The beginning of the group stage of the Champions League is special and this season brings out a unique set of emotions. The absence of fans this year feels surreal because while technique and quality may be the most crucial part of the theatre, European nights are not the same without the special atmosphere created by crowds. On the flip side, while these opening rounds can at times feel long and drawn out, in this iteration, we get six consecutive weeks of Europe’s best taking on each other. This should lead to a level of unpredictability. After all, even the best in the business struggle with playing games every three or four days on a continuous basis. With that being said, let’s have a look at a few interesting fixtures on Matchday 1.
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Manchester United
The biggest match of the opening day in the trickiest group to call. This matchup brings to mind the famous (infamous depending on your persuasion) round of 16 match in 2019, when PSG had the mother of all bottle-jobs in losing 3–1 at home to a last minute penalty after beating United in convincing fashion at Old Trafford. In the immediate aftermath Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was made permanent manager of United. It could be argued the after-effects of that result linger to this day for both teams.
Solskjaer and his counterpart Thomas Tuchel both have their fair share of doubters, challenged on a consistent basis by elements within their clubs in addition to many in the football media. The Norwegian did get plaudits for returning the Red Devils to Europe’s premier competition, although the benchmarks for that particular feat were low in comparison to previous seasons. Tuchel on the other hand, retains an element of doubt despite taking PSG to the final of this competition last year, where they lost to a brilliant Bayern in a marginal final. That is the benchmark, albeit an unfair one for any PSG manager.
PSG enter the game as favourites considering their recent pedigree, but it is a pedigree that needs validation. United may consider this a free hit, though any points dropped could end up being decisive with last season’s semi-finalists Leipzig being the third seed in the group.
There is a school of thought that suggests United’s strength on the counter could expose vulnerabilities in PSG’s defence. While there is merit in this argument, a United defence without Harry Maguire and Eric Bailly is susceptible in the extreme to PSG’s attacking trident of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria. Neymar in particular will want to make a mark after missing both legs when the sides met in 2019. Another element that may turn out to be crucial is who amongst former teammates Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic does a good job in screening their defence. It all adds the to the potpourri of what should be an unpredictable occasion.
Chelsea vs. Sevilla
A team that dominated this summer’s transfer market with a brute show of strength against a team that is consistent and shrewd with its transfer strategy. While the relative resources of the two clubs would suggest a battle between have’s and have-nots, in terms of European pedigree this is as close to a clash of equals as one can get. To prove the fact, these two are the most recent Europa League champions. One gets the sense that at this point in their respective journeys, neither club are ready to win the biggest prize. For Sevilla, it won’t be something that troubles them. For Chelsea on the other hand, expectations are different, despite their recent experiences in the competition being underwhelming.
A summer splurge on exciting talent hasn’t compensated for Chelsea’s defensive vulnerabilities under Frank Lampard. Thiago Silva did lead PSG to the final last year and will be relied upon to guide Chelsea’s erratic backline in a competition that isn’t forgiving to defensive mistakes. Ben Chilwell is an upgrade at left-back but will be making his European debut, while Kai Havertz hasn’t played in the Champions League either. The one new addition who has made an impact on this stage is Hakim Ziyech, who delighted us with his skill and trickery at Ajax for the last two years. We may get to see the Moroccan make his debut for Chelsea in this game.
Sevilla come into this game having suffered their first league defeat since football restarted. Fatigue is bound to be a factor for Julen Lopategui’s men. The Andalusian side have had recent success on their travels to England, and in general against English opposition. There is however, a lack of obvious goal threat and the absence of Ever Banega’s ingenuity is being felt in Sevilla’s midfield this season. Lopategui will look to Ivan Rakitic to provide the leadership and inspiration at Stamford Bridge. The defence is likely to face a long night without Jules Kounde, who tested positive for COVID.
On the one side, a team who can score but can’t defend. On the other, a side that is meticulous in its organization, but can’t score. Something has to give.
Lazio vs. Borussia Dortmund
Simone Inzaghi and Lazio have waited a long time for this. There have been many close shaves with Champions League qualification, lots of heartbreak, but now they are here. What the Biancoceleste hadn’t bargained for was COVID. It could be argued that no other team in Europe’s top five leagues has had their rhythm disrupted by the pandemic to the extent that Lazio have.
Lazio’s squad was not built for a game every three days and that was what led to them dropping off from a title race they looked well-placed in and those same ailments have affected their start to the new season. Inzaghi and his men are struggling to regain a sense of momentum. They come into this clash on the back of a 3–0 defeat at Sampdoria.
However, there is hope for the home side. It is a home tie and that counts for something in Europe. Dortmund aren’t great travellers on the continent themselves and they have an injury crisis in defence. Yes, their vibrant young attacking side are a delight to watch, but they can be exposed for their naivety in transition. Ciro Immobile will be motivated to make a point against his former team, where he failed to make an impact.
Immobile, Haaland, Sancho, Luis Alberto, Reyna, Milinkovic-Savic and a few others. This one looks like it will have goals in it.
Ajax vs. Liverpool
There is a lot of context around this tie. First, the storied history of the clubs. Between the two sides, they have won this competition in its various guises 10 times. This is a clash of European aristocrats.
The other facet that unites them is a commitment to attacking football. While Liverpool could lay claim to be the most dominant team of the Champions League in the last three years, Ajax could make an argument for being the most adventurous. The Reds have introduced more control to their game, while the Dutch champions continue to play with inherent risk, despite losing vital squad members every summer.
The final context is the one that Liverpool find themselves in. Yes, for the big clubs, a season is divided on two fronts. And yet the events of the weekend weigh on the Reds as they start their European campaign. Though it is a different competition, immediate assessments will be made on how the defence copes without Virgil Van Dijk. Who the starting centre-backs will be is anyone’s guess.
What is guaranteed, is a stern examination from another iteration of a vibrant young attack for the hosts. Dusan Tadic remains one of the few survivors from the brilliant forward line that won over neutrals in 2019. The Serb remains a devilish threat for defenders, but the man who has got Ajax fans excited this season is 20-year old Ghanian forward Mohammed Kudus. Kudus aside, there are two other African marksmen who have thrilled in recent seasons. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are expected to give Ajax’s defenders a torrid time in the Amsterdam Arena. Another potential cracker.
Bayern Munich vs. Atletico Madrid
Unless this writer is underestimating Salzburg, the truth is that this game doesn’t have the jeopardy it deserves. It would take a significant level of underperformance from either of these teams to not make it out of the group. That being said, it is Bayern vs Atletico!
The most intriguing aspect in this match is how Hansi Flick and Diego Simeone integrate a few new players into their team’s dynamic. There is a chance Douglas Costa makes his second debut for Bayern while Luis Suarez is likely to make his first Champions League start for Atletico. Suarez has a good record against Bayern in this competition. Whether he gets chances with the same frequency in Simeone’s defensive plans away from home is up for debate. On the other hand Flick will appreciate his team getting a test that challenges their creativity and attacking verve. Will we see Bayern going up another gear or will Atletico stifle the champions?
Inter Milan vs. Borussia Monchengladbach
It may not be the group of death that Inter have been eliminated from in the last two seasons but the Nerazzurri can’t afford to drop any points in their first fixture. One could argue that Inter were a tad unfortunate in both of their last two Champions League campaigns, but what is undeniable is that between the two seasons they won a solitary home game out of three. That has to be avoided this time if they are to progress to the round of 16. Inter have the clear edge in firepower, but they had that same advantage against Milan on the weekend and lost.
Gladbach are tricky customers and their forward line of Marcus Thuram and Alassane Plea are bound to pose a threat to an Inter defence that has started the season in terrible form. The visitors themselves have underwhelmed on the domestic front and it’s difficult to see how this squad can manage two campaigns. Marco Rose will want to make a mark in this competition, in light of his successor at Salzburg, Jesse Marsch, winning plaudits for his work last season. I can see this game being cagey in comparison to the others.