The Champions League is in full swing, with many of the world’s best soccer players are going head to head. Europe’s most prestigious tournament is halfway through the group stages, meaning 32 teams are still duking it out, with the top two clubs in each group advancing to the next round.
This year is an especially interesting year to turn in because there doesn’t appear to be a runaway favorite to raise the trophy. Sure, giants like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and defending champions Chelsea are in the mix but showing early on that they’re a bit more vulnerable than usual. French mega club PSG brought Lionel Messi on board during the offseason, making them instant contenders (although they were already quite strong before signing the world’s best player).
There’s been some great play already, and not just from the expected producers like Liverpool, Juventus, or Atletico Madrid. Dutch club Ajax has jumped way out in front of Group C behind some excellent team play and the merciless work of tournament leading scorer Sébastien Haller. Barcelona, normally tournament favorites, are struggling to advance. Meanwhile, Manchester City seems to be heating up at just the right time, buoyed by the surgeon-like passing of Kevin de Bruyne.
It’s the best time of the Champions League season to dive in and enjoy, as there’s still a healthy mix of clubs from all over the continent competing. And, with every team still technically in it, there’s hardly a bad game in the bunch. Match Day 4 kicks off next week, here’s how best to enjoy the world-class footy.
The best story of the tournament so far has to be Sheriff. The team from Moldova barely snuck into the Champions League in the first place, and is now sitting atop Group D. It hasn’t just been luck, either. Just look what the crafty team did to Real Madrid on their own turf. They’ll have to keep impressing to advance and keep Real Madrid or Inter Milan from doing the same, but it seems quite possible. In Group G, Red Bull Salzburg tops the table, having already outclassed the likes of much bigger clubs like Seville and Wolfsburg. Elsewhere, Swiss team Young Boys are proving they can do just fine against the likes of Manchester United and Italian club Atalanta, while Club Brugge has already surprised a bit, holding star-studded PSG to a draw.
With so much to play for, many of these matches will come down to savvy coaching maneuvers. The Champions League is bursting at the seams with managerial talent, from Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea to Unai Emery at Villareal and Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool. It’s always interesting to see how managers select their players and the formation they play in. It’s doubly interesting because the players are simultaneously playing in domestic leagues and trying to quality for World Cup 2022 with their respective national teams. It’s up to the managers to best oversee this heavy workload, keeping the stars fit and useful while also out-dueling the opposing team. It can be as subtle as a formation change or as obvious as starting a half-dozen different players this time around.
On a stage this big, the mental aspect cannot be overlooked. Again, a manager plays a big role here. It’s up to them to keep their teams level-headed and focused, as a single two or three-second lapse in judgment can see the entire 90-minute match slip away.
With the Champions League, you get the cream of the crop competing against one another, even in the group stages. In the coming weeks, you’ll witness powerhouses from different European nations play each other, something they normally don’t do as they play in different domestic leagues. Watch out for Manchester City vs PSG if you like high-flying offense and genius midfield play. The first round of Liverpool vs Atletico Madrid was an instant classic and the second round should be no different. Manchester United vs Atalanta should be very interesting while Barcelona will have to seriously get its act together to avoid a humiliating early exit.
With injuries always looming and the weather generally worsening, anything is possible on the field.
After a lengthy drought of fans due to the pandemic, European stadiums are mostly back to normal. Seeing packed houses, even if only from your television at home, is a glorious thing as it’s a huge aspect of soccer culture and venue atmosphere. It’s the supporters who can lift the spirits of a team like Sheriff and send them on a deep Champions League run for the ages. So, don your scarf and best kit and tune in.
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