The Champions League group stage is underway and matchday 1 has come to a close as Real Madrid defend their title and 31 other clubs compete for the accolades of being Europe’s best team. After an exciting first round of games, we asked our writers James Olley, Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens to answer some of our burning questions.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (US)
– O’Hanlon: Ranking of each Champions League team this season (E+)
What caught your attention from match day 1?
Marcotti: So many storylines… Shakhtar Donetsk, whose team was stripped because so many players were allowed to leave the club due to the war, but won 4-1 at RB Leipzig. Robert Lewandowski’s hat-trick. Atlético Madrid’s winner in the 101st minute of ‘Mister half hour’, Antoine Griezmann. Liverpool, who lost 4-1 and could have taken six in Naples, and of course Thomas Tuchel was sacked after that terrible display when he lost 1-0 to Dinamo Zagreb.
Laurens: I loved the fact that some of the supposed weakest spots in the groups gave great performances in this first week. Sporting CP, Dinamo Zagreb and Club Brugge are not favorites to go through and yet they all started with famous wins. Sporting first drove their luck at Eintracht Frankfurt before winning 3-0. Dinamo caused a huge surprise by beating Chelsea and having Tuchel sacked, while Bruges poured out more misery on Gerardo Seoane and Bayer Leverkusen with a handsome 1-0 win at home in a great atmosphere! Well done to them all and let’s see if they can keep going like this.
ollie: Tuchel enjoyed such remarkable success with Chelsea in the Champions League, winning the competition in 2021, that it is almost an insult to the 49-year-old that his last appearance in the league with the Blues was a dire defeat in Zagreb. There was some discontent behind the scenes ahead of Wednesday’s decision to sack Tuchel, but nevertheless it is conceivable that he would have kept his job a little longer had Chelsea not been so miserable in the Croatian capital.
What was the biggest shock result?
Marcotti: For me it is Shakhtar who wins 4-1 in Leipzig. They lost more than 10 players over the summer because FIFA understandably gave them the right to become free agents, given Ukraine’s situation with the war. And here they beat Leipzig, complete with Timo Werner, Andre Silva and Christopher Nkunku. Also away from home. I know Leipzig had a hard time (and fired boss Domenico Tedesco the day after), but this was a huge and a great story.
Laurens: It must be Chelsea’s defeat in Zagreb against Dinamo. Their performance was a summary of all the problems the Blues currently have and everything they are missing right now: lack of inspiration, lack of playing patterns with the ball, lack of efficiency when they really succeed in creating something, lack of aggression, lack of cohesion, lack of confidence and lack of defensive solidity. They were punished by Mislav Orsic, who always scores against English clubs and exposes Chelsea’s problems.
ollie: Hard to avoid Liverpool here. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Jurgen Klopp to explain away Liverpool’s slow start to the season as not symptomatic of something deeper. Their defense in Naples was chaotic, while the midfield was often overwhelmed, perpetuating a general theme of underperformance, raising questions about Liverpool’s ability to reach the same impressive level as in past seasons. It’s only Day 1 – that’s pretty much the only good news for Klopp – but things should start to improve soon and Ajax is likely to test their resolve with a visit to Anfield next Tuesday.
Who are the players who impressed?
Marcotti: Big shout out to Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Victor Osimhen and of course Kvaradona (nickname for Khvicha Kvaratskhelia) in Napoli’s win over Liverpool. Not really news, but I love Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe continuing their Next Gen (or is it This Gen) rivalry with some great goals for Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain respectively. I can’t ignore Lewandowski’s hat-trick (and the heel) either. And what about Tottenham Hotspur Academy graduate Marcus Edwards, the former “Enfield Messi”, who scored one and delivered another in a big away win for Sporting?
Laurens: Neymar was excellent for PSG against Juventus on Tuesday. The 30-year-old touched the ball 92 times and was so influential and difficult to play against. It was a pleasure to see him at this level and enjoy his football. I was impressed with the performance of Mohammed Kudus, 22, for Ajax against Rangers. He scored his first Champions League goal in style and was outstanding throughout the game. Finally, Mykhailo Mudryk’s name was widely mentioned in England in the closing days of the transfer window and the Shakhtar winger against RB Leipzig showed why he was so coveted. He scored one goal and assisted two more and was unplayable at times. At 21 the sky is the limit.
ollie: Lewandowski does Lewandowski stuff. It was only Viktoria Plzen at the Camp Nou, but amid all the financial turmoil and turmoil this summer, the 34-year-old proved he is as close as possible to an affordable goalscorer in this competition. In addition, Lewandowski becomes the first player to score a Champions League hat-trick for three different teams (Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich being the others) and this is the perfect warm-up for a trip to Bayern next week. Bayern will make it noticeably harder, but Lewandowski will be ready.