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Opinion

28 goals, West Ham flop's incredible debut, drama at Anfield: Champions League talking points

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16th September, 2021
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Champions League football is special! This morning’s eight games delivered a wonderful smorgasbord of the beautiful game with some memorable achievements and performances. Records were broken and history was made as teams from Groups A, B, C and D went head to head in the opening round.

There’s plenty to talk about so let’s dig in….

Club Brugge provide blueprint to keep PSG stars quiet
After all the money spent by PSG amassing their team of superstars the bad news is that Club Brugge showed the rest of the competition how to nullify them.

With the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé on the team sheet, PSG fans thought they were in for a glorious night full of goals. When the final whistle was blown though, it was the Brugge fans who were singing and dancing – a draw as good as a win they felt when up against such a team.

Brugge played a smart game and rather than trying to man mark the talented players from PSG, they actually worked closely together as a defensive unit and cut off the space that Messi, Neymar and Mbappe thrive in.

Brugge were comfortable allowing PSG to have the ball, growing in confidence that their defensive structure was rock solid. Despite having over 64 percent of the possession, the men from Paris just couldn’t turn it into genuine opportunities. They created only four shots on target and two corners in the whole 90 minutes.

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Scotland defender Jack Hendry was especially impressive both in his defensive duties and then as he looked to help Brugge play their way out of their own half safely – he had 90% pass accuracy, 100% tackle completion and a crucial interception.

PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino did defend his tremendous trio saying “We need time to work for them to build an understanding,” and he’s got a fair point. But they need to find that understanding soon because Brugge have proved that they can be kept quiet.

“Nobody in the team can be happy with their performance and nobody can be happy with this result,” he commented in a post-match interview.

When Club Brugge keeper Simon Mignolet was asked about his team’s performance, his response made PSG’s superstars sound like no threat at all “I didn’t really have much work to do. I made two, three saves, not very difficult ones at that.” PSG will not have been happy to hear that!

Liverpool and Milan create another special European night
It seems that whenever these two sides meet, we’re in for a treat. Whilst this morning’s game was just a group stage match and not the final, when these two sides have met twice before, the game still produced a fascinating match.

Liverpool were all over Milan in the first 40 minutes and it looked like the youngsters of Milan who aren’t used to playing in front of big crowds thanks to COVID restrictions, were caught in the headlights of a big European night.

Liverpool dominated possession and created plenty of chances but it was an own goal in the end that broke the deadlock and gave Liverpool the lead early in the 9th minute.

Mo Salah then missed a penalty and late in the second half the youngsters of Milan suddenly found some rhythm and scored two beautifully crafted goals in two minutes.

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AC Milan fan's emotional reaction to taking the lead on Liverpool comes back to haunt him

AC Milan fan’s emotional reaction to taking the lead on Liverpool comes back to haunt him

When Milan then had another goal overturned in the opening moments of the second half for offside, Liverpool were in shock but it didn’t take them too long to get back into their rhythm. They went back to their usual game style and got back into the game.

Salah got their second goal in the 48th minute and then Henderson scored a lovely goal from the edge of the area to take the lead – a lead they wouldn’t give up.

After the game Jürgen Klopp told BT Sports “We got carried away by our own football,” when asked about the period in the game where Milan were able to get back into the game and Liverpool struggled.

The Liverpool manager will have breathed a sigh of relief once the final whistle had been blown and the three points were assured. He’d chosen to rest first team starters Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane as well as Thiago and there was much debate about whether this would hurt Liverpool in this important first group match.

On a night of records, Salah made sure he didn’t miss out on the celebrations. With his goal against Milan he became Liverpool’s joint highest scoring player in European Cup/Champions League games at Anfield, joining Steven Gerrard on 14 goals.

Sheriff – the team from a country that doesn’t exist – achieve shock win
Ahead of the Group Stages kicking off, there were some interesting stories about Sheriff Tiraspol and how they were the first team from Moldova to make it through this far. Most expected them to end up bottom of Group D and disappear into the sunset.

Right now they are sitting ahead of Real Madrid and Inter Milan and have shown the tournament that they might not be the push over everyone expected.

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Their performance was an impressive one – absorbing plenty of pressure from experienced Champions League opponents Shakhtar Donetsk and countering with great effectiveness. Sheriff only had four shots on goal but they made them count, scoring with two of them.

When you dig into the club’s a bit more there’s a really interesting story there. Technically Sheriff come from Trans-Dniester and whilst they play in the Moldovan league, the people of Trans-Dniester view themselves as independent from Moldova.

From a legal point of view they are part of Moldova but in terms of day to day lives they have split themselves off from the country – they use their own currency and in Trans-Dniester, phone signals from Moldova don’t work.

Against Shakhtar, the Sheriff team didn’t have a single local player in their starting line up and they sat back and then looked to counter quickly against their opponents. They played with width and used their full backs to get in behind the Shakhtar defence and pull them wide.

Full-back Cristiano was responsible for both of the crosses that led to Sheriff’s goals and his deliveries were inch perfect.

They might struggle when they have to head to the likes of Milan and Madrid, but in their own, non recognised part of the world, they have shown that they are not to be underestimated.

Incredible youth on display
Across the games tonight there were some of the greatest players from the sport on display but it was arguably the youngest amongst them that grabbed the spotlight.

Jude Bellingham (only 18 years old) was in fine form for Borussia Dortmund creating one goal and scoring one of his own as the Germans beat Besiktas. In doing so he became the youngest ever player to score in consecutive Champions League games.

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Erling Braut Haaland was the man to benefit from Bellingham’s pass and scored Dortmund’s second goal. This was the 21 year old’s 21st goal in 17 Champions League appearances and he’s scored those in 10 matches fewer than anybody else has ever managed.

Milan might have lost at Anfield but their young team (average age of 23 years old) demonstrated that even up against one of Europe’s best sides playing in their intimidating home ground, they can be a real threat. Remember they were about an inch away from going 3-1 up against Klopp’s men.

Real Madrid managed to steal a late win over Inter thanks to 18 year old Eduardo Camavinga setting up 20 year old Rodrygo.

Man City put six past Leipzig
In Pep Guardiola’s 300th match leading Manchester City, his team put on quite an attacking display as they put six goals past RB Leipzig.

Perhaps even more impressive was that each of those goals came from a different player including a beauty for Champions League debutant Jack Grealish. The new boy at Man City seems to be fitting in well and justifying his huge price tag very quickly. He had a good night with both his goal and consistent great service down the left wing with one of his crosses also setting up Ake’s goal that opened the night.

As well as the variety of scorers, it was impressive how accurate Man City were. They had 8 shots on target and scored from five of them (their other goal was a hilarious/heartbreaking own goal from Nordi Mukiele putting a header past his own keeper that most strikers would have been proud of). The sky blues also only had 50% of the possession and when they did have the ball they always seemed to be a threat to the Leipzig goal.

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Guardiola will also have been pleased to see how his skipper Kevin De Bruyne look back to his best as he made his first start of the season. De Bruyne controlled everything perfectly and with Grealish clearly settling in well, Man City are looking better than ever.

The manager will have been slightly frustrated with the three goals conceded and will know that against stronger opposition they won’t be able to get away with such loose play at the back, but if his side keep on scoring this many goals each game then his defensive worries will become less important!

Greatest Champions League debut Ever?
On a night of amazing firsts and record breaking achievements, Sebastien Haller arguably stole the day by putting in the greatest Champions League debut ever.

The Ajax striker scored four goals in the Dutch team’s destruction of Sporting Lisbon away to the Portuguese side. The team’s performance overall was impressive – possession was roughly equal between the two sides but Ajax turned theirs into six shots on target and five goals.

The Dutch side will hope that this performance is the beginning of a new version of Ajax. The club has been a regular in the Champions League but since 2010 they’ve only made it out of the Group stage once (when they went to the semi finals in 2019). So often their talent is taken away from them by other clubs once they demonstrate their abilities which means Ajax often struggle to go deep into the tournament despite having an exciting and well organised youthful side.

Could this season be different? They will struggle against Dortmund in Group C but they could well be eyeing up second place.

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