Champions League Preview: PSG, Real Madrid look to recover from slow starts; short-staffed Manchester City face familiar foes Shakhtar Donetsk
A loss against Real Madrid wouldn't end PSG's Champions League campaign, but in the long run, their Qatari-backed dreams of holding aloft the Champions League trophy are already in peril, yet again
PSG take on Real Madrid at home in their first group stage match as both teams have struggled with slow starts in their respective league.
For PSG, a protracted transfer saga involving Neymar has loomed over club's season so far, while second coming of Zidane at Real has not inspired instant turnaround in fortune.
Juventus face Atletico Madrid and the Spanish club will eyeing revenge as they were knocked out of tournament last season by the Italian side.
Well, the return of the Champions League was interesting, to say the least. Tuesday's round of fixtures saw Red Bull Salzburg's 19-year-old Erling Haaland score a hat-trick on his debut, Valencia steal three points from Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and a whole host of VAR-related issues that surely should have been sorted out by now.
But of course, Tuesday's matches are to Wednesday's what the amuse-bouche is to lobster thermidor, what the trailers are to the movie, what a lonely pint of lager is to a round of Jagerbombs with your closest friends. The best is yet to come, and here is what you have to look forward to:
Paris Saint-Germain vs Real Madrid
The season has barely begun, but already, things are not quite going to plan for this glitzy duo. While this game is arguably the most noteworthy of the group stage, and it will feature some of the world's best footballers, the occasion of the fixture itself has been somewhat downplayed by the goings-on that have plagued both clubs behind the scenes.
In Real Madrid's case, the second coming of prodigal son Zinedine Zidane has not inspired the instant turnaround in fortune that Florentino Perez would have hoped for, with the Spanish giants currently sitting third in La Liga, thanks to a pair of draws against Valladolid and Villarreal. For Paris Saint-Germain, on the other hand, a protracted transfer saga involving their most bankable star Neymar Jr. has loomed over the club's season so far, with the move having only just been put on hold for the time being.
Neymar has been open about his desire for a move back to Spain, with both Barcelona and Real throwing their hat in the ring for the Brazilian winger during the transfer window. The ensuing negotiations were long-winding and ultimately fruitless, as PSG failed to budge on their valuation of Neymar. The whole affair ended on an underwhelming note, as Neymar turned out for PSG on the weekend, helping them bag three points against Strasbourg with a splendid stoppage-time winner. Unfortunately for PSG, he won't be available when they take on Madrid, as he serves a ban he picked up for an Instagram post in which he questioned the integrity of UEFA officials.
With Neymar's impending departure, a fast-approaching Financial Fair Play crisis on the horizon and 20-year-old prodigy Kylian Mbappe out injured, PSG find themselves in a spot of bother. To be honest, a loss against Madrid wouldn't end their campaign, but in the long run, their Qatari-backed dreams of holding aloft the Champions League trophy are already in peril, yet again.
Real on the other hand, are an entirely different story. They have had a summer to remember, bringing in big-money signings like Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic, but at the moment, things aren't clicking for Los Blancos. A public spat between Zidane and Gareth Bale in pre-season over the latter's usefulness to the squad has been buried, with Zidane having to heavily rely on the Welsh winger due to a series of injuries. Similarly, James Rodriguez, who was deemed surplus to requirements, has also featured frequently for Madrid in the league. Zidane has also been rotating his squad and his formation often, which has further made it difficult for players to adapt to his system. However, all said and done, Madrid should have a slight edge going into the match, but PSG are no slouches at home, so expect them to go down fighting.
Entertainment quotient for neutrals: 7/10
Atletico Madrid vs Juventus
Did someone say cojones?
When these two sides met back in March in the Champions League round of 16, it was a bit of a testy (pun intended) affair. Atletico Madrid put in a battling performance to win the first leg 2-0, and in the heat of the moment, manager Diego Simeone let himself get carried away a little bit.
Diego Simeone: pic.twitter.com/ao1EuDTpoO
— Nooruddean (@BeardedGenius) February 20, 2019
Of course, as such gestures are wont to do, it came around to bite him not long after, when the defence-flattening spectacle that is Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in the second leg and celebrated in similar, albeit slightly more Michael Jackson-esque, fashion. Though the stakes are a bit lower this time around, the excitement is just as high, as Ronaldo returns to the Wanda Metropolitano to play in front of thousands of Atleti fans that hate him with a fierce and undying passion.
By their own lofty standards, Juventus have had a slow start to their league campaign, dropping points against Fiorentina on the weekend as they continue their transition into new manager Maurizio Sarri's style of play. Currently in third-place, an unfamiliar position for the Old Lady, Juventus fans rightfully have reasons to be concerned heading into this match. Meanwhile, Atletico also had a less-than-favourable result on Saturday, losing 2-0 to Real Sociedad, but a slew of unfortunate results for their La Liga title rivals means they still occupy second place in the league table. Goal-scoring has also been an issue so far for Atletico, with all three of their wins in the league coming by narrow one-goal margins. With both teams still feeling their way into the new season, this one could go either way.
Entertainment quotient for neutrals: 8/10
Shakhtar Donetsk vs Manchester City
Pep Guardiola has a lot on his plate right now. A chastising loss on the weekend to newly-promoted Norwich was followed by the news that centre-back John Stones would be out for 4-5 weeks with a muscular injury, further decimating an already under-staffed defence. With the Premier League title race already looking in jeopardy, the last thing City need is a defeat in their opening Champions League game.
What we will not do is complain that they are not able to play.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) September 17, 2019
Luckily for the Sky Blues, they find themselves up against familiar foes Shakhtar Donetsk, who they have faced in the group stage of the last two editions of the Champions League. In their four encounters so far, Shakhtar have emerged victorious on just the one occasion, and have been beaten handily a couple of times. Last season, for example, City beat Shakhtar 6-0 and 3-0 in their home and away fixtures respectively. But of course, one would underestimate Shakhtar at their own peril, with the Ukrainian powerhouses having beaten the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Barcelona in previous seasons.
Entertainment quotient for neutrals: 5/10
Best of the rest
Last year's losing finalists Tottenham Hotspur should fly under the radar this week, with their match against Olympiacos paling in comparison to some of the other fixtures on display. That's not to say that this won't be a difficult match for Mauricio Pochettino's side. Greek teams often have fervent followings that toe the thin line between passion and lunacy, and the Karaiskakis Stadium is no easy place to go. Spurs would do well to grab three points in the match, but even if they don't, they should make it out of the group comfortably.
In the same group, Bayern take on Red Star Belgrade in what should be a considerably easier fixture. For one, they're playing at home, and Red Star Belgrade are woeful when they travel in the Champions League, having lost all three of their away matches in last year's group stage. To be fair to them, those matches were against Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli, but it still doesn't bode well for them. Also, they won't have their tank for moral support. Unless they drive it down to Munich. Can you do that? Probably not. Unless... No, definitely not.
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