The first round of the 2021-22 UEFA Champions League is going down to the wire.
Only 11 of 16 spots in the round of 16 have been claimed, with such notable teams as FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid teetering on the brink of elimination, which means there will be plenty to play for during next month’s final round of the group stage.
Here are some of the highlights from this week’s Matchday 5.
DAVID, DAVIES DOMINATE
Jonathan David continues to be one of the hottest goal-scorers in European club soccer at the moment. The 21-year-old from Ottawa netted his second career Champions League goal on Tuesday, lifting Lille OSC to an important 1-0 home win over FC Salzburg. In doing so, David became just the second member of the Canadian men’s team to score multiple goals in a single UEFA Champions League season – Tomasz Radzinski scored five times for Anderlecht in 2000-2001. In total, David has bagged 12 goals in 20 games across all competitions for Lille this campaign.
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Not to be outdone, Alphonso Davies was named man of the match in Bayern Munich’s 2-1 road win against Dynamo Kiev on Tuesday. The Edmonton native didn’t score, but he put in a brilliant performance at both ends of the pitch, completing 85 per cent of his passes, registering two key passes, and making a pair of defensive interceptions. He never stopped running in 90 minutes of action, consistently serving as an offensive outlet as Bayern pressed forward in attack.
RONALDO RESCUES UNITED AGAIN
Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t wear a cape, but there’s no question he is a superhero in the eyes of Manchester United fans after the way he’s continually come to the team’s rescue.
Held goalless through the first 78 minutes away to Villareal on Tuesday, the Red Devils looked destined to earn a disappointing draw. But then Ronaldo stepped up and broke the deadlock with a fantastic piece of improvisation, adjusting his feet before chipping goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli from just inside the penalty area to give United the lead. Jordan Sancho went on to add a second for the English club who advanced to the next round with a game to spare.
But make no mistake, it was Ronaldo’s goal that turned the tide in the game, and was another example of how he’s come through in the clutch for United in this season’s Champions League. Tuesday marked his fifth goal of the group stage (and 140th overall in the competition), and it was the third time this season that he scored the winner in the last 15 minutes of a Champions League match.
Not enough people are talking about Ajax, which is a shame because the Dutch club’s run through the group stage of this season’s Champions League has been remarkable.
The four-time European champions have breezed through the competition thus far with a perfect 5-0 record, outsourcing the opposition 16-3 along the way. Their latest win came in Wednesday’s 2-1 decision away to Besiktas, courtesy of a second-half brace from Sebastien Haller.
Haller scored both goals after entering the game as a substitute, and has now scored in his first five career Champions League games. With nine goals in total, the unheralded Frenchman ranks as the top scorer in this season’s competition, ahead of more notable stars such as Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah and Cristiano Ronaldo. Not bad for a player who never played in the Champions League prior to this year.
BIG CLUBS ADVANCE
The parade of top European clubs moving on in the Champions League continued on Wednesday with Manchester City, Paris-Saint Germain, Inter Milan and Real Madrid all booking their respective spots in the round-of-16.
Man City earned a 2-1 home decision over PSG, avenging a road loss it suffered at the hands of the French club back in September. Likewise, Real Madrid showed FC Sherrif no mercy in rolling to a comfortable 3-0 win, earning some payback for an embarrassing 2-1 loss it suffered at the hands of the modest Moldovans at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Despite the loss in England, PSG also advanced.
Inter Milan bested Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0, a result that coupled with Real Madrid’s win ensured the Italians moved on from Group G and earned a round-of-16 berth for the first time in a decade.
WHAT NOW FOR ERLING HAALAND?
Borussia Dortmund’s 3-1 road loss to Sporting Lisbon on Wednesday resulted in its elimination from the Champions League with one game remaining in the group stage.
The Germans giants will now move over to the Europa League, UEFA’S secondary club competition, but you can’t help but wonder what their premature exit from the Champions League means for Erling Haaland’s future at the club.
The 21-year-old Norwegian is one of the hottest prospects and most lethal goal scorers in European soccer at the moment. Several of the continent’s top clubs have been sniffing around him for some time and are anxious to lure him away.
His participation in this season’s Champions League means he’s capped tied, and ineligible to play for another team in the competition this season. But that won’t stop his suitors from trying to make a move for him during January’s transfer window.
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of 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. To check out TFC Republic, click here.