The spectre of COVID looms large on the Champions League as Europe goes into a second lockdown and cases of players being infected are on the rise. How long football — especially cross border football — can continue is anyone’s guess, but while it is on, the best anyone can do is look forward to it. Matchday 3 means the pivotal double-headers of the group stage are here with these two games usually decisive in sealing progress to the knockouts. These are the five games that intrigue me the most in this round.
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Borussia Monchengladbach
That this match features is incredible in itself. It’s rare to go into matchday 3 with the third and fourth seeds in the group topping the table. Shakhtar are first courtesy of their fantastic win in Madrid and a battling draw with Inter. Gladbach participated in two entertaining 2–2 draws with the big-hitters, but could have been on maximum points were it not for late equalizers conceded to both, Inter and Real.
This match isn’t about tactics or personnel. It is about opportunity. With Real and Inter likely to take points off each other there is a genuine chance for these two to upset the apple cart. The key question is this: will either team have the gumption to go for the throttle in pursuit of six points in this double-header? If ever there was a time to throw caution to the wind, it is now for Shakhtar and Gladbach.
Real Madrid vs. Inter
It’s been a while since these two have faced off on Europe’s biggest stage, perhaps a bit too long. Memories of Roberto Baggio and Clarence Seedorf defining this fixture coming flooding back. The stakes are high this time around and it will be interesting to see which players can replicate the legends and leave their imprint on the occasion.
Inter have played the better football and it could be argued that if they were clinical they would have been sitting on a comfortable six points. As is often the case in this competition, the Nerazzurri have been their own worst enemy. They now go to the Bernabeu without their most important player, Romelu Lukaku. Achraf Hakimi’s significance increases in the absence of the Belgian forward, and the Moroccan will be expected to shoulder the attacking burden against his former club.
Real’s play in the competition up to this point has been characterized by stodginess and a fragility when faced with pressing opposition. That they are not out of the picture is down to their stature, which still holds some sway though the legs are getting older. Which makes the return of Eden Hazard a timely and vital boost.
Neither team is anywhere close to their best, both looking incomplete — Real struggling with their offence, Inter conceding left, right and centre. Zinedine Zidane has the history to guide him on this stage, with Antonio Conte still looking to make a mark in the Champions League. There’s a lot that’s simmering under the surface in this game.
Atalanta vs. Liverpool
By common consensus last week’s meeting between Atalanta and Ajax was the game of the competition so far. While we wait for that game to sink in, Group D is ready with another tasty treat for us as Atalanta host Liverpool. In truth, Ajax’s poor start has reduced the jeopardy around this match, but it nevertheless promises to be a feast of football.
There are interesting parallels between the two clubs at the moment. Both have had significant injury setbacks in defence to the point that fourth choice defenders are likely to feature in this game. Both teams also had to sacrifice a bit of their flair to dig in and come away with scrappy 2–1 wins on the weekend.
I doubt Gianpiero Gasperini will alter his approach even if his opponents are one of the best teams in Europe. They will play on the front foot. Expect Liverpool to be pushed to the limit as Jurgen Klopp goes in search of his first point or win in Italy. The English champions do have the nous to wait and ride out the storm, which leads me to believe that the second half will be increasingly exciting and open.
Club Brugge vs. Borussia Dortmund
Another game that I wasn’t expecting to talk about when the draw was first made. Its significance has increased in no small part down to Brugge’s excellent start to the campaign. Sitting on four points, the Belgian champions have an excellent opportunity to progress to the round of 16. If they beat Dortmund at home they will be above the German side even if they lose the reverse fixture on the next matchday. That is significant, because it transfers all the pressure to Dortmund.
And as we all know, Dortmund don’t always respond well when under pressure. To further complicate matters for Lucien Favre, he is without Mats Hummels in defence and possibly without Erling Haaland in attack. Even in the rudest of health, Dortmund don’t tend to do well away in Europe. This is a big test for this young team. Any thoughts about Der Klassiker on the weekend should be put away for now, as progress in the Champions League is a must for Dortmund.
RB Leipzig vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Their semifinal in August pales in comparison to the pressure both sides are under for this double-header. After suffering different but chastening defeats to Manchester United, Leipzig and PSG have no room for error, unless the Red Devils drop points against Istanbul Basaksehir which appears unlikely.
Both teams have their issues, with a common theme being personnel. Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig remain a quality side committed to a clear identity. However, there are times when even great management and good systems can’t compensate for the loss of star quality, which is why Leipzig’s attack remains a work in progress after the departure of Timo Werner.
PSG and Thomas Tuchel meanwhile are doing their usual thing of fitting square pegs in round holes. How the German is going to assemble his side is anybody’s guess. What is undeniable is that in the absence of Marco Verratti, their midfield has lost any semblance of vertical momentum. To compound matters further, Neymar is also injured for this game.
All these imperfections make this a game that is too close to call. I fear that despite some outstanding individual talent on display, this is going to be the first of two cagey and very tense games.