UEFA must rethink shake-up and five things we
learned from the Champions League this week
Teams from the so-called “Champions Path” are struggling in the competition proper while Ligue 1 again demonstrated it’s worthy of more than two automatic group stage places The Champions League is back. Barcelona laid down a title marker immediately with Lionel Messi scoring a hat-trick in the 7-0 demolition of Celtic while his feats were matched by compatriot Sergio Aguero for Manchester City. Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Real Madrid to a late comeback against Sporting while Juventus could only draw with Sevilla. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund obliterated their opposition but Arsenal had to battle to secure a draw with PSG. Lyon and Monaco, meanwhile, were impressive in their efforts. Meanwhile, new boys Leicester City got off to a flyer in their first Champions League game. Here is the full story of the first week of Champions League action. The controversy over the proposed reforms to the Champions League are not going away and will indeed stretch long into the presidency of new UEFA chief Aleksander Ceferin. One of the Slovenian’s first tasks will be to appease those national associations whose clubs struggle and strive to qualify for the group stage while all four representative teams from the top four leagues in Europe will, from 2018 on, be delivered straight to the group stage. The threat of a breakaway Super League – in the eyes of national associations like Scotland and Denmark – saw UEFA cave in to the demands of the big clubs while sporting integrity was a secondary consideration. The thinking is that more should be done to preserve places in the Champions League for those teams coming from “smaller nations” in order to respect the diversity of the competition. Well, if Celtic’s presence in the draw was meant to give any sort of indication that those lesser- ranked nations were worth their place in the competition proper, then it hasn’t gone to plan. Already beaten by Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar and Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the Scottish champions were torn asunder by Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and more. There are all kinds of reasons why Scottish football is listing at present – from a lack of domestic television money to an inability to compete with English clubs for the best talent – but this result will have done no favours to those who think the Champions League would be any better being populated by a wider spread of teams. Furthermore the efforts of Legia Warsaw – a 6-0 home defeat to Borussia Dortmund – will also raise question marks again over the quality of team being provided by Michel Platini’s “Champions Path” which remains at the heart of UEFA discussion.
Discarded by Benfica coach Rui Vitoria and shunted to Besiktas on loan, Anderson Talisca had plenty to prove when the two sides clashed on matchday one. The Turkish champions lost key players like Mario Gomez, Gokhan Tore and Jose Sosa over the summer and had lost all of their previous five opening day Champions League matches. Things looked bleak for the Black Eagles in Lisbon on Tuesday night all the way to injury time after Franco Cervi had given the Portuguese title holders the lead. Benfica were to be pegged back though by Talisca, who curled a wonderful free-kick beyond the reach of Ederson in the hosts’ goal. The 22- year-old stepped in front of European champion Ricardo Quaresma in the dead-ball queue and his bravery paid off. He has since come in for some fierce criticism – both in the press and among team-mates of his parent club – for the manner in which he celebrated the leveller. Having been told he had no future at Benfica – however – he could be forgiven for the indulgence. Gonzalo Higuain may have gone on to bigger and better things but Napoli appear no worse off for his departure. They banked a sizeable fee from Juventus – some €90 million – and have hit the ground running in Europe with a terrific away victory at Dynamo Kyiv. Higuain’s replacement – Arkadiusz Milik – faced plenty of sceptical remarks over the summer when he joined from Ajax. Many doubted the Pole had the talent or the attributes to carry the Napoli attack on his 22-year-old shoulders. He has – however – impressed early in the season. Milik is already off the mark in Serie A and added two goals to his tally on Tuesday to give Maurizio Sarri’s side all three points. Higuain’s decision to leave caused havoc in Naples but the early form of Milik might be enough to help the fans forget. Until Wednesday, Mario Gotze’s big return to Dortmund had not quite gone to plan. He – along with the rest of the team – faced criticism for a perceived lack of form and fitness and there was widespread disappointment with the loss to league newcomers Red Bull Leipzig on Sunday. Dortmund’s Bundesliga campaign has been less than impressive but based on their showing against Legia Warsaw, they are ready to take on anyone in Europe in their comeback campaign – Real Madrid included. Thomas Tuchel’s side have signed some of the best young European talent this season and simply had too much for Legia on the night. Gotze was central to operations – scoring the opening goal – and being involved plenty thereafter. Both centre backs – Sokratis and new boy Marc Bartra – were also on the scoresheet as was recently-crowned European champion Raphael Guerreiro, Gonzalo Castro and Pierre- Emerick Aubameyang. Dortmund lost key players Ilkay Gundogan, Mats Hummels and Henrikh Mkhitaryan over the summer and their adaptation process to life without that trio will be difficult. However, nights like Wednesday demonstrate what the new Dortmund are capable of when things are running smoothly. As a side-note on that game, Legia’s tifo displays are a welcome addition to the Champions League backdrop but the club will deservedly face UEFA action due to alleged anti-semitic Ultra chanting as well as the use of pepper spray against stewards inside the ground.
Andrea Pirlo compared the situation in Serie A this week with France’s Ligue 1. Juventus were Paris St-Germain, he reasoned, far ahead of the domestic competition and – by implication – the only team worthy of playing to a high level in Europe. That would be wrong to assume though following results on matchday one. France look to be the big losers in the recently- announced Champions League shake-up with the fifth ranked national association supplying two teams for the group stage and one more to the qualifying rounds from 2018 onwards. That is the position the French league currently occupies. Not only did Monaco eliminate Spain’s fourth- best team in the qualification play-off round – Villarreal – but they also defeated England’s third best on foreign soil with a well-measured display. Bernardo Silva and prodigy Thomas Lemar gave Monaco an early advantage that Tottenham Hotspur could not overturn to prove there is more than just PSG in the French top flight. Furthermore, Olympique Lyon marked their return to the Champions League with a huge victory over Dinamo Zagreb at their stunning new home. Youth products Corentin Tolisso and Jordan Ferri were on the scoresheet for a Lyon side deprived of two more hometown favourites in Alexander Lacazette and Nabil Fekir. After a draw between Juventus and Sevilla in the other Group H game, Lyon are in with an early shout of making the knockouts. By contrast, a PSG side in transition were wasteful at home against Arsenal and could only draw. It would have taken a gambler with remarkable foresight to bet on PSG being the only Ligue 1 side to fail to win on the first Champions League matchnight but that’s just what transpired.