The wait is over… UEFA Champions League has finally commenced, ending the long drought in the UEFA calendar since last May’s final in Lisbon between crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. With every one of the 32 teams left in the competition having played their first matches, some clear story lines emerged in each group over Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s action. Let’s take a look at each of the first 16 matches and the impact each will have on their respective groups.
Carlos Tevez broke a five-year goal drought in the Champions League, netting a brace for Juventus as they swept aside Swedish challengers Malmo FF in the opener in Turin on Tuesday. The first half ended scoreless, giving the Swedes false hope, before Tevez’s 59th-minute strike put the hosts ahead for good. Currently second in Serie A, Juventus struggled early in the match but settled in and started to challenge Malmo goalkeeper Robin Olsen as the second half started. The effort was rewarded with Tevez’s first goal in Champions League play since he scored for Manchester United in 2009, as he finished a combination play with midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah to beat Olsen to the far corner with a low strike. The Argentine striker added another in the 89th minute off a free kick, and Gianluigi Buffon calmly dealt with Malmo’s only shot on target to easily preserve the clean sheet.
The real surprise, though, was not Juventus’ dominance but which team joined them atop the Group A standings after the first match day. In Athens, last year’s runner-up Atletico Madrid found itself in a hole early and couldn’t climb out in time to prevent a 3-2 defeat. By the time Mario Mandzukic scored for the Spaniards, the Greek squad was already up 2-0 thanks to goals by Arthur Masuaku and Ibrahim Afellay. Atletico had the benefit of possession as well as 10 more attempts on goal, but they were far too often off-target — and when they did put a shot on net, Olympiakos keeper Roberto Gago was there to stifle Atletico’s attack. Konstantinos Mitroglou, on loan from Fulham, restored the two-goal cushion after halftime, and Antoine Griezmann could only halve the goal differential with his 86th-minute strike for the visitors.
The deficit isn’t insurmountable after just one game, but if Atletico hopes to make another deep run in this year’s tournament their Champions League home opener against Juventus on October 1 becomes a must-win situation. A point, coupled with a possible Olympiakos win against Malmo, would put the Spanish side five points adrift of the lead, and Diego Simeone’s side might then be due to start panicking.
Real Madrid’s season has started slowly so far, the defending Champions League kings taking just three of the possible nine points in their first trio of La Liga matches to start the season and mired in 13th domestically. But their title defense in Europe offered a different story altogether, as Real kicked off its quest for an unprecedented 11th European Cup in emphatic fashion by dispatching FC Basel 5-1 at the Bernabeu on Tuesday. All the heavy hitters scored, with Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo, and new signing James Rodriguez all finding the back of the net. Real also forced Basel into an own goal for its first, and only a Derlis Gonzalez strike less than ten minutes before halftime prevented Iker Casillas from keeping a clean sheet. The defense was still wobbly, as Basel had 16 attempts and put five on target, but the Spanish giants are now clear favorites to emerge from Group B
They’ll likely be joined by Liverpool, which survived a scare against Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad at Anfield to prevail 2-1 thanks to Steven Gerrard’s injury-time penalty conversion. For 82 minutes, it looked as though the two sides were going to be forced to settle for a 0-0 draw. Then, with the final whistle looming in the near distance, Mario Balotelli — signed less than a month ago for 16 million British pounds ($26 million) to replace departed goalpoacher and masticator Luis Suarez — found the back of the net for his first Liverpool goal. Then Dani Abalo beat goalkeeper Simon Mignolet for the 90th-minute equalizer, and Ludogorets seemed to have stolen a crucial point on the road. But Milan Borjan, Mignolet’s opposite number, changed the narrative when he took down Javier Manquillo in the box and conceded a spot kick. Gerrard, the last remaining player from Liverpool’s last Champions League squad, coolly converted past Borjan for the winner in the 93rd minute, and the hosts survived.
Because Real Madrid and Liverpool do not meet one another until their October 22 clash at Anfield, it is possible that both sides could be sitting on six points apiece by the time kickoff rolls around for that one. Real now gets their chance with Ludogorets on October 1 in Bulgaria, while the Reds will square off against Basel in Switzerland that same day.