Barcelona’s capacity to compete in Europe without Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann will be tested when it welcomes the squad that handed the Spanish side their most humiliating defeat in recent memory. The 8-2 thrashing Barcelona received from Bayern Munich in the 2020 Champions League quarterfinals signaled the start of the end of the Messi era.
Barcelona was forced to loan Griezmann back to Atlético Madrid due to financial difficulties that prevented the club from re-signing Messi. Ronald Koeman will have to account for the 58 goals scored by the two forwards last season. Memphis Depay, who has two goals in three Spanish league games so far at Camp Nou, is in charge of that task.
Following playing in both the European Championship and the Tokyo Olympics, Spain’s Pedri González should be back in Koeman’s starting lineup after a two-week layoff. After recovering from a groin injury suffered in Saturday’s 4-1 triumph against Leipzig, Robert Lewandowski will travel. Serge Gnabry has traveled with the team but is questionable due to a back injury sustained in the same game. After a year away, Benfica returns to the group stage to face Dynamo Kyiv.
The only plastic surface in the competition will host Cristiano Ronaldo’s first Champions League game for Manchester United since losing 2009 final to Barcelona. Young Boys of Switzerland play on an artificial field at Wankdorf Stadium, which former United manager Jose Mourinho complained about to UEFA before the sides’ first group encounter three years ago. That evening, United defeated Juventus 3-0, with Paul Pogba scoring twice, to finish second in a group won by Ronaldo and Juventus. The last time Ronaldo played at Wankdorf Stadium was in December 2018, when he was on the losing side, despite Juventus having already advanced. Villarreal, managed by Unai Emery, welcomes Atalanta to the Champions League for the first time in ten years.
It’s been six years since Wolfsburg last played in the Champions League group stage. The key to its success has been a solid defense. In the Bundesliga, last season, Wolfsburg’s 37 goals conceded were fewer than every other team except Leipzig, and it has started this season with four wins and only one goal conceded. It plays defending French champion Lille, which has won only once in five games so far in its new domestic campaign and conceded 11 goals. Lille coach Jocelyn Gourvennec will be without former Bayern Munich player Renato Sanches, who is out injured alongside Jonathan Bamba and Timothy Weah. Sevilla hosts Salzburg to begin what will be its fifth Champions League campaign in the last seven seasons.
Chelsea opens its European title defense against Zenit St. Petersburg, still unbeaten at the start of the English Premier League and with returning striker Romelu Lukaku already scoring three goals. Juventus is struggling without Ronaldo as it prepares for a visit to Malmö. The Bianconeri have lost two straight in Serie A since Ronaldo went back to Manchester United and overall have earned only one point. Moise Kean, who was brought back to Turin to replace Ronaldo, made a major gaffe in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Napoli. Fresh off a two-goal performance for Italy, Kean redirected a Napoli corner back toward his own goal with a header, leading to Kalidou Koulibaly’s tap-in for the winner. Meanwhile, Ronaldo has had two braces for Portugal and United, respectively, since he departed Turin.