The quest for success in the 2018/19 Champions League season kicked off in earnest this week, as the cream of the crop among clubs around Europe played their first matches of the group stage. Defending champions Real Madrid, who have won the title for every one of the last three seasons, won 3-0 at home to AS Roma. Cristiano Ronaldo, their former star and top scorer for each of the last six seasons, was controversially sent off against Valencia for new club Juventus.
Here are five lessons we picked up from the mid-week action.
All of football needs VAR
The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology was given an airing at the World Cup in Russia this year, and the general consensus was that football is better off with than without it. Some of the refereeing decisions in the Champions League this week enhanced this argument; not least Ronaldo’s sending off, which was viewed by many as a yellow-card situation.
Manchester United were also awarded a relatively soft penalty for their second goal at Young Boys, which entirely took the wind out of the hosts’ sails. The arrival of VAR is inevitable, but the sooner it is implemented, the better.
Messi is here to stay
A lot of noise has been made in recent weeks after Lionel Messi was omitted from the list of three finalists in the race to win FIFA’s The Best award. Messi finished second to his rival Ronaldo in each of the last two editions, and has not won the Ballon D’Or since 2015. The talented Argentine was also castigated for underwhelming for his country at the World Cup.
The 31-year old has however not allowed any of that to affect him this season, with four league goals in four matches followed up by a hat-trick on Tuesday against PSV Eindhoven in Group B.
City are fallible
Other than winning his first two trophies in English football, Pep Guardiola’s biggest achievement last season was elevating Manchester City to almost seem invincible. Not many teams were able to beat them last season, at least not when it mattered, but French side Lyon proved that it can be done. Les Gones raced into a 2-0 lead in the first half and held on for the win despite City pulling back one goal in the second half.
The situation was not helped by a shortage of fans at the Etihad, which was more than 10,000 fans below its capacity. If the Champions League is the main target for Guardiola this season as is widely believed, the club might need to regain their fear factor from last season. Team support through good attendance should go a long way towards aiding that.
Mourinho needs Pogba and Martial
A lot of the transfer talk surrounding Man United in the summer was about the potential exit of French stars Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial. The relationship between José Mourinho and his two charges was visibly strained, and it was rumoured that he was especially willing to sell Martial. Neither of them left in the end, and they were the scorers as United won 3-0 in Switzerland last night.
Pogba’s double took him to four goals already for the season, while Martial’s second half performance might keep Alexis Sanchez on the bench at least for the Red Devil’s Premier League clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers. Whatever the issues Mourinho might have with the two players, they are some of his most critical at the club and he needs them at their best this season.
Pochettino’s moment of reckoning
Mauricio Pochettino’s success at Tottenham Hotspur has seen him linked with some of the biggest jobs in world football. His ability to turn Spurs from perennial also-rans into a consistent feature in the Champions League and title contenders for some seasons has marked him out as “the next big thing” in top-level management.
The Argentine has however arrived at a moment of reckoning, given his side’s poor form in recent weeks. Spurs have lost their last three games in all competitions and have a couple of challenges to contend with, starting with the apparent burnout of striker Harry Kane. If Pochettino fails to get his team out of this slump, he faces the prospect of watching the great side he has built scatter.