Champions League: 5 things we learned from Matchday 3

Champions League: 5 things we learned from Matchday 3


By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

Lionel Messi scored a gem, Erling Haaland’s assault on the record book continued and Barcelona lost again, putting them in danger of missing out on the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League, which returned this week following a 20-day hiatus.

Here are five quick thoughts following the conclusion of Matchday 3 — the halfway point of the group stage.

Messi heating up at the perfect time

After an average (by his otherworldly standards, anyway) maiden season in Paris last year following more than two decades with Barcelona, it was fair to wonder if age was finally beginning to catch up to Messi, who turned 35 in June.

Maybe it just took a year for Messi to feel comfortable in his new surroundings. For the GOAT has started 2022-23 campaign looking more like a man 10 years younger than the shadow of himself he was for much of his first season with PSG.

Messi scored on a sublime free kick in Ligue 1 play last weekend. On Wednesday, he converted another beauty to give the Parisians a lead over Benfica — the record 40th different team he’s scored against in the Champions League.

PSG couldn’t make Messi’s beautiful goal stand up, settling for a 1-1 draw. But Messi now has eight goals and the same number of assists in 13 matches across all competitions. With what will surely be his last World Cup kicking off next month, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner looks out to prove that he’s not done just yet. 

Haaland, Manchester City keep rolling

Erling Haaland is appointment television viewing at this point for a reason: he delivers. It took the unstoppable Norwegian striker just seven minutes to put City in front Wednesday against FC Copenhagen. He then scored his second in the 33rd minute.

Haaland’s blistering, unprecedented run of form to start the season has now yielded an astonishing 19 goals in just 11 Premier League and Champions League games. The only surprising thing about his performance Wednesday was that he didn’t complete the hat trick in a contest that finished 5-0 for the hosts.

Chelsea finally win as Christian Pulisic watches

On their third try this season, the 2021 European titlists finally won a Champions League game. After losing to Dynamo Zagreb (a defeat that cost then manager Thomas Tuchel his job) and tying RB Leipzig, the Blues topped seven-time champ AC Milan 3-0 on Wednesday on goals by summer signings Wesley Fofana and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and fourth year defender Reece James.

It was easily the Blues most encouraging performance yet under new boss Graham Potter. For U.S. national team headliner Christian Pulisic, it marked the first time all season that he didn’t get off the bench. 

Tuchel’s departure was supposed to help Pulisic, at least in theory. But four games into Potter’s tenure, there’s little indication that the winger will get more minutes than before. If Wednesday is anything to go by, he could play even less. That’s clearly not great for Pulisic or the Americans as the World Cup approaches. 

Juventus back on track

Juve had been the opposite of their Serie A rivals this season, suffering a dreadful start to 2022-23 both domestically and in European play. Max Allegri’s team had lost both of their first two matches in Group H, to PSG and Benfica respectively.

So Juventus needed a big win on Wednesday against overmatched Maccabi Haifa. They got it. Adrien Rabiot scored on either side of Dušan Vlahović’s 50th minute strike in the hosts’ 3-1 victory. Ángel Di María set up all three Juve goals.

Barcelona in trouble 

That 5-1 win over Viktoria Plzen in first match of the 2022-23 Champions League campaign seems a long time ago now. Barcelona has lost two straight since that opening day rout, including 1-0 to Inter Milan on Tuesday.

There’s no shame in being narrowly defeated at the San Siro Stadium by a team as strong as Inter. There’s even less losing in Munich to mighty Bayern, which is what Barca did on Matchday 2. The position in which Xavi Hernández’s team finds itself is in part a product of playing back-to-back games away from home in the toughest of the eight groups.

Another part is that Xavi wasn’t able to coax anything out of his team attacking-wise – one that has a La Liga-best 19 goals in seven games in Spain – over the two Champions League losses. Whatever the reason, Barcelona has just three points from three games and sit third in Group H.

That means they go into next week’s rematch with Inter at the Camp Nou needing a win – especially with a visit from the German champs looming on Oct. 26. If they don’t get it, Barca would be on track for a group stage exit for the second season in a row. 

Can Napoli make a run?

Tied atop the Italian Serie A standings, Napoli is eyeing its first Scudetto since Diego Maradona wore the sky blue shirt more than 30 years ago.  That’s the title Neapolitan want most; hoisting the European Cup is probably beyond most realistic fans’ wildest dreams. 

Which is understandable. On the other hand, Napoli has been lights out in the Champions League so far. On Tuesday, they extended their perfect start to the competition by trouncing a good Ajax side 6-1 — in Amsterdam! This was after they also beat the wheels off of Liverpool in their opener. Three games in, Napoli has scored as many goals as every team in Groups D and E. Their +11 goal differential tops the field even after Man City hung five Wednesday on their Danish visitors. 

The Nov. 1 rematch at Liverpool will tell us more about what Napoli is capable of this season. So far, there’s no reason to think they can’t stand toe-to-toe with the continent’s elite when the knockout stage kicks off next year.

One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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Jorge Oliveira