while deliberately excluding those who made our lists in previous years.

Previous selections: 2019 | 2020 | 2021 (Part one and two) | 2022

Karim Adeyemi ??

Club: Borussia Dortmund | Age: 20 | Position: Winger

Excitement over Adeyemi’s potential surged last season when he scored 19 goals and contributed five assists during Red Bull Salzburg’s title-winning campaign. He hasn’t hit the ground running since swapping Austria for Germany, with a nagging foot injury harming his transition, but you can trust Dortmund to do a good job in giving the pacey frontman plenty of minutes against the best teams in Europe.

Benoit Badiashile ??

Jean Catuffe / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: AS Monaco | Age: 21 | Position: Center-back

Badiashile, on the brink of joining Chelsea, is ready to test himself away from Ligue 1 and possesses the physical attributes that should make him a good fit for Premier League football. His age, left-footedness, and experience of 106 appearances in France’s top flight add to his appeal, and he’s skilled at progressing play from the back with measured passes. One of his finest attributes is his knack for outpacing forwards and ushering them off the ball – it looks so effortless for him.

Alejandro Balde ??

Club: Barcelona | Age: 19 | Position: Full-back

Xavi was so impressed with Balde’s performances during preseason that he immediately tasked the young left-back with challenging for Jordi Alba’s starting spot in the Barcelona lineup. Balde was picked for Barca’s second match of the season and repaid his manager’s faith by quickly setting up Robert Lewandowski’s first La Liga goal. The teenager seems determined to make up for lost time after injuries disrupted his progress last season. He was included in Spain’s World Cup squad and appeared four times at the competition.

Armel Bella-Kotchap ??

Justin Setterfield / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Southampton | Age: 21 | Position: Center-back

The biggest risk to Bella-Kotchap’s development is his club. Southampton didn’t feel stable throughout Ralph Hasenhuttl’s four-year reign, and his successor, Nathan Jones, has had a rough start to his tenure. Nevertheless, Bella-Kotchap impressed enough with the Saints to earn his first Germany call-up in September. He puts his acceleration to good use, shutting down attacks early or mopping up for his teammates when they’ve been beaten.

Endrick ??

Club: Palmeiras | Age: 16 | Position: Striker

Unless you’ve got access to Brazilian football on your television, you’re not going to see Endrick regularly until he joins Real Madrid in July 2024. The teenage forward is a phenomenon, scoring three goals over seven outings as Palmeiras finished top of the Serie A standings. His rise since his professional debut in October has been spectacular, and he’ll relish the prospect of joining Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo in Los Blancos’ attack.

Enzo Fernandez ??

Chris Brunskill/Fantasista / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Benfica | Age: 21 | Position: Midfielder

Fernandez already hinted at his unbridled potential in the Champions League group stage when he outclassed his contemporaries at Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus. Then he was one of the best midfielders in Qatar as he helped Argentina capture its third World Cup, keeping the team ticking with his mature use of the ball while proving to be a tigerish opponent out of possession. His goal against Mexico wasn’t bad either.

Alejandro Garnacho ??

Club: Manchester United | Age: 18 | Position: Winger

There were concerns over Garnacho’s attitude and defensive work earlier in the season, but he’s a player who gets fans off their seats. He oozes confidence, running at opponents and daring them to challenge him. He can create and finish as well: In the space of 10 days in November, he became Manchester United’s youngest non-English goalscorer in Europe, assisted twice in the League Cup, and nudged in a 93rd-minute winner in the Premier League.

Josko Gvardiol ??

Sebastian Frej/MB Media / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: RB Leipzig | Age: 20 | Position: Center-back

You’ve all heard of him by now. Gvardiol’s domineering displays at the back provided the foundation for Croatia’s run to the 2022 World Cup semifinals. His 6-foot-1 frame is intimidating, but don’t write him off as an old-school defender: He produced the second-most interceptions in Qatar and ranked third for total passes by a Croatian behind Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric. RB Leipzig could demand a world-record fee for a defender when the time comes to sell.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia ??

Club: Napoli | Age: 21 | Position: Winger

Kvaratskhelia’s style is somewhat unrefined – and that’s not a bad thing. Rather than adhering to strict tactical lessons in a lavish European academy, his impulsiveness and trickery flourished while he played in Georgia and Russia. He could take risks and make mistakes. He was allowed to entertain. That increasingly rare introduction to the game has created one of the most watchable and unpredictable players on the globe: like legendary Georgian playmaker Georgi Kinkladze with a dirt bike engine.

Marcos Leonardo ??

Ricardo Moreira / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Santos | Age: 19 | Position: Forward

Marcos Leonardo is determined to make Brazil’s No. 9 shirt his own. There’s plenty of evidence from his first season as a Santos regular to suggest he could claim the coveted jersey in time for his country’s 2026 World Cup campaign. He’s full of cheek, charm, and class. He scored 13 goals over 35 appearances during the 2022 Brazilian Serie A season and has a wide repertoire of finishes, including powerful drives and audacious lobs.

Rico Lewis ?gbeng

Club: Manchester City | Age: 18 | Position: Full-back

Lewis only turned 18 in November, but he’s already playing significant minutes at right-back for Manchester City ahead of Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker. He scored in his full Champions League debut against Sevilla and played one half of that game in an inverted role before staying wide as a traditional, overlapping full-back in the other half. It seems he’s already mastered the Pep Guardiola playbook.

Ian Maatsen ??

James Gill – Danehouse / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Chelsea | Age: 20 | Position: Full-back

Ben Chilwell’s injury issues and Marc Cucurella’s underwhelming start to life at Stamford Bridge could work out well for Maatsen. The versatile Chelsea youngster previously had spells on loan at Charlton Athletic and Coventry City, and he’s now thriving in Vincent Kompany’s attack-minded Burnley side. He can sometimes be erratic and predominantly spends time in the opposition’s half, so he could be a strong left-wing-back option for Chelsea next season.

Nuno Mendes ??

Club: Paris Saint-Germain | Age: 20 | Position: Full-back

Mendes is already establishing himself among the best left-backs on the globe. He initially boosted his reputation at Sporting CP after becoming a regular starter following the departure of Alex Telles. His speed, close control, and strong link-up play encouraged Paris Saint-Germain to swoop in the summer of 2021, and he quickly claimed the left-back spot ahead of Juan Bernat in the French capital.

Fabio Miretti ??

Daniele Badolato – Juventus FC / Juventus FC / Getty

Club: Juventus | Age: 19 | Position: Midfielder

Juventus have recently been blessed with a flood of talent from their youth academy, and Miretti might be the best of the lot. He’s missed just two Serie A matches this season as he pushes to be a starter in Massimiliano Allegri’s side and has showcased his fine vision, ability to find space between the lines, and impressive decision-making in the final third. Allegri has praised Miretti for playing like a veteran.

Mykhailo Mudryk ??

Club: Shakhtar Donetsk | Age: 21 | Position: Winger

Shakhtar Donetsk’s asking price for Mudryk rose sharply during the 2022-23 Champions League group stage. The Ukrainian caused chaos down the left flank, tearing strips off right-backs with his searing pace and notching three goals and two assists over six appearances. Mudryk’s end product still has room for improvement, but his overall quality after just a season and a half in his country’s top tier is jaw-dropping.

Joao Pedro ??

Ryan Hiscott / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Watford | Age: 21 | Position: Forward

Given his success while recruiting for Brighton & Hove Albion, it’s wise to trust Newcastle United sporting director Dan Ashworth’s moves in the transfer market. Newcastle tried to sign Joao Pedro for £30 million last summer, and the Brazilian’s form in the Championship has dispelled any reservations over the size of that fee. He’s scored eight times and assisted twice for an underperforming Watford side and only ranks behind Sheffield United’s Iliman Ndiaye in England’s second tier for successful dribbles.

Goncalo Ramos ??

Club: Benfica | Age: 21 | Position: Striker

Ramos had no problem with replacing Portugal icon Cristiano Ronaldo in the starting XI, scoring a hat-trick as the Selecao obliterated Switzerland in the World Cup round of 16. It was the perfect way for Ramos to mark his first international start. His heroics in Qatar came as no surprise to Benfica fans, who’ve witnessed the 21-year-old rack up 14 strikes in 22 appearances across all competitions this season. His goals have helped ensure Darwin Nunez wasn’t missed after his big-money move to Liverpool.

Rodrygo ??

Martin Rickett – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Club: Real Madrid | Age: 21 | Position: Winger

With Vinicius down the left and Rodrygo on the right, the edges of Real Madrid’s frontline should be set for the next decade. But, unlike Vinicius, Rodrygo is yet to become a bona fide starter for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, with an untimely hamstring injury midway through the 2021-22 season and Federico Valverde’s immaculate form denying the 21-year-old regular playing time. Rodrygo can be a super sub, but he can also be so much more.

Georginio Rutter ??

Club: Hoffenheim | Age: 20 | Position: Striker

Rutter’s basic numbers are underwhelming: two goals and two assists over 15 Bundesliga appearances. Still, the attacker – who progressed through the Rennes ranks with Eduardo Camavinga – has been one of the most impressive youngsters in Germany’s top flight. His defensive work out of possession is reminiscent of Roberto Firmino, who also improved rapidly at Hoffenheim, but Rutter provides more flair and mobility for his team’s counterattacks.

William Saliba ??

Visionhaus / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Arsenal | Age: 21 | Position: Center-back

Saliba had to bide his time at Arsenal, but after three separate loan spells away from the club, the defender is a key element of the Gunners’ surprise charge for the Premier League title. He’s proactive without being impulsive. He’s forceful without being reckless. And, importantly for a team that likes to play out from the back, he’s extremely comfortable with the ball at his feet and regularly picks the right pass.

Joe Scally ??

Club: Borussia Monchengladbach | Age: 19 | Position: Full-back

Scally was fast-tracked into senior football when New York City FC signed him to a Homegrown Player contract at 15, but he then found it hard to usurp Anton Tinnerholm in the MLS club’s lineup. That didn’t prevent Scally from earning a move to Europe, and the natural right-back drew plaudits when he made his Bundesliga debut at left-back in a 1-1 draw against Bayern Munich in August 2021. There are plenty of areas where Scally can improve, but being a Monchengladbach regular at just 19 could allow him to reach his potential.

Kiliann Sildillia ??

DeFodi Images / DeFodi Images / Getty

Club: Freiburg | Age: 20 | Position: Center-back/Full-back

France’s conveyor belt of talent is relentless. Sildillia wowed onlookers in the Bundesliga with his versatility, work rate, and maturity during Freiburg’s marvelous opening half to the 2022-23 campaign. He’s willing to carry the ball or release the midfielders ahead of him with wise passes and can rapidly halt opposition attacks with his pace, brawn, and aerial ability. It’s rare that someone so young is so important to a team.

Kenneth Taylor ??

Club: Ajax | Age: 20 | Position: Midfielder

This list is incomplete without an Ajax player. Taylor enjoyed a breakout campaign under Erik ten Hag as Ajax won the Eredivisie title last season and has proved he’s comfortable in a variety of midfield positions. After making a single substitute appearance for the Netherlands at the World Cup, Taylor will look to kick on in club football and add to his tally of five goals and three assists in the league this term. Ajax chief executive Edwin van der Sar has called Taylor a “gem.”

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Champions League

The incredible numbers that underline Pele's excellence

Pele is gone but his influence lives on.

One of the greatest sports stars of all time died in Sao Paulo on Thursday. He was 82 and had undergone treatment for colon cancer since 2021.

It’s impossible to condense the life of such a transcendent figure into a few statistics. But here, theScore tries to provide a snapshot of Pele’s on-field brilliance via some of his most notable numbers.

3

PA Images Archive / PA Images / Getty

Pele holds the distinction of being the only player to win the World Cup three times.

He triumphed with Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970. The only blot on his record on soccer’s greatest stage is the Canarinho’s first-round elimination in England in 1966, where he was subjected to rough treatment from opponents.

In total, Pele scored 12 World Cup goals, leaving him sixth on the all-time list behind Miroslav Klose, Ronaldo, Gerd Muller, Just Fontaine, and Lionel Messi.

17

STAFF / AFP / Getty

Pele achieved a lot as a 17-year-old.

The prodigal forward set World Cup records that still stand today, becoming the youngest player to score a goal (17 years and 239 days), to score a hat-trick (17 years and 244 days), and to score in a final (17 years and 249 days).

Not bad at all – especially when you consider he missed the opening two matches at the 1958 tournament in Sweden due to a knee injury.

21

Mirrorpix / Mirrorpix / Getty

Pele won 21 trophies with Santos, including six Brazilian league titles.

The four World Cups that featured Pele were among the few opportunities European supporters got to see the superstar play in person or on television. He was extremely loyal to Santos, claiming he spurned approaches from Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United, and Juventus to remain with the Brazilian giants.

He made his non-competitive Santos debut at 15 and, naturally, scored in that fixture against Santos’ great rivals Corinthians.

77

Jerry Cooke / Sports Illustrated / Getty

Pele shares the title of Brazil’s all-time top male scorer with Neymar, who equaled the icon’s tally of 77 at the 2022 World Cup.

It took Neymar 124 matches to match Pele’s long-standing record. Pele managed to rack up 77 goals in 32 fewer competitive matches, and struck 18 more times in unofficial matches for his country.

The number 77 appeared again when Pele’s career wound down, as 77,000 fans gathered in New Jersey to watch his final match – an exhibition game between the New York Cosmos and Santos – on Oct. 1, 1977.

767

– / AFP / Getty

Pele officially scored 767 goals in competitive fixtures during his playing days. If you include unofficial matches – such as the games he played during tours with Santos and the New York Cosmos – his total sum is 1,281 goals in 1,363 games, according to figures from FIFA.

Cristiano Ronaldo holds the official world record as the most prolific scorer in men’s football history with 819 goals and counting.

“Pele is the greatest player of all time,” Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany’s 1974 FIFA World Cup-winning captain who played alongside Pele for the Cosmos, once said. “He reigned supreme for 20 years. All the others – Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini – rank beneath him. There’s no one to compare with Pele.”

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Champions League

4 thoughts from Tuesday's Champions League action

The Champions League rumbles on with Matchday 5 this week. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s action in Europe’s premier club competition.

Unbeaten Potter still has work to do

It took a moment of magic to lift Chelsea into the round of 16, with Kai Havertz popping up out of nowhere Tuesday to add another crucial Champions League goal to his resume.

However, before Havertz broke the deadlock and eased concerns with one swing of his boot, there was legitimate concern that Chelsea’s dominating performance would go unrewarded. The same old issues in attack that plagued Thomas Tuchel near the end of the German manager’s reign as Chelsea manager seemed alive and well in the team Graham Potter inherited in early September.

Chelsea dictated the tempo throughout the contest but repeatedly came up short in the final third. And it wasn’t for a lack of chances – Potter’s men produced one of their most dominating halves under the English coach, slicing through Red Bull Salzburg’s defense effortlessly in the first half with slick passing and constant movement that made them difficult to mark.

In all fairness, Salzburg ‘keeper Philipp Kohn was a major factor in containing Chelsea, making several important stops. But the Blues’ end product on many occasions just wasn’t good enough – especially for the caliber of stars that they have on the payroll. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, for one, had a day to forget. The ex-Arsenal star continued to look conflicted in front of goal on an evening in which he should’ve scored at least two goals by halftime.

Despite the headaches, Chelsea left Austria with three points against a Salzburg side that hadn’t tasted defeat at home since February 2021 – a run of 40 matches unbeaten. And while Potter will be encouraged after his side extended its unbeaten run to nine games under his leadership, the English manager will need to solve what’s plaguing his attack if Chelsea are to mount a realistic run at the Champions League title in 2023.

Milan slowly finding their footing

AC Milan didn’t exactly get a free ride to start the season. Injuries to key players, including star goalkeeper Mike Maignan and club captain Davide Calabria, disrupted their rhythm. Summer signings Divock Origi and Charles De Ketelaere struggled to make any early impact. Questionable refereeing threatened to block their progress to the knockout round of the Champions League for the first time in nearly a decade. The reigning Serie A champions quickly learned they’d have to prove themselves all over again.

And that’s what the Rossoneri are doing. They’re just three points behind first-placed Napoli in the Serie A standings, and after Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb, they only need a point next week against Salzburg to advance to the round of 16 in the Champions League.

Pixsell/MB Media / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Their performance in Zagreb was as convincing as it was necessary. After losing back-to-back games to Chelsea – and conceding five goals in the process – Milan needed a strong showing to claw their way back into contention in Group E. Despite having only played on a handful of occasions this season, center-backs Simon Kjaer and Matteo Gabbia combined to clear their lines and block shooting lanes. Gabbia even scored his first goal for his boyhood club. Backup ‘keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu made all the saves he needed to make, and Rafael Leao created enough chances to double the final score.

Zagreb hadn’t lost at home in 31 matches. Milan made them look like they hadn’t won at home in 31 matches.

Now on a three-game winning streak of its own – its longest of the season to date – Stefano Pioli’s side has powered through weeks of adversity and achieved a level of consistency few thought it could attain with several starters out injured.

Ake earning respect at City

Nathan Ake didn’t have much luck in his first two years at Manchester City. He suffered an injury each time he appeared set for a run of games, restricting him to starting just a quarter of the matches across two Premier League campaigns. And when the big fixtures arrived, Pep Guardiola – a manager who appreciates balance in the middle of defense – would pick two right-footers rather than select the left-footed Ake.

How times change. In recent weeks, Manuel Akanji and Joao Cancelo have tired during games while John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, and Kyle Walker dealt with injuries. Ake, on the other hand, is the fittest defender in Guardiola’s throng and has become so reliable that he was picked ahead of Ruben Dias for the Manchester derby earlier in October.

“We need a right foot and a left foot,” Guardiola explained after the 6-3 win over Manchester United. Ake has won his boss’ faith.

ROBERTO PFEIL / AFP / Getty

Borussia Dortmund were dangerous down the right flank during the first half of Tuesday’s 0-0 draw, but City’s biggest weakness on that side wasn’t Ake – it was Cancelo, who’s lost form in recent matches. Cancelo was substituted, and Ake was moved to left-back at halftime, becoming more influential as the game went on.

What Guardiola likely admires most about Ake is his gait – his back is straight and his head is raised while he strides, always aware of what’s going on around him – and his ability to skim well-weighted balls to the midfielders’ feet. He led the Group G match in touches (158) and played 20 more passes than Niklas Sule, Mats Hummels, and Nico Schlotterbeck combined. Ake’s also a proactive player without the ball and won each of his three attempted tackles at the Westfalenstadion.

In a summer awash with good deals for City, Chelsea’s failure to sign Ake appears to be a blessing for Guardiola and a backline troubled by fitness issues and injuries.

Juventus’ downfall complete

Since reaching the final, and losing to Real Madrid, in 2017, Juventus have been going backward in the Champions League. They followed that soul-crushing defeat, their second loss in the showpiece match in three years, by faltering in the quarterfinals in each of the next two seasons. Three consecutive ousters in the round of 16, against a trio of underdog opponents, followed. The trend was obvious.

It reached a nadir Tuesday.

Juventus’ 4-3 defeat to Benfica – a scoreline that could’ve, and perhaps should’ve, been much worse, confirmed that Massimiliano Allegri’s team won’t even have the opportunity to underwhelm in the knockout stage this time around. The Europa League, at best, beckons.

A humbling defeat to Maccabi Haifa on Matchday 4 meant this was always the likely outcome, but it’s still jarring to see the math officially confirm what has looked inevitable since the beginning of the campaign.

Consistent mismanagement, both at the executive and field levels, has consequences. Puzzling transfer decisions add up. Riffling through managers has a destabilizing effect. All of that together, over a period of several years, has left Juventus in their current state. Once on the cusp of winning a trophy that’s become an obsession for the club after so many near misses, Juve are now further away than they’ve been in almost a decade.

This team, and club, is in need of rejuvenation. There was no clearer indication of that than the waning minutes of Tuesday’s defeat. Exciting youngsters Fabio Miretti, Matias Soule, and Samuel Iling-Junior, each 19 years old, came off the bench and injected life and verve into the Italian side, turning a lopsided 4-1 deficit into a respectable 4-3 defeat almost single-handedly.

There’s a clear path forward for Juventus. Can we trust them to actually take it?

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Champions League

6 thoughts from Tuesday's Champions League action

The Champions League rumbles on with Matchday 3 this week. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s action in Europe’s premier club competition.

Red-hot Sane flying under the radar

There’s been plenty of uncertainty hovering over Bayern Munich after a few hiccups – domestically, anyway – early on this season. New signing Sadio Mane’s lackluster scoring touch hasn’t helped, as the former Liverpool star has yet to match expectations less than three months into his Bayern career.

A day after talking about his growing pains at Bayern, Mane helped endear himself to fans with his first Champions League goal for the German club in Bayern’s 5-0 victory over Viktoria Plzen on Tuesday. Yet, Leroy Sane is arguably becoming the most important player Julian Nagelsmann has in his bottomless pool of attacking talent.

Jamal Musiala has deservedly received plaudits this season, but Sane’s evolution into one of the most lethal wingers in Europe has somewhat gone under the radar. With seven goals in all competitions this season, Sane is establishing himself as Bayern’s primary scoring threat.

Sane was pivotal in Tuesday’s Group C encounter, again ensuring Bayern Munich’s struggles remain limited to the Bundesliga. His brace – which included a stunning strike from outside the box – helped the Bavarians comfortably maintain a perfect start in the Champions League group stage after three games.

It’s obviously still early in the season, so Sane experiencing a Mane-like slump is totally possible at some point. Likely, even. But if he can stay healthy, Sane could be on the brink of his best campaign yet and maybe even fulfill the lofty expectations he’s struggled to achieve since arriving in Munich from Manchester City.

Redemptive night for Alexander-Arnold

There was no chance anybody but Trent Alexander-Arnold would be in charge of free-kick duties early on in Liverpool’s Champions League meeting with Rangers. When the opportunity came, the look of confidence on his face was undeniable for a player who’s come under fire after struggling on the defensive side of the ball this season.

Fans around Anfield were on their feet in anticipation of what would come from their fellow Scouse. Alexander-Arnold, who Jurgen Klopp backed to rediscover his form earlier this week, delivered one of his vintage free-kicks to help propel Liverpool to a 2-0 victory.

Although the moment of magic – combined with his efforts in keeping a clean sheet – should help temporarily silence critics, the 23-year-old’s ball-striking abilities have never been a concern.

Clive Brunskill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

It’s indifferent defending that’s set off alarm bells, leading to a somewhat tedious debate about whether his place in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the World Cup is under threat. There’s no denying his defensive play is a major concern. From failing to track opposing players in dangerous areas to looking disinterested amid Liverpool’s early-season struggles, there’s no shortage of evidence highlighting Alexander-Arnold’s worrying form.

But, in the end, it’s quite ridiculous that Southgate would ever consider omitting one of the most gifted players in the world. Especially one who is, as he did Tuesday, capable of deciding matches with one swing of his boot. The real question before the World Cup should be whether he plays regularly or is forced to take a back seat behind the likes of Reece James and Kyle Walker.

Barcelona still a work in progress

Barcelona may be top of La Liga, but they’re far from the finished product. Tuesday’s 1-0 loss to Inter Milan proved as much. This is a relatively young team with a young coach. While they may have an idea of football in their minds, they haven’t quite found a way to make it work in Europe. It’s one thing to beat up the Elche and Cadiz; it’s another to try the same tricks against Bayern Munich and Inter.

Despite controlling possession 71% of the time, Barcelona rarely threatened Andre Onana’s goal, producing just two shots on target. Robert Lewandowski, who leads all scorers in La Liga with nine goals, recorded only two touches in the penalty area and spent most of the time holding up play with his back to goal. Ousmane Dembele couldn’t complete a single dribble. He even switched sides midway through the second half, hoping to fare better on the left than he did on the right. That experiment ended after a few minutes.

Barcelona had every right to complain about the penalty they weren’t given. Inter wing-back Denzel Dumfries clearly handled the ball during a tussle with Ansu Fati in second-half stoppage time. But the Blaugrana did themselves no favors at San Siro. They moved the ball too slowly to draw Inter’s defenders out of position and didn’t play the kind of vertical passes Xavi Hernandez wants to see from his players. Over 41% of Barcelona’s passes went backward, and you could sense the desperation in each of the 50 crosses they attempted.

Soccrates Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Of course, Inter made it difficult to play any meaningful passes into the final third. Barcelona’s failure Tuesday was also Inter’s success. Armed with a back five, the Nerazzurri played with men behind the ball, and their midfielders patrolled the half spaces to ensure the likes of Dembele couldn’t break into the area. Federico Dimarco, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Alessandro Bastoni covered whenever the French winger tried to glide infield. It was a defensive masterclass.

But the Catalan giants can do better. Barcelona played much better in a 2-0 loss to Bayern and could’ve won that game with better finishing. But they struggled mightily against Inter, not just in attack but also against the counter. Barcelona capitulated every time they lost possession, and that happened a lot. If they can’t score, then they have to learn to resist the tide when it inevitably turns.

Ultimately, Barcelona have a long way to go before they can convince the masses they’re ready to compete for titles again. They may be in first place in the Spanish top flight, but five of the six teams they’ve beaten in Spain are currently in the bottom half of the table. Bigger tests await. The next month will reveal what this team can really achieve.

Another strike against VAR

That said, Barcelona could’ve used at least one of the two calls match official Slavko Vincic and video assistant referee Pol van Boekel somehow missed during another horrific 90 minutes of officiating in the Champions League.

Dumfries’ arm was clearly in an unnatural position when the ball struck his hand as he attempted to head it away in the 92nd minute. But after reviewing the footage, Van Boekel not only decided against awarding a penalty but neglected to even instruct Vincic to see the pictures for himself on the pitchside monitor.

Vincic has the right – and, in this case, the obligation – to review controversial incidents for himself. He did when Van Boekel detected Fati had handled the ball in the build-up to Pedri’s equalizer and ultimately chalked it off once he saw the clip. Why, then, didn’t the match official head back to the monitor when Dumfries committed a similar offense?

Xavi said the referee didn’t even offer an explanation at the end of the match.

“I think the referee should be out here explaining these decisions,” the Spaniard told reporters. “Today I’m really unhappy. I feel there’s real injustice.”

That’s saying nothing of the red card Vincic could’ve shown to Hakan Calhanoglu for a sliding tackle that caught the inside of Sergio Busquets’ leg. That would’ve left Inter down a man for the final 20 minutes. Calhanoglu escaped with a yellow card.

Unfortunately, the current system leaves doubt in the minds of coaches, players, and fans. But it’s not the fault of the technology. The officials making decisions continue to get it wrong and make no attempt to explain themselves when they do.

Can Napoli maintain rip-roaring pace?

How do you say “bulldozer” in Italian?

Napoli are on an absolute tear to begin the season, demolishing Ajax 6-1 – in Amsterdam, no less – in yet another high-octane attacking display from Luciano Spalletti’s insatiable team.

Still unbeaten, they’ve won nine of their 11 matches in all competitions this season, scoring 31 goals in the process. The high-flying side sits tied for first in Serie A and tops its Champions League group with a perfect record.

They’re also the first Italian team to ever score more than 10 goals in the opening three Champions League games of a season.

Those numbers are even more impressive considering how the club was forced to retool in the summer after losing several beloved stalwarts; captain Lorenzo Insigne, all-time top scorer Dries Mertens, defensive anchor Kalidou Koulibaly, and midfield lynchpin Fabian Ruiz all departed.

That type of upheaval, which raised a furor among the fan base, threatened to derail the season before it began. Instead, it turned out to have the opposite impact, rejuvenating the club. The new players, most of them young and hungry, have infused Spalletti’s team with more verve and energy, while other incumbents have flourished with added opportunities.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, already a beloved figure in Naples, is a sensation. Giacomo Raspadori, who scored twice Tuesday, has hit the ground running. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa is having a spectacular season thus far. Kim Min-jae has seamlessly replaced Koulibaly in defense. And arguably their best player, Victor Osimhen, should return from injury soon.

We’ve seen this before, to an extent. Napoli began last season on fire, winning 10 of their first 11 league matches before hitting a rough patch and falling off the pace in Serie A. But, fuelled by Kvaratskhelia and Co., this feels different. Napoli are a frightening force to be reckoned with.

Club Brugge are for real

Hands up if you expected Club Brugge to roll through their group after three matches. Yeah, neither did we.

The Belgian club made a serious statement of intent Tuesday, brushing aside Atletico Madrid 2-0 to maintain their perfect start to the Champions League campaign. Carl Hoefkens’ team sits comfortably atop Group B with nine points, scoring seven goals along the way and, most impressively, not conceding any. Only Bayern Munich and Real Madrid can match that defensive record in this year’s competition. Decent company.

This isn’t a case of Brugge getting lucky, either.

Yes, Antoine Griezmann wasted a glorious chance from the penalty spot, but Brugge defended stoutly overall. And combine that with explosive attacking players who can break down the opposition at a moment’s notice.

Canadian winger Tajon Buchanan tormented Atletico, while the red-hot Ferran Jutgla continued to establish himself as one of the best value signings of the summer transfer window, scoring his eighth goal in 11 matches across all competitions since moving from Barcelona for just €5 million.

With the 23-year-old Spaniard leading the way, and a collection of effervescent talent around him, Club Brugge are making waves.

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