The first matches of the UEFA Champions League group stage concluded yesterday across Europe, and we can now begin to assess where each team stands in the pecking order of their respective groups. There are still five matchdays to play out, but a good first impression (and three points) always goes a long way toward securing qualification toward the knockout stage and provides a roadmap for how the rest of the group stage might play out.
In that spirit, let’s evaluate the eight groups the eight groups against our post-draw predictions. By doing so we can assess who set themselves up for sustained success — and which teams still have a lot of work to put in if they hope to remain in the competition come spring and keep alive the dream of becoming the next European champion.
Real Madrid and Paris-Saint Germain took thorough care of business in their opening matches, earning clean sheets en route to victories to perch themselves in the top two places in Group A. Cristiano Ronaldo netted a hat trick against Shakhtar Donetsk to take the early scoring lead in the competition, and Karim Benzema added a fourth to bolster the goal differential. In the other fixture, Angel Di Maria scored his first goal for PSG and Edinson Cavani found the net in a 2-0 win over Malmo at the Parc des Princes. The favorites had the advantage of playing at home on the first matchday, but a similar storyline should transpire on the last day of September when Real travels to Sweden and PSG visits Ukraine. At this point there should be little to keep the Spanish and French sides from advancing, and the two matches between them will only serve to determine first from second.
We said in the preview that PSV Eindhoven could surprise Manchester United, and that’s exactly what they did in stealing three points at home in a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over the Red Devils. During the match, Manchester United fullback Luke Shaw suffered fractures of his tibia and fibula, putting a further strain on the English side’s roster in the competition. Meanwhile, recent signing Julian Draxler caromed in his own rebound for the only goal in a 1-0 VfL Wolfsburg victory over CSKA Moscow. United and PSV should still manage to go through in the top two spots, but Wolfsburg increasingly looks capable of pushing the Mancunian club for the second position behind the Dutchmen. We’ll know more at the end of September when the Germans come to Old Trafford; if United lose that encounter, they could fail to get out of the group stage for the first time since 2012 (other than last year, of course).
Antoine Griezmann scored twice in a hostile environment as Atletico Madrid survived the trip to Istanbul to take on Galatasaray with a 2-0 victory. Diego Simeone’s side stifled almost every Galatasaray push toward goal, and Jan Oblak easily saved the three attempts that challenged his goal. The other match of the day saw 2013 Europa League winner and 2014 finalist Benfica finally make waves in the Champions League with their own 2-0 victory over Kazakh champs Astana. Nicolas Gaitan and Kostas Mitroglou both found the net behind Astana keeper Nenad Eric, and the Estadio da Luz was able to celebrate its first European victory since November 2014. The Portuguese club will face much stiffer competition at the end of the month, though, as Benfica visits Madrid, and Atletico should reassert its primacy in the group. The matches between Galatasaray and the Eagles in late October and early November will serve as the separator between second and third.
For so much of the match it seemed as though Manchester City would finally assert itself as a dominant power in European football. When Vincent Kompany used Giorgio Chiellini’s head to carom in what was tallied as an own goal to put the Citizens ahead 1-0 just before the hour mark, it looked inevitable that a changing of the guard would take place. Then Paul Pogba awakened for the Old Lady, Mario Mandzukic and Alvaro Morata beat Joe Hart, and the script had been reversed as Man City went from three points to one to zero in the span of a dozen minutes at Etihad Stadium. Sevilla, meanwhile, took advantage of two Borussia Monchengladbach penalties and scored another late goal. Man City and Borussia will both be pressing for three points when they meet on September 30 lest they fall inextricably behind in the table.
An instant candidate for goal of the year allowed Roma to draw level with defending European champion Barcelona and secure a point for itself, as Alessandro Florenzi’s shot from midfield beat an off-his-line Marc-Andre ter Stegen for the equalizer 10 minutes after Luis Suarez had opened scoring:
The two teams are now both looking up at Bayer Leverkusen, which dominated BATE Borisov for a 4-1 victory. The Germans scored four minutes into the contest, but a 13th-minute equalizer from Nemanja Milunovic kept the game deadlocked at the intermission. Coming out of the break, Leverkusen scored another early goal to begin the half and pressed for two more to comfortably take over the top spot after the opening matchday. If they can steal at least a point at Camp Nou when they take on Barcelona on September 29, things could get quite interesting for the defending champs as they deal with depth issues thanks to a UEFA transfer ban. The blaugrana should still go through, but they could be relegated to second.
I said in the post-draw preview of the group stage that Dinamo Zagreb could possibly upset Arsenal and claim the runner-up spot in Group F, perpetuating the Gunners’ European underachievement for another year. Lo and behold, the hostile atmosphere in Croatia combined with an Olivier Giroud red card to result in a 2-1 Dinamo upset. It was just one match, but yet again Arsenal looks overmatched in Champions League competition. At the same time in Greece, it looked like Olympiakos might have a chance against Bayern Munich when it was scoreless after the first half, but a heavy dose of possession and a Thomas Muller brace allowed the Bavarians to leave Greece with three points in a 3-0 victory. Bayern should have little problem with Dinamo at the end of the month, but the Croats still look far more prepared for a trip to the knockout stage than the Londoners at this point.
The showdown in Kyiv between hosts Dynamo and visitors FC Porto was perhaps the most entertaining affair of the first series of matchdays. The Ukrainians went ahead 1-0 in the 20th minute when Oleg Gusev scored; three minutes later, Vincent Aboubakar leveled the match for the visitors. It remained knotted at one apiece until the 81st minute, when Aboubakar beat Oleksandr Rybka a second time and it seemed Porto would survive its Ukrainian sojourn. But they let off the gas too early, and supersub Vitaliy Buyalsky beat Iker Casillas to steal a point back for the home side. They now sit two points back of Chelsea, which shook off its Premier League cobwebs to dominate Maccabi Tel Aviv at Stamford Bridge. The 4-0 drubbing of the Israelis included two goals on each side of halftime, as Jose Mourinho’s men had their best whistle-to-whistle performance of the young season. At this point any team but Tel Aviv has a legitimate shot in Group G.
Hulk dominated the first half of the fixture between Zenit St. Petersburg and Valencia on Wednesday evening in Spain, scoring on two of his three attempts on target and launching another shot wide to put Zenit up 2-0 at the half. Joao Cancelo and Andre Gomes scored in the second half to level the score, but that lasted just three minutes as Axel Witsel put the Russians ahead for good in the 76th minute. Further north in Belgium, Gent endured two red cards and an opening goal from favored Lyon and still managed to find the net to steal a critical point. Zenit definitely looked like the logical favorite in Group H, but the resolve of the Belgians puts them in position to continue threatening Valencia and Lyon throughout the rest of the group stage. Lyon should still manage to advance, but at this point Group H looks like the most wide-open group after a first matchday.