Champions League matchday 1: Man United underdogs at PSG; can Liverpool cope without Van Dijk?

The Champions League is back, and back with a bang, after the draw for the 2020-21 group stage concluded on Oct. 1 in Geneva. The top line? A head-to-head between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as Juventus and Barcelona were paired together in Group G, in a game that could also see fans inside the stadium after UEFA confirmed grounds can be up to 30% full for fixtures if local regulations permit.

The standout pairing of the group stage also boasts an American subplot, with U.S. teammates Weston McKennie and Sergino Dest facing off against each other.

With Italian champions Juve and La Liga runners-up Barcelona having not met competitively since November 2017, the Group G clashes will see Ronaldo and Messi renew their on-field rivalry for the first time since the Portuguese forward left Real Madrid for Juventus in 2018.

Ronaldo and Messi have played against each on 33 occasions in competitive club games, and Barcelona’s Messi has so far come out on top 15 times, with Ronaldo winning on nine occasions at past clubs Real and Manchester United. The two men have dominated the Champions League, with Ronaldo winning five European Cups — two more than Messi. Ronaldo also tops the all-time scoring charts with 130, 15 more than Messi, his closest rival.

So with the group stages starting with Matchday 1 on Oct. 20-21, ESPN brings you a game-by-game preview of the round including a big clash between Paris Saint-Germain and Man United (Group H), another intriguing battle between Bayern Munich vs. Atletico Madrid (Group A, Wednesday) and a test for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea at home to Sevilla (Group E, Tuesday). Also, how will Liverpool fare without Virgil van Dijk for the tricky trip to Ajax (Group D, Wednesday)?

Editor’s note: This has been updated since the group stage draw concluded on Oct. 1 in Geneva. Expanded group stage analysis of Matchday 1 is by Tom Hamilton.

GROUP A: Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, RB Salzburg, Lokomotiv Moscow

Bayern Munich vs. Atletico Madrid (Wednesday): Reigning champions Bayern Munich head into their opening group game off the back of a commanding 4-1 win at Arminia Bielefeld on Saturday. Robert Lewandowski is off to a fine start with seven goals in the Bundesliga already, while Thomas Muller is also playing well. For Atletico, they won 2-0 at Celta Vigo on Saturday, with new signing Luis Suarez and Yannick Carrasco scoring.

Last year’s Champions League quarterfinalists will have lofty ambitions for this season; they also boast the knowledge and drive to be a bump in the road for Bayern. Still, expect a home win.

RB Salzburg vs. Lokomotiv Moscow (Wednesday): Salzburg are four wins from four games in the Austrian Bundesliga and won 3-0 at St. Polten in the Austrian Cup on Saturday. Patson Daka is in prolific form, while Sekou Keita and Dominik Szoboszlai are ticking along. Lokomotiv Moscow — without their brilliant forward Aleksey Miranchuk — are third in the Russian Premier League with six wins, three draws and two defeats from their 11 matches, but head to Austria off the back of a 1-0 win over FC Ufa on Saturday thanks to Grzegorz Krychowiak;s second-half strike. It should be business as usual for the Austrians, though.

Key players in the group: Striker Luis Suarez has three goals in four games for Atletico and will be keen to show his old side Barcelona what they’re missing in the Champions League. He won the 2015 Champions League in his time at Barca, and will hoping to add another. Patson Daka has stepped into Erling Haaland’s large shoes at Salzburg and has mirrored his prolific form in front of goal. He has 11 in eight games for the Austrian champions and will look to continue that on Wednesday.

GROUP B: Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan, Borussia Monchengladbach

Real Madrid vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (Wednesday): The La Liga champions suffered a shock 1-0 defeat at home to Cadiz on Saturday, with Luka Jovic seeing a goal ruled out and Karim Benzema hitting the bar. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has since labelled it a “wake-up call” in what was Zinedine Zidane’s team’s first defeat this season. They have issues at right-back with both Alvaro Odriozola and Dani Carvajal both injured, while Eden Hazard and Martin Odegaard are both sidelined. Sergio Ramos is also unlikely to feature, with Zidane likely to give him time to heal from an injury ahead of next weekend’s El Clasico.

For Shakhtar, they will head to Madrid with plenty of confidence having smashed Lviv 5-1 on Saturday, with Viktor Kovalenko grabbing a brace. They are undefeated in the Ukrainian Premier League, with three wins and three draws from their six matches. If they’re going to shock the Spanish giants, this week is the perfect time to strike.

Inter Milan vs. Borussia Monchengladbach (Wednesday): Antonio Conte’s Inter will be smarting from their 2-1 defeat in the Milan derby on Saturday as Zlatan Ibrahimovic rolled back the years to take bragging rights. They are sixth in Serie A with two wins from four, but have Romelu Lukaku in prolific form with four goals so far. But they have brought in plenty of Champions League experience in the close season with Arturo Vidal, Achraf Hakimi and Aleksandar Kolarov all joining.

Gladbach were poor by their high standards against Wolfsburg on Saturday, drawing 1-1. They’ve made a slow start to the season, with one win from their opening four in the Bundesliga, but will look to the likes of Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo to cause Inter some difficulties. That said, you’d expect Conte & Co. to emerge victorious.

Key players in the group: With the talismanic Sergio Ramos injured, Real need some inspiration, and that’ll come in Karim Benzema. Real have struggled to score goals this season (six in five) so it’s up to him to get them off to a winning start against Shakhtar. Inter’s Lautaro Martinez was on a number of club’s wish lists over the summer, including Barcelona’s, but the outstanding Argentina striker will hope to cause some havoc alongside Lukaku on Wednesday.

GROUP C: FC Porto, Manchester City, Olympiakos, Marseille

Manchester City vs. FC Porto (Wednesday): Having endured a wild start to the season, it was business as usual for Pep Guardiola’s City at home against Arsenal on Saturday as they won 1-0 via Raheem Sterling’s first-half goal. With Sergio Aguero back fit and a new-look defence starting to build rapport around Ruben Dias, Wednesday’s match will be an acid test of where Guardiola’s team are. Porto drew 2-2 with their fierce rivals Sporting on Saturday, but have the brilliant Jesus Manuel Corona in fine form but will be adjusting to life without Manchester United-bound Alex Telles. Expect a comfortable home win.

Olympiakos vs. Marseille (Wednesday): Olympiakos have three wins from four games in the Super League Greece, and crushed Atromitos 4-0 at the weekend with Youssef El-Arabi scoring a hat trick. Andre Villas-Boas’ Marseille won 3-1 against Bordeaux on Saturday with Florian Thauvin, Jordan Amavi and an own goal bringing up their third win from seven in Ligue 1 this season. The French side should travel well and be canny enough to take all three points.

Key players in the group: Kevin De Bruyne is out injured for Manchester City, so they’ll need Phil Foden to pull the strings against Porto. He’s had an eventful start to the 2020-21 campaign, but is stepping nicely into David Silva’s sizeable shoes. Florian Thauvin is the creator extraordinaire for Marseille, but is also chipping in with goals. Having missed last season through injury, he’ll be keen to make up for lost time in the group stages.

GROUP D: Liverpool, Ajax, Atalanta BC, FC Midtjylland

Ajax vs. Liverpool (Wednesday): Ajax reached the Champions League semifinals two seasons back, but lost Sergino Dest, Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek over the summer. Not to worry; they still have enough firepower and nous to back themselves to upset Jurgen Klopp’s men. The evergreen Dusan Tadic scored twice in their 5-1 win over Heerenveen at the weekend and have their new signings Antony and Mohammed Kudus in fine form.

Liverpool have had a turbulent start to the season and head to Ajax without star defender Virgil Van Dijk, who is out for a lengthy spell, as well as Naby Keita, Alisson and Thiago. This will be a real test of Klopp’s juggling skills, but they know what it takes to win this competition and can handle the adversity. This is the first time in 54 years these two have met in a competitive match, with Ajax beating Liverpool 5-1 back in 1966. We suspect a scoring draw for these two.

FC Midtjylland vs. Atalanta (Wednesday): The Danish champions left it late to qualify against Slavia Prague, but will look to take Saturday’s 3-1 win over OB into Tuesday’s clash at the MCH Arena. Their outstanding winger Pione Sisto scored at the weekend and will be one to watch. Atalanta are arguably Europe’s most attractive team to watch, but were hammered 4-1 at Napoli at the weekend. They reached the quarterfinals of the competition last season and will be hopeful of at least equalling that feat, but will need to find winning ways again on the road in Denmark. It shouldn’t be an issue for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side.

Key players in the group: With Liverpool without a number of key men for their trip to Amsterdam, Jordan Henderson will be key to bringing a steady presence to their midfield. Their wingers are on fire still, but without the calming presence of Van Dijk at the back, Henderson will be key. Atalanta did well to keep Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez over the summer, and the mesmeric Argentina forward will hope to continue his impressive goal-scoring run with four in four so far this season.

GROUP E: Sevilla, Chelsea, Krasnodar, Rennes

Chelsea vs. Sevilla (Tuesday): Chelsea will still be fuming at having succumbed to a late 3-3 draw against Southampton on Saturday, but will take heart from Timo Werner and Kai Havertz both impressing. They are also getting a number of their injured contingent back, with Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech both featuring on Saturday, but know they need to open their campaign with a victory over the much-admired Europa League holders.

Sevilla suffered a 1-0 defeat at Granada on Saturday, and saw midfielder Joan Jordan red-carded. But Julen Lopetegui’s team know what it takes to knock over Premier League sides, having dispatched Manchester United and Wolves in the Europa League last term. Expect the Blues to shade it by a single goal. Maybe.

Rennes vs. Krasnodar (Tuesday): Rennes are the second-lowest-ranked team in the competition, though Julien Stephan’s side will not be light touches. They bolstered their team with Daniele Rugani on loan over the summer, have some edge-of-your-seat young players in the team like Jeremy Doku and are unbeaten in Ligue 1 this term with four wins and three draws from seven. Krasnodar won 3-1 at home to Rubin Kazan on Saturday, with Remy Cabella, Kristoffer Olsson and Marcus Berg all scoring, but it’s been a slow start to the campaign with five wins from 11. We’re picking the Ligue 1 hosts to dazzle.

Key players in the group: Chelsea’s big-money signing Timo Werner scored his first two goals for his new side at the weekend, and is starting to show the same form as he produced regularly for Leipzig in the Bundesliga. Once the side clicks and works on the Werner wavelength, expect the goals to flow. Rennes’ 17-year-old Eduardo Camavinga is arguably the most exciting young midfielder in Europe. Now a fully capped France international, expect him to shine on the Champions League stage.

GROUP F: Zenit St. Petersburg, Borussia Dortmund, Lazio, Club Brugge

Zenit St Petersburg vs. Club Brugge (Tuesday): Zenit are top of the Russian Premier League and beat PFC Sochi 3-1 at the weekend, with Vyacheslav Karavayev, Aleksandr Yerokhin and Douglas Santos all scoring. Artem Dzyuba and Sardar Azmoun have both been in impressive form this season and will look to cause all sorts of havoc against Brugge. For Club Brugge, they drew 1-1 at Standard Liege on Saturday, with the hosts equalising late, but they are at the top of the Belgian Pro League with six wins from nine and an impressive defence, conceding six goals in the league. The hosts should stroll to victory.

Lazio vs. Borussia Dortmund (Tuesday): Lazio have been mediocre this season with one win from four, and lost 3-0 at Sampdoria on Saturday. They did well to keep star midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic over the summer and have the ruthless Ciro Immobile up front looking to continue his impressive goal-scoring form. Dortmund, meanwhile, have some of the best young forwards in the world with Erling Haaland, Gio Reyna and Jadon Sancho looking to make a dent in Lazio’s back line but have issues in defence with Manuel Akanji, Nico Schulz and Marcel Schmelzer all likely to be absent. They won 1-0 at Hoffenheim at the weekend thanks to Marco Reus’ goal and are third in the Bundesliga with three from four. This might be a high-scoring affair that ends with honors shared, though Dortmund have the attacking power — and the motivation — to take all three points.

Key players in the group: Erling Haaland is ruthless. The young Norwegian striker has an astonishing record of 21 in 24 for Borussia after joining in January, and looks hungry for more. Having made a brilliant impact in the Champions League last term, Haaland will look to continue that this season. The best of the Premier League and La Liga are forever being linked with Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, but Lazio have their talismanic box-to-box midfielder still at the fulcrum of their team. He is an all-court midfielder and will inevitably contribute to everything Lazio do well in the group stages.

GROUP G: Juventus, Barcelona, Dynamo Kiev, Ferencvaros

Dynamo Kiev vs Juventus (Tuesday): Dynamo Kiev reached their Champions League peak back in 1999 at the semifinals, but are on course to returning to those heights under the evergreen Mircea Lucescu. They dispatched AZ and Gent in the qualifiers and are riding high in the Ukrainian Premier League with four wins and two draws from six.

Juventus are without Cristiano Ronaldo and Weston McKennie because of COVID-19 for the trip to Ukraine, and head into their Champions League opener after a poor 1-1 draw at Crotone at the weekend. But they have the outstanding young Dejan Kulusevski at their disposal, and Federico Chiesa will hope to bounce back from his red card at the weekend. The Italians should cruise to an emphatic win even with Andrea Pirlo’s coaching philosophy still to take root.

Barcelona vs Ferencvaros (Tuesday): Barcelona slumped to a surprise 1-0 defeat to Getafe on Saturday and are still adjusting to life under new boss Ronald Koeman. But with Messi the star act and his glittering supporting cast, Barcelona will forever have eyes on the last stages of this tournament. They will be without Jordi Alba for Tuesday’s game so Sergino Dest may continue at left-back while the brilliant Marc-Andre ter Stegen continues his recovery from a knee injury. They will still have last season’s heavy 8-2 quarterfinal defeat to Bayern Munich fresh in the mind, but can look to this new era under Koeman as a fresh start and a chance to take the La Liga giants back to where they belong.

Hungary’s Ferencvaros are the lowest-ranked team in the competition but are unbeaten in the Nemzeti Bajnoksag I and have ex-Tottenham striker Serhiy Rebrov at the helm. Keep an eye on the two wingers, Tokmac Chol Nguen and Oleksandr Zubkov, though we still think Barca will rebound with an attention-grabbing win.

Key players in the group: With Cristiano Ronaldo absent after to a positive COVID-19 test while on international duty, Juventus boss Andrea Pirlo must get the best out of Paulo Dybala in Kiev on Tuesday. They were poor at the weekend and badly lack Ronaldo’s goal-scoring touch, and though Dybala was bizarrely an unused substitute on Saturday, he needs to be in the XI for Kiev. While all the focus, understandably, was on whether Barcelona can keep hold of Messi over the summer, their next best bit of business was securing Ansu Fati on a long-term contract. It’s scary to think he’s still just 17, but the young Spanish winger is tearing up La Liga with three goals in four and assist to boot.

GROUP H: Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, RB Leipzig, Istanbul Basaksehir

PSG vs. Manchester United (Tuesday): Thomas Tuchel’s PSG will hope to clear the final hurdle this season after being losing finalists in 2020. They have five wins from seven games in Ligue 1, but still sit at the top of the table with Kylian Mbappe already having four goals to his name. They have an embarrassment of riches with Neymar and Angel di Maria good to go, but have a number of players out on the sideline with Juan Bernat, Thilo Kehrer, Marquinhos, Marco Verratti, Mauro Icardi and Julian Draxler all doubts.

United remain unpredictable under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but will take heart from their 4-1 win at Newcastle on Saturday, in which Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes were both magnificent. Anthony Martial will be available again, while Donny van de Beek might be in line for a rare start after impressing from the bench last weekend. But this tournament gives Solskjaer an opportunity to prove again why he was given the job on a full-time basis, as he returns to PSG for the first time after they won the 2019 round-of-16 clash, the result that got him the permanent gig. We still reckon PSG will put a big win on the board Tuesday.

RB Leipzig vs. Istanbul Basaksehir (Tuesday): Leipzig are embarking on the post-Werner era in the manner you’d expect from a Julian Nagelsmann side: resilient, well-organised, plenty of pace and a tonne of chances. They are top of the Bundesliga after four games, with three wins and a draw and their players are already hitting top form. Yussuf Poulsen scored a magnificent goal at the weekend in their 2-0 win at Augsburg, while Dani Olmo and Marcel Sabitzer are as important as ever.

Istanbul Basaksehir have had a dismal start to the 2020-21 campaign, sitting in 18th with one win from five; their sole triumph came at Trabzonspor on Saturday with Irfan Kahveci and Edin Visca both scoring. Given Okan Buruk’s side won the league last term, they will be frustrated with their poor start and will target Tuesday’s game to get their season back on track. Leipzig should run out comfortable winners.

Key players in the group: Neymar has the opportunity to light up this season’s Champions League. He is a magnificent player, and we are seeing him playing with the sort of intensity and creativity that led PSG to pay £200m for him back in 2017. Marcel Sabitzer is the heartbeat of the Leipzig side. With Werner gone, Sabitzer will be charged with helping fill the goals void, but with Olmo, Hwang Hee-Chan, Poulsen and Emil Forsberg all brilliant lieutenants, Leipzig will hope to emulate last season’s charge to the semifinals.

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