First Impressions From the Start of 2019-2020 Champions League

Avi Creditor
Sports Illustrated

All 32 teams have opened play in the Champions League, with Matchday 1 featuring a wide array of impressive performances, blown leads, hat-trick heroes, infighting and breakout talents.

Of course, one match does not tell the story of an entire stage. Group leaders as things stand include Dinamo Zagreb, RB Salzburg and Lokomotiv Moscow. That's highly unlikely to stick. But the first set of matches did give a glimpse into what we can expect during this season's competition while also illuminating some glaring needs areas for some of the chief contenders for the European title.

Here are some first impressions and a-little-too-early reactions to the midweek matches across Europe:

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Real Madrid looks awfully stale

Zinedine Zidane's reappearance didn't result in the flip of a switch for Real Madrid. Imagine that! There's no questioning the success that Zidane was able to have at Real Madrid in his first go-around as manager–even if it was a product, to an extent, of Cristiano Ronaldo's timely goals and a lack of VAR–but to expect the results to magically reappear while not completely remaking the squad and refurbishing some areas that needed it is quite the idealistic approach.

Facing a PSG side that was without its entire starting front line and playmaker Julian Draxler, Real Madrid was second best all game. Sure, Real Madrid was dealing with some key absences of its own, but there was more than enough experienced talent on the field to take a smarter tactical approach and not let the likes of fullbacks Juan Bernat and Thomas Meunier dictate the match.

That Gareth Bale, whom Zidane so desperately wanted to sell this summer, was Real's chief attacking threat and has been though the start of its season in La Liga says plenty about where things currently are. Zidane himself bemoaned the club's lack of intensity, which is an attribute that any player, no matter how talented, can choose to possess. On paper, Real Madrid's squad is still imposing, and now that its toughest match of group play is out of the way, perhaps it will coast to the knockout stage as it always does, but in practice, the club looks like a collection of talented and high-priced individuals instead of one well-oiled machine. There's time to get it there, but this will be Zidane's toughest task on the Real Madrid sideline.

The big names come and go, but Barcelona is still so reliant on Messi

Barcelona was a shell of itself at Dortmund while Lionel Messi remained on the bench for the opening hour, waiting to make his season debut. The lack of ideas coming from such a squad was a bit shocking to see, even if playing against a foe like Dortmund and in a setting such as Signal Iduna Park can neutralize the most creative of opponents. As with Real Madrid, Barcelona likely played its toughest match of the stage first.

It wasn't until Messi came on that Barcelona really started to generate much, but the whole point of acquiring someone like Antoine Griezmann was to give Barcelona another steady attacking outlet in the event of a Messi absence or an opponent's overemphasis on trying to shut him down. Barcelona has wobbled through the start of the season, and it's still early, but it's also abundantly clear that no matter who is brought to Camp Nou, Ernesto Valverde's approach revolves around his maestro. 

PSG may actually be more prepared for success

After the summer it had and the never-ending string of soap operas involving Neymar, wouldn't it be something if this were the year that PSG put it together and went on a deep run?

PSG, of course, has had plenty of group stage success in recent years, and no matter what it does over the opening six games, all it will be judged on will be what comes after. Given the transfer outlay and the talent on paper, a semifinal run has to be the baseline expectation for a club that so often has wilted in the knockout rounds once it faces something more challenging than it does during the weekly slate of relative pushovers in Ligue 1.

Neymar has something to prove now, with his integrity and commitment called into question–at complete fault of his own, mind you–while Keylor Navas gives the club a Champions League-winning pedigree in goal. The lesser-heralded signing of Pablo Sarabia has offered another fresh look in the attack, while Mauro Icardi's arrival on loan gives Thomas Tuchel yet another high-maintenance, high-reward piece who has a chip on his shoulder. The club's balance will be something to monitor going forward, but to so comprehensively beat Real Madrid without Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani was an impressive opening statement.

Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

What to make of England's slow start?

The Premier League accounted for all four European finalists last season, and there's reason to believe that Champions League finalists Liverpool and Tottenham will turn it around as the season progresses after a loss to Napoli and turning a win into a draw vs. Olympiakos, respectively. Liverpool lost all three away games in the group stage and then wound up winning it all. Tottenham was on life support in the group stage and reached the final. There's reason for those clubs to maintain perspective and hope after opening setbacks.

There's less faith in Chelsea, if only because the club is hamstrung by a transfer ban and is relying on a combination of young players looking to make their name and older players looking to show they can still hack it on the top stage. Losing at home to Valencia was a brutal beginning, and Ajax, despite its key departures, looks like the class of the group.

Man City was the only one of the four to win its opener, and it had no problem doing so against Shakhtar. The draw was awfully kind to Man City, which needs to buy all the time it can while John Stones and Aymeric Laporte work their way back from injuries. City should be just fine without them in the group stage, where Dinamo Zagreb and Atalanta are its other opponents.

Jesse Marsch and his breakout star

On this side of the Atlantic Ocean, there's no bigger story than Marsch, the first American to coach in a Champions League group game and, now, the first one to win one. He largely has Erling Braut Haland to thank for that. The 19-year-old Norwegian rising star unveiled himself to the world–that is, if his nine-goal game against Honduras at the U-20 World Cup this spring didn't do that already–with a first-half hat trick, and Salzburg tops a group with Liverpool and Napoli.

That won't be expected to continue as group play unfolds, but outside of club friendlies against Chelsea and Real Madrid, Salzburg has yet to lose with Marsch at the helm. He's openly discussed how his team won't hold anything back despite being upstarts on this stage, and regardless of the outcome, it's going to be a thrill to watch. And if Haland keeps up his outrageous scoring pace, you can expect his stay at Salzburg to be a short one.

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