Last year, 450 million people tuned into the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League final between Manchester City, one of the top picks for title contenders, and Inter Milan, who had launched an unlikely bid for the ‘Big Ears.’ As we head into winter and group-stage matches come to a close, let’s look back at the first games of this year’s Champions League and talk about what’s next.
Heavyweights remain supreme
Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester City currently sit top of the table in their respective groups. That’s no surprise — the first three hold 25 Champions League titles between them, and Manchester City, despite being a first-time winner, boasts some of the best players in the world and is headed by one of the most decorated coaches of all time, Pep Guardiola.
Recent concerns about Manchester City’s star striker Erling Haaland, due to his ankle injury during a 6-1 win against Bournemouth, turned out to be somewhat unfounded. The Norwegian player scored two out of Manchester City’s three goals, bringing his total to an impressive 39 goals in 34 Champions League appearances. Pressure is mounting on Barcelona’s number nine, Robert Lewandowski, as Barcelona struggles to keep their title hopes alive in the Spanish LaLiga and the Champions League.
Galatasaray S.K. stuns and Real Sociedad leads
It’s not tradition-rules-all in this year’s Champions League. Galatasaray gave us this year’s first underdog victory when Mauro Icardi’s brilliance produced a late advantage over Manchester United at Old Trafford. All eyes are on the return match at Rams Park: Will Galatasaray hold its lead, or will Manchester United turn the tide and go through to the knockout stage?
When groups were drawn on August 31, no one expected Real Sociedad to rise above Inter Milan, FC Red Bull Salzburg and S.L. Benfica to claim first place in Group D after the first half of the group stage. Real Sociedad, on its first Champions League appearance in a decade, has been in impressive form, displaying a strong defensive line and a reliable, talented team. After their 3-1 triumph over Benfica on matchday four, the Basque Real Sociedad has already qualified for the round of 32. The performance of players like Takefusa Kubo and Martín Zubimendi has us betting on Real Sociedad for the “upset” team of the season.
When it rains, it pours
And it seems to be storming for Manchester United. Currently ranked at the bottom of Group A, the team has a less-than-stellar record in this year’s championship, with only a single win among three defeats. Last week’s defeat against Copenhagen was a shock in and of itself — Manchester United squandered a first-half advantage and a second-half life-line by Bruno Fernandes, eventually losing 4-3.
As Jonathan Liew from The Guardian puts it, Manchester United has once again managed to snatch calamity from the jaws of promise. To qualify for the round of 32, Manchester United must now defeat both Galatasaray and Bayern Munich. We wouldn’t want to be in coach Erik ten Hag’s position.
Group F attracts the limelight
Pundits in news channels across the world put their support behind Group F as the most entertaining and exciting of the season. Boasting Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain F.C. and Newcastle United F.C., the matches were seen as the true wildcards of the first stage. There was no way to accurately predict which two of the four clubs would go through, and as things stand after this week’s games, there still isn’t.
It’s easier to explain why by simply listing the results so far, in the order that they happened.
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Dortmund: 2-0
AC Milan vs. Newcastle: 0-0
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Newcastle: 1-4
Dortmund vs. AC Milan: 0-0
Paris Saint-Germain vs. AC Milan: 3-0
Dortmund vs. Newcastle: 1-0
Dortmund vs. Newcastle: 2-0
Paris Saint-Germain vs. AC Milan: 1-2
There has been no clear winner in the group. In fact, only three points separate the first and last place — the thrilling nature of this set has made commentators’ jobs of predicting who will advance into the final 32 much harder. The behind-the-scenes aspects of Group F have also brought much entertainment and intrigue: When Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma lined up against his boyhood team at San Siro Stadium, AC Milan fans greeted him with a shower of fake dollar bills, boos and pictures of him with the words “mercenary” written across.
Keep your eyes peeled in the next few weeks as the final two matchdays decide who will join the six teams who have already advanced into the knockouts. Also, be on the lookout for the beginning of the UEFA Women’s Champions League as it kicks off this November.