Ten things we learned from the Champions League
The Uefa Champions League group stages are over, and barring a few surprises, Europe’s best teams are all through
Porto are in rude health
Not since José Mourinho lead them to Champions League glory in 2004, has Porto looked this good on the continental stage. They have the best record among all the teams (five wins and a draw) that have qualified for the knockout stage, and in Moussa Marega, who has scored five goals this far, a fine striker. Depending on the draw, they can go deep into the tournament this year.
Defending champions look shaky
The Champions League is Real Madrid’s favourite tournament, and they have had a vice-like grip on the trophy in recent times, winning it three years in a row. That run might just come to an end this year. They haven’t really replaced Cristiano Ronaldo, and languish in fourth place in the La Liga. However, Madrid often reserve their best performances for the Champions League—they’ve lost just six of their last 38 games in Europe.
Will this be Manchester City’s year?
Winning this tournament is the Holy Grail for City. The club has come a long way since it was purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group 10 years ago. Currently, they have arguably the best squad, the best manager and the most aesthetically devastating playing style in world football. But can they go one better than the 2015-16 season, when they lost to Real Madrid in the semi-finals? Their form and quality suggests they can.
PSG are purring
Another mega club that’s dying to win this tournament is Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). Steamrolling your opponents in the weak French league is one thing, but mixing it with the other continental big boys is completely different, as PSG have painfully found out in past seasons. However, under new manager Thomas Tuchel, PSG finally resembles a team, instead of Neymar + Mbappé + Cavani + others. The defence has toughened up, and the team’s midfield of Angel Di Maria, Marco Verratti and Julian Draxler are in excellent form. The team has scored 17 goals already, and at least a semi-final appearance is expected.
Salah key for Liverpool
Both in the Premier League as well as in the Champions League, Liverpool are having a curious season. They haven’t reached the heights of last season’s effervescent attacking brio, and they lost three of their away matches in the group stages. Yet they’re top of the domestic league, and they’ve qualified for the knockout rounds. Their key player, Mohamed Salah, has slowly but surely played himself into form, and the team’s defence is the best in a decade. If they can avoid a tricky fixture against Barcelona or Real Madrid in the next round, Liverpool could go far.
Borussia Dortmund are dark horses
Jürgen Klopp took Dortmund to the final of the tournament in 2013, but this year’s vintage could actually go and win it. There are many similarities with the older team, notably, a fast and furious playing style, an enthusiastic group of young players and intense self-belief. Having topped their group, the Bundesliga leaders expect a favourable draw (unless they’re drawn against Klopp’s Liverpool).
Barcelona remain on course
Barcelona sense an opportunity this year, especially after three straight seasons of arch-rivals Real Madrid winning the tournament. This year’s edition may not be the most swashbuckling, but the La Liga leaders have been effective, topping their group and scoring 14 goals in the process. Lionel Messi has scored six goals already and shows no signs of slowing down.
It’s time for Ronaldo to step up
Messi’s rival for GOAT, Ronaldo has had a quiet tournament so far. Juventus have topped their group without pulling up any trees, and Ronaldo has been in indifferent form. In their shock defeat in the final group game to Young Boys, he hit the post and missed several other chances. However, his pedigree and that of his team suggests that the longer they stay in the tournament, the more they will grow into it.
Two of Italy’s leading lights miss out
Napoli and Inter Milan couldn’t make it, finishing third in their respective groups after some last minute drama. Of the two, Napoli can feel they missed a trick this year. Under manager Carlo Ancelotti, they’d been solid and, at times, thrilling. If they keep their focus, they could win the Europa League. Inter Milan missed out by a fine margin, but they can now focus on their Serie A performances.
VAR returns after world cup heroics
The video assistant referee (VAR) will make an appearance from the knockout stages, so expect players to make the TV screen gesture with their hands a lot for the remainder of the tournament. As the World Cup showed, this makes for great drama. And sneaky defenders had better watch out!
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