Champions League week 2: Losers win, winners lose (except Barcelona)

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Another week of the UEFA Champions League is in the books, and this one provided its share of upsets and mind-boggling matches. Europe’s premier soccer competition is only in its early stages, but clear favorites are emerging, as well as clear underdogs and more importantly, clear underperformers. Here’s what happened in week two:

 

Best match: Benfica 3, AEK Athens 2

Who said the best match had to feature the best teams?

Both of these clubs met in Athens needing a victory. In the last match week, Benfica had been beaten 2-0 at the hands of Bayern Munich and AEK had been obliterated 3-0 by a rising Ajax side. This match featured everything — goals, comebacks, red cards and late winners.

Benfica dominated early and was unlucky not to score more, with two goals in the first 15 minutes of the match. The Portuguese side controlled most of the first half before defender Rúben Dias egregiously fouled Ezequiel Ponce in stoppage time and received a red card.

Up a man, AEK Athens came out of halftime with a vengeance, flipping the game on its head. Viktor Klonaridis, who has been a key man for Athens in European competition, punished Benfica with a goal before completing the comeback with a tying volley in the 63rd minute. The Athenian side seemed to have all the momentum, surging forward and looking for a win, the home crowd roaring behind them. It would, however, be Benfica that took home all three points.

Substitute center back Alfa Semedo snatched the ball near the halfway line and dribbled forward, unleashing a vicious low shot into the bottom left corner; from nothing came a win. Benfica will look to build toward a spot in the round of 16 with two key matches against Ajax. AEK Athens, meanwhile, must best the colossus that is Bayern Munich if the team is to climb out of the two-loss hole it finds itself in.

 

Best group: Group F — Olympique Lyonnais, Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Hoffenheim

Napoli’s win over Liverpool made Group C interesting, as did CSKA Moscow’s massive upset against Real Madrid, but the best group — and I mean the most interesting, competitive group — is Group F.

Manchester City was supposed to win this group easily, but a suspended manager coupled with stunning play from the other three clubs in Group F have thrown any and all predictions up in the air. Lyon is led by world-class attacking midfielder Nabil Fekir, Shakhtar Donetsk beat Manchester City last season to make the round of 16, and Hoffenheim has proved that it can hang with any of these teams.

After two games, all four teams are within three points of each other, meaning that just one win separates last-place Hoffenheim from first-place Lyon, and the two clubs play each other next.

This week saw David Silva score a last-minute goal to give Man City a much-needed win over Hoffenheim, and Lyon came from behind to draw Shakhtar Donetsk at home. This is after last week, when Lyon upset Manchester City on the road and Hoffenheim slugged out a thrilling 2-2 draw in Ukraine. This really is anyone’s group and may well be one for the ages.

 

Best player: Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona — two goals at Tottenham Hotspur

There was no shortage of good players this week. Neymar and Paulo Dybala both rebounded from poor showings in their first games to score hat tricks and lead their respective teams, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, to victories. Júnior Moraes scored a brace and helped Shakhtar Donetsk to an away point in southern France. Eden Džeko put three past Viktoria Plzeň to pull A.S. Roma back from the brink of elimination and into the thick of competition.

The best player of the week was, however, the incomparable Lionel Messi. The Argentine playmaker put on a show at Wembley Stadium, beating a very good Tottenham Hotspur team in an extremely hostile stadium.

Messi scored two goals, including the winner, and had a further two shots bounce off the outside post. He pulled the strings in the midfield and in attack, controlling Barcelona’s vaunted offense and leaving Tottenham for dead with his spacing and finishing. This follows a hat trick in Barcelona’s opening-day victory over PSV Eindhoven.

Messi has not come just to play, and after five goals in two games, it seems as if the best player in the world means business.

 

Biggest upset: CSKA Moscow 1, Real Madrid 0

Yes, Liverpool did lose to Napoli after beating a great PSG side in week one, but Real Madrid’s planetary-sized stumble in the Russian capital takes the cake. In fact, it takes multiple cakes, as the biggest upset of the week.

Real Madrid trounced last year’s semifinalist A.S. Roma in match week one and all seemed to be going well in Spain despite the departures of superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo and manager Zinedine Zidane, who had lead Real Madrid to three straight Champions League titles.

Real Madrid crashed back down to earth this week, registering only 15 percent of its shots on target. Less than perfect form in Real’s domestic league will contribute to continuing questions about this team’s ability in the post-Ronaldo era. This was the type of game it needed to win in order to assuage those doubts, and Real Madrid did not win.

Instead of taking command of Group G, the Spanish club finds itself in third behind its vanquisher, CSKA Moscow, and an insurgent A.S. Roma side. Real Madrid must, and really should, win its next match against minnows Viktoria Plzeň, lest the team risk a shock elimination at this early stage in the tournament.

 

Biggest winner: Ajax; 1-1 draw at Bayern Munich

Clarification: “biggest winner” does not mean largest margin of victory, nor even a victor. Case in point:

Ajax tied Bayern Munich on the road, facing the less-than-stellar Bavarian side in Allianz Arena and splitting the points. This may not seem like a victory, but consider it in perspective.

Bayern is favored to win Group E handily, with many predicting that Ajax would duel with Benfica and possibly AEK Athens for the runner-up spot in the group. Instead, Ajax leads the group after two games with the best goal differential and a draw in what will be its most difficult game — at Bayern.

This Bayern Munich side was undefeated at home last season with the sole exception of a loss to eventual Champions League winners Real Madrid. To draw in such a venue is an absolute win for Ajax in every way but the result, and it gives the team an advantage over Benfica as it heads into back-to-back matches against the Portuguese team.

Moreover, it proves that Ajax has graduated from a youthful, up-and-coming team and may now be a real threat to the established powers of European football.

 

Biggest loser: AS Monaco; 3-0 loss at Borussia Dortmund

Once again, there are many options to choose from. Tottenham appears to be in dire straights after its second consecutive loss, and as mentioned above, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich both tripped against weaker opposition.

AS Monaco, however, may be witnessing the end of a golden era of football in the Mediterranean city-state. Two years ago, behind the youth and speed of Thomas Lemar and Kylian Mbappé, AS Monaco shocked PSG and won the Ligue 1 of France and reached the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League.

Both Mbappé and Lemar have since moved on, and Monaco has not reached the latter stages of the Champions League since.

Now Monaco finds itself adrift at the foot of Group A after losses to Atlético Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Monaco’s new players, such as Nacer Chadli and Youri Tielemans, while promising, have not filled the void left by their predecessors. AS Monaco may have to rebuild from the ground up if the team is ever to reach the heights it enjoyed just a few short years ago.

Jasper Sundeen writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].