By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
The second match day of the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League is now complete following the 16 games played on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The world’s top club competition now takes a 18-day hiatus because of September’s international break, but this week’s tilts leaves us with plenty to think about. Here are five things we learned.
PSG are a resilient bunch
It’s a miracle that Maccabi Haifa even qualified for the tournament. Yet there they were on Wednesday, leading a team fronted by Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar on Tjaronn Chery’s 24th minute opener.
Earlier versions of Paris Saint-Germain’s all-planet squad may have self-destructed after going down a goal far from home against a minnow like that. Rather than sulk or point fingers, though, PSG got back to work. Messi equalized before halftime, his 126th career Champions League goal.
PSG’s two other headliners each tallied after the break en route to a comfortable 3-1 victory. They needed the win to stay atop Group H after Benfica shocked Juventus — which lost 2-1 in Pairs last week — in Turin (more on that below) to mirror PSG’s perfect start. More than that, it suggests that the apparent maturity of the club in Messi’s second season in France is no mirage.
It set up so perfectly for Erling Haaland. The runaway goal leader in the Premier League was facing Borussia Dortmund, his former team, for the first time since joining the English champs over the summer. The game was at home. The colossal Norwegian striker would be desperate to score against his old teammates.
Maybe too desperate. For most of the match, Haaland cut a frustrated figure. Those old teammates, it seemed, were the only ones who knew how to neutralize him. And when English midfielder Jude Bellingham gave Dortmund a 1-0 lead early in the second half, it looked as though the visitors might even have a chance of taking all three points.
An 80th minute equalizer from defender John Stones finally gave City an equalizer and some momentum. At that point, everybody inside the City of Manchester Stadium knew what would happen next. Sure enough, Haaland scored the winner in acrobatic fashion moments later.
Things looking up for Liverpool?
Last week’s embarrassing capitulation in Naples was the Reds worst loss of the Jurgen Klopp era. They had seven excruciating days to think about it, too, after the Premier League cancelled its full slate of games last weekend following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Needless to say, responding at Anfield against Ajax Tuesday was imperative. The home side got off to a good start when Mohamed Salah scored just 14 minutes in, only for the visitors to cancel it out shortly thereafter. The Reds pushed desperately in the second half, but still looked far from the cohesive, free-flowing attacking force of nature they’ve been in recent seasons. Still deadlocked in the 89th minute, Liverpool finally broke through, with central defender Joël Matip of all people converting the late winner.
It was a deserved and desperately needed win — the kind that could jumpstart not just the rest of the Champions League campaign for Klopp’s lot, but the Premier League season, too.
Trouble for Juventus, Tottenham
Maybe Juventus could be excused for losing their marquee Champions League opener last week in Paris, beaten almost single-footedly as they were by an undefendable Kylian Mbappe.
Wednesday was a different matter.
Playing at home against Benfica, Juventus took a 1-0 lead just four minutes in. The Portuguese side completely dominated after that, though, and they went into the locker room at halftime all square thanks to a João Mário penalty. In truth, the hosts were lucky they weren’t losing.
Their luck ran out in the second half. David Neres put the visitors ahead, and they never looked back. Two games in into their European campaign, Juve, which sits all the way back in eighth place in Serie A, is already in crisis.
Matters aren’t nearly as concerning for Tottenham. Still, any good vibes left over from Spurs late win over Marseille last week evaporated in Tuesday’s 2-0 loss at Sporting Lisbon. A second consecutive stiff road awaits Antonio Conte’s team when the competition resumes on Oct. 4, when Tottenham travels to Eintracht Frankfurt.
Barcelona has a ways to go
The addition of star striker Robert Lewandowski over the summer has been transformative for Barcelona in the post-Lionel Messi era at the Camp Nou. But the presence of Lewandowski and fellow new signings Marcos Alonso and Andreas Christensen wasn’t close to enough on Tuesday, when Barca traveled to Germany to take on Bayern Munich — Lewandowski’s old team — and were outclassed in a 2-0 loss.
The takeaway is obvious. While there’s no question that Barcelona has improved (Bayern beat Barcelona twice in last season’s group stage by a combined score of 6-0), the six-time European champs are still realistically a year or two away, at least, from being a legit title contender again.
Still, after failing to make it out of group play last year, they don’t need to be. Not yet. Merely surviving a group that also includes a third continental heavyweight (Inter Milan) would be another indication of progress.
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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