The crisis-hit Blancos are into the last 16 but are not impressing, while there is also work to do for the likes of Juventus and Manchester City
Another Champions League group stage has come and gone, with 64 teams whittled down to 16 going into the knockout phase.
There have been a few surprises, and while the majority of the qualifiers were already decided going into the final day, the likes of Tottenham, Inter, Liverpool and Napoli kept us on a knife-edge until the very last minutes.
But what conclusions can be drawn from this engrossing first round? Which teams surprised and who needs to show rapid improvement to avoid an early exit in the last 16?
From Paris Saint-Germain’s terrible trio to a worryingly unfruitful beginning to the Champions League for the tournament’s most prolific player, here’s what we learned from the group stage….
Madrid’s march towards three successive Champions League titles is one of the most incredible stories in recent football history. Unless something drastic changes from January onwards, however, there will not be a fourth.
The Merengue suffered a torrid start to life without Zinedine Zidane, architect of that triple triumph, and sacked his successor, Julen Lopetegui, midway through this group phase.
Results initially enjoyed an upturn under Santiago Solari, who, like Zidane, is a Madrid man through and through, having been promoted from Castilla. But there is still a lot of work to do.
While Solari effectively picked a B team for Wednesday’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of already eliminated CSKA Moscow, the manner and historic nature of the defeat, coupled with the club’s uneven Liga form, have illustrated the enormous size of the job ahead of the Argentine.
Most pressing is the need to replace the goals pilfered by Cristiano Ronaldo; with three goals apiece, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema have performed acceptably, but far below the record-breaking level CR7 drew upon to drive them to glory.
The days of Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Andreas Moller and Paul Lambert might be long gone, but this year’s Champions League has a distinctly mid-90s flavour thanks to the resurgence of two former Champions League powerhouses.
Borussia Dortmund and Ajax are both on the up again after recent woes, with their respective rises built upon young, vibrant squads that draw upon top talent both domestic and international.
Dortmund enjoy a comfortable lead in the Bundesliga and also topped their group, beating out the ever-dangerous Atletico Madrid at the summit. The likes of Achraf Hakimi, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Guerreiro have been a revelation, ably backed up by the older heads of bargain buys Axel Witsel and Paco Alcacer.
It is Ajax’s march to the last 16, however, that has turned more heads.
Homegrown pair Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong are now in the sights of some of Europe’s top clubs, and the Dutch giants capped a fine group stage with Wednesday’s thrilling 3-3 draw at home to Bayern Munich, coming within an inch of beating the Germans to the top spot of Group E.
In an era dominated by the financial elite, it is thrilling to see two rejuvenated former champions coming to the fore again.
With holders Real Madrid, Barcelona and even Juventus failing to show consistent excellence both domestically and in European competition so far this season, the current Champions League edition promises to be one of the most open in recent memory.
That power vacuum has left the door ajar for another team to grab the mantle of early favourites: Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. However, the Premier League champions, who were recently being touted as ‘the new Invincibles’, have been proven anything but.
Chelsea’s determined effort at the weekend showed that City can be frustrated by a determined defensive display, particularly with talisman Kevin De Bruyne out injured.
It was Lyon, though, who showed that it is also possible to take the game to Guardiola’s wonderful side. The unfancied Ligue 1 side attacked City relentlessly in both of their group-stage meetings, upsetting the favourites at the Etihad before then being unluckily denied a second victory by Sergio Aguero’s late equaliser in Lyon.
City remain among the most likely teams to prevail in 2018-19 and give Pep the title he last lifted way back in 2011, but they must learn from the scares experienced both home and away to avoid yet further disappointment in their Abu Dhabi-backed bid to win a first Champions League trophy.
The MSN is long gone, Madrid have waved a bitter farewell to their BBC, so now all eyes are on the MEN at Parc des Princes.
Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani and Neymar are beyond doubt Europe’s most fearsome forward line. Between them, the trio have already smashed an incredible 43 combined goals in all competitions, including 10 in the Champions League as PSG beat out Liverpool and Napoli to top spot in this year’s ‘Group of Death’.
That firepower is nothing new and was just as potent last term. But a new ingredient has made itself visible around the French capital for the latest edition of the competition PSG are desperate to get their hands on.
An added steel in the club’s backbone, so painfully lacking against Real Madrid in 2017-18’s last-16 exit, has been evident in tight clashes against their two main rivals, Napoli and Liverpool.
With that top berth in Group C secured, Thomas Tuchel’s men must feel confident against any of the second-seeded contenders.
Retain the bottle they displayed in beating Liverpool when the pressure was on at the Parc des Princes, and MEN have more than enough ability to take care of the rest.
It was supposed to be the meeting of two great footballing powerhouses: Juventus, Italy’s undisputed champions who had seen continental glory consistently escape their clutches; and Cristiano Ronaldo, a Champions League specialist who would bring the goals and inspiration needed to take that extra step and win the title.
So far, however – and it must be said that it is still very early to draw conclusions – the partnership has not quite worked out how Juve would have initially wished.
The addition of Ronaldo to an already star-studded squad has predictably made the Serie A champions even stronger domestically, and he has raced to 10 goals while his new employers power their way to an already inevitable eight consecutive Scudetto.
But it is in the Champions League that both Juve and Cristiano must step up their game. Ronaldo suffered a petulant if rather unfortunate red card in his European bow for the club and hit the net just once in his five Group H appearances.
Juve, meanwhile, started their campaign on a roll but looked distinctly below-par in defeats to Manchester United and Young Boys, teams that are far from the elite in this year’s edition.
The Old Lady was ultimately fortunate to hang on to top spot and preferential seeding, and much more will be expected both of Juve and Ronaldo if they are to be considered genuine contenders.
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