With the 28th UEFA Champions League kicking off this week, matchday one of Europe’s premier football competition sprung a few surprises while giving us a glimpse of what lies ahead this season.
One of the best showings was at the San Siro, where a deflected goal by Nicola Barella helped home side Inter Milan notch up a late equalizer against Czech Republic club Slavia Prague. Prague, who were drawn into the ‘Group of Death’ with Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Inter, performed above expectations.
They are on top of Group F in the early stages of the tournament, with Dortmund ending their game against Barcelona in a goalless draw. The highlight of this marquee clash was German keeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen’s crucial penalty save. Barcelona’s teenage sensation Ansu Fati made his European debut as well, while Lionel Messi made his long-awaited return from injury.
While many of the games on matchday one ended in draws, Chelsea’s return to the Champions League was a forgettable one, with a home defeat against Valencia. Last season’s Europa League winners were second best against their Spanish opponents through the game, with young striker Rodrigo’s goal proving to be the winner.
However, the highlight of the game was Ross Barkley’s glaring penalty miss as he skied an opportunity to equalise for his side. This was Valencia’s first win over the Blues in seven attempts. In the other game in their group, Ajax continued their top-notch performance in Europe after they beat LOSC Lille 3-0 to top Group H.
However, the biggest disappointment of this matchday was undoubtedly Liverpool’s loss to Napoli, with the Italians now having won five of their six home fixtures against English opponents. While a debatable penalty decision allowed Dries Mertens to break the deadlock in the 82nd minute, a poor pass from last year’s ‘UEFA Champions League Player of the Year’ Virgil Van Dijk allowed veteran striker Fernando Llorente to double the score.
However, both these sides will have to score many more goals to catch up with Group E leaders RB Salzburg, who routed Belgian team KRC Genk 6-2. The Austrian side hit 26 shots on goals, with half of them on target. Their 19-year-old Norwegian striker Erling Haaland hit a hattrick on his Champions League debut. He is the son of former Manchester City defender Alf-Inge Haaland, whose career was ended by Manchester United legend Roy Keane after a freak tackle. The young star has now entered an elite league of players after becoming the third-youngest player to score a Champions League hat-trick after Raul (Real Madrid) and Wayne Rooney (Manchester United).
Manchester City were the only English side to register a victory on matchday one after they beat Ukranian side Shakhtar Donetsk in a relatively easy fixture. However, they are still second in Group C after Dinamo Zagreb beat Atalanta 4-0 to clinch top spot. Meanwhile, Tottenham Hotspur drew against Greek side Olympiakos after squandering a two-goal lead. They will have to improve their performances in order to remain at par with German powerhouse Bayern Munich, who beat Serbian side Crvena Zvezda 3-0 in a predominantly easy fixture.
Another title contender who performed above expectations was a depleted Paris-Saint Germain side, temporarily losing stars Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe to injury, and Neymar, who was suspended. However, it was Angel di Maria, who showed his former club and 13-time European Champions Real Madrid what they lacked, after scoring a well-deserved brace. Thomas Meunier completed the rout with an injury-time goal to add insult to injury.
Meanwhile, Juventus and Atletico Madrid contested an even game, with the red side of Madrid scoring twice in 20 minutes to rescue a point for their side. This draw made Group D an open one as well, with Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow beating Bayer Leverkusen with goals from Grzegorz Krychowiak and Dmitri Barinov after defender Benedikt Hoewedes put one into his own net 25 minutes into the game. This put Lokomotiv above the Italian and Spanish favourites in their group.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Thomas Samson