Liverpool Falls, Haland Breaks Out, PK Drama for Chelsea in UCL's Return

Last season's winner begins with a familiar defeat, while Chelsea is left to sort out some internal decision making and RB Salzburg's breakout star takes it a step further on opening day of the 2019-2020 Champions League.
By Jonathan Wilson ,

Reigning winner Liverpool slipped to a 2-0 defeat at Napoli while Barcelona drew 0-0 at Borussia Dortmund to headline the return of the Champions League and the start of the group stage.

Liverpool was second best for most of the game before conceding twice in the final eight minutes, first on a Dries Mertens penalty and then on Fernando Llorente’s first goal for his new club.

In the other game in the group, prolific teenager Erling Braut Haland scored a first-half hat trick as Jesse Marsch's Red Bull Salzburg thrashed Genk, 6-2, to top Group E after one round of matches.

In Group E's match of titans, a largely toothless Barcelona got away with a draw only because Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved a Marco Reus penalty, in addition to making a handful of other stops on the day Lionel Messi made his season debut off the bench.

In the same group, an injury-time strike from Nicolo Barella salvaged a 1-1 draw for Inter at home to Slavia Prague, which had taken the lead through Peter Olayinka. Any sense of relief for Antonio Conte’s side, though, must be tempered both by how poorly it played and by the knowledge that, on paper at least, this was its easiest fixture in a testing group.

Ajax, a semifinalist last season, got its campaign off to a winning start with a 3-0 victory over Lille. Quincy Promes headed in Nico Tagliafico’s cross, Mexico international Edson Alvarez looped in a brilliant second from David Neres’s reverse pass and Tagliafico headed a third to secure the points. Ajax tops Group H on goal-difference over Valencia, which won 1-0 at Chelsea thanks to a Rodrigo goal and Ross Barkley’s missed penalty.

In Group G, two Timo Verner goals helped RB Leipzig to a 2-1 win over Benfica, as the Bundesliga side took charge of a wide-open quartet. The other game in the group finished 1-1, with Memphis Depay’s penalty for Lyon canceling out Sardar Azmoun’s deft opener for Zenit.

Here are three thoughts on the opening day of the Champions League:

Champion Liverpool begins with defeat

Liverpool’s poor away form in the group stage of the Champions League continued. It lost all three away games in the group stage last season and, like last year, went down in Naples after conceding late. As like a year ago, this was a largely limp performance, although it took a fine save from Alex Meret to deny Mohamed Salah after Kostas Manolas had given away possession cheaply.

Napoli, though, was the better side, particularly after halftime, and it had taken an extraordinary save from Adrian, changing his body shape while already airborne to deny Dries Mertens as he met Mario Rui’s deep cross.

The deadlock was broken eight minutes from time as Andy Robertson conceded a soft penalty for a clumsy tackle on Jose Callejon, although he seemed to take the ball before the Spaniard tumbled over him. An error from Virgil van Dijk then gifted Fernando Llorente a second in injury time. Liverpool can take solace in the fact that last season's script involved a similar defeat, and there's no PSG looming in this group to shrink the margin of error, but it was a discouraging start to the title defense nevertheless.

More problems for Lampard at Chelsea

Frank Lampard remains a hugely popular figure at Stamford Bridge, and given the restrictions upon him perhaps results don’t matter too much at this stage, but previous Chelsea managers might have found themselves under pressure after a result and a performance like this. With Lille having sold the cream of its talent, the group looks like a three-way battle for the two knockout slots between Chelsea, Valencia and Ajax. Given Valencia controversially sacked its manager last week, plunging the club into chaos, this looked like the ideal opportunity for Chelsea to gain an edge over one of its main rivals.

Chelsea began promisingly but it rather lost rhythm after Mason Mount suffered an ankle injury as he was caught by Francis Coquelin. Valencia came more and more into the game and grabbed a winner 16 minutes from time as Rodrigo nudged in Daniel Parejo’s smart free kick.

Chelsea was handed a chance to pinch an equalizer as Fikayo Tomori’s header struck the hand of Daniel Wass. The Dane was perhaps two feet away and had no chance of getting out of the way, and even under UEFA's hardline interpretation of the handball law, it seemed a harsh decision. Jorginho is the usual penalty taker, and Willian seemed to want to take it, but it was Barkley who seized the ball, which he then pinged against the crossbar and over. Why the usual pecking order was overturned, and what it means for Lampard’s authority, is likely to dominate the post-mortems.

Haland's goal rush continues

Red Bull Salzburg had waited 25 years to get into the Champions League group stage, and it wasted little time in making its mark. Less than two minutes had gone when Haland, the son of the former Norway international Alf-Inge Haland, fired Salzburg in front. Born in Leeds, standing at 6-foot-4 and still only 19, he made headlines in the summer when he scored nine in a game for Norway against Honduras at the Under-20 World Cup.

A move to Salzburg from Molde had already been agreed upon then, and in Austria the goals have continued to flow. He had scored 14, including three hat tricks in eight games for his new club before Tuesday, and before halftime he had completed his fourth, taking his goal tally to this season to 17. His second was a confident finish on the counter after fine work from Hwang Hee-Chan, and, after Hwang had made it 3-0 and Jhon Lucumi had pulled one back, Haland showed his predatory instincts poking in a left-wing cross after Genk had been undone and conceded possession. Only Raul and Wayne Rooney have scored Champions League hat tricks at a younger age.

Hungarian teenager Dominik Szoboszlai made it five before halftime and although Mbwana Samata pulled one back, the Red Bull captain Andreas Ulmer restored the four-goal margin.

Marsch, the first American coach to lead a team in the Champions League, also became the first to record a win. Speaking to Planet Fútbol TV last week, Marsch sang Haland's praises, saying, "Erling's special. He's a special talent, a special guy. At 19 years old he's an incredible professional. ... I think the sky's the limit for this kid. We've seen him get better and better. He's on the radar of so many big clubs in Europe already right now. But here and now he's with us, and I think he's ready to make a big impact in Champions League."

Indeed he is.

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