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Can Liverpool cope without Van Dijk, Bayern face Atletico test

The Champions League is back, and back with a bang, after the draw for the 2020-21 group stage concluded on Oct. 1 in Geneva. The top line? A head-to-head between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as Juventus and Barcelona were paired together in Group G, in a game that could also see fans inside the stadium after UEFA confirmed grounds can be up to 30% full for fixtures if local regulations permit.

The standout pairing of the group stage also boasts an American subplot, with U.S. teammates Weston McKennie and Sergino Dest facing off against each other.

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With Italian champions Juve and La Liga runners-up Barcelona having not met competitively since November 2017, the Group G clashes will see Ronaldo and Messi renew their on-field rivalry for the first time since the Portuguese forward left Real Madrid for Juventus in 2018.

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Ronaldo and Messi have played against each on 33 occasions in competitive club games, and Barcelona’s Messi has so far come out on top 15 times, with Ronaldo winning on nine occasions at past clubs Real and Manchester United. The two men have dominated the Champions League, with Ronaldo winning five European Cups — two more than Messi. Ronaldo also tops the all-time scoring charts with 130, 15 more than Messi, his closest rival.

So with the group stages starting with Matchday 1 on Oct. 20-21, ESPN brings you a game-by-game preview of the round including a big clash between Paris Saint-Germain and Man United (Group H), another intriguing battle between Bayern Munich vs. Atletico Madrid (Group A, Wednesday) and a test for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea at home to Sevilla (Group E, Tuesday). Also, how will Liverpool fare without Virgil van Dijk for the tricky trip to Ajax (Group D, Wednesday)?

Editor’s note: This has been updated since the group stage draw concluded on Oct. 1 in Geneva. Expanded group stage analysis of Matchday 1 is by Tom Hamilton.

Jump to groups:
– Wednesday’s matches: A | B | C | D
– Tuesday’s results: E | F | G | H

GROUP A: Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, RB Salzburg, Lokomotiv Moscow

Bayern Munich vs. Atletico Madrid (Wednesday): Reigning champions Bayern Munich head into their opening group game off the back of a commanding 4-1 win at Arminia Bielefeld on Saturday. Robert Lewandowski is off to a fine start with seven goals in the Bundesliga already, while Thomas Muller is also playing well. For Atletico, they won 2-0 at Celta Vigo on Saturday, with new signing Luis Suarez and Yannick Carrasco scoring.

Last year’s Champions League quarterfinalists will have lofty ambitions for this season; they also boast the knowledge and drive to be a bump in the road for Bayern. Still, expect a home win.

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Shaka Hislop praises Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski’s consistency despite their advance age.

RB Salzburg vs. Lokomotiv Moscow (Wednesday): Salzburg are four wins from four games in the Austrian Bundesliga and won 3-0 at St. Polten in the Austrian Cup on Saturday. Patson Daka is in prolific form, while Sekou Keita and Dominik Szoboszlai are ticking along. Lokomotiv Moscow — without their brilliant forward Aleksey Miranchuk — are third in the Russian Premier League with six wins, three draws and two defeats from their 11 matches, but head to Austria off the back of a 1-0 win over FC Ufa on Saturday thanks to Grzegorz Krychowiak;s second-half strike. It should be business as usual for the Austrians, though.

Key players in the group: Striker Luis Suarez has three goals in four games for Atletico and will be keen to show his old side Barcelona what they’re missing in the Champions League. He won the 2015 Champions League in his time at Barca, and will hoping to add another. Patson Daka has stepped into Erling Haaland’s large shoes at Salzburg and has mirrored his prolific form in front of goal. He has 11 in eight games for the Austrian champions and will look to continue that on Wednesday.


Real Madrid vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (Wednesday): The La Liga champions suffered a shock 1-0 defeat at home to Cadiz on Saturday, with Luka Jovic seeing a goal ruled out and Karim Benzema hitting the bar. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has since labelled it a “wake-up call” in what was Zinedine Zidane’s team’s first defeat this season. They have issues at right-back with both Alvaro Odriozola and Dani Carvajal both injured, while Eden Hazard and Martin Odegaard are both sidelined. Sergio Ramos is also unlikely to feature, with Zidane likely to give him time to heal from an injury ahead of next weekend’s El Clasico.

For Shakhtar, they will head to Madrid with plenty of confidence having smashed Lviv 5-1 on Saturday, with Viktor Kovalenko grabbing a brace. They are undefeated in the Ukrainian Premier League, with three wins and three draws from their six matches. If they’re going to shock the Spanish giants, this week is the perfect time to strike.

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Ale Moreno says Real Madrid’s loss to Cadiz was men against boys in favor of the newly promoted side.

Inter Milan vs. Borussia Monchengladbach (Wednesday): Antonio Conte’s Inter will be smarting from their 2-1 defeat in the Milan derby on Saturday as Zlatan Ibrahimovic rolled back the years to take bragging rights. They are sixth in Serie A with two wins from four, but have Romelu Lukaku in prolific form with four goals so far. But they have brought in plenty of Champions League experience in the close season with Arturo Vidal, Achraf Hakimi and Aleksandar Kolarov all joining.

Gladbach were poor by their high standards against Wolfsburg on Saturday, drawing 1-1. They’ve made a slow start to the season, with one win from their opening four in the Bundesliga, but will look to the likes of Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo to cause Inter some difficulties. That said, you’d expect Conte & Co. to emerge victorious.

Key players in the group: With the talismanic Sergio Ramos injured, Real need some inspiration, and that’ll come in Karim Benzema. Real have struggled to score goals this season (six in five) so it’s up to him to get them off to a winning start against Shakhtar. Inter’s Lautaro Martinez was on a number of club’s wish lists over the summer, including Barcelona’s, but the outstanding Argentina striker will hope to cause some havoc alongside Lukaku on Wednesday.


Manchester City vs. FC Porto (Wednesday): Having endured a wild start to the season, it was business as usual for Pep Guardiola’s City at home against Arsenal on Saturday as they won 1-0 via Raheem Sterling’s first-half goal. With Sergio Aguero back fit and a new-look defence starting to build rapport around Ruben Dias, Wednesday’s match will be an acid test of where Guardiola’s team are. Porto drew 2-2 with their fierce rivals Sporting on Saturday, but have the brilliant Jesus Manuel Corona in fine form but will be adjusting to life without Manchester United-bound Alex Telles. Expect a comfortable home win.

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ESPN FC’s Don Hutchison believes Liverpool have too many injuries to overcome to defend their title.

Olympiakos vs. Marseille (Wednesday): Olympiakos have three wins from four games in the Super League Greece, and crushed Atromitos 4-0 at the weekend with Youssef El-Arabi scoring a hat trick. Andre Villas-Boas’ Marseille won 3-1 against Bordeaux on Saturday with Florian Thauvin, Jordan Amavi and an own goal bringing up their third win from seven in Ligue 1 this season. The French side should travel well and be canny enough to take all three points.

Key players in the group: Kevin De Bruyne is out injured for Manchester City, so they’ll need Phil Foden to pull the strings against Porto. He’s had an eventful start to the 2020-21 campaign, but is stepping nicely into David Silva’s sizeable shoes. Florian Thauvin is the creator extraordinaire for Marseille, but is also chipping in with goals. Having missed last season through injury, he’ll be keen to make up for lost time in the group stages.


GROUP D: Liverpool, Ajax, Atalanta BC, FC Midtjylland

Ajax vs. Liverpool (Wednesday): Ajax reached the Champions League semifinals two seasons back, but lost Sergino Dest, Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek over the summer. Not to worry; they still have enough firepower and nous to back themselves to upset Jurgen Klopp’s men. The evergreen Dusan Tadic scored twice in their 5-1 win over Heerenveen at the weekend and have their new signings Antony and Mohammed Kudus in fine form.

Liverpool have had a turbulent start to the season and head to Ajax without star defender Virgil Van Dijk, who is out for a lengthy spell, as well as Naby Keita, Alisson and Thiago. This will be a real test of Klopp’s juggling skills, but they know what it takes to win this competition and can handle the adversity. This is the first time in 54 years these two have met in a competitive match, with Ajax beating Liverpool 5-1 back in 1966. We suspect a scoring draw for these two.

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Julien Laurens says the lack of punishment for Pickford is “as disgraceful” as his challenge on Van Dijk.

FC Midtjylland vs. Atalanta (Wednesday): The Danish champions left it late to qualify against Slavia Prague, but will look to take Saturday’s 3-1 win over OB into Tuesday’s clash at the MCH Arena. Their outstanding winger Pione Sisto scored at the weekend and will be one to watch. Atalanta are arguably Europe’s most attractive team to watch, but were hammered 4-1 at Napoli at the weekend. They reached the quarterfinals of the competition last season and will be hopeful of at least equalling that feat, but will need to find winning ways again on the road in Denmark. It shouldn’t be an issue for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side.

Key players in the group: With Liverpool without a number of key men for their trip to Amsterdam, Jordan Henderson will be key to bringing a steady presence to their midfield. Their wingers are on fire still, but without the calming presence of Van Dijk at the back, Henderson will be key. Atalanta did well to keep Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez over the summer, and the mesmeric Argentina forward will hope to continue his impressive goal-scoring run with four in four so far this season.


GROUP E: Sevilla, Chelsea, Krasnodar, Rennes

Chelsea 0-0 Sevilla (Tuesday): Frank Lampard’s side were frustrated by a disciplined Sevilla team at Stamford Bridge, with neither side creating much in the way of meaningful scoring chances.

Rennes 1-1 Krasnodar (Tuesday): The French side’s debut in the Champions League group stage ended with honors even following a pulsating game. Rennes were the better side, taking twice as many shots (20 to 10) and shots on target (7 to 3), but failed to capitalize on going ahead via Sehrou Guirassy’s penalty. In Three minutes after taking the lead, Cristian Ramirez leveled for the visitors.


Zenit St Petersburg 1-2 Club Brugge (Tuesday): The first shock result of the group stage came in Russia, as the hosts squandered their dominance to lose via a late goal from Charles De Ketelaere. After Brugge took the lead, a freakish own goal from U.S. goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, who deflected Dejan Lovren’s long range effort into the net after it had hit the post, gave Zenit a platform to build upon in the closing stages, only for De Ketelaere to calmly tap-in the winner for the visitors.

Lazio 3-1 Borussia Dortmund (Tuesday): It was a night to forget for Erling Haaland & Co. as hosts Lazio ran out comfortable winners on Matchday 1. Goals from Ciro Immobile and Jean-Daniel Akpa Akpro bookended a Marwin Hitz own goal for an emphatic win. Haaland did give the visitors hope, pulling it to 2-1 with a superb first-time finish from Giovanni Reyna’s cross, only for Akpa Akpro to end it 14 minutes from the end.


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Shaka Hislop offers insight into Juve’s expectations this season after their UCL opening win vs. Kiev.

Dynamo Kiev 1-2 Juventus (Tuesday): Two goals from Alvaro Morata in the second half gave the Italian side a perfect start to the Champions League group stage, though it wasn’t all good: already without Cristiano Ronaldo and Weston McKennie (COVID-19 isolation), defender Giorgio Chiellini hobbled off hurt after just 19 minutes with a hamstring issue.

Barcelona 5-1 Ferencvaros (Tuesday): Despite their sluggish start to the season in La Liga, Barcelona had no trouble against the Hungarian side at Camp Nou on Tuesday night. Five different players scored for Ronald Koeman’s side, though Gerard Pique’s red card in the second half for fouling Tokmac Nguen in the penalty area, meaning he’ll miss Matchday 2’s clash with Juventus.


PSG 1-2 Manchester United (Tuesday): The visitors grabbed an impressive away win at the Parc des Princes thanks to Marcus Rashford’s 87th minute strike. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were excellent in the first half and continued that even after Anthony Martial’s own goal — flicking a PSG corner beyond David de Gea — had canceled out Bruno Fernandes’ first-half penalty. Rashford’s goal was well-struck: late in the game, he received the ball on the edge of the area, beat his marked and fired beyond Keylor Navas to take all three points back to Manchester for Matchday 2.

RB Leipzig 2-0 Istanbul Basaksehir (Tuesday): Two goals in four minutes from full-back Angelino midway through the first half proved enough for the Bundesliga side to take the victory.

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