WHILE Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez claims there are too many inconsequential matches, the Champions League group phase pushes ahead with matchday three. Matches that look quite appetising can be found right across Europe, from London to Leipzig to Lisbon.
Chelsea – AC Milan
These two teams have only met five times in the past, dating back to 1965-66. Three of the five games have ended in draws, but in March 1966, after a Fairs’ Cup play-off, Chelsea went through on the toss of a coin – a quirky and unsatisfactory way to end a major European tie. Chelsea secured their first win under Graham Potter at the weekend, beating Crystal Palace away by 2-1. These are early days for the former Brighton manager as well as the new ownership regime at the club, but there are signs that the spending spree initiated by Todd Boehly is not over – they appear to be on the verge of agreeing a deal for RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku. AC Milan are currently in third place in Serie A and recently lost at home to league leaders Napoli. They travel to Stamford Bridge with an injury-hit squad with the likes of Simon Kjaer, Divock Origi, Theo Hernandez and Mike Maignan missing.
RB Salzburg – Dinamo Zagreb
Two of the most dominant teams in their domestic football meet in Salzburg. Predictably, Red Bull Salzburg are top of the Austrian Bundesliga, two points ahead of Sturm Graz. They are unbeaten so far in the Champions League having drawn their games with AC Milan and Chelsea. Salzburg, the club that sold Erling Haaland to Borussia Dortmund, have other young stars in the making – they claim their 19 year-old Slovenian forward, Benjamin Šeško could be the best striker they have ever had. He has netted five goals in 14 games so far this season. Salzburg were held 1-1 at the weekend by Linzer ASK and have now drawn their last two games. Dinamo Zagreb, champions of Croatia for 16 of the past 17 years, are unbeaten this season in the league and are 11 points clear of second-placed Hajduk Split. After beating Chelsea 1-0 in their opening Champions League fixture, with a goal from in-form striker Mislav Oršič, they were beaten 3-1 by AC Milan.
RB Leipzig – Celtic
Leipzig have had a difficult start to the season but there were more positive signs when they beat Bochum 4-0 at the weekend with two goals apiece from Timo Werner and Christopher Nkunku. Under new manager Marcus Rose, they have won two of their three Bundesliga games, but the club’s Champions League record needs to improve quickly – they have lost to both Shakhtar Donestsk and Real Madrid. Celtic are two points clear of Rangers at the top of the Scottish Premiership and have lost just once. One player who has caught the eye is Liel Abada, the 20 year-old Israeli international who has scored six goals in 10 league and cup games. Abada may miss the Leipzig game due to a Jewish holiday, but Japanese striker Kyogo Furuhashi looks to be in form, scoring seven goals in the Premiership despite some concerns over his fitness.
Real Madrid – Shakhtar Donetsk
While Real Madrid’s president continues to call for change in European football, his club remain the dominant force in the existing Champions League format. Real lost their 100% La Liga record at the weekend, drawing 1-1 at home to Osasuna. This meant they also relinquished their top spot to Barcelona. Change is coming at Real, though, as a cluster of their most experienced players, which includes Benzema, Modric, Kroos and Asensio, come to the end of their contracts soon. Real will be without goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois for an extended period due to injury, giving Andriy Lunin the opportunity to stake claim for a regular place. Shakhtar Donetsk, gallantly and defiantly playing on as war rages at home, are top of the Ukrainian Premier League, winning four of their five games. They won 6-1 against Metalist at the weekend, with 21 year-old Danylo Sikan netting a hat-trick. They started their Champions League campaign well, winning 4-1 in Leipzig and drawing 1-1 with Celtic.
Manchester City – FC Copenhagen
FCK must be dreading their trip to the Etihad Stadium to face Manchester City and 17-goal Erling Haaland. City’s 6-3 victory against Manchester United flattered Erik ten Hag’s side but also underlined the sheer power of the home team and their extraordinary striker. City’s pursuit of the Champions League is gathering momentum, with two victories, including that 4-0 win in Seville. They have a 100% home record and have scored four or more goals in five of their six games at the Etihad. FC Copenhagen’s season has been less convincing and they have lost six of their 11 Danish Superliga fixtures. Their last Champions League tie was a dull 0-0 draw with Sevilla. They would undoubtedly breathe a sigh of relief if Pep Guardiola decides to rest one or two of his big names.
Sevilla – Borussia Dortmund
Sevilla’s season took another blow last weekend with a 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Atlético Madrid. Media reports suggested that their coach, Julen Lopetegui, could be on the verge of the sack, but equally, there are stories that he could be on Wolverhampton Wanderers’ list as a replacement for Bruno Lage, who was dismissed after their game at West Ham. Sevilla have won just one game this season and have yet to score in the Champions League. Dortmund’s form has fluctuated and they were beaten for the third time in the Bundesliga at Köln in their last game. Midfielder Jude Bellingham, who captained Dortmund against Köln, is being targeted by both Liverpool and Real Madrid as the battle for his signature looks set to dominate summer transfer talk. Bellingham has been one of Dortmund’s most reliable performers, but generally, they need more consistency.
Benfica – Paris Saint-Germain
Benfica have had a great start to 2022-23 at home and in Europe. They lost their 100% record in the Portuguese Primeira, a 0-0 draw with Vitória de Guimarães, but they remain top of the table, three points in front of Porto. They have won both of their Champions League games, notably a 2-1 success at Juventus. As ever, Benfica’s players are being eyed by clubs around Europe, with 21 year-old Gonçalo Ramos and Enzo Fernández attracting attention from Premier League and La Liga clubs. Benfica have a tough task against star-studded PSG, who have won 10 of their 11 games this season. Managing a squad of high maintenance players comes with problems, however, and Christoph Galtier has had to deal with some friction between certain squad members. However, PSG’s big three of Neymar, Mbappe and Messi are scoring goals, with Neymar leading the way with 10. This tie is certainly one of the most intriguing of matchday three.
Juventus – Maccabi Haifa
Amid calls for coach Max Allegri to be sacked – he needed a police escort after his side lost to Monza – Juventus gained some respite from their lack lustre start to 2022-23 with a 3-0 win against Bologna. Juve have only lost once in Serie A, but they have drawn four of their eight games. In the Champions League, they have lost against PSG and Benfica and desperately need to get some points if they are to keep in contention for knockout stage qualification. They may have to face Israeli league leaders, Maccabi Haifa, without the in-form Arek Milik, the Polish international on loan from Marseille, who has to shrug off an injury if he is to play. Maccabi Haifa prepared for their trip to Turin with a 2-0 victory against Maccabi Tel Aviv.