By J Hutcherson (Sep 24, 2019) US Soccer Players - The 2019-20 Champions League group stage opened last week with a few surprises. If you happen to be a fan of certain giants of European soccer, that's putting it mildly. Liverpool and Real Madrid lost while Barcelona drew, piling on the pressure at the earliest opportunity for those clubs.
With so many previews and pundits happy to remind us that the only thing that counts in the Champions League is the knockout rounds, it's probably worth another reminder. Getting to the knockout round requires advancing from the group stage. That foregone conclusion for the super clubs is certainly still in place, but the openers did it no favors.
It's silly to use one game to predict disruption of what we think we know about the Champions League. Then again, only PSG beating Real Madrid at home in Group A makes sense. That's two somewhat evenly matched teams, but trying to overcome issues. For PSG, it's getting Neymar in sync with the club after the summer links with Barcelona. For Real Madrid, it's trying to rework their squad under coach Zinedine Zidane who no longer has quite as many galacticos as he did in their recent run of Champions League titles. That turned into a 3-0 result for PSG, the scoreline undoing all of those very good reasons for Real Madrid losing away.
"It doesn't surprise me. It's the way things go," Zidane said of the criticism following the loss in Paris. "We've always had difficulties, even when we've been winning. There have been some tough times at this club and we've always managed to get through them. There have been tougher times than this in the past. I'm not interested in what's said outside of here. I'm only interested in the job I have to do. It's in tough spells like this that your inner strength comes out. What goes on away from here is always like this. What goes on internally is different."
Safe assumption that's probably the case with every sports team in the world notwithstanding, there's little choice in his words. This version of Real Madrid has to fix its problems on a tight schedule or eventually someone else will get that opportunity. The media in Madrid and beyond is already happy to provide a list of replacement candidates. That's part of the pressure of coaching one of Europe's biggest clubs, and there's no longer the sense of rescue that came with Zidane's return last season. Real Madrid defines itself by the Champions League, and there aren't any good reasons for doing anything but winning.
They're far from the only ones playing through that scenario. Barcelona didn't get Neymar and they opened Group F with a scoreless draw at Borussia Dortmund. Neymar staying at PSG defined Barcelona's transfer season even if they still managed to spend over $255m on new players. They brought in one of the keys to Ajax's semifinal run with Frenkie de Jong at over $75m and did their part in destabilizing a league rival by sending over $120m to Atletico Madrid for Antoine Griezmann. It was Neymar that was going to be the big prize, returning to Barcelona after a season away at PSG to show where he really belonged all along. Instead, he's top of the table in Group A rather than helping out in Group F.
Barcelona doesn't have the same pressure as Real Madrid at the bottom of Group A because all four Group F teams drew. Inter Milan and Slavia Prague finished 1-1 at the San Siro with Barcelona still the biggest disappointment in matchday one. It's one of the oddities of the game at this level that one of those criticisms is an overreliance on Lionel Messi. The same Messi who picked up FIFA's The Best men's player award on Tuesday night in Milan. That Messi wasn't able to power them to three points at Dortmund after coming on in the 59th minute should change next to nothing about Barcelona's approach. If Messi is available at all, he's the center of everything any team in the world would do. At full fitness, there's no doubting he can make the difference as Group F plays out.
Then there are the defending champions. Liverpool lost at Napoli, and all involved will remind us that the same thing happened in last season's Champions League. Except that last season, Liverpool wasn't the defending champions navigating their group with added pressure. Group E looked like an easy assignment. Napoli is the biggest threat but manageable. Red Bull Salzburg and Genk aren't, but Red Bull beating Genk 6-2 at home is certainly worth noticing. Now, Liverpool hosts Red Bull Salzburg in the second matchday needing to use that game as another statement of obvious intent.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp picked up The Best men's coach award and Alisson Becker won for The Best men's goalkeeper. Virgil van Dijk joined Cristiano Ronaldo and winner Messi on the shortlist for The Best men's player. This is a team that can no longer maintain any semblance of an underdog.
"I think the guy from Sky Italia asked me or told me Napoli was much better than us," Klopp said in Napoli. "I didn't see that game, so I don't know exactly where he was when the game happened. But now you say we were tired. Who had the cramps? Who was on the ground? Liverpool players or Napoli players? After the 2-0 they looked fresher than us, after the 1-0 they looked fresher than us. That's normal. You have a boost. But there was no fresher team on the pitch."
Klopp's postgame comments on October 2 need to be about how they dominated large parts of the game and the goals fell accordingly. Anything else, and their Premier League record won't matter as much as they'd like.
The pressure on Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Liverpool right now is to meet realistic expectations, the bane of the elite club in Europe. It's not just winning. It's how those wins happen.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Outside England's big clubs
- Year two of the Campeones Cup
- What to watch in Europe this season
- The Champions League asks too much
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