The relentless campaign continues for Europe’s top clubs as they juggle domestic weekends with European midweeks. After an interesting first round of games, we are back at it in the Champions League with another set of intriguing fixtures. I have picked out six games that could be significant.
Atalanta vs Ajax
Another purists battle in Group D that many neutrals are looking forward to. While both teams are capable of taking the game to Liverpool, the English champions are a complete team, well-honed and spurred by a consistent habit of winning. This clash has the potential to be crazy because both teams while entertaining and enterprising, do have their flaws and leave the door just that little bit more open for their opponents. Erik Ten Hag and Gian Piero Gasperini are not going out to stall their opponents and ride out a storm. They want their sides to be the storm itself.
The protagonists come into the game in differing form. Ajax broke an Eredivisie record in thrashing VVV-Venlo 13–0, while Atalanta lost 3–1 at home to Sampdoria, making it seven goals conceded in their last two Serie A games. In between those two defeats, Atalanta did thrash Midtjylland 4–0 to begin their Champions League campaign, while Ajax lost a crucial game at home to Liverpool. That loss means Ajax’s margin for error is already slim. As a result, they come into the game under greater pressure. Lose this game and Atalanta’s double header with Liverpool might be reduced to a fight for top spot in the group.
Ajax won the hearts of neutrals in 2019 and Atalanta took on that mantle in 2020. Something’s got to give as they take on each other, but I have a strong feeling that it is not going to be at the expense of exhilarating football.
Borussia Monchengladbach vs Real Madrid
The stakes in Group B are already high after a surprising set of results on matchday 1. That makes this game a tantalizing prospect. Marco Rose’s men were outplayed for vast swathes of their game at the San Siro, but possessed the fortitude to hang in and take a point against Inter. Real on the other hand, displayed anything but fortitude in a shambolic loss to a COVID-depleted Shakhtar.
Real did bounce back with a significant win at the Camp Nou over Barcelona in the Clasico, Sergio Ramos’ return to the side proving talismanic as usual. Zinedine Zidane’s men have a knack of delivering their best when questioned, which should see them focused and ready for their visit to Germany. Gladbach themselves come in to the clash on a high, following a come from behind victory at Mainz where most of their first team players were being rested.
It’s hard to back against Real’s combination of experience and mentality in this game, but I would still back Marco Rose’s men to run them close with their dynamic forward pair of Alassane Plea and Marcus Thuram capable of giving Los Blancos’ defence a difficult game on Tuesday evening.
Marseille vs Manchester City
Many writers including this one think the most interesting aspect of Group C is the race to finish second behind City. Or is it? Andre Villas Boas’ Marseille are not going to win many plaudits for creativity. They have a solid defence that’s backed up by a workmanlike midfield and a few dangerous components up front with speed and trickery.
In short, just the kind of team that have enjoyed success against City in the last year. It would be an exaggeration in the extreme to suggest this is a test for Pep Guardiola’s men, but after their underwhelming performance against Porto was followed by another one against West Ham, City could do with making a statement in the south of France. The talent bares no comparison, but could a difference in application lead to a surprise result at the Velodrome?
Juventus vs Barcelona
A repeat of the 2015 final, or the 2017 quarterfinal, or the 2018 group stage matchup. You get the drift. Games between these continental giants always have an edge and this time it’s no different, especially because by their lofty standards neither team has had a good start to their domestic campaign.
Barcelona had a humbling home defeat in El Clasico, a game in which they were exposed on a variety of different fronts. A lot of the goodwill that Ronald Koeman generated by trusting Barca’s youngsters evaporated in the face of tactical rigidity against Real. Juve are drawing against teams they should beat handily, but at least Andrea Pirlo is trying different combinations and a few are beginning to pay dividends for the Italian champions. Aaron Ramsey, Alvaro Morata and Dejan Kulusevski in particular are thriving under Pirlo’s guidance.
Messi vs Ronaldo was supposed to be the highlight of this fixture, but COVID has put that particular duel on hold. There are several other subplots though. Barca’s defence may struggle to cope without the suspended Gerard Pique, but the Old Lady themselves may be without Leonardo Bonucci to add to the already injured duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Matthijs de Ligt. An added layer of intrigue arises in midfield where a declining Sergio Busquets may come up against Arthur looking to make a point against his former club. While there is a lack of jeopardy because of the other two teams in the group, this clash still has the potential to have recriminations for both sides.
Manchester United vs RB Leipzig
Round 2 in the group that promises a big game every matchday. United have the history, but Leipzig were semi-finalists last season, a stage the Red Devils haven’t reached since 2011. Ole Gunnar’s Solskjaer’s men started the group in the best possible way with a deserved victory in Paris while Leipzig took care of Basaksehir at home. Neither team can afford to rest on their laurels as PSG are likely to claim maximum points against the Turkish champions.
The most interesting facet of this game will be Julian Nagelsmann’s approach at Old Trafford. I suspect he’s unlikely to follow his countryman Thomas Tuchel’s naive approach to play right into United’s hands. Solskjaer may believe his template is tailor-made to handle Leipzig’s progressive approach, but Leipzig’s defence do have the pace to cope with United’s fast forwards. Furthermore, on their run to the semis last season, Leipzig showed they have the required variation to deal with counter-attacking teams when they saw off Tottenham and Atletico Madrid in the knockout stages. It’s a delicately poised game this one, and a difficult one to call at that.
Sevilla vs Rennes
A crucial clash in Group E between two teams who come into the game in terrible form. Sevilla haven’t scored in three games, losing two of them, the last one at home. Rennes haven’t won in four games, and they also come in to the game on the back of a home defeat.
For Julen Lopategui’s men, the lack of a natural goalscorer is big stumbling block in their progress. The quality of play and chances created remains high, but sooner or later missed chances are bound to cost you important points. For Rennes, the excitement of qualifying for the first time in the Champions League has been replaced by the reality of managing a campaign on two fronts. It’s not something a club of their stature can seamlessly adapt to. A learning curve is expected. One wonders whether the combination of poor form and pressure to get points may result in this match being a stalemate. If that is how things transpire, it would be imperative for Chelsea to capitalize on their tricky looking trip to Krasnodar. This group is simmering up to be a slow-burner.