Champions League Roundup: A Star Is Born for Salzburg & Ajax Hit Cruise Control

?Admit it, you missed the Champions League, didn’t you? You’re in good company if you did, even if the 2019/20 campaign’s opening offerings weren’t quite as spectacular as we hoped they may have been.

Goals were hard to come by in some places across Europe, but they most certainly weren’t in others – specifically in Austria and Netherlands. If you weren’t able to follow the action live, here’s your rundown of how matchday one unfolded across Groups E to H.


Group E

The marquee match of this group should have been Napoli taking on Liverpool at the Stadio San Paolo stadium.

Instead, all eyes swiftly turned to the game between Salzburg and Genk as a rising star of the game introduced himself on the biggest stage of them all. Erling Haland, at just 19 years old, became just the third teenager in Champions League history to net more than one goal on his competition debut.

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Keen to prove a point, he rifled home a first half hat-trick as Salzburg ran out 6-2 winners in a barnstorming game at the Red Bull Arena. Hee-Chan Hwang, Dominik Szoboszlai and Andreas Ulmer were the other goalscorers for the hosts; John Lucumi and Mbwana Aly Samatta netting for the Belgians.

?Liverpool, holders of the Champions League, meanwhile, stumbled in their opening defence of their crown – losing 2-0 against a defensively resolute Napoli side organised beautifully by Carlo Ancelotti. You can find a full report of that game ?here.


Group F

The so-called ‘group of death’, pitting ?Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Inter against one another, is widely expected to provide thrills, spills and entertainment for us all.

Unfortunately, the opening exchanges were anything but exciting – with slim pickings on the goal front providing little-to-no entertainment for us to get ourselves excited about.

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In Germany, Marco Reus had a penalty saved by international teammate Marc-Andre ter Stegen en-route to a 0-0 draw, while Inter had summer signing Nicolo Barella to thank for sparing their blushes against Slavia Praha – his injury time rescuing a 1-1 draw for Antonio Conte’s men at San Siro.

A full report on the Dortmund-Barcelona game can be found ?here, whilst you can fill your boots on Inter’s clash with Slavia ?here.


Group G

In one of the less glamorous groups of this season’s Champions League, it’s very much all to play for between Lyon, Zenit St Petersburg, Benfica and RB Leipzig.

All four will feel they have a good chance of progressing to the knockout stages, but it’s Bundesliga rising star Leipzig who will have the biggest grins on their faces after matchday one. Inspired by Timo Werner, who almost inevitably will move to Bayern Munich at some point (right?), the away side struck twice in the last 20 minutes to sneak a 2-1 win over Benfica in Portugal.

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Earlier in the day, former Manchester United forward Memphis Depay grabbed a vital point for Lyon as his penalty rescued a 1-1 draw against Zenit St Petersburg. Sardar Azmoun had given the visitors the lead before half-time, but it finished honours even at the Stade des Lumieres.


Group H

Finally some entertainment for us to get our teeth into, though sadly it comes at the expense of Frank Lampard’s ?Chelsea.

A goal down heading into the final five minutes, the Blues were gifted the opportunity to equalise against Valencia when they were awarded a penalty. Not the first time this season, a debate ensued over who would take it, and Ross Barkley – who won the battle of wits over usual taker Jorginho – contrived to clip the crossbar, spurning a wonderful chance to earn a point at Stamford Bridge.

Ross Barkley

Elsewhere, last season’s golden boys Ajax eased back into the European groove with a comfortable 3-0 win over Lille at the Amsterdam ArenA. Quincy Promes, Edson Alvarez and Nicolas Tagliafico were on target for the Dutch giants, as they put behind them the summer departures of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt.


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Inter 1-1 Slavia Praha: Report, Ratings & Reaction as Barella’s Late Volley Saves Nerazzurri Blushes

Inter snatched a point from Czech giants Slavia Praha in their Champions League group stage opener thanks to a strike from substitute Nicolò Barella in added time.

Sitting in one of the tightest groups in the competition with Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, ?Stefan de Vrij and Danilo D’Ambrosio wasted golden chances to put Inter into an early lead, although it still highlighted a potential weakness that Slavia Praha had from set-pieces.

Samir Handanovi? just avoided being left with egg on his face by conceding the opening goal while trying to play out from the back, but he was helpless to stop striker Peter Olayinka putting the visitors into a shock lead from close range after half-time.

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Inter then snatched a point from the match in added time after Stefano Sensi’s free-kick rebounded back to Barella, who mishit a volley into the far corner of the net in his first-ever appearance in European competitions.


Inter

Key Talking Point

Antonio Conte will be all too aware that his side won’t be able to control every minute of every match this season, but Inter’s slow start highlighted the fact that they are only three games into their campaign – compared to Slavia Praha, who have played nine league matches.

The Nerazzurri had better options in each position than Tuesday’s opposition, but as a collective, Inter didn’t show any signs as to why they’re being tipped as a team who could topple Juventus in Italian football’s hierarchy this season.


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There seemed to be a severe lack of confidence in defence which gave Slavia Praha’s attacking players confidence as the match went on, but it was Inter’s crippling deficiency of creativity in the final third which proved to be most telling at San Siro.

In the end, a mishit volley from substitute Barella saved Inter from an opening day defeat, but Inter are now walking on thin ice if they want to make it through Group F unless their performances improve drastically over the next few weeks.


Player Ratings

Starting XI: Handanovic (5); D’Ambrosio (5), de Vrij (6), Skriniar (7); Candreva (4), Gagliardini (6), Brozovic (5), Sensi (7), Asamoah (6); Lukaku (6), Martinez (7*).

Substitutes: Lazaro (6), Barella (4), Politano (6).


Star Man

We’re clutching at straws Inter struggled to create anything of note for large chunks of the match, but striker Lautaro Martínez brought the hosts’ toothless attacking lineup an important chunk of South American bite.

Lautaro Martinez

Although the Argentina international wasn’t able to create any chances for himself, Martínez was the only Inter player who looked to press Slavia Praha’s defenders and he even forced the visitors into the odd mistake.


Slavia Praha

Player Ratings

Starting XI: Kolar (5); Coufal (6), Kudela (5), Hovorka (6), Boril (7); Soucek (6), Traore (6), Husbauer (7); Masopust (6), Stanciu (7), Olayinka (8).


Substitutes: Zeleny (7), Provod (6), Helal (6).


Looking Ahead

Inter might have got over their first hurdle in Europe, but the Serie A fixture schedule is now set to turn ugly for the Nerazzurri as they race rivals Milan, as well as Lazio, Sampdoria and Juventus in their next batch of fixtures.

Conte’s side will also have to travel to Barcelona on matchday two in the Champions League, just before they host Italian champions Juventus.

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Champions League: Picking a Combined XI From Teams in Group F

?Europe’s elite competition returns this week and when the group stage draw was made at the end of last month, there was one group that had us all rather excited: Group F.

??The group contains eight European Cup titles and three of Europe’s finest; BarcelonaBorussia Dortmund and Inter. Oh, and of course, Slavia Prague. 

Barca will be welcoming back Lionel Messi for their group-stage opener against Dortmund, who currently sit second in the Bundesliga and behold one of the most exciting young squads in the continent. 


Antonio Conte’s Inter have also started the season well, winning all three of their games and conceding just once in the process. They sit atop of Serie A and look to be a real threat to Juventus’ crown this season.

??Here’s our attempt at a combined XI between the teams in the ‘Group of Death’: 


Goalkeeper and Defenders

Gerard Pique


Marc-Andre ter Stegen (GK): Fantastic shot-stopper and one of the best with the ball at his feet. Incredibly unlucky to not have more Germany caps to his name than he currently does. 

Nelson Semedo (RB): This was a tricky one but Semedo gets the nod over the young Achraf Hakimi. Semedo is incredibly athletic and has cemented himself as Valverde’s first-choice right-back. He would be in the conversation for one of the best in the world if he developed the attacking side of his game.

Gerard Pique (CB): He’s been elite for a decade and still is, so a no brainer really. Next. 

Milan Skriniar (CB): Gets in over an ageing Diego Godin. Skriniar has developed into one of Europe’s highest rated centre-backs and will be key for Antonio Conte this season. The Slovakian is strong, dominant in the air and is comfortable in possession. A complete centre-half.

Jordi Alba (LB): Read Pique.


Midfielders

Frenkie De Jong

Axel Witsel (CDM): Undoubtedly the hardest position to pick with so much talent to choose from between three European giants (sorry Slavia). For Inter, Stefano Sensi has started the season brilliantly whilst Nicolo Barella has impressed every time he’s represented the national side. Barca’s Arthur, who is an incredible ball-retainer, and Sergio Busquets (read Pique) could’ve easily got into this side, but Witsel gets the nod. The Belgian is pivotal in Lucien Favre’s 4-2-3-1, breaking up attacks and then getting his team moving in the other direction with his slick passing. He’s the midfield presence needed in this side.

Frenkie de Jong (CDM): Last season’s UEFA Midfielder of the Year partners Witsel in the double-pivot. Fantastic breaker of lines with the ball at his feet and is certainly underrated defensively. He’s already considered one of the best central-midfield players in the world at just 22 years of age.

Lionel Messi (CAM/Wherever He Wants): The ?third greatest footballer of all time; pretty simple.


Forwards

Marco Reus,Jadon Sancho,Paco Alcacer

Jadon Sancho (RW): Arguably the hottest prospect in world football at the moment. Sancho’s electric pace and eye for a pass make him a nightmare for opposing left-backs. The 19-year-old burst onto the scene last season with 29 goals and assists in 34 Bundesliga games and he looks to be carrying on his form this season, already notching up six goals and assists in the league.

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Paco Alcacer (ST): Despite Romelu Lukaku starting brightly at Inter and the elite Luis Suarez returning from injury, Alcacer is arguably Europe’s most in-form striker at the moment so it’s difficult not to pick him. Seven goals already this season to go with the 19 he registered last term show the quality the Spaniard has in front of goal.

Antoine Griezmann (LW): Playing out of position, but we’d still take him over Dortmund’s Julian Brandt or Inter’s Kwadwo Asamoah. Griezmann has built a reputation for being one of the finest second-strikers in Europe over the past few years and has impressed playing centrally for Barca this season. However, when Luis Suarez and the ‘GOAT’ return, he will likely be forced out to the left.


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90min’s Definitive European Player Power Rankings: Week Five

After an international break full of the kind of nothingness international football has practically patented (this is just a joke to impress you guys, I actually like international football), club football came back with a bang this week.

Which is why we at Power Rankings HQ had to respond with similar firepower (‘Daddy‘!*). Luckily we found it, with one of the greatest tv shows of this decade, hell, this century: ‘Atlanta‘. And seeing as it ain’t Robbin Season just yet, we’re hitting you with Season One of this Donald Glover-helmed modern classic. 

*This joke will become clear by number four.


15. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (New Entry)


“What? This is a great environment for you!”

This could be taken in the sarcastic vein that it is delivered in the show, as a means to show just how badly Henrikh Mkhitaryan was suited to his surroundings at Manchester United and Arsenal. 

But it could also be taken at face value where Roma is concerned, with the Armenian netting a fine goal on his Italian bow to cap off a finer-still display in the 4-2 win over Sassuolo. As you will see, Arsenal rejects scoring on their debut, just as the Gunners’ were themselves faltering in Watford, was a theme this week. As was Arsenal affiliates letting themselves down with their own hubris. See the above tweet and Mateo Guendouzi.


14. Robert Lewandowski (Re-Entry)

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“Well, why would I shoot at a human target?”

While it ultimately wasn’t to be for Bayern against a valiant/luck-riding RB Leipzig side, Robert Lewandowksi’s goalscoring heroics continued, thanks to a consummate finish inside just three minutes. 

Asked how he’s so darn accurate in front of goal, the Pole’s response is quoted above. 


13. Stefano Sensi (New Entry)

Stefano Sensi

“Can I measure your tree?”

With several feet, let alone inches, between Stefano Sensi and Udinese’s covering defender, you can image Antonio Conte and co’s surprise when the diminutive playmaker snuck ahead of him to sneak in a gloriously taken header into the net via the underside of the bar. 

Inter’s 2019 breakout star can head a ball, and he’s barely breaking 5ft.


12. Nacho Monreal (New Entry)

Nacho Monreal

“You look like a fake Ellen Degeneres. A Felon Degeneres.”

Yes, you guessed it (did you?), Nacho Monreal was the second Arsenal reject to score on his debut this weekend, and it came in one of the results of the weekend, with Real Sociedad blotting Atletico Madrid’s unblemished record with a hard-earned 2-0 victory. 

He may look like a BTEC Ellen Degeneres (at least enough for this bit to work…?), but the man can finish his dinner and, in keeping a clean sheet against Diego Simeone’s men, he proved he’s not all forward-thinking, either. 


11. Dries Mertens (Re-Entry)

Dries Mertens

“If you could use a rat as a phone, man, that’d be genius.”

Just as the above observation from Darius was met with derision, many pundits baulked at the use of Dries Mertens as a number nine all those moons ago. Look at him now. Bagging braces against Sampdoria like it’s nothing, and making Fabio Quagliarella (of all people) look blunt. 


10. Duvan Zapata (New Entry)

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“Hello, cousin. How are you today?”

Not only did Duvan Zapata nab Atalanta (eerily close to ‘Atlanta’, I hear you say!!) all three points with a 95th-minute thunderbolt against Genoa, he also won a penalty for his side by doing his cousin, Cristian, all ends up. 


9. Karim Benzema (New Entry)

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“I don’t know, man, I like Flo Rida. I mean, moms need to enjoy rap, too.”

Karim Benzema is the Flo Rida of football. Think about it.


8. Neymar (Up 3)

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“The price is on the can, though.”

With Kylian Mbappe sidelined, it was all about the return of the banner-provoking Brazilian forward Neymar this weekend. 

And, after some initial stuttering against Strasbourg, he delivered in a big, big way, with a 91st-minute bicycle kick to win it. Special stuff. I’d also like to add that PSG are the Arizona Iced Tea (the ‘can’ in question) of football and, as the slogan goes, the price is there for all to see. It’s right on the can. It is. 


7. Marco Reus (New Entry)

Jadon Sancho,Marco Reus

“You want to manage a rapper but you can’t do business high?”

You are Bayer Leverkusen. You want to beat Borussia Dortmund away from home, you have 67% of the possession, three more shots than they do, but you don’t mark Marco Reus? 

Weird.


6. Sadio Mane (Re-Entry)

Sadio Mane

“Money is an idea.”

This is unequivocally true.

Here’s another idea, just off the top of my head. Sadio Mane is world-class. Real Madrid wanted him, but wouldn’t cough up. So here’s the idea: cough up. Whether Mane wants to join the Santiago Bernabeu circus remains to be seen, but at least test some Liverpudlian resolve. The man’s worth all you got, Zizou.


5. Son Heung-min (New Entry)

Heung-Min Son

“This here’s a lightsaber – Luke Skywalker’s.”

Son Heung-min is Tottenham’s Luke Skywalker, here to return the club to the light after some dark times. 

The fact that this is uttered by a bumbling (and potentially homeless?) man who’s set up his own impromptu, and very much unofficial, parking lot should not take away from the initial point. 


4. Luis Suarez (New Entry)

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[while polishing his gun] “Man, I ain’t scared of nothing. I got Daddy right here.”

Not that Barcelona needed to be scared on Saturday against Valencia, considering their current chaos, but if any Copa del Rey Final flashbacks did occur, they knew they had the sharpshooting Luis ‘Daddy’ Suarez right there just in case.

And, though he wasn’t necessarily needed from the bench, he was used, springing straight into the action to nab a 20-minute brace. And, if you object to the use of ‘Daddy’ here, well, then, have another quote from this very exchange:

“Yo, you not gonna see this, but your assumed perversion of the word ‘Daddy’, I think that’s stemming from the fear of mortality, man. What you call your gun?”

Yeah. What do you call your ageing strikers?


3. Tammy Abraham (Re-Entry)

Tammy Abraham

Is Paperboi Atlanta’s 2Pac? They said no. But apparently John Boyega is the new Magic Johnson.”

Is Tammy Abraham Chelsea’s second coming of Didier Drogba? No. As previously established in these here rankings, Tammy Abraham is the new Magic Johnson. Move over, Boyega. 


2. Teemu Pukki (Up 3)

Teemu Pukki

“I just think we need a chance as humans to fail in order to discover what actually works, you know? People don’t think there’s a process to being happy.”

Teemu Pukki is the living embodiment of this quote, and he’s now reaping the rewards from this time-honoured policy, pulling the strings in the result of the weekend from across Europe. 

He is also now the only man to maintain his spot across the first five weeks of these rankings, which makes him a winner in his own right. So why, you ask, is he not the outright winner this week? Well, he’s not 16.


1. Ansu Fati (New Entry)

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“AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from beating Steve McQueen’s sex record. And by ’69 he was already number three on the all-time list. By ’71 he would’ve been that boy for sure.”

Has Ansu Fati been invented to keep Lionel Messi from beating Cristiano Ronaldo’s Champions League goalscoring record? I can’t say it with the same certainty as ya boy Darius above, but the precocity of Barca’s youngest ever goalscorer sure does beg the question. 

And that’s not the only record he’s broken, as he became the youngest ever play to record a goal and an assist in the same game in La Liga history against Valencia.

And what a goal and an assist they were, the former being an oh-so-composed first-time finish after a bursting run into the box inside just two minutes of action, the latter comprising a mazy run down the left flank, the retiring of Ezequiel Garay and an expertly placed cut-back for Frenkie de Jong just five minutes later. 

By the 15th-minute mark he was centimetres away from a brace, and moments after that he should have had a penalty. Need I remind you that this kid is 16 years old, and just two weeks ago was a mere unknown.

Now he’s spreading his arms to the Camp Nou crowd, soliciting the kind of response that – yes, I’LL SAY IT – only Messi himself can garner in modern times. Hence the €100m release clause, and hence the placing atop these prestigious rankings.

Remember the date, remember the name.


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UEFA Champions League: The 5 Must Watch Group Stage Fixtures of Matchday 1

The 2019/20 UEFA Champions League group stage begins with matchday one this week, with all 32 teams in action all over the continent across Tuesday and Wednesday.

Here’s a look at five of the biggest ‘must watch’ games taking place…


Napoli vs. Liverpool

?Tuesday 17 September, 21.00 (CEST) @ Stadio San Paolo

Sadio Mane

Liverpool begin the defence of their Champions League title by facing a team they had to beat at home no matchday six just to get out of the group stage last season.

The Reds may have gone on to lift the trophy in May, but they were beaten when they travelled to Stadio San Paolo in early October. Liverpool, who would lose all three group stage away games, failed to score and conceded a late Napoli winner from Lorenzo Insigne.

With Genk and Red Bull Salzburg completing Group E, this trip to Napoli is likely to be Liverpool’s most challenging game and toughest test in this phase of the competition.


Borussia Dortmund vs. Barcelona

Tuesday 17 September, 21.00 (CEST) @ Westfalenstadion 

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Already a huge game as one of Europe’s most exciting young teams takes on an established giant, the potential return of Lionel Messi makes Barcelona’s visit to Borussia Dortmund even more enticing as the superstar is in the squad after missing the first four games of the season.

Dortmund have plenty to prove in Europe this season as they were eliminated from the group stage last year, while their overall reputation does not marry up with a team that has won just two Champions League knockout ties since playing in the 2013 final.

Barcelona will be desperate to make a strong start in difficult times as Group F also features a resurgent Inter and will claim a high profile scalp.


Chelsea vs. Valencia

Tuesday 17 September, 21.00 (CEST) @ Stamford Bridge

Mason Mount,Tammy Abraham

Group H could hardly be more open and that is why it is vital for Chelsea to get an early win under their belt when Valencia visit Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea were fired to Premier League victory over the weekend by home-grown youngsters Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori, all of whom will be taking a step into the known for what will be their respective Champions League debuts.

Chelsea have the second leakiest defence in the Premier League this season after conceding 11 goals in five games, and they will therefore be vulnerable against a technical La Liga side, even one that has started the 2019/20 domestic season poorly.


Paris Saint-Germain vs. Real Madrid

?Wednesday 18 September, 21.00 (CEST) @ Parc des Princes

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The team that has been craving Champions League glory for years without success against the team that has won it more times than other club history, Paris Saint-Germain will host Real Madrid in a heavyweight clash at the Parc des Princes in Group A on Wednesday.

After brushing off an early season blip, PSG are on in Ligue 1, which is more than can be said for Real, who have only won two of their opening four domestic games and conceded six times.

A lot of focus will be on Neymar in Paris this week. The Brazilian superstar didn’t get his dream return to Barcelona during the summer and was heckled and booed by his own club’s fans when he made his first appearance of the season over the weekend – despite scoring a fairly incredible bicycle kick. 


Atletico Madrid vs. Juventus

Wednesday 18 September, 21.00 (CEST) @ Wanda Metropolitano

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Atletico Madrid and Juventus meet in matchday one of Group D after playing out an epic two-legged knockout tie in the Champions League last season. On that occasion it took a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick to overturn the tie for Juventus after a 2-0 first leg deficit.

Atletico have undergone a mini transformation since then, shedding Antoine Griezmann and Diego Godin and bringing in younger talents like Joao Felix and Marcos Llorente.

These great clubs are two of European football’s biggest underachievers at a continental level. They have played in 12 European Cup/Champions League finals between them over the years, but have lost as many as 10 of those – including four in a row between 2014 and 2017.


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