Amid talk of revamp, Europe’s giants begin Champions League assault


Paris (AFP) – While the battle for the Champions League of the future is fought behind the scenes, this week the continent’s biggest clubs begin their latest quest for European glory with holders Liverpool dreaming of reaching another final in Istanbul.

The current 32-team group stage format leading to a knockout round of 16 was introduced in 2003. Since then, an ever smaller group of clubs has competed to win the trophy, with the last 15 champions coming from Spain, England, Germany or Italy.

There is a consensus that it is time for a change, and the European Club Association, chaired by Juventus chief Andrea Agnelli, has been busy working with UEFA on plans to completely revamp the competition from 2024.

Moves towards even more of a closed shop for the elite have stalled because of dissent from some clubs and from domestic leagues, but change is coming.

“We are confident of finding a good format for after 2024 that includes of course the big clubs, mid-size countries and also a possibility for, let’s say, the smaller countries but also with history to find their place in the European football scene,” said Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar last week.

Of course Ajax have extra determination to ensure their voice is heard. The Dutch champions enchanted Europe on their run to the semi-finals last season but entered this season’s tournament in the third qualifying round. There was no special treatment for them.

Meanwhile, for the likes of Agnelli’s Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, the Champions League has become the be all and end all due to a lack of competition domestically.

– More English domination? –

It is easy to see why they might like more games against the best teams from around Europe, along with more money.

For now, the Champions League winners stand to take home around 75 million euros ($83 million; £66.6 million). On top of that will be added considerable sums from television along with money depending on each team’s UEFA ranking.

This rewards past success, guaranteeing the top-ranked team, Real Madrid, a further 35.46 million euros. For holders Liverpool that added figure is nearer 27 million euros.

The financial strength of the Premier League’s top clubs means they are less eager for change to the Champions League, and it also helps explain why all four European finalists last season were English.

After beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in Madrid to lift their sixth European Cup, can Liverpool reach a third straight final? This season’s showpiece will be played in Istanbul, scene of their remarkable triumph in 2005.

Benzema brilliance inspires Real, Fati lights up Barca


Madrid (AFP) – Karim Benzema scored twice for Real Madrid in a 3-2 win against Levante with Eden Hazard making his La Liga debut while later Barcelona breezed to a 5-2 win against Valencia on Saturday with more magic from 16-year-old Ansu Fati.

Benzema’s goals came just six minutes apart in the first half at a wet Santiago Bernabeu, before Casemiro put Real 3-0 up.

However Levante, who had won their previous two outings, made a fight of it in the second half as they pulled goals back through Borja Mayoral and Gonzalo Melero.

“The second half was more difficult for us, but the overall feeling was positive,” said coach Zinedine Zidane, whose team had drawn their previous two games.

“We have got the three points and we were incredible in the first half, the way we played, the goals, the commitment. We just need to stay focused for the full 90 minutes.”

Hazard also came off the bench for the final half-hour to make his first La Liga appearance after a thigh injury had interrupted the start of his Real career following his 100 million-euro ($110 million) move from Chelsea.

The Belgian could now start when Real go to Paris Saint-Germain for their opening Champions League game on Wednesday.

“I am happy for him,” said Zidane. “He will do us good. He is not ready yet though — he has only trained four times with the team. But when everyone is fit, when we have our rhythm, we will hurt teams.”

Gareth Bale will also be available to face PSG after suspension kept him out here, but Sergio Ramos will be unable to play because of a European ban.

Zidane was also without the injured Luka Modric here. However, as well as Hazard, fellow summer signing Eder Militao came off the bench in the second half and the former Porto defender could start in Paris.

– Fati scores again –

Real would have won by a greater margin here had it not been for some inspired goalkeeping from Aitor Fernandez, who produced a stunning one-handed stop to keep out a Benzema shot midway through the first half.

Atletico Madrid retained their place at the top of the table, but only by one point from Real Madrid after their first defeat of the season when they lost 2-0 at Real Sociedad at the Basque club’s newly refurbished stadium.

Later, former Real Madrid assistant coach Albert Celades replaced sacked Marcelino Garcia Toral as boss of Valencia who were routed 5-2 at Barcelona.

Inter Milan top Serie A as Juventus held in Fiorentina


Milan (AFP) – Inter Milan reclaimed top spot in Serie A after a 1-0 win over 10-man Udinese on Saturday as Juventus lost three players to injury in a painful goalless draw at Fiorentina to complicate preparations for next week’s Champions League opener.

Stefano Sensi’s diving header was enough to seal a maximum nine points for Antonio Conte’s Inter ahead of their European opener against Slavia Prague in the San Siro next Tuesday.

But as Maurizio Sarri made his debut on the Juventus bench after recovering from pneumonia, the Italian champions showed signs of weakness four days before their trip to Atletico Madrid.

Juventus are trailing two points behind Inter Milan after three games and could be overtaken by city rivals Torino who host promoted Lecce on Monday.

Napoli meanwhile warmed up for European holders Liverpool on Tuesday with a Dries Mertens double sealing a 2-0 win over crisis club Sampdoria, to move up to fourth in the table.

“We wouldn’t have deserved to win this game,” said Sarri as Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates lacked inspiration and struggled physically.

The reigning eight-time Serie A champions are already missing injured captain Giorgio Chiellini, Mattia De Sciglio and Marko Pjaca.

And Brazilian Douglas Costa pulled up with a hamstring problem minutes into the game in Florence, followed by Miralem Pjanic with a muscular issue with Danilo later suffering cramps in the heat.

They nevertheless held on despite pressure with former French international Franck Ribery impressive on his first start for the hosts.

“It was a very complicated situation as we used all our substitutions for injuries, and had no fresh players to introduce at key moments,” said Sarri.

“A team with less character would lose such a game.”

Midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur added: “We got an important point, today we saw a bad Juventus.

“We suffered on the wings, they were very good. We still have to get used to Sarri’s game, but we are on the right track. Now we want to win in Madrid.”

– ‘Better than Ronaldo’ –

Ribery, 36, went off to a standing ovation from the crowd at the Artemio Franchi Stadium after an hour as his team earned their first point this season.

Ribery “played better than Ronaldo,” insisted Fiorentina’s new owner Rocco Commisso, as the former Bayern Munich midfielder did well to neutralise Ronaldo, who had scored four goals for Portugal in European qualifiers this week.

Guardiola still ‘in love’ with City players despite shock Norwich defeat


London (AFP) – Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola insisted he still “loves” his players after a shock 3-2 defeat at newly-promoted Norwich saw the Premier League champions fall five points behind Liverpool at the top of the table.

City lost for the first time in the league since January as Kenny McLean, Todd Cantwell and Teemu Pukki struck for an injury-ravaged Norwich at Carrow Road.

However, Guardiola claimed the odd slip-up is the norm rather than the exceptional form City have demonstrated in winning back-to-back Premier League titles.

Guardiola’s men posted a record 100 points in 2017/18 and held off Liverpool’s club record 97-point haul to retain their title with 98 points last season.

“I know what we are as a team, what we have done, what we are going to do again, and I love my players. It is a pleasure and honour to be with them,” said the Catalan coach.

“That is the challenge in a high level. The people cannot expect all the time (to) win or make 100 points, 90 points.

“It shows how difficult everything (we have done) is. Now we need to recover, go to Europe (in the Champions League) and come back.”

For all of Norwich’s injury woes, it was a City absence that appeared the most significant as Aymeric Laporte was badly missed at the heart of the visitors’ defence.

The French centre-back will be sidelined until at least the new year after undergoing knee surgery and John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi did little to settle City nerves that they will be able to hold the fort until the transfer window opens again or Laporte returns in January.

Sergio Aguero had reduced City’s arrears to 2-1 just before half-time after McLean and Cantwell put Norwich in front.

But any momentum for Guardiola’s men at the start of the second-half was wiped out when Stones played Otamendi into trouble and the Argentine was robbed on the edge of his own box by Emiliano Buendia, who squared for Pukki to make it 3-1.

“Nobody talked (to each other) and they score a goal,” said Guardiola. “It happens, it’s not good it happens but it happened today.”

Laporte’s absence could be vital in Liverpool’s quest to end a 30-year wait to win the league, but Guardiola warned the European champions that it is still early days in the title race.

“Sometimes (players) make mistakes,” added Guardiola of his defence. “We will look to see what I can do to help them.

Juventus held in Fiorentina, Mertens brace lifts Napoli


Milan (AFP) – Coach Maurizio Sarri said Juventus “didn’t deserve to win” after his first game on the bench ended in a painful goalless draw at Fiorentina Saturday with three players going off injured to complicate preparations for next week’s Champions League opener.

But Serie A rivals Napoli won at home thanks to a Dries Mertens double in a 2-0 victory over crisis club Sampdoria, before hosting Liverpool on Tuesday.

Sarri missed his team’s first two wins over Parma and Napoli with pneumonia, but four days before Juventus travel to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League his side failed to impress in Tuscany.

“We wouldn’t have deserved to win this game,” said Sarri of a game where Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates lacked inspiration up front and struggled physically.

The reigning eight-time Serie A champions are already missing injured captain Giorgio Chiellini, Mattia De Sciglio and Marko Pjaca.

And Brazilian Douglas Costa pulled up with a hamstring problem minutes into the game in Florence, as Miralem Pjanic hit with a muscular issue just before the break with Danilo suffering cramps in the heat.

They nevertheless held on despite pressure with former French international Franck Ribery impressive on his first start for the hosts.

“It was a very complicated situation as we used all our substitutions for injuries, and had no fresh players to introduce at key moments,” said Sarri.

“It was not a high-level game from a technical point of view, a team with less character would lose such a game.”

Midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur added: “We got an important point, today we saw a bad Juventus.

“We suffered on the wings, they were very good. We still have to get used to Sarri’s game, but we are on the right track. Now we want to win in Madrid.”

Ribery, 36, went off to a standing ovation from the crowd at the Artemio Franchi Stadium after an hour as his team earned their first point this season.

Ribery “played better than Ronaldo,” insisted Fiorentina’s new owner Rocco Commisso, as the French player did well to neutralise Ronaldo, who had scored four goals for Portugal in European qualifiers this week.

“I hadn’t played a game like this for almost three months,” said the former Bayern Munich player. “We had few chances but Juve are a great team and it was very hot.”

Juventus had a chance to break through in the 74th minute when Sami Khedira raced down the right to serve Ronaldo, only for German Pezzella to intercept.