Welcome to the Champions League debrief, in which Jack Lang takes you through the big talking points — and things you may have missed — from around Europe’s premier competition. This morning, he assesses the runners and riders at the halfway point of the group stage, salutes Barcelona’s kids, and revels in Real Sociedad’s success…
Halfway health check
As checkpoints go, ‘midway through the Champions League group stage’ is about as significant as ‘nine steps into a marathon’ or ‘76.32 per cent of a presidential term’, which is to say not remotely and stop being ridiculous. Still, after a gameweek that was perhaps slightly short on drama and certainly lacked the kind of hilarious calamities this column is known to trade in, it’s a good excuse to make some sweeping judgements and/or catty jokes about the putative contenders. Onward!
Four teams have won all of their matches so far: Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Of those, holders Manchester City have been the most impressive, albeit in a group that holds about as much peril as a child’s paddling pool. Yes, you can technically drown in two tablespoons of water, but not when you have Erling Haaland — back among the European goals against Young Boys this week — on lifeguard duty. With Pep Guardiola looking ominously relaxed, City look good for a few more comfortable 3-1 wins yet. Or maybe something a little more emphatic, given they have taken 81 shots in their three games thus far, 18 more than any other side.
Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have both looked sparky in attack and suspect at the back. The former have played in bursts, which you can afford to do when you have Leroy Sane and Harry Kane in such excellent form. Real, aka Jude Bellingham Club de Futbol, will hope that Vinicius Junior’s return from injury helps them shift up a gear or three. Stopping one generational talent is just about doable; stopping two is a nightmare. Barcelona (of whom more in the next section) will be easier to assess when they can get a proper team out.
Who else? The new-look Paris Saint-Germain have looked sharp in the two games in which Luis Enrique opted for a vaguely coherent tactical plan, and may just have got their annual meltdown out of their system nice and early. Inter are unbeaten and, in Lautaro Martinez, boast one of Europe’s most in-form strikers. Also the one who looks most like a werewolf who just had an expensive haircut, which you have to imagine will be a factor at some stage.
Beyond that, we’re probably into the territory of fantasy. Arsenal would be popular winners and have put in a couple of commanding performances, but it will be tough to sustain a challenge on two fronts. Napoli have lost Victor Osimhen to injury. Atletico Madrid are suddenly wildly entertaining, which is completely out of character and simply cannot end well. Borussia Dortmund? Feyenoord? RB Leipzig? Porto? Stranger things have happened, but not in this age of sovereign investment funds. Sorry.
Of course there is also Manchester United, who hahahaha, no, sorry, I can’t even get to the end of that sentence in my head, let alone type it out.
Barcelona’s youth movement
On the one hand, scraping a home win over the least imposing Shakhtar Donetsk side in recent memory is not exactly reason for jubilation. On the other, Barcelona came into Wednesday’s game with an injury list as long as Moby Dick and ended it resembling a team from your local sixth-form college.
Xavi was without Frankie De Jong, Jules Kounde, Pedri, Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski and Sergi Roberto, plus the suspended Gavi. It got worse during the course of the match, too, with Joao Felix limping off in the second half. All the levers in the world can’t protect you from that kind of luck.
Barcelona, though, can always rely on youth. 16-year-old Lamine Yamal has been one of the breakout stars of the season, but he was not alone here. Fermin Lopez (20) started in central midfield, played a major role in his side’s opening goal and then thumped home a glorious second. Alex Balde and Marc Casado (both 20) came off the bench. So too did Marc Guiu, 17, fresh from his decisive strike against Athletic Bilbao at the weekend.
Marc Guiu: Barcelona’s 17-year-old match-winner transforms his world in 23 seconds
By the end of the evening, the only players left on the Blaugrana bench were four more Football Manager regens (“Hector Fort“, for heaven’s sake) and a goalkeeper who would struggle to get recognised in his own living room. In that context, 2-1 was a pretty decent result.
The surprise package of the group stage so far? You’d struggle to look beyond Real Sociedad, who are sitting pretty at the top of Group D at the halfway mark. Granted, it’s not one of the stronger sections — RB Salzburg do not strike huge fear and Benfica are a pale shadow of the side that did so well last season — but La Real have gone about their first Champions League campaign for a decade with with admirable conviction so far.
The defence is solid, in large part thanks to the walking identity crisis that is Robin Le Normand, a Spain international born and raised in France, but not in Normandy, as his name might have you believe. Martin Zubimendi is a lovely, subtle defensive midfielder, allowing a veritable left-footers’ union — Mikel Merino, Brais Mendez, Takefusa Kubo and Mikel Oyarzabal — to flourish in front of him.
Kubo, who somehow managed to be jettisoned by both Barcelona and Real Madrid before the age of 22 despite being an obvious genius, has been pulling the (two) strings from the right all season. Mendez, though, has been the leading man in Europe thus far, scoring in all three of La Real’s matches. His close-range finish against Benfica on Tuesday won’t make many highlight reels, but it did put his club within touching distance of the second round. Anyone hoping for a dose of novelty — or a knockout away trip in the new year — will have their fingers crossed for them.
The first two gameweeks must have been hell for Santiago Gimenez. Feyenoord’s talismanic Mexico international missed the matches against Celtic and Atletico Madrid through suspension, having been sent off in the Europa League back in April. While Arne Slot’s side performed well enough without him, Gimenez was surely desperate to get his teeth into Champions League football for the first time in his career.
That hunger was palpable on Wednesday night, when he led the line for the Dutch side against Lazio. Gimenez sent an early header wide, then had a goal chalked off for offside before finally finding the net with a classic No 9’s finish from just inside the penalty box. He later added a second, volleying home on the rebound from a couple of yards out to take his season’s tally to 15 goals from 11 games.
Feyenoord now top their group and you wouldn’t bet against Gimenez to keep on surfing his own personal Mexican wave.
Goal of the gameweek: Meschak Elia for Young Boys against Manchester City. There are lots of different ways to score when you run through alone on goal, but the correct option — both morally and aesthetically — is to scoop the ball over the goalkeeper, watch it sail high into the night sky, and keep running so you’re already celebrating by the time it hits the net. More please.
Name game: Arsenal’s opening goal against Sevilla was scored by Gabriel Martinelli. It was set up by Gabriel Jesus after a clearance by Gabriel Magalhaes. If anyone can think of any other sequences like that with three players of the same name, comment-section immortality awaits…
Fashion police: Manchester City’s… varsity cardigans, would you call them? Unforgivable on every possible level. You were meant to be playing against Young Boys, not dressing like them.
Champions League gameweek 3 results
Manchester United 1-0 Copenhagen
Galatasaray 1-3 Bayern Munich
Lens 1-1 PSV Eindhoven
Sevilla 1-2 Arsenal
Union Berlin 0-1 Napoli
Braga 1-2 Real Madrid
Inter 2-1 Red Bull Salzburg
Benfica 0-1 Real Sociedad
Celtic 2-2 Atletico Madrid
Feyenoord 3-1 Lazio
Newcastle United 0-1 Borussia Dortmund
Paris Saint-Germain 3-0 Milan
RB Leipzig 3-1 Red Star Belgrade
Young Boys 1-3 Manchester City
Barcelona 2-1 Shakhtar Donetsk
Royal Antwerp 1-4 Porto
(Top photo via Getty Images)