Last week’s 16-game introduction to the 2019-20 Champions League group stage provided several interesting results.
Napoli’s 2-0 win over Liverpool, Inter Milan’s 1-1 draw vs Slavia Prague and Tottenham’s 2-2 draw against Olympiakos were among the most surprising outcomes. But none of those teams need to be reconsidered just yet (no, I’m not worried about Liverpool, or terribly high on Slavia Prague).
Four squads who do have me re-thinking their ceilings in this tournament — or at the very least, where they stand in their groups — are RB Salzburg, Paris Saint-Germain, Atalanta and Ajax.
Red Bull Salzburg (+8500)
Despite us flagging them, and particularly 19-year-old Erling Braut Haland, on this site, I don’t think anyone expected a 6-2 (!) win over Genk. With five goals in the first half, thanks largely to Haaland’s hat trick (he scored in the 2nd, 34th and 45th), RBS opened the tournament with the best half you’ll see.
The highlights of those goals introduced those of us who hadn’t seem him before to a Scandinavian CR7, or maybe a soccer-playing Ivan Drago?? A quick checklist:
Tall? Check (6’3”)
Product in his hair? Next question
Jokes aside, this kid is incredible, and looks like a megastar in the making, if you don’t consider him one already. Check him out ASAP, and if you’d like more on his background, last week’s piece on him in the London Guardian is worth a look.
RBS scored with an ease that means one of two things – because the truth is never somewhere in the middle in cases like this – either all of Europe should be on notice, or Genk is a pushover. Let’s give Genk another shot in this competition before writing them off, but they’re currently in seventh place in the Belgian Pro League on just 13 points through eight games.
Getting back to RBS, we’ll soon see exactly how legit this team is, as they take on Liverpool at Anfield next Wednesday. Who knows how that one will play out, but contrary to what oddsmakers would tell you (Liverpool is -360, RBS is +900), it promises to be fun to watch.
And regardless of how many more moments like the team’s opening half we’ll see, betting on them at +200 to finish top-2 seems like an above-average idea.
The other high-scoring HPS under-the-radar darling got off to a very different start.
Atalanta, a popular pick to advance in Group C, which they share with Manchester City, Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk, was drilled by Dinamo, 4-0. Losing by that margin would be troubling regardless of the opponent, but it’s especially hard to buy into the Italian club after seeing them look like that against a Pot 3 squad from Croatia.
We were high on Atalanta because of their offense, but their defense was a cause for concern. And that was before they went down 3-0 at halftime and managed just two shots on target in 90 minutes. Without a convincing win next week when they host Shakhtar Donetsk, it might be time to hop off the bandwagon.
I owe the Parisians an apology after highlighting them as the top-tier club most likely to fail to reach the knockout rounds. Their 3-0 romp over Real Madrid would have been impressive regardless of who they trotted out. Does the fact they did it without Kylian Mbappé, Edinson Cavani or Neymar justify their status as fourth-best favorite (+800) to win the whole thing? I don’t know about all that, but it was a hell of a tournament opener for Ángel Di María (who scored two stunning goals) and Co.
The real question is whether we can expect this team to remain that stout defensively. Real Madrid undeniably looked listless, but preventing a solid team from recording a single shot on goal is noteworthy. Let’s wait to see how PSG defends future elite opponents before declaring them a brick wall. But the performance against RM, coupled with the fact PSG have been scored on just twice in six Ligue 1 games, is a sign this might be a vastly improved team on the defensive end.
Last but not least, if one game is anything to go by, look out for Ajax, again. Though midfielder Donny van de Beek and right back Noussair Mazraoui are not exactly Mbappe and Neymar, they’re key pieces for their team. Despite them both missing the Lille match, the Dutch club cruised, 3-0. Who knew Ajax played a style that makes them both dangerous and fun to watch??
And the best news — at least for Ajax enthusiasts like myself — is that the chemistry with which they charmed the soccer world a year ago did not abandon them in the offseason. If teammates who slap each other in the face during a goal celebration, then immediately kiss and make up (literally), aren’t your thing, then we’ll have to agree to disagree.
HAHAHAHAHA… ESSE É UM DOS MELHORES VÍDEOS QUE EU JÁ VI NA MINHA VIDA! 😂😂😂😂
— Esporte Interativo (@Esp_Interativo) September 17, 2019
Seriously, though, we wrote this summer about what it said about this group that the likes of Hakim Ziyech, David Neres and van de Beek stuck around when they could have left for huge paydays. Those decisions make a lot of sense after 90 minutes of Champions League action. Ajax was +300 to win Group H before last week, and they remain a good bet at +200 after what we’ve recently seen from Chelsea (+300) and “favorite” Valencia (+120), whose -2 goal differential through five La Liga games and front office drama are massive red flags.