Thursday, December 7, 2023

Champions League takeaways: Man United’s defense a horror show; Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham more than elite

It was quite a day of Champions League action as a few teams may already be in trouble regarding their advancement to the knockout stages or even Europa League, depending on how things shake out. Chief among them are Manchester United, who find themselves down to the bare bones in defense and saw Casemiro sent off during a 3-2 loss to Galatasaray at Old Trafford. Already in 10th place in the Premier League through seven matches and losers of three of their last five matches in all competitions, at what point does Erik ten Hag’s seat get hot? Braga also made a case for being one of the most entertaining teams in the world, while Real Sociedad continued their strong run, and Real Madrid maintained their dominant status. Arsenal have injury issues to deal with after Bukayo Saka left their loss to Lens with a non-contact injury.

Here are takeaways from the first part of Matchday 2:

United’s defense can’t compete for honors

The memory from United’s match against Galatasaray should have been that it was a coming out party for Danish striker Rasmus Hojulund, who showed everything that justified why United coveted him. He made things happen with his size and quick movements, scoring a brace and almost had a third goal but was judged to be offside.

Instead, it was a lack of depth in defense that sank the Red Devils in the match. Even before Casemiro’s red card, the team was allowing Galatasaray too many chances, as Wilfred Zaha took advantage of a mistake by both the defense and Andre Onana to score a goal in the 23rd minute.

But with Sofyan Amrabat, who was purchased to stabilize the midfield, playing at left back, how can the Red Devils stop attacks down the flanks? Losing Sergio Reguilon, Luke Shaw, and Tyrell Malacia to injury wasn’t anticipated, but playing a midfielder new to the system in an unfamiliar position felt like a situation where things went from bad to worse. United allowed Galatasaray to take 15 shots in front of their home support and even Mauro Icardi missing a crucial penalty didn’t matter. The fear factor of facing United is gone and ten Hag has a long road to restore it but if these poor performances continue, he may not even have a chance.

No Saka will sink Arsenal

Mikel Arteta may have done his best to downplay Saka’s injury versus Lens but if he misses significant time, it’s quite a concern for the Gunners.

“He tried to backheel a ball in the first half. He felt something. It was muscular,” is what Arteta had to say about the injury after the game. “He was uncomfortable and we had to take him off. We don’t know anything more than that. It was big enough not to allow him to play the rest of the game and that is a worry for us.”

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With an assist in the match and six goal contributions so far this season in Premier League play, Saka is someone who would’ve been critical to Arsenal’s upcoming match versus Manchester City on Sunday. Gabriel Martinelli is also injured, missing this loss against Lens and Arteta has a shortage of attacking players to choose from. This is a squad where everything has to be perfect for them to truly contend and expectations are just as high this season. He’ll need one of the squad players to step up in order to make that happen, at least in the short term.

Real Madrid are still kings

When facing Real Madrid in Champions League, there is no lead that feels safe as Los Blancos will always find a way. Down defenders and a starting goalkeeper? No problem. Can’t keep a defensive shape? Doesn’t matter, they’ve got Jude Bellingham on their side. Bellingham’s numbers are becoming quite ridiculous at this stage as with another goal and an assist, he has 11 goal contributions in only nine games which is an astonishing number. Signed to add an attacking force to Madrid’s midfield, Bellingham has added Karim Benzema-level production to the side. At only 20 years of age, he’s finishing chances and lifting the team like a seasoned veteran while ensuring that he is treated like one of the top midfielders in the world.

If Los Blancos are able to get healthy, there’s no reason why they can’t be Champions League contenders again despite not having a true striker. The midfield is among the best in the world and that allows Carlo Ancelloti to do things like playing Eduardo Camavinga at left back when needed. It’s a luxury that most teams don’t have which Real Madrid use to their advantage in this competition. 

Up and coming competition

If not for an own goal against Napoli, Braga would currently be second in group C as this team is one of the most fun sides in the entire competition. Not afraid to shoot from anywhere and able to defend just well enough to get by, Braga should at least grab a Europa League spot in their tough group with Madrid and Napoli. But if one of those teams slips up, look out. Being behind 2-0 to Champions League newcomers Union Berlin, Braga were able to score three unanswered goals to win the match. Another team quietly off to a good start is Real Sociedad.

Without Takefusa Kubo scoring in the match, the Spanish side got out to a 2-0 lead in the first half and the defense did the rest. On a day that saw defenses allowing plenty of teams to get back into ties, that alone is worth a shoutout as Sociedad are proving that they can hold their own with the best teams in the world. Positioned well to make the knockout stage, even if they draw the remainder of their games, it’s all that you can ask for. 

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