Jack Grealish and the Champions League are a match made in heaven.
That seemed pretty obvious even before he had kicked a ball in the competition. Getting the chance to play on the biggest stage in European club football was one of the main reasons Grealish gave for making the move to City from boyhood club Aston Villa for a British-record fee. His performance in the win over RB Leipzig only backed up the decision.
Grealish, playing off the left in a position he has already made his own for his new club, got the ball rolling by assisting the opening goal for Nathan Ake from a corner before grabbing the limelight on 56 minutes.
Perhaps one of his greatest advantage against playing teams on the continent is that they might underestimate him. Tyler Adams – RB Leipzig’s midfielder – seemed more than happy to allow Grealish to dribble into the area and show him onto his right foot. Not a wise decision. Grealish took aim from 18 yards and sent a flashing curling drive into the top corner. That was one of nine progressive runs from City’s marquee man. The home fans have a new favourite.
“When I’m in that position off the left-hand side running into the opposition area, I’d back myself one-on-one against anyone to have a go and this time it paid off,” a grinning Grealish said after the game.
“As soon as the game kicked off, I actually thought to myself, ‘I’ve played in the Champions League now!’. The music and everything was so nice and the game topped it all off. I loved it.”
Not that Pep Guardiola looked too impressed with Grealish’s output. The City boss always seems that extra bit intense on a Champions League night and Grealish got first-hand experience of his manager’s desire to flourish in Europe’s elite competition. The England international – and Riyad Mahrez – got a stern talking to in the second half when City restored their two-goal lead.
“The manager was just talking about defensive work,” said Grealish when quizzed about his talks with the Spaniard.
“That’s what he’s like, he’s always wanting more defensively and offensively, he’s someone I’m going to listen to after everything he has achieved in the game. He’s always giving out useful information.”
Guardiola knows there is so much more to come from his £100m man. A scary thought.
Few things in football can rival the atmosphere generated under the lights at Anfield on a European night.
After 552 long, arduous days without Liverpool’s iconic home playing host to the continent’s iconic tournament, the wait finally ended on Wednesday – and boy did the game live up to the occasion.
Since Atletico Madrid travelled to Anfield days before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March 2020, Liverpool have relinquished their Premier League crown and seen their once fortress of a stadium assailed by Burnley, Brighton, Everton, and Fulham among others.
You would have been forgiven for forgetting just how influential Anfield was and still is to the Liverpool cause, but Milan would have been left in no doubt after their first visit to Merseyside.
Milan made their first appearance in Europe’s elite-club competition since 2014 – a staggering absence for a club whose seven titles sit second only behind Real Madrid in European Cup folklore – and yet Liverpool should have run away with the game inside the opening quarter, such was their dominance and the overwhelming atmosphere it created.
To their credit, Milan showed great resolve to cancel out Fikayo Tomori’s early own goal with goals from Ante Rebic and Brahim Diaz in the space of two first-half-minutes after Mohamed Salah had a penalty save, but their resolve only added to the drama that was to come.
Salah atoned for his penalty miss with the equaliser within three minutes of the restart before Liverpool’s captain had the final word.
Seven years on from his debut Champions League goal, Jordan Henderson doubled his tally in the competition with a strike fit to win any game as he thundered the sweetest of half-volleys into the net as Liverpool’s first meeting with Milan outside of a final ended with the most satisfying of opening victories.
The power of Anfield is back, and Liverpool might just be, too.
There has been a hum of excitement around Man Utd this summer. The acquisitions of Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho, plus the fairytale return of Cristiano Ronaldo, has catapulted United into the trophy-winning sphere – so the pundits and commenters have said.
But the last-minute defeat to Young Boys on Tuesday brought an abrupt halt to that positivity – the Champions League is back with a stark reminder that no game is assured.
Man Utd were heavy favourites heading to Switzerland. Young Boys have already played six qualifiers just to reach the group stages and are considered the ‘weakest’ team in Group F. But with a passionate home crowd behind them – mirroring those great home ends in Europe, like Liverpool’s Kop or Dortmund’s Yellow Wall – Young Boys pulled off one of the greatest results in their history.
There were two clear lapses that contributed to the defeat. The one that changed the course of the game was Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s red card after a clumsy challenge on Christopher Martins. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer immediately brought on Diogo Dalot, but the United defense was in disarray until half-time, when there was a switch to a back three.
“I thought we could have done better in the first half with 11 men”, Solskjaer said. “In the second half, we felt in control without the ball. They didn’t create any big chances, but there were two unfortunate goals.”
The second was a poor error from Jesse Lingard. The introduction of Anthony Martial for Fred saw him drop deeper into midfield, and his lax pass was turned home by Jordan Pefok with the last kick of the game. It harks back to last season’s Champions League group stages, when two equally as shocking defensive mistakes allowed Istanbul Basaksehir to score twice in a 2-1 defeat for United.
It seems to be the same old story in Europe for United, and Solskjaer just cannot quite find the right formula for the Champions League yet – Man Utd have lost seven of their 11 matches under him in the competition. In fact, 13 per cent of their total defeats in the competition have come under Solskjaer (7/54), despite the Norwegian only being in charge for 4.8 per cent of their matches (11/231).
So once again, it will be back to the drawing board for Solskjaer and United, but the manager seemed relaxed about their chances of making the knockout stages.
“We know we’ve given ourselves a more difficult task than we did last year, but everyone thought we were through after two games last year,” he said. “You need 10, maybe 12 points, win all your home games and maybe one away from home. We’ve lost an opportunity to get three points, but we’ve got two home games next and we’ll focus on those two.”
The use of Antonio Rudiger has been one of Thomas Tuchel’s many masterstrokes since arriving at Chelsea. But with his contract up in the summer, Chelsea simply must tie him down.
Frank Lampard had only just begun to use the defender when Tuchel arrived in January. Since then, Chelsea have registered 23 clean sheets across all competitions, more than any other side in Europe’s big five leagues in that period. Rudiger has started 20 of those games.
He’s has been imperious this season, and brought calm to the defence on Tuesday night as they dealt with the threat in behind of Sardar Azmoun. It will not be his toughest test this season by any stretch, but the calm – almost nonchalance – in which Rudiger cleared, tackled and dominated was infectious.
It has a knock-on impact up the field, too. Much of Chelsea’s risky exploration in the final third comes from the feeling that all is safe behind them if they lose the ball. That will matter more and more this season, with Chelsea now a bigger get as European champions.
It’s clear Rudiger is playing with supreme confidence; his 70-yard run from defence almost resulted in one of the goals of Tuchel’s reign here. The fans love him, but Chelsea must do everything they can to keep him.
As he walked out to speak to the media after the match, one fan shouted “sign the contract, Rudi!” Alongside Romelu Lukaku, match-winner here, a new contract may well be Chelsea’s most important piece of business this year.
The vultures will be circling, and rightly so. Rudiger is becoming a Rolls-Royce defender.