More English woe, Spanish success in Champions League openers
Another Cristiano Ronaldo hat trick, some Ibra-cadabra magic for Paris Saint-Germain and more woes for Manchester City at home in Europe … It’s like the Champions League never went away.
On a stunning opening round of action on Matchday One, Juventus came back to beat Man City 2-1, Real Madrid cruised past Shakhtar Donetsk 4-0, while PSV Eindhoven shocked Manchester United with a 2-1 win.
Sevilla, Benfica and Atletico won comfortably and Wolfsburg marked its return with an important 1-0 win over CSKA through newcomer Julian Draxler.
Here is what caught our eye as Europe's premier competition returned:
Player of the Day: Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid)
On a night when the likes of Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and David Silva were all in action, it says something that the star man of Matchday One’s first round of matches was Griezmann. The French forward ended last season as Atletico Madrid’s talisman after a stunning run of 16 goals in 13 games. The big question for the player rejected by Lyon, Saint-Etienne, Montpellier and Auxerre for being too small was whether he could sustain it this season.
He had scored one goal in his first three La Liga games, but Tuesday against Galatasaray in Istanbul, he showed the quality that convinced Atletico to reject all offers for him last summer. His first goal was a masterclass in movement and finishing, as he found space on the edge of the area and allowed a cross from the left to run across his body before driving in a low shot past Galatasaray’s Fernando Muslera at the near post. The second was much simpler, a close-range tap-in after Diego Godin, as he typically does, headed a corner across goal.
Atletico beat Galatasaray 2-0 to put it in pole position in Group C. The next question for the Spanish club is how much longer it will be able to keep the mercurial Griezmann on its books. More than Eden Hazard and Raheem Sterling, he is the player most likely to bridge the gap to the super-human scoring exploits of Messi and Ronaldo. He could even be the first player to break the €100 million price-tag barrier next season.
We have to mention Ronaldo for his hat trick against Shakhtar, even though two of his efforts were from the penalty spot and the opposition was down to 10 men. That’s now 80 goals for him all-time in this competition, three ahead of Messi, and he has eight goals in his last two games. Maybe Griezmann has a way to go just yet.
Goal of the Day: Edinson Cavani (PSG)
OK, so Cavani’s goal was not amazing. In fact, it was a header from four yards out; maybe it would have been harder for him to miss it. But the beauty of this goal was in what came before. A break down the left, a cross from Maxwell and an Ibrahimovic leaping pre-meditated flick-on with his heel, which allowed the ball to sail perfectly towards the in-form Uruguayan.
PSG had missed other chances–Ibra, Cavani and David Luiz had kept Johann Willand busy–but Ibra’s moment of magic lit up opening night as the Swede beat his first club 2-0 at the Parc des Princes. About an hour earlier, Angel di Maria had showed some of his Madrid rather than Manchester form with the opening goal, a smart left-footer from Marco Verratti’s defense-splitting pass. Notable mention for Sevilla sub Yevhen Konoplyanka, whose first touch after coming on as a late sub was to curl a shot inside Yann Sommer’s post from the touchline.
Eye-Opening Results of the Day: Both Manchester clubs fall
It's more trouble in Europe for the Manchester clubs, and even though this was the opening round of a six-game group stage, these results will cause nervous reactions in England. City took the lead against last season’s runner-up with a fortunate goal, as Giorgio Chiellini headed in Silva’s corner under pressure from Vincent Kompany. Juventus responded well, though, with Mario Mandzukic equalizing from Pogba’s long ball and Alvaro Morata scoring a sensational winner after making the most of indecision in the City defense–notably after Kompany had gone off injured.
This was a result that went against the form book: City sits atop of the Premier League without a goal conceded in five games, while Juventus had one point from three games and was struggling to transition without Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez. And yet mentality, composure under pressure, and European know-how count for so much on nights like this; and this, once again–and especially at home–is where City was found wanting.
Before the game, Kompany said this season would be different. He was wrong. City had chances–Raheem Sterling, Wilfried Bony and Yaya Toure all kept the superb Gianluigi Buffon on his toes–but was not able to claw it back.
Morata, who scored big-game goals last season against Dortmund, Real Madrid and Barcelona, once again made the difference. For City, the European woes at the Etihad continue.
“I don't think we played so bad, they were a bit lucky,” said Toure after the game. “We have to be strong and try to bounce back in the next game.”
It was no better for Louis van Gaal and Manchester United, which allowed PSV Eindhoven to come from behind to win 2-1 in Holland. Like City, United was ahead and had chances. But unlike City, it was not playing the four-time reigning Italian champion. It was playing a side that had cost €26 million to put together–nearly the same price as substitute midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin, or half an Anthony Martial. And so questions will be asked of the defense that allowed Hector Moreno to equalize from a simple corner, and Luciano Narsingh to score the winner, again with the United defense all at sea. Another stormy week for Van Gaal waits.
Turning-Point of the Day: Luke Shaw's injury
Poor Luke Shaw. The left back had started the PSV game in the form that had made him one of the few individual bright spots in United’s start to the season. Shaw burst into the PSV area and was just about to shoot when Moreno slid in to take the ball with his right foot. But his left foot was on the other side of Shaw and connected dangerously with his left to leave the youngster down and in trouble with a double leg fracture.
On came Marcos Rojo, not at left back but at center back, with Daley Blind moving to left back. Thereafter, PSV troubled the United back line: Moreno evaded Matteo Darmian at the corner from which he scored, though it deflected off Blind. And Narsingh took advantage of more defensive chaos on the left side to bag the winner. Shaw could face a long time out, which is a great pity for him. In the short-term, it looks like it could cost United dear as well.
Gareth Bale also hobbled off with a suspected calf strain that could keep him out for two weeks. He has a race against time to be ready for the Atletico Madrid fixture in early October, and the final two Euro 2016 qualifiers for Wales shortly after that.
Major Takeaway of the Day: Closing coefficient gap
Three Spanish sides, three wins: Sevilla 3-0 over Monchengladbach; Atletico 2-0 over Galatasaray; and Real Madrid 4-0 over Shakhtar. Two English sides, and two defeats. The Premier League may brand itself as the best league in the world, and there’s no doubt that it’s the richest, but the gap between clubs in England and the elite of Europe shows no sign of narrowing.
This was supposed to the season that City was going to make the leap to the latter stages; but once again it was undone at home, and now the doubleheader against Sevilla on Matchdays Three and Four has taken on an ominous significance.
United should have less to worry about, given its loss was away and it has an easier group, on paper, anyway.
The longer-term repercussions are worth considering. The Premier League offers four teams places in the Champions League based on its UEFA coefficient, a ranking that calculates how well each league’s teams perform in Europe. The English teams’ ranking is slipping all the time; not just because of its recent Champions League struggles–the only team to reach the last four since 2010 has been Chelsea–but because of the refusal of English teams to take its sister competition, the Europa League, seriously.
Winning the Europa League now gets you a ticket into the Champions League–it’s how Sevilla ended up there this season–and yet it is notable every season that English clubs seem to do their utmost to get out of the competitions as soon as they are in it. Already West Ham and Southampton have been eliminated before the group stage this season. A few more poor years in both competitions and the Italian coefficient will overtake England’s, and with it that extra place for fourth.
It might not affect the financial weight of English clubs–the Premier League’s bumper TV deal has seen to that–but surely it’s time their performances reflected their budgets.