Reasons to Believe This Champions League Group Stage Could Be More Open Than Usual

The group stage has largely been a procession for the elite, but various circumstances suggest that there may be a few more surprises than usual–and some early performances have already backed that up.
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Real Madrid suffered a shocking defeat at home to Shakhtar Donetsk on the second day of this season’s Champions League group stage, and that, combined with Inter Milan’s draw at home against Borussia Monchengladbach and less-than-emphatic wins for Liverpool and Manchester City suggested this may be the most open group stage the Champions league has known for a while. That's not to say all powers are created equally, not after reigning champion Bayern Munich began with a comprehensive and ruthless 4-0 victory over Atletico Madrid. 

But to that end, the past few months across the entirety of Europe have been notable for the wildness of many of the results. It isn’t normal for Manchester City to let in five goals, Manchester United to let in six and Liverpool to let in seven in the space of a week. It’s not usual for Barcelona to lose 8-2, nor for Inter to begin its season with 4-3 and 5-2 wins. Even Bayern has a lopsided 4-1 domestic defeat on its record.

The reasons for the bizarre results can be debated. The lack of preparation time with the curtailed preseason and the compressed fixture list have perhaps had a leveling effect. The weirdness of playing in empty stadiums is probably a further randomizing factor. In addition, the high lines elite sides use are always high-risk, but they are rendered especially so if the organization of the press isn’t right. 

Real Madrid falls to Shakhtar Donetsk in Champions League

The group stage of the Champions League can be a bit of a plod, a dull procession for the elite sides, but partly because of an unusually interesting draw and partly because of that wildness, there was a thought that there may be rather more jeopardy for the superclubs than tends to be the case. 

Certainly Real Madrid is feeling that now. Group B looked testing anyway, with Zinedine Zidane’s side joined by Antonio Conte’s Inter and Marco Rose’s Monchengladbach. But the group was thrown wide open as Madrid lost at home to Shakhtar Donetsk despite the Ukrainian champion being without 10 players, seven of them first-team regulars, due to the coronavirus. 

The damage was done in a first half that finished 3-0 to Shakhtar, in which Madrid was dismal, slow and sluggish going forward and shockingly open every time Shakhtar countered. Tete and Marlos were exceptional on the right side of the midfield, overwhelming Marcelo and Luka Modric. Madrid did shift the momentum in the second half and pulled two back, but Shakhtar could easily have scored a couple more on the break. These days, Madrid lacks pace, but worse than that, it looks petrified both by teams who press it and by those who can break against it. 

Inter needed a 90th-minute leveler from Romelu Lukaku, his second goal of the game, to salvage a 2-2 draw home vs. Monchengladbach. What will concern Conte, though, is how his side lost its head after Arturo Vidal had conceded a needless penalty just after the hour mark. Inter’s capacity for self-destruction never goes away. 

In its first game since Virgil van Dijk suffered a serious knee injury, Liverpool was far from fluent, its 1-0 win achieved through a Nicolas Tagliafico own goal. Ajax tired late on, and Liverpool in the end was comfortable enough, but Ajax had its chances, most notably the effort Davy Klaassen slapped against the post. 

Manchester City was in familiar mode, good in possession if not especially dangerous, and extremely fragile without it. In the end, though, a 3-1 win over Porto was a reasonable enough reflection of the game. The goal it conceded was brilliantly taken by Luis Diaz, but it was also typical of the sort of chance City so often concedes, possession given away by an ambitious attempt at a pass from Ruben Dias, immediately giving the opposition a run on goal. Sergio Aguero equalized almost immediately from the penalty spot, and once Fernandinho had whipped in a free kick, City was able to pick off Porto as it overcommitted. News of Fernandinho's injury, though, weakens Man City's spine for the next few weeks at least.

Bayern Munich was the only giant to win convincingly, its 4-0 win over Atletico Madrid–despite the absence of Serge Gnabry and only seven minutes off the bench from Alphonso Davies–evidence of the brilliance of Kingsley Coman and the club's ruthlessness in front of goal. 

More rhythm should come for the elite sides, but with the group stage compressed and spread over just eight weeks, there’s little time for clubs to sort themselves out. With two matches a week, time on the training ground will be limited, and a poor start could easily undermine a side. Group B in particular looks fascinating: Real Madrid, which must first brace for the weekend's Clasico at Barcelona, goes to Monchengladbach next week in desperate need of a positive result.