Champions League Takeaways: As young stars shine, so does Robert Lewandowski

Barcelona's Robert Lewandowski celebrates after scoring his side's fourth goal during a Group C Champions League soccer match between FC Barcelona and Viktoria Plzen. (Joan Monfort/AP)

The group stage of the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League kicked off this week, as 32 teams across Europe began their pursuit of club soccer’s most prestigious trophy. 

There were plenty of talking points from Matchday 1, including PSG’s Kylian Mbappé scoring a magical brace vs. Juventus, Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard registering his first Champions League goal since 2020, and Glasgow giants Celtic and Rangers suffering heavy losses. 

Here’s what else stood out from this week’s first round of matches.  

Barca’s Robert Lewandowski torches Viktoria Plzeň

A pair of 20-somethings in Erling Haaland and Mbappé dominated the headlines on Tuesday after both bagged braces in their teams’ respective victories. But it was 34-year-old Robert Lewandowski who ended up being the MVP of Matchday 1, as he scored three times in Barcelona’s 5-1 win over Czech club Viktoria Plzeň on Wednesday in Group C. 

In doing so, the Polish striker became the first player in Champions League history to score a hat trick for three different teams: Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. It was also Lewandowski’s sixth career hat trick in the tournament, putting him two behind all-time co-leaders Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Viktoria Plzeň didn’t know what hit them after Lewandowski scored three consecutive goals to seal the win for the Spaniards. He gave Barca a 2-0 lead in the 34th with a shot into the far corner from inside the penalty area, and then added a second in first-half stoppage time via a header off a cross from Ousmane Dembélé. He completed his hat trick with a low shot from outside the 18-yard box in the 67th minute. 

Lewandowski’s 50-million-euro transfer move from Bayern Munich to Barcelona over the summer has proven fruitful for the blaugrana, as he has scored eight goals in his first five matches in all competitions.   

Napoli blitzes Liverpool at home

Andrew Medichini/AP

Liverpool looked torn and frayed as the final whistle blew at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on Wednesday night. The Reds had just suffered a humiliating 4-1 loss to Napoli in Group A, and the damage could have been much worse if not for some wastefulness in front of goal by the hosts. 

If Liverpool thought they were going to stroll to first place in a group that also includes Ajax and Rangers, then they have another thing coming. Thoroughly outplayed and outclassed on the night by a fervent Napoli side, the Reds looked nothing like the team that reached last year’s Champions League final. 

Piotr Zielinski converted from the penalty spot in the fifth minute and two more beautifully worked goals from Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Giovanni Simeone gave Napoli a commanding lead going into halftime. Zielinski added a fourth just after the break, before Luis Diaz replied for Liverpool. 

Although they didn’t score, striker Victor Osimhen and Georgian Kvaratskhelia were outstanding as part of a relentless Napoli attack that ripped Liverpool’s back line to shreds, badly exposing centre backs Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez.  

Canada’s Stephen Eustáquio makes his tournament debut

Bernat Armangue/AP

Canadian midfielder Stephen Eustáquio earned his first taste of Champions League action on Wednesday for FC Porto. Even though the Portuguese club lost 2-1 to Atletico Madrid in Group B, Eustáquio distinguished himself with a solid performance in his tournament debut. 

Eustáquio, a 25-year-old native of Leamington, Ont., went the distance and played the full 90 minutes, leading all Porto players in touches (69), and was tied for second in completed passes (47). He also boasted an impressive 82 per cent pass completion rate. 

The Canadian nearly marked the occasion by scoring on a 25-yard screamer, only to see Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak make a fabulous diving save. Eustáquio also contributed on the defensive end by making three tackles and three clearances, and blocking one shot. 

With 24 caps to his credit, Eustáquio has become a key member of the Canadian national team since making his international debut in 2019, and he played a starring role in the Reds’ recent World Cup qualifying campaign. Playing in the Champions League is a big step up for him, especially in a World Cup year. But if Wednesday was anything to go by, he can hold his own against the best in European club soccer, which bodes well for Canada when it travels to Qatar to compete in the World Cup in November. 

Also on Wednesday, Edmonton native Alphonso Davies started at fullback in Bayern Munich’s 2-0 road win over Inter Milan, while striker Cyle Larin was among the unused substitutes in Club Brugge’s 1-0 victory against Bayer Leverkusen. Canadian winger Tajon Buchanan, who is out injured, did not dress for Brugge. 

Erling Haaland continues to go on an absolute tear

Jose Breton/AP

Is there any stopping Haaland? That’s the question that Manchester City’s future opponents must be asking themselves after the Norwegian international bagged a brace in the English champions’ 4-0 destruction of Sevilla in Spain on Tuesday in Group G. 

Haaland’s game has always been defined by his ability to be in the right place at the right time and that certainly was the case in Spain. He was perfectly positioned to convert a cross from Kevin De Bruyne in the 21st minute, and then tapped in a rebound from close range in the 67th 

Haaland has been on fire this year since his summer move from the Bundesliga, scoring 10 goals in Man City’s first six games of the Premier League campaign. His double against Sevilla means he has 25 goals in 20 career Champions League games, and he has now scored for three different teams in the competition: Red Bull Salzburg, Borussia Dortmund and Man City. 

To put the Norwegian’s prolific run into perspective, consider this: Cristiano Ronaldo didn't score at all in his first 20 Champions League games, and he is now the competition’s all-time top scorer with 140 goals. 

Haaland is the first Manchester City player to score in both his Premier League and Champions League debuts for the club. He is also the fourth player in Champions League history to score in his first appearance for three different teams, joining Fernando Morientes, Javier Saviola and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

Chelsea fires manager Thomas Tuchel after loss in Croatia

Darko Bandic/AP

Less than 24 hours after Chelsea’s shocking 1-0 road loss to Dinamo Zagreb in Group E on Tuesday, manager Thomas Tuchel was fired, bringing his tumultuous reign at the London club to an end after only 100 matches. 

Tuchel guided Chelsea to a Champions League title, as well as UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup crowns. But the German reportedly fell out of favour with the club’s new American ownership group, which recently took over. 

Fronted by Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly, Chelsea’s ownership spent nearly $300 million US in the summer transfer window, bringing in such big names as Raheem Sterling, Kalidou Koulibaly and Marc Cucurella. But the club’s newcomers have failed to make an impact, and the Blues currently sit sixth in the Premier League table after six games. 

Tuesday’s loss in Croatia to modest Dinamo Zagreb appeared to be the last straw. The two-time European champions dominated the match but suffered from a lack of finishing. Tuchel didn’t hold back when asked to evaluate his team’s performance after the game, saying: “We are clearly not where we need to be, or where we can be.” 

Also losing his job on Wednesday was Domenico Tedesco, who was fired as RB Leipzig’s the day after a 4-1 home loss to Shakhtar Donetsk in Group F play. 

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.

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