Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann failed to spark Barcelona into life against Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday. The Blaugrana drew 0-0 in Germany, with the big names up front quiet, even after Lionel Messi made his long-awaited return from a calf injury as a 59th-minute substitute.
Dortmund would surely have punished Barcelona’s profligacy had Marco Reus found his radar in front of goal. Instead, the forward saw his penalty saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen and fluffed his lines on several other occasions.
Elsewhere, Liverpool began the defence of the trophy with a 2-0 defeat away to Napoli in Group E on Tuesday. Andy Robertson conceded a penalty Dries Mertens converted in the 82nd minute and Fernando Llorente punished more sloppy defending in stoppage time.
The night also saw another Premier League team beaten when Chelsea lost 1-0 to Valencia at Stamford Bridge. Mason Mount was withdrawn with injury for the Blues early on shortly after receiving a heavy challenge from former Arsenal holding midfielder Francis Coquelin.
Ajax found goals easier to come by thanks to summer imports Quincy Promes and Edson Alvarez. Their goals offered a reminder of the astute recruitment that has kept the Eredivisie club competitive at the top end of the European game.
The night’s big winners were Red Bull Salzburg, with Erling Braut Haaland helping himself to a hat-trick on his Champions League debut.
Tuesday ResultsInter Milan 1-1 Slavia PragueLyon 1-1 Zenit St. PetersburgChelsea 0-1 ValenciaRed Bull Salzburg 6-2 GenkNapoli 2-0 LiverpoolAjax 3-0 LilleBenfica 1-2 RB LeipzigBorussia Dortmund 0-0 Barcelona
Loser: Messi’s Supporting Cast
Nobody’s winning a prize for stating Barca are better with Messi. Yet the more sobering truth is that the supporting cast around the prolific maestro is not up to scratch.
It should be, given the reputations and track records of both Suarez and Griezmann. The problem is neither player is living up to their names or price tags.
Suarez, in particular, was off the pace against Dortmund. His touch was clumsy and heavy and he also consistently failed to properly time his runs.
While Suarez, who hasn’t scored a goal away from home in this competition for over four years, continued to toil, Griezmann was rarely involved at all. The Frenchman struggled to impose himself against a rugged defence led by Mats Hummels.
Griezmann has made a slow start to life with Barcelona since moving from Atletico Madrid in the summer. He only has two goals to show for his first five appearances, and there have been too many games where the player who cost €120 million has been a non-factor.
It means it could be another season of Messi or bust for Barcelona.
Loser: Marco Reus
If Barca have a right to expect more from Suarez and Griezmann, Dortmund can be forgiven for feeling the same way about Reus. The 30-year-old is usually the attacking talisman for his club, but Reus never found his range against the Blaugrana.
Reus wasn’t decisive when chances came his way, nor did he make good contact when he had time and space. Things should have been different when Reus stood over the ball from 12 yards three minutes before the hour mark, but instead, Ter Stegen continued to prove unbeatable.
Ter Stegen is an accomplished stopper, but a forward of Reus’ talent has no business spurning this many chances. His pace and technique are supposed to provide the flourish to the intricate moves Jadon Sancho and Paco Alcacer can produce.
Tonight proved that when Reus is off Dortmund simply lack the quality to punish the best in Europe.
Winner: Ajax Recruitment
Consider Ajax’s dilemma entering a new campaign in the Champions League. Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, two cornerstones of last season’s run to the last four, have been sold.
Even so, Ajax need to stay competitive in Europe’s premier club competition. How to do it rests on the smart bargain hunting the Amsterdam club has made its niche in recent years.
The Ajax recruitment-led refreshment model was again vindicated when Promes and Alvarez scored in the 3-0 win over Lille. Promes was acquired for an initial €15.7 million from Sevilla, offering the pace and eye for goal this team needs.
Alvarez was snapped up from Liga MX team Club America, further proof of Ajax’s willingness to cast a wide net in the search for new talent. Incoming players like 21-year-old defender Alvarez quickly get up to speed thanks to the artful, possession-heavy style of play the club has adhered to for decades.
With an unmatched ability to regenerate, Ajax and the latest newbies should once again be a force in this competition.
Winner: Erling Braut Haaland
Erling Haaland hasn’t even entered his second decade, but the precocious Norwegian striker is already acquiring an army of ardent admirers within the European game. He showcased his potential to thrive at the highest level by inspiring Salzburg’s emphatic beat-down of Genk.
Any team wanting a ruthless finisher will have to be looking Haaland’s way after his efficient first Champions League outing.
The son of former Leeds United and Manchester City midfielder Alf-Inge Haaland is already drawing interest from exalted places. He played for Manchester United boss and fellow countryman Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Molde, and scouts from the Red Devils “have been among those to keep tabs on the youngster,” according to Liam Prenderville of the Daily Mirror.
At the rate he’s going, Haaland will surely soon have his pick of the biggest clubs on the continent.