The 2023-24 Champions League group stage is underway, and matchday three is all wrapped up, with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Barcelona the only teams to maintain a 100% record. After a thrilling round of games, we asked our writers Gab Marcotti, Rob Dawson and Julien Laurens to answer some of our burning questions.
1. Midway through the group stage, let’s reassess: which team is your favorite to go all the way based on the first three games, and which is in danger of being knocked out?
Julien Laurens: We have four teams with a perfect three wins from three games so far: Manchester City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona. None of them have been really impressive and all could (should) have dropped points, including City (away at RB Leipzig). However, the holders are still favorites to win it again and seal back-to-back titles.
Even when star striker Erling Haaland goes through a mini-drought (five games without a goal), City still find a way to score and to win. And when you consider that midfielder Kevin De Bruyne has not even played yet this season because of injury, it becomes even scarier. The team will face obstacles and taking on the likes of Real Madrid, PSG or Bayern won’t be easy, but right now they are still way above everyone else.
On the other hand, I fear for Manchester United. Even if their miraculous win against FC Copenhagen eased some pressure, they are a long way off the level they should be. But at least they have three points more than Benfica (who have zero!) — the Portuguese giants have been poor this season and could go from quarterfinalists one year to out in the group stage the next.
Gab Marcotti: I don’t think any team has been really impressive through three games, and that’s fine. European football is so imbalanced that it’s really about the big boys qualifying, ideally in top spot. It doesn’t matter if you’re good in the autumn, it matters that you get through and then get better in the spring. That said, three teams, all of whom are nowhere near their ceiling, stand out for me.
Barcelona, because of their very long injury list and the way the kids are emerging; Manchester City, because I don’t feel Pep Guardiola quite has the balance right and De Bruyne is still out; and Paris Saint-Germain, because I feel they’re still coming to terms with new boss Luis Enrique. The biggest surprise for me are Benfica. It’s a tricky group (Inter Milan, FC Salzburg, Real Sociedad), but you still wouldn’t have imagined them to be on zero points with zero goals. Manchester United, obviously, have been all over the place, too.
Rob Dawson: Manchester City still deserve to be favourites, in part, because of what they achieved last year. But Bayern also look well set as they cruise through another group stage. They could probably do with signing a holding midfielder in January, but they’ve still got quality players all over the pitch, especially up front. They’ll score goals against anyone.
Manchester United got their first points against FC Copenhagen on Tuesday but they still look vulnerable in Group A. They need at least six points from games against Copenhagen (away), Galatasaray (away) and Bayern (home) — a tough task for a team that are not playing well.
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2. What is your favorite goal from the group stage so far?
JL: It’s a tough call because there are many contenders, but I am going to go for Elye Wahi‘s goal for Lens against PSV in matchday three on Tuesday. It was an amazing piece of skill from the 20-year-old striker. There was the technical quality: a ninja-like volley with the outside of his right foot at full pace. And the context: for the third game in a row, Lens went behind and for the third game in a row they came back. They are still unbeaten and, with five points so far, can still dream of qualifying.
GM: Ivan Provedel‘s injury-time equalizer for Lazio against Atletico Madrid. I love it when goalkeepers go up into the opposition box and score. In his case, it wasn’t one of those clumsy, uncoordinated finishes either, he looked like a centre-forward as he glanced a header home. More importantly, it rescued Lazio, which had been poor in that game and could prove crucial to settling the group.
RD: Rasmus Hojlund’s second goal for Manchester United against Galatasaray on matchday two. It came from a Galatasaray mistake, but he still had to race away from the halfway line and then hold his nerve to dink his finish over the goalkeeper. At only 20 years old, there’s a lot of pressure on Hojlund to score goals after United brought him in from Atalanta in a £72m deal over the summer. That moment against Galatasaray felt like a big one in terms of how quickly he can find his feet at Old Trafford. He’s yet to score in the Premier League, but three goals in three Champions League games is a good return for such a young player.
3. Andre Onana made the first penalty save in UCL by a United keeper since David de Gea in 2015. Is this a one-off performance or do you think it will spark a turnaround for United and Onana?
JL: Onana’s save will be a big personal turning point in a difficult season so far for the goalkeeper. He has lacked confidence and will be boosted by his decisive last-gasp stop against Copenhagen’s Jordan Larsson. However, from a United point of view, there is still so much work to do as a team. Their performance against the Danes was so poor, collectively and individually, and they were lucky to win the game 1-0. It will take more than a late penalty save to improve the team and to get them to play better. But at least they are winning despite playing badly.
GM: I’m not sure. Obviously it’s great to have an extra two points in the table, and United have the luxury of hosting Bayern in matchday six — by that point coach Thomas Tuchel will have qualified and will likely send out the second XI. But it will still come down to the head-to-head record against Galatasaray and how they fare against Copenhagen away. Yeah, if they play to the level of their wage bill, will be fine. But they haven’t.
RD: Onana hasn’t turned into a bad goalkeeper overnight. While he’s made some individual errors, the bigger problem is the team he’s playing in is struggling. United have won three games in a row, but all three victories have come thanks to special moments of individual skill. They needed two stoppage-time goals from Scott McTominay to beat Brentford, a 30-yard stunner from Diogo Dalot to beat Sheffield United, then a rare Harry Maguire goal plus Onana’a late penalty save to beat FC Copenhagen. Those moments are great for fans, but relying on random flashes of brilliance to win games isn’t sustainable.