The Champions League is back on Paramount+ with the third round of group stage games. This is the point where the groups start to really take shape with each team having played each of their opponents and it offers the perfect opportunity for leaders to push clear of the chasing pack... or for those who have made a slow start to begin to turn things around. Here's what I'm expecting from three of the biggest matches this week.
Liverpool get their revenge over Atletico Madrid
Liverpool could have ratcheted down the intensity long before they did in Saturday's 5-0 win over Watford. A cruel interpretation of the Hornets' performance might even suggest that the minute Sadio Mane opened the scoring the Reds could have taken it back to walking speed. And yet they didn't. Despite having a Champions League tie to worry about on Tuesday afternoon after a rapid turnaround from international duty to playing early on Saturday afternoon, Jurgen Klopp's side went for the jugular at Vicarage Road.
One could not help but suspect there was a particular motivating factor for the drubbing inflicted on Watford, who had ended what seemed to be an inevitable march to an undefeated title win in February 2020, the last meeting between these two sides. If that is the case then woe betide the next team against whom Liverpool have beefs to squash. Enter Atletico Madrid, smash and grab victors in the Champions League round of 16 only a few weeks after that Watford defeat in the 2019-20 season.
Few are as well placed to understand the psyche of winning Liverpool sides as Jim Beglin, a league champion with the Reds in 1986. He told the ¡Qué Golazo! podcast that there will be a similar hankering for payback at the Wanda Metropolitana: "Going to Atleti, I think they'll have that irritation in the back of their minds about the fact that when they went there two seasons ago and lost unluckily, maybe Atletico Madrid were a little fortunate with the goal they scored last night considering Liverpool had most of the play. Of course Atleti did wonderfully well at Anfield and ousted Liverpool from the competition.
"But like Watford on Saturday, the last time they'd been there they were beaten 3-0. They had again that drive and determination that it wasn't going to happen again and they were going to make amends. I think a similar attitude will be needed, very much.
"I think Liverpool might just have an added edge this time around."
Want to hear more from special guest Beglin? Listen below and subscribe to ¡Qué Golazo! A Daily CBS Soccer Podcast where we take you beyond the pitch and around the globe for commentary, previews, recaps and more.
Certainly you can still sense that edgy undercurrent in the way that Klopp takes about his dislike for the combative style of Diego Simeone's side. More than 18 months after he was questioning whether Atletico Madrid played "proper football," it seems the needle of that defeat still pricks this Liverpool side.
That leaves one question to answer. Do Liverpool have the attacking quality to get their revenge? Yes. Mohamed Salah is justifying Jurgen Klopp's claims he is the best player in the world. Sadio Mane is not far behind. The fullbacks look back to their best creatively with more stable foundations alongside them; those should only improve in Madrid with Fabinho back to anchor the midfield. Atletico look impenetrable in La Liga but gave up by far the better chances against Porto and the same was the case against AC Milan when it was 11 vs. 11 at the San Siro. They may not be able to hold the Reds at bay.
Manchester United find an opponent that suits them
With former cast members returning in shocking, dramatic fashion; a will they, won't they (sack Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) storyline that seems to keep rearing its head and the sense that for all the anguish and heartbreak nothing really seems to change it often feels like Manchester United are less footballing entity than serial drama. Who needs an analysis of their tactics or recruitment? This is one where we should be ceding expertise to fans of The Young and the Restless or Coronation Street.
Assess Manchester United through that lens and it offers as convincing an explanation for what is happening as any other. We're at the stage where it looks like change is inevitable, where Solskjaer surely can't take anymore. Wednesday's game against Atalanta is then, obviously, going to be the moment where he manages to cling on for a little while longer, at least until the next dramatic crescendo.
On the pitch there are also reasons why Atalanta are the right sort of opponent for Manchester United. If Solskjaer's side ever look like a team approximating the sum of their parts it is against Leeds, a side that, similar to Atalanta, engage in aggressive high pressing and are prepared to commit their players to one on one duels against their opponents. In such circumstances the sheer individual quality of the United players, coupled with the defensive dynamism that a Scott McTominay-Fred midfield pivot can offer, shines through.
Atalanta have won hearts, minds and games with their aggressive style of play under Gianpiero Gasperini but it is a high wire act. Take the passage below against Sassuolo. Three players are pressuring Hamed Traore. Seconds before this screen shot it looks like they are going to win the ball, setting up what would be a four on three attack and possibly a third goal (yes at this time they're 2-0 up with half time fast approaching. If there is any time when you don't need to charge into the press it's now).
Instead Traore wiggles free and pings the ball to the right and Mert Mulder. From there matters escalate quickly with Atalanta suddenly finding themselves a little light on numbers, all their defenders drawn into individual duels bar Davide Zappacosta, too far across the pitch to really help.
It still takes an excellent finish from Domenico Berardi to beat Juan Musso but this was the sort of danger other teams might more consciously guard against. This is not the only time this has happened in Serie A this season. A few weeks later a line breaking pass by Franck Kessie negated the Atalanta press and unleashed an attack that saw the sheer weight of numbers overwhelm La Dea, Davide Calabria scoring for AC Milan after a matter of seconds.
These are the sorts of games United's forwards relish, particularly Mason Greenwood and the returning Marcus Rashford. Give them broken play and their technical excellence, sheer speed and finishing prowess comes to the fore. This could be the game where Solskjaer gets back to winning ways.
Ajax make a statement
One of the intriguing undercurrents of the first two rounds of Champions League games has been the outstanding form of Dutch champions Ajax who smashed Sporting 5-1 and followed that up with a no less dominant 2-0 win over Besiktas. Prior to their shock loss to Utrecht before the international break Erik ten Hag's side had been no less dominant in the Eredivisie. Nine games into their league campaign their goal difference is a gaudy plus 30.
It all looks wonderful but one cannot help but question how real it is. The Dutch league does not necessarily offer a uniformly high standard of competition compared with the Champions League and though both Sporting and Besiktas have had reasonable domestic seasons so far, they are hardly the sort of teams one would expect to be involved at the business end of this competition. If you want a sign of why this all feels like it could be a bit too good to be true it lies in West Ham United flop Sebastien Haller having more goals than every side in the group stage bar Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester City. Ajax profile as a side that should be involved in the business end of the tournament. Their games against Dortmund should show us whether that is a realistic goal.
Having said all that, there is something impressive indeed about Ten Hag's side, from the way they use Ryan Gravenberch and Steven Berghuis to create overloads from central midfield when they attack to the ferocity with which Antony and Dusan Tadic lead the press to get it back. On the latter, Ajax lead the Champions League group stage teams by some distance in terms of opposition passes per defensive action at 5.67 according to Wyscout (Liverpool and Atalanta, by way of contrast, both average around 7.1). Similarly no team registers more duels, tackles and interceptions per minute than the Dutch champions.
As UEFA's technical panel noted after Ajax's first game of the group stage: "Sporting struggled with their game plan to play out from the back as a result of an aggressive five-man Ajax press, with all of the visitors' outfield players in the hosts' half of the pitch." If Erling Haaland is lining up against you in the Champions League past evidence would suggest that by the time the ball gets near your penalty area there is not much hope. Happily for Ten Hag his side have the look of a team who can keep Borussia Dortmund from getting near there.