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UCL talking points: Best player so far, how to save Man Utd?

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UCL talking points: Best player so far, how to save Man Utd?

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The 2023-24 Champions League group stage is underway, and matchday two is in the books with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Barcelona the only teams to maintain a 100% record. After a thrilling round of games, we asked our writers Gab Marcotti, Rob Dawson and Sam Marsden to answer some of our burning questions.

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1. Which team is in trouble after matchday 2?

Manchester United. Two games, two defeats, and they’re already struggling to qualify for the Round of 16. They’ve scored five goals in games against Bayern Munich and Galatasaray but the way they’ve defended has been appalling, leaking seven goals in 180 minutes of football. They conceded three at home against Galatasaray but it could have been even worse. Mauro Icardi missed a penalty after Casemiro had been sent off, and also had a good chance in stoppage-time with the score already at 3-2. It’s not the first time in recent history that United have been in trouble in the group stage, going out before the knockouts in both 2015-16 and 2020-21. — Dawson

Five teams are on zero points, but obviously Manchester United stand out, mainly because of the recurring psychodrama in the background (Antony, the Glazers, Jadon Sancho, half the starting back four out, etc.) and their horrible league form as well. I’d throw in Paris Saint-Germain as well, simply because of the manner of the 4-1 defeat at Newcastle United, the way the club can be a zoo, and the fact that head coach Luis Enrique is, well, different. And if I’m Arsenal, I’m not taking things for granted either. Sevilla home and away next can be very tricky. — Marcotti

It’s Man United, isn’t it?! But to add some variety, there is also pressure on Luis Enrique and PSG. It’s not just that they lost to Newcastle, it’s that they were beaten 4-1. Throw in the fact they are in the toughest group in the competition and now have a double-header coming up against AC Milan and it’s not hard to imagine them failing to make it into the knockout rounds. Three draws and a defeat in seven Ligue 1 games show this is not just a European issue, either. The post-Lionel Messi and Neymar years, built around Kylian Mbappé and French brilliance, were not supposed to be so rocky so soon. — Marsden

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2:35

Can Manchester United turn their season around?

Craig Burley and Alejandro Moreno assess another dismal defeat for Man United in the UEFA Champions League at the hands of Galatasaray.

2. Which is your underdog team to reach the knockouts?

FC Copenhagen. They’ve never been past the group stage, but they’ve done enough in the opening two games to show they’ve got a chance this time. They were 2-0 up against Galatasaray in Istanbul with four minutes to go, and were only pegged back to 2-2 after going down to 10 men; then they took the lead at home against Bayern before narrowly losing 2-1. Their fate in Group A will be decided by back-to-back games against Manchester United, and with Erik ten Hag’s team not playing well, the Danish champions could spring a surprise. — Dawson

Let’s face it, nobody in Group F (Newcastle, PSG, AC Milan and Dortmund), which is wide open, is an underdog. Nor are Lens, frankly. So I’m going to suggest Feyenoord. I love the fact that head coach Arne Slot decided to stick around and give it a go after winning the Eredivisie title, rather than chasing coin elsewhere like so many of his colleagues would have done. They gave Atletico Madrid a real fright away, and can do the same to others. — Marcotti

Maybe underdog is pushing it, but Real Sociedad were in pot four in the draw so should technically be the worst the team in their group. I know the science to the pots means that isn’t necessarily the case but Internazionale and Benfica would still have been the two teams expected to progress. Instead, La Real sit top after two games thanks to a draw against the Italians and Tuesday’s 2-0 win at FC Salzburg. Take Kubo and Brais Méndez are great fun to watch, and they have a homegrown spine that makes it easy to root for them. — Marsden

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1:33

Burley: Mbappe was a gigantic waste of space for PSG

Craig Burley lays into the performance of PSG’s Kylian Mbappe following their thumping 4-1 defeat to Newcastle United in the Champions League.

3. Which player has exceeded expectations so far?

Manchester United have been rubbish in the Champions League but £72 million striker Rasmus Hojlund has, at least, been a positive. The 20-year-old became the youngest player to score in his first two Champions League games since Erling Haaland when he found the net against Galatasaray after opening his United account on matchday one against Bayern. His first against Galatasaray was a thumping header from Marcus Rashford‘s cross, and his second was about his pace and finishing ability after racing away from the halfway line. Hojlund is under immense pressure to perform as United’s central striker and, so far, he’s handling it well. — Dawson

Am I allowed to say Newcastle defender Dan Burn? What, you want somebody more glamorous? I had zero expectations for Icardi, but he came up huge for Galatasaray last season and it’s continuing this year. Some love for Atletico striker Álvaro Morata too, please. Mendez has been really impressive for Real Sociedad, and Man City’s Julián Álvarez gets better every time I see him play. — Marcotti

It’s hard to focus on one player after just two games, but I’ll go with Alvarez. He was the star in Manchester City‘s win over Red Star Belgrade and then came off the bench to down RB Leipzig on Wednesday. He’s making it impossible for City boss Pep Guardiola to leave him out when the big games come around. A shout out for João Félix, too, who has been good in both of Barcelona‘s games so far, and Real Madrid star Jude Bellingham. Even if we expected him to be good, we did not imagine him having this impact so soon, with important goals in wins over Union Berlin and Napoli. — Marsden

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1:53

Why Jude Bellingham is willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to win

Ale Moreno heaps praise on Jude Bellingham following Real Madrid’s Champions League win over Napoli.

4. What needs to change at Man Utd to hit their stride and make it out of the group?

They need to defend better. Injuries, particularly at the back, have been a problem this season, but Lisandro Martínez, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are likely to miss the rest of the group-stage games and manager Ten Hag has to find a way of improving with the players he’s got available. One easy fix is to move Sofyan Amrabat from a makeshift left-back into midfield to give Casemiro some help. Casemiro will have to serve a suspension after his red card against Galatasaray, but having him alongside Amrabat once the Brazilian is back will make United far more robust in the middle of the pitch. — Dawson

It’s kinda two different questions as I see it, in the sense they don’t need to hit their stride to get out of the group. Obviously, they need to take four of six points in the double-header against Copenhagen and avoid defeat in Istanbul. Then, on matchday six, they play Bayern, who will probably have qualified by then and may play the C-team. So that’s eight points they can get without being particularly good. And that might be enough.

How do they actually get good? Well, that’s a far more complicated question. I’m not sure their injured guys will be back in time to affect this group stage, Casemiro is now suspended, Antony is anyone’s guess. There’s enough there that Bruno Fernandes and Rashford can carry them at times (not all the time as we’ve seen) but there’s a reason why they’ve only won three games all season (I’m not counting the win over Palace in the Carabao Cup). And, lest we forget, Wolverhampton Wanderers were robbed after outplaying them for long stretches, and United they had to come from two goals down to beat Nottingham Forest, who played the last 23 minutes with 10 men. Meanwhile, against Burnley, they were thoroughly outplayed and it took a moment of magic from Bruno (and … wait for it … Jonny Freaking Evans!) to get the three points. Yeah, it’s bad, it’s really bad. — Marcotti

As Gab points out, the two are not mutually exclusive. United are now in a situation where they need to turn to an old football cliche and take things game by game. In that sense, they have a nice fixture list. Back-to-back matches against Copenhagen, who have proven tough opponents against Galatasaray and Bayern, give them a chance to revive their European hopes. Winning those fixtures would set up a huge game in Turkey against Galatasaray. Beyond that, they need to get players back in their natural positions (which is not easy with their list of absentees, but Amrabat into midfield would be a start) and build around their best players, who at the moment are Bruno and Hojlund. The latter’s goal-scoring ability could help lift the mood around the team, but it looks bleak at the moment. — Marsden

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