Champions League Grades: Matchday 2

Matchday 2 of the Champions League group stages delivered its usual share of quality and entertainment. Let’s categorize the performances from excellent to poor in a round that saw lots of questions asked of Europe’s leading teams.

A

Barcelona

On the back of a humbling Clasico defeat and without Gerard Pique at a venue where they have had a variety of miserable defeats, not many would have predicted good things for Ronald Koeman’s Blaugrana. What transpired was a performance of verve and style that proved too hot to handle for the Italian champions. Messi, Griezmann and Dembele turned Juve’s defence inside and out, while Miralem Pjanic made the case once again to be Frenkie de Jong’s permanent midfield partner. I am not going to say Barcelona are back, but even in these troubled times, the technical excellence of this team remains lethal.

Manchester United

Possibly the statement victory of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign. His team were rarely troubled against a side that made Tottenham and Atletico Madrid look pedestrian earlier this year. Solskjaer neutralized Leipzig’s strengths by playing a different midfield to the one that won in Paris last week and it paid dividends at both ends. The intricate passing and fluidity evident in the goals were a joy to behold, rounding out a comprehensive performance from the Red Devils. United have beaten the first seeds away and thrashed the third seeds at home. A double-header against the weakest team in the group awaits, with United now in pole position to qualify for the last 16 as group winners. That is no mean feat considering the pedigree of opposition.

Shakhtar Donetsk

The Ukrainian champions were nowhere near as good against Inter as they were against Real, but still managed to get a point against a team that thrashed them 5–0 in the Europa League semis two months ago. You have to win points in different ways to progress in this competition. That Shakhtar have managed to show two different facets against European giants and come out with four points is praiseworthy.

Chelsea

The final score may have been flattering, but this was a third consecutive clean sheet for Frank Lampard’s men, and on this occasion they managed to do it without compromising their guile in attack. Hakim Ziyech had an impressive debut capped with a goal and his chemistry with fellow new recruits Timo Werner and Kai Havertz was evident in a matter of minutes. Encouraging signs for the Blues.

Sevilla

As dominant as 1–0 victories come. In what is becoming a recurring trend, Sevilla could have scored more, but were thwarted by an inspired goalkeeper, the crossbar and the posts. While the lack of a goalscorer is a genuine lament, this is a team that knows how to manage games in Europe better than most, a trait that can’t be discounted in this competition.

Manchester City

Marseille offered little more than a training exercise, but it often looks the case when big teams win matches easily. Not every opponent is going to be as generous, but when Pep Guardiola lets his attackers play in their best positions without worrying excessively about control, there are few defences that can live with City.

Midtjylland

An incredible and unexpected improvement in the matter of a week. From looking like boys against men in their first game against Atalanta, Midtjylland displayed excellent organization and grit, allied with a football aptitude to make Liverpool sweat at Anfield. A late equalizer would have been just reward for a great performance by the Danish champions.

Porto

Hardly fluent and nowhere close to their best, but after a few chastening experiences in recent times, this was a much needed win for the Portuguese champions. Porto now lead the only relevant race in Group C, that of finishing second behind City.

Club Brugge

A fantastic performance by the Belgian champions who arguably deserved to win their game against Lazio. It would have been easy for their heads to drop after going behind, but they responded by grabbing the match by the scruff of its neck. Brugge lead Group F and welcome Dortmund next with a genuine shot of going four points clear of the German side.

Lazio

Looked at from an elitist top five leagues prism, some may say Lazio dropping points against Brugge is not good enough. Then we remember that it is their first Champions League campaign in 13 years and that winning a point away from home when you have been dominated is no small feat. It is exactly the kind of accomplishment that experienced teams are lauded for. A double-header with bottom of the group Zenit awaits, with the Biancoceleste having their fate in their own hands.

Ferencvaros

A remarkable show of fight and determination from the Hungarian champions to follow on from their spirited performance at the Camp Nou last week. Ferencvaros more than deserved their late equalizer against Dynamo Kyiv as anything less would have been a travesty after an effervescent display. They are likely to get nothing in their double header against Juventus, but I get the sense they will at least make those matches fun to watch.

B

PSG

On the one hand, the only thing that matters after losing your group opener at home is to immediately win your next game away. In that regard, PSG delivered. On the other hand, the French champions were playing against competition debutants whose best players wouldn’t make PSG’s 25-man squad, let alone their first eleven. PSG huffed and puffed and it was only slack marking from a corner that enabled them to break the deadlock. It doesn’t bode well for their remaining fixtures against United and Leipzig. Keep this up and the reverse fixture could be academic for Thomas Tuchel’s men.

Atalanta

Equal protagonists in a thoroughly entertaining game against Ajax, where both sides showcased scintillating attacks to offset their dodgy defending. Even at 2–0 down, Atalanta kept doing what Atalanta do, a relentless commitment to offence, making their comeback appear inevitable. They may not escape with defensive largesse when they welcome Liverpool next week, but it is a surefire guarantee of fun.

Bayern Munich

In truth, Bayern could have been at least 5–0 up by the time Lokomotiv equalized. The performance by any metric was fantastic, but they somehow managed to make it close when it needn’t have been. Proof if any was needed, that in the Champions League even the best can’t be complacent.

Atletico Madrid

A thoroughly entertaining win in Joao Felix’s breakout performance for Atletico in the Champions League. It was nice to see the handbrake released by Diego Simeone for once and the Portuguese youngster ran riot, unleashing the full force of his creativity and topping it off with two goals. That being said, Atletico conceded two uncharacteristically open goals, making it six goals against in two games. It’s not something Atletico can live with if they want to go far in the competition.

Liverpool

I could repeat last week’s missive and say needs must, what with Fabinho added to Liverpool’s mounting injury list. But this was Anfield against a competition debutant, and the Reds were hanging on at the end. Were it not for the invention of Xherdan Shaqiri and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool may have been faced with uncomfortable questions to answer. The Reds are in command of their passage to the next round, but they will have to improve and they need their backup attacking options to contribute.

Borussia Dortmund

Just about managed to pull through in a performance that left a lot to be desired. Winning at home is Dortmund’s modus operandi in this competition, but replicate this in Brugge next week and Lucien Favre’s men could be four points behind at the halfway stage of the group phase.

Lokomotiv Moscow

The gap in quality to Bayern was significant, but Lokomotiv went all in and took on the champions at the risk of leaving gaps at the back. On another day they could have been thrashed, but their endeavour meant they equalized and even had their fair share of breakaways. Proof that sitting back and parking the bus is not the only option available to underdogs.

C

Salzburg

How do you follow up giving up the lead against the fourth seeds in the group at home? By giving up the lead against the second seeds away in the next match as it happens. Jesse Marsch’s young men thrilled again, but Salzburg have now dropped five points from winning positions in two games. What could have been a tricky battle for second with Atletico, is now a Europa League shootout with Lokomotiv.

Borussia Monchengladbach

Make no mistake, Gladbach are nowhere near the same league as Inter and Real, and in that context a pair of 2–2 draws is a good achievement. But they led past the 85th minute in both matches. The two goals conceded against Real at the death in a match they dominated were especially cruel. As fourth seeds, Gladbach could have been five and six points clear of Inter and Real respectively if they would have held on. That hurts.

Olympiacos

Created the better chances at Porto and missed a few sitters, as ever the Olympiacos Champions League story. The Greek champions lack ruthlessness in front of goal, while their opponents make the most of their limited chances. With a double-header against City next, Pedro Martins has to hope Marseille get their act together against Porto or Olympiacos could be out of the conversation by matchday 5.

Istanbul Basaksehir

A much improved performance against the finalists after their no-show in Leipzig last week. The Turkish champions had PSG frazzled and could have hung on for a point had they not slacked off in the defensive third at the wrong time.

D

Real Madrid

Superficially, it was a great comeback and scoring two late goals to snatch a point does give you an aura of invincibility. However, that doesn’t hide the fact that Real were played off the park for the majority of their match against the Bundesliga’s fourth best side. This was a side devoid of imagination, managing to salvage the game due to the tireless endeavour and belief of Casemiro stretching every sinew to make a difference in the box. How far can simply being Real Madrid carry this team? On this evidence, they are bound to be exposed when they come up against their elite rivals.

Inter

Of whom, it would be difficult to include Inter. It was the same story as last week, as Antonio Conte’s men passed chance after chance. If the level of domination was not the same as against Gladbach, the quality of chances were. Conte, like Zidane, is lucky that no team in the group has maximum points and progress to the next round is very much in their own hands. The double-header against Real promises to be stressful and tense.

Ajax

This might come across as harsh, especially after the Dutch champions played their part in a great game against Atalanta. I love the attacking endeavour of this team, but Erik Ten Hag does have a problem with game management. Off the top of my head, I can think of their lead relinquished against Spurs in the 2019 semi, the three-goal lead given up at Stamford Bridge last season and now this in Bergamo. The first two examples had significant consequences and this latest setback is likely to render them a spot in the Europa League instead of battling to progress from what should have been a closer group.

Zenit

Kudos to them for digging in and displaying dogged defensive football to stifle Dortmund. But to then throw it away by conceding a daft penalty is plain old inexcusable.

Krasnodar

Krasnodar played their part against Chelsea and many would agree that a 0–4 loss was harsh for the newbies. That being said, they did make more mistakes on their home debut than they did in a resilient effort at Rennes last week.

E

Juventus

The Italian champions had their moments, but the bitter truth is that Barcelona could have won the match with a greater level of comfort than the 2–0 scoreline suggested. If Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence offers mitigation, it remains a mystery as to why Juve’s midfield keep being shown up in these European games. We are now onto the fourth manager of the Old Lady’s period of unparalleled dominance in Italy but control in the centre of the park remains elusive on the continent. It might be costly in the later stages.

Rennes

I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but if 1–0 can be considered a schooling, then that’s what Rennes got for their abject performance in Seville. Were it not for an inspired performance by Alfred Gomis in goal (what is it with Rennes and Senegalese keepers?) they would have been on the receiving end of a humiliation. The caveat is that it is their first attempt in the competition and they are probably here ahead of time. Nevertheless, a season that promised so much is stalling and Julien Stephan needs to find a way for his men to generate momentum.

F

RB Leipzig

A chastening defeat for last season’s semifinalists and the first major debacle in Julian Nagelsmann’s young managerial career. While losing to Manchester United at Old Trafford is no crime, the manner of defeat was unacceptable. Yes, they were only 1–0 down at 70th minute mark, but to cave in and concede four in the last 20 was downright negligent. In addition to the points, they have also conceded the head-to-head advantage to United, meaning Leipzig are in a shoot-out for second against PSG. Their meeting next week now has bigger stakes than the recent semifinal they played in August.

Marseille

Having a tight back five is one component of a plan to thwart city. The problem was Andre Villas-Boas didn’t care much for the other components in a display that can be charitably described as poor. A loss to City can be budgeted for in this group, but Marseille now have next to no margin for error if they want to make it to the last 16.

Dynamo Kyiv

Let’s be clear, Dynamo Kyiv were fortunate to be two goals up against Ferencvaros in the first place. That they couldn’t even hold on to that advantage against a team with very little experience in the competition speaks volumes about the poverty of Dynamo’s performance. Mircea Lucescu’s Dynamo don’t hold a candle to Mircea Lucescu’s Shakhtar.

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