- There was little drama for the powerhouse clubs in Champions League openers, as PSG, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich all rolled in clean-sheet victories to begin group play.
All football, it feels at the moment, is viewed through the prism of Neymar’s record-breaking move from Barcelona to PSG. So it was on the opening night of the 2017-18 Champions League, with Neymar opening his European account for his new club as PSG began with a 5-0 win over Celtic. There’s a growing sense, though, that Barcelona may be, if not a better team, then at least a better-balanced side without the Brazilian. Lionel Messi is playing with the intensity of a furious man and inspired Barcelona to a 3-0 win over Juventus.
Elsewhere, Manchester United marked its return to the competition with a straightforward 3-0 win over Basel, while Chelsea hammered Qarabag 6-0. Bayern Munich made slightly heavy weather of finishing off an Anderlecht side that was reduced to 10 men by the dismissal of Sven Kums after 11 minutes, but did eventually win 3-0. The game that looked perhaps like the most competitive in this half of the draw, finished level, with Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco’s first game at this level finishing in a goalless draw at home vs. Atletico Madrid.
What surprises there were came among the less-fancied teams. Sporting Lisbon produced a sensational first-half performance, scoring three times before the break as it beat Olympiakos 3-2 in Greece. The other Portuguese side in action, Benfica, went down 2-1 at home to CSKA Moscow, taking the lead only to be undone by a controversial penalty and Timur Zhamaletdinov’s winner.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the opening day of the Champions League:
Reports of Barcelona's demise overstated
Messi had never previously scored against Gianluigi Buffon but when he finally ended that run, it was with a goal that summed up his oddly understated nature of his brilliance. As Barcelona broke just before halftime, it seemed Messi would lay the ball outside him to Jordi Alba, but he delayed, turned inside and played a smart one-two with Luis Suarez, before tucking a finish just inside the post from the edge of the box.
That gave Barcelona the lead, and it went on to win comfortably against the side that eliminated it last season. The prognostications of gloom after the sale of Neymar have perhaps been a little hasty. With Messi playing almost as a classic playmaker behind Suarez and Ousmane Dembele, Barcelona is perhaps a little over-reliant on him, but when he’s in the mood, as he was here, he is unstoppable.
Messi hit the post shortly before halftime, before his cross was parried by Buffon into the path of Ivan Rakitic, who banged the ball in to a vacant net. Messi got his second and Barca’s third, finish an Andres Iniesta-led break with a brilliant spurt and finish.
New-look PSG passes its first European test
With the French title seen as being little more than a formality for PSG, the real test for its expensively reinforced side is in Europe. Beating Celtic says little about its capacity to go beyond the quarterfinal for the first time since 1995, but the way it dispatched the Scottish champions was nonetheless emphatic. Celtic had chances and will probably feel it wasn’t outplayed, but it had no answer to the power of the PSG forward line of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani, all three of whom scored before halftime.
Neymar, the most expensive player in the world, took just 19 minutes to notch his first Champions League goal for PSG – having scored twice against the French side last season, and been part of the Barcelona side that beat Celtic 7-0 a year ago on Wednesday. As Celtic appealed for a foul on Scott Sinclair, Neymar seized on Adrien Rabiot’s pass and drove a finish into the roof of the net. Mbappe then slammed in Neymar’s header down, and Edinson Cavani became the third member of the trio to score, converting a penalty. Celtic improved after the break but Mikel Lustig inadvertently turned a Julian Daxler cross into his own net before Cavani headed a fifth at the post to cap a memorable start to the journey.
Manchester United's win comes at a cost
Manchester United marked its return to the Champions League with a comfortable win against Basel, a team it had failed to beat in two previous meetings at Old Trafford. It was a victory, though, that came at a cost as Paul Pogba was forced off with a hamstring injury.
After Henrikh Mkhitaryan had hit the post from close range as he met a Romelu Lukaku cross, it was the man who’d come on for Pogba, Marouane Fellaini, who broke the deadlock and later played an uncharacteristically deft backheel to Juan Mata before teeing up the third. Jose Mourinho had spoken on Monday about how Fellaini is far more valuable than many appreciate, and, after Mkhitaryan had switched the play, it was he who headed in Ashley Young’s pinpoint cross for the opener.
United has the tallest team in the Champions League this season and, perhaps not surprisingly, it was another header that brought the second, with Lukaku marking his group stage debut with a goal as he nodded in Daley Blind’s cross. Rashford slammed in Fellaini’s cross to make it three with six minutes remaining–giving him a goal in another debut and capping United's comprehensive win.