The past week or so has been so tricky for some of Europe’s elite clubs that they might be looking forward to the Champions League as a welcome diversion, writes
Manchester United go into tonight’s match against Valencia looking like a potential car crash, but their Spanish opponents are hardly in better shape. They did beat Real Sociedad 1-0 on Saturday, thanks to their new striker Kevin Gameiro, but it was their first win of the season, and it needed a penalty save from their Brazilian goalkeeper Neto to secure the points.
La Liga’s draw specialists have managed just five goals in seven games, and that habit of conceding penalties cost them twice against Juventus. For United this is a chance at least to steady the ship.
The same goes for Bayern Munich, surprisingly beaten by Hertha Berlin on Friday night, three days after dropping two points at home against Bavarian neighbours Augsburg. This is more of a blip than a crisis for Bayern’s new manager Niko Kovac, but they will be anxious to prove that against Ajax tonight.
It is a daunting prospect for a very young Dutch side, but Bayern have recently been relying on players who may now just have too much experience. Their former flying wingers, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, have a combined age of 70 and are starting to show it.
Bayern do have younger options such as Serge Gnabry, once of Arsenal, but they have yet to make the breakthrough. Kovac is a manager who has built his reputation on wing-play, so managing this transition is a key test.
Real Madrid are in Moscow without Gareth Bale, but with Marco Asensio and their 17-year-old Brazilian, Vinicius Junior, who could make his Champions League debut against CSKA.
After two gruelling league games, losing 3-0 to their bogey team Sevilla and being held 0-0 at home by Atletico, this tie ought to come as a relief, although both the venue and the sight of Igor Akinfeev in goal will bring back painful memories of Spain’s shock shootout defeat in July.
However the biggest chance of an upset this week might be in Group B, with Barcelona at Tottenham and Inter away to PSV.
Barcelona are not yet in crisis mode — they top La Liga on goal difference — but two points from their last three games, two of them against outsiders Girona and Leganes, have shaken their confidence.
Losing 2-1 at Leganes, Madrid’s least fashionable club, was a genuine shock. Leganes only made it to the top flight for the first time in 2016, and since then have twice narrowly escaped relegation.
Leo Messi is putting a brave face on it — “It’s just the start of the season, we had a good first half at Leganes” — but there are worries. Five goals conceded in three games, and the absence of Samuel Umtiti (suspended) and the injured Sergi Roberto, will encourage the Tottenham attack.
In their seven league games so far the Barca defence has let in eight goals, the same as in their first 19 games last season.
Gerard Pique is going through his worst loss of form in 11 years at the club: he was caught out twice for pace against Girona and lucky not to concede a penalty, and was slow to react to a cross against Athletic Bilbao, from which they equalised.
Barca’s poor away record in the Champions League will also encourage Spurs. In their last 10 away games, they have drawn three (Olympiacos, Juventus and Chelsea) and lost to Manchester City, PSG, Juve and Roma.
More than ever they are dependent on Messi, which is the main reason Ernesto Valverde has switched from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 this season. It gives Messi more space, which he used to devastating effect against PSV, but it puts pressure on Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic in midfield. So there is a suspicion that Valverde might revert to 4-4-2 at Wembley, anticipating a stronger physical challenge from Spurs.
In the other Group B match, Inter obviously start as favourites. After a bad start, they have won four in a row since their shock home defeat to Parma.
Mauro Icardi is a powerful threat in attack. Their young second striker Lautaro Martinez, another Argentinian, has also started well for his new club, scoring his first league goal against Cagliari on Saturday, when Luciano Spalletti was able to rest Icardi as well as Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic.
To have any chance of staying in Europe, never mind the Champions League, PSV have to make their home games count, above all tomorrow night and in their next match against Tottenham.
The team does have goals in it. In the four games sandwiching their 4-0 defeat in Barcelona, PSV have scored 16 without reply. The Eredivisie includes some very weak sides, but their 3-0 win against Ajax — five days after that mauling in Camp Nou — shows PSV shouldn’t be underestimated on their own turf.
There is added interest in this game because two PSV youngsters—Hirving Lozano and Steven Bergwijn — are possible Inter transfer targets. “Inter are up against a side who are currently dominating Dutch football with some very good young players,” says former Inter and Italy manager Marcelo Lippi, who is predicting a tough match.