WyScout/Premier League

We're approaching the halfway point of the Champions League (check out all the action on Paramount+), here's three interesting games and the tactical battles that could decide them:

Ajax vs. Napoli: Italians expose midfield issue

Perhaps the most intriguing of this week's games, Napoli travel to Amsterdam with a view to tightening their grip on Group A and perhaps even acquiring Ajax's mantle from last year as the dark horse whose early season form makes them appear to be a serious contender to win it all. Luciano Spalletti's side are leading the way at home and have been in authoritative form in the Champions League, crushing their two British opponents prior to the international break.

After losing to Liverpool, Ajax need to reel Napoli back into the pack and restore the sense that Group A is a two from three contest. This may, however, be an inauspicious moment for the Dutch champions to be playing such a critical fixture. Having lost at AZ Alkmaar before the international break, Alfred Schreuder's side were held by Go Ahead Eagles on Saturday. Ajax may feel hard done by the fact that they had 75 percent possession and 23 shots but were undone by their opponents sole effort on target, but this is the Eredivisie. That tends to be how the biggest sides drop their points.

Equally, there were issues in both of Ajax's recent misadventures that Napoli will look to exploit, most notably a sizeable channel that emerged in the center of the pitch and was vulnerable to the late-running advances of midfielders. It was from there that Go Ahead Eagles equalized at the weekend, a vulnerability that defensive midfielder Edson Alvarez spotted but found himself powerless to deal with as so many of his team mates had committed themselves upfield. The visiting strikers split, drawing Ajax's center backs wide, and the space they vacated is filled by Finn Stokkers.

Go Ahead Eagles slice through Ajax on the counter after the hosts overcommit Wyscout/ESPN

In the previous game, AZ Alkmaar, now topping the table in the Netherlands, had done much the same, rapidly driving through the Ajax middle once play had broken their way. Devyne Rensch attempted to recover but he had left himself too much ground to make up, his sliding intervention only deflecting the ball on for Mees De Wiit to roll into the net.

These are risks inherent within the Ajax tactical approach, perhaps heightened by a summer of transfer business that means Schreuder's squad is not quite as experienced as that which ended last season, but also worth taking to allow this team to dominate territory. They are ones they will have to be willing to take against Napoli in a game where they need the win more than their visitors.

Spalletti's side, meanwhile, are not usually ones to play on the break, but they do have the players to hit Ajax forcefully through the heart of the pitch. Certainly if Schreuder saw Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa drive through the Torino engine room, scoring twice in Napoli's 3-1 win, he will be hurriedly attempting to plug those midfield gaps. The former Fulham and Villarreal midfielder has taken real strides as a progressive force since moving to Italy, now he is getting into the penalty box more frequently whilst keeping his defensive numbers more than respectable. A player of such dynamism could be ideally suited to punishing Ajax on the counter and might just be the one to swing the game.

Frankfurt vs. Spurs: Conte's frustrations build against cautious opponents

After a bruising defeat in north London, Antonio Conte's side face another sort of challenge in Germany. Frankly it is one that they seem even less suited to than the derby. On Saturday, Spurs lined up with that familiar approach that they take against their biggest and best opponents: flood the box, ride their luck defensively and make the most of opportunities on the transition. It is, it should be noted, a more effective approach in practice than on paper and whilst it might demand eye of the needle passing and finishing they have Heung-min Son and Harry Kane. That is rather their modus operandi.

More challenging for Tottenham are opponents like Eintracht Frankfurt, the ones who don't want to assert their will on the contest but would prefer to see what Spurs can do when they are asked to set the tempo of the contest. Against Sporting, Conte's side had more of the ball in the most dangerous areas of the pitch but struggled to break down an obdurate home side who then hit them with a pair of late sucker punches. It is fair to wonder how different events might have been in the group stage opener if Chancel Mbemba hadn't been sent off for Marseille; indeed the only two shots Spurs had in that game were those from which Richarlison scored.

Europa League holders Eintracht Frankfurt will be perfectly willing to make Tottenham set the stage for Tuesday's game. By the breathless standards of the Bundesliga, this team is altogether more circumspect, ranking fourth from bottom in terms of passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA). It works for them. After all, it was the blueprint that took them past the likes of Barcelona and West Ham last season, when they seemed to relish their road games, and they have been no less circumspect early on in the Champions League. Indeed through the opening two games only Manchester City and Chelsea have allowed fewer shots on their goal than Oliver Glasner's side. 

Though they average slightly less possession than their opponents in the Bundesliga, they sit toward the bottom of the league in terms of shots on Kevin Trapp's goal. Had the German started the season saving on a par with the expected goals (xG) he is facing then his side might be even higher than sixth. Put the likes of Evan N'Dicka, Tuta and Djibril Sow in front of your goalkeeper and you should be safe enough anyway, all three are making plenty of interceptions so far this season.

These are just the sort of teams that tend to make Tottenham's life agonizing for 90 minutes at a time. It should be noted that they often get the job done -- see the wins over Marseille and Wolverhampton Wanderers -- but any Spurs' supporter travelling to Germany in expectation of a comfortably secured three points is likely to be in for an almighty shock.

Manchester City vs. Copenhagen: Grealish shines outside the spotlight

The big ticket stats might not be there -- one goal and no assists from seven appearances so far this season -- but, the more time passes, the more it seems that Pep Guardiola was not just saying something to be nice when he said plan was never for Jack Grealish to be judged on the goal contributions he had to his name. There has been a pervasive sense that the 27-year-old attacker has been something of a £100 million flop since making the move from Aston Villa to Manchester City and it is easy to see why. In the Midlands, Grealish was the main character, a superstar who carried the lode of Britain's second city on his back with charm and grace. Here was a player who guaranteed double figures in terms of goals and assists combined in a Premier League season. For City surely he would be reaching 10 goals and 12 assists with ease.

A season and a bit in and he has not got near those numbers. But then, Guardiola said a fortnight ago, that was not the point. "We didn't sign for the incredible goals or assists at Aston Villa. It was another reason, and when he played he did it." To watch Grealish against Manchester United on Sunday was to see his manager vindicated. The England international ended the match with no goals and no assists but his touch was on a great deal of City's best moments. A fact underlined by the rest of his stats which involved completing four passes into the penalty area, carrying the ball into the box five times himself, and receiving another pass as well.

Take Erling Haaland's second, for instance. The plaudits naturally went to the Norwegian for his deft back post flick and to Kevin De Bruyne for the cross measured to precision. Few if any acknowledged how Grealish had forged space for the Belgian to deliver the ball with his drive upfield, laying the ball off the moment Christian Eriksen had committed to tackling him. 

Grealish's aggressive run infield draws Diogo Dalot with him, freeing space for an overlapping Sergio Gomez Wyscout/Premier League

Or indeed Haaland's third, where Grealish has pinned back United's right back and dragged him infield so De Bruyne can lay the ball out to an overlapping Sergio Gomez, who crosses low to deliver another headline moment for the No.9. Grealish might even have taken the shot himself and probably scored. It was just the better play for the team was to let Haaland have it.

All these moments went rather unremarked on at the time and this author is not blame free in that regard, scrapping a post match piece on Grealish to celebrate Haaland's increasingly ludicrous excellence. The same may well happen again when Copenhagen arrive at the Etihad. Haaland will score by the bucket load and win all the headlines whilst Grealish toils away in the background, missing out on the big ticket stats but making his team far better regardless.