Champions League Grades: Matchday 1

Matchday 1 of the Champions League group stages is in the books and as usual there was a lot of drama, mixed with high quality of play and brilliant performances. Let’s assess how the 32 teams did, ranging from the excellent Bayern to the pedestrian PSG.

A

Bayern Munich

The champions were close to perfection in their thrashing of Atletico. If the 8–2 dismantling of Barcelona in August was a display based on exploiting chaos, this was an expression of controlled excellence. Missing a few key wide players, Hansi Flick changed the home side’s system and the players didn’t miss a beat. The midfield trio of Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso dominated their Atletico counterparts, while Kingsley Coman did his usual thing out wide and capped his performance with two brilliant goals. In outclassing their visitors, Bayern showed they are a level or two above those who have recent pedigree in this competition. An ominous message has been sent to all the pretenders at this early stage.

Shakhtar Donetsk

At a time when stratification is the dominant topic of discussion in football, Shakhtar’s win at Real was a timely reminder about why we all love the sport in the first place. A draw would have been a miracle considering the Pitmen were without eight first-team regulars due to COVID. That they won, and won by outplaying a side of storied champions by handing debuts to teenagers, is at the risk of exaggeration, legendary.

Manchester United

A rare night, where planning in the dugout allies with execution on the pitch. Faced with a significant injury crisis, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer devised a system that protected his young defence and nullified PSG’s strengths without many concerns. United did have to contend with individual moments of brilliance from PSG’s famed attacking trio, but at no stage did it look like the visitors were overwhelmed. Bringing on Pogba in the second half as PSG were beginning to dominate enabled the Red Devils to gain more control, a relative masterstroke. A collective triumph highlighted by an exceptional display in the heart of defence from young Axel Tuanzebe. Win against Leipzig at home and United could be through to the last 16 before the reverse fixture with PSG.

Lazio

Making their first appearance in the competition for 13 years, Lazio came roaring out of the blocks and overwhelmed Dortmund in the first half an hour. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was the Biancoceleste’s best performance since football restarted. A much needed tonic for the blue half of Rome and a result that could kickstart their season.

Liverpool

Needs must. When your first game is away to one of the most technical sides in the competition, dominance is likely to be elusive. The important fact is that Liverpool made the phases where they were dominant count. Another excellent performance by Fabinho at centre-back capped a resilient defensive display from the Reds, which restored pride and belief after a turbulent couple of weeks for Jurgen Klopp’s men. Win against Midtjylland next time out and Liverpool go into the double-header against Atalanta with one foot in the next round.

Club Brugge

An away win as the fourth seeds in the group in the first match is a great way to start. The fact that they won it in the last minute of injury time makes it better. Brugge host Lazio in the next game and if they get a result, it is conceivable that we may have an interesting group on our hands.

Atalanta

Continuing where they left off with the added benefit of a year’s experience in the Champions League. Gasperini’s men drive forward in a relentless manner and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they scored four in a match a few other times in this season’s competition. A delightful team to watch.

Juventus

The no frills win that Andrea Pirlo’s Juve needed. In truth, Dynamo Kiev were no match for the Italian champions, but the performance had plenty to encourage the new man in the dugout. The creativity and link play between Chiesa, Ramsey and Morata in particular looked dynamic and promising.

RB Leipzig

As third seeds it’s imperative to take maximum points when the top two play against each other. Leipzig achieved that with minimum fuss while scoring two excellent team goals. Get something from Old Trafford next and Nagelsmann’s men could be poised to make an impact on this competition again.

Olympiacos

A late winner after missing several chances provided the perfect tonic for the Greek champions. Olympiacos have squandered home advantage in previous campaigns which makes the three points gained against Marseille significant. They lead the race to be second in the group behind City.

Krasnodar

In truth the Russian side were lucky to get the draw after Rennes outplayed them. But it was their debut in the Champions League group stages, and to get an away point is to their immense credit.

B

Barcelona

A nervous start for the Blaugrana meant Ferencvaros had their fair share of chances at the Nou Camp. The defence continues to look vulnerable in certain phases of play and Gerard Pique’s red card means he will be a crucial absence at Juve. That being said, they were positives for Ronald Koeman. Ansu Fati continues to be brilliant, Pjanic and De Jong looked sublime at times in midfield, while Coutinho and Dembele showed enough to suggest that they can make an impact this season.

Rennes

A fantastic performance by the French team on their Champions League debut wasn’t rewarded with a win because they squandered a few great chances, including two in stoppage time. With Chelsea and Sevilla drawing, Rennes could have had a head start in the group.

Chelsea

Their inexperience and lack of team cohesion showed against opponents who have been fine-tuned in their system for over a year. A home draw isn’t the end of the world in a deceptive group and Frank Lampard will take solace in his team delivering one of their better defensive displays this season, spearheaded by an authoritative performance from Edouard Mendy in goal.

Sevilla

A good away point to start the campaign for Lopategui’s men. Sevilla look comfortable on this stage, though one can’t help but feel they could have won at Stamford Bridge if they had a natural goalscorer.

Lokomotiv Moscow

Outplayed for large swathes of their game but left Salzburg with a point that could be crucial in the battle for a place in the Europa League.

Borussia Monchengladbach

On the back foot for a majority of the game at the San Siro, Marco Rose’s men survived to get a draw. In a group that is ripe with possibility, Gladbach have staked a claim with an important away point.

C

Inter

The performance was excellent, despite key absences in the squad. It’s a pity the finishing was subpar. The problem is in defence this season and Inter risk throwing away progression by failing to be ruthless at home. For the second season in a row, they have started by dropping two points at home against the fourth seed.

Manchester City

On the surface, City had a good comeback win. But in the first half Pep Guardiola’s men showed the vulnerabilities that tend to cost them in the knockout stages. One wonders if City would benefit from a group of death. The only reason they weren’t made to pay for their mistakes in this game, was the individual quality of their opponents. That might be a recurring theme in this group.

RB Salzburg

For Salzburg to have any semblance of putting pressure on Atletico, they needed to get maximum points against Lokomotiv, which they won’t after a home draw with the Russian side. Jesse Marsch’s men played inventive attacking football, but missed a lot of chances. Those missed chances might relegate them to the Europa League.

Ferencvaros

Though they lost 5–1, the Hungarian champions didn’t looked overawed at the Nou Camp and scared Barca’s defence a few times. A creditworthy showing after more than two decades out of the competition.

Ajax

A decent performance from the Dutch champions but the gulf in class allied with poor finishing on the night meant Ajax collected nothing against Liverpool. The pressure is on for next week’s visit to Atalanta, which feels decisive at this early stage.

Zenit

The Russian champions weren’t bad, but the nature of the last minute defeat at home is going to be difficult to deal with. Zenit are the nearly men of the group stages, and this loss makes passage to the round of 16 unlikely yet again.

D

Borussia Dortmund

By no means a terminal defeat for Dortmund. They have based their strategy of qualifying for the last 16 on banking points at home. The problem is that this loss was predictable and Dortmund did nothing to suggest there was any thought put into doing anything different.

Porto

Porto could have led going into halftime with the chances they had. While the quality of their squad bares no comparison to City, Porto used to be adept at exploiting opportunities when the big clubs had off days. It’s a sad indictment that they have reduced themselves to complaining about referees.

E

Atletico Madrid

To be fair to Atletico, the brilliance of Bayern was the story in this game. That being said, when your USP is being dogged and difficult to break down, it’s not a great look when your defence is carved open by incisive play from the opposition. Do this team have a plan B of any sort?

Midtjylland

Exposed in ruthless fashion for their naivety by Atalanta in their competition debut. Midtjylland did create a few good moments of their own and on balance may have deserved to score one goal, but they have the look of lambs to the slaughter in this group.

F

PSG

Starts with their manager who picked a midfield based on excessive caution. It meant an increased creative onus on the attacking trio of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria which was unsustainable. That in turn compounded problems for a hotchpotch of a backline to the extent that they looked vulnerable every time United countered. To top it off, the players got riled in the second half as the intensity ramped up to a level that they don’t have to contend with in their domestic league. A bad night for the finalists when a lot was expected of them.

Real Madrid

An embarrassing first half against a team featuring many teenage debutants. The truth is Real should have lost by a bigger margin as was the case when they lost to Cadiz four days prior to this debacle. A winning mentality can help you at the business end of a campaign, but there are serious football problems within this squad that make it difficult to see Real in the later stages of the competition.

Marseille

Lots of attacking talent on the pitch but no coordination or sense of system. Marseille were on the verge of getting a lucky and crucial away point, but justice was served with Olympiacos’ late winner.

Istanbul Basaksehir

Of all the debuts, the most underwhelming as they didn’t lay a glove on Leipzig. A disastrous season is unfolding for the first time Turkish champions.

Dynamo Kyiv

Failed to make Juventus uncomfortable despite having a decent home crowd in attendance. They may face a serious fight for the Europa League place with a hungrier Ferencvaros on this evidence.

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