Champions League bold predictions: Cristiano Ronaldo scores double figures, Chelsea win 6, a minnow advances

Club football’s greatest prize is up for grabs once more as the Champions League group stages begin (on Paramount+). Here are some of the teams and players to keep an eye out for over the coming weeks:

Ronaldo hits double figures

The Champions League’s record scorer hit the ground running at Old Trafford on Saturday with a brace against Newcastle and Cristiano Ronaldo may find that his favorite competition has even more opportunities for him to burnish his resume in front of goal over the coming months. Manchester United’s group is a strong one — there ought to be no guarantees that the Red Devils even finish above Atalanta or Villarreal — but it is also one where attacks are likely to outshine defenses.

Certainly his opening game should be one in which he can fill his boots. Swiss champions Young Boys reached the group stages with a barmy, brilliant win over Ferencvaros that would suggest they are the ideal opponent for Manchester United, one who is prepared to push up in numbers in an attempt to win the ball high up the pitch (in the qualifying rounds they averaged the sixth most sequences starting in the final third, reflecting their commitment to the press) with David Wagner’s wingbacks pushed high alongside his front three in an attempt to win the ball back.

Those tactics are admirable but ill suited to United, who generally are at their best against teams willing to push high as their technical quality and pace is such that they can break the early lines of the press. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were devastating in broken play last season, now they have Ronaldo to add to their arsenal. He will surely feast on the service of Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho in such circumstances.

It is not like he lets a flat track pass him by. The likes of Malmo, Galatasaray and Schalke rank among the teams that most frequently end up picking the ball out of the net against Ronaldo in the Champions League despite the fact he’s only played them on a small number of occasions. Ronaldo is this competition’s record scorer because he makes the most of his easiest assignments.

He is also the competition’s record goal scorer because he takes a lot of penalties. It is not yet clear whether he will take them at Old Trafford — Bruno Fernandes’ record from 12 yards out is superior — but it is fair to assume he will. United may well get their chances against Atalanta, who in their last eight Serie A matches have conceded five penalties. Without their defensive anchor from last season Cristian Romero, Gianpiero Gasperini’s side look rather more vulnerable at the back, perhaps lacking an organizing presence.

Certainly the number of occasions where Dusan Vlahovic found himself both surrounded by defenders and yet strangely ignored by them in Fiorentina’s win last week is not a good omen for a defense about to face Ronaldo.

Vlahovic is left unguarded by two Atalanta defenders but misses a close range chance for Fiorentina
Wyscout/Sky Sport

Perhaps the only team one could argue are truly lockdown defensively is Villarreal though even they have looked rather more vulnerable three games into Unai Emery’s second season in charge, losing the expected goals (xG) battle by considerable margins in draws against Espanyol and Atletico Madrid. United will surely have revenge on their mind when they met in a rerun of last season’s Europa League final. In short, this could be a group stage where Ronaldo swells his goal tally significantly.

Adeyemi and Aaronson lead Salzburg to promised land

On their arrival in the Champions League group stages last season, the Red Bull Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch did not stint in setting his side the ambitious task of reaching the last 16. That seemed to be something of a long shot when they were drawn with Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, thought the side took it until matchday 6 before ultimately finishing third in the group. This year, when their opponents are Wolfsburg, Sevilla and Lille? Not so much. Certainly the draw has been far more favorable in that their Pot One team was the French champions, who have fallen apart dramatically early in their title defense.

The opposite is true of Wolfsburg, who have won all their games so far in the Bundesliga albeit by tight margins in which the underlying statistics have not necessarily favored them. Sevilla, meanwhile, have made fine strides three games into their La Liga season but Tottenham fans would warn them not to become too attached to Erik Lamela’s goals. In short, Salzburg are in a group of good teams without any great ones who immediately guarantee themselves a top two berth.

Salzburg are of that same ilk as well. Though they lost key players to the Premier League in traditional fashion this summer (Patson Daka joining Leicester before Brighton picked up Enock Mwepu), some of their best talent remains at the club. There is a reason why Karim Adeyemi became the first player based in Austria to be called up for the German national team since before the Second World War: the youngster has pace, an eye for goal and is versatile enough to bring the best out of those around him.

US international Brenden Aaronson shone in the play off win over Brondby, providing the crucial late winner in the first leg, and behind him are the likes of Jerome Onguene and Maximilian Wober. The talent is there. Now Salzburg have experience of the biggest stage in Europe. This could be the year they reach the knockout stages.

Chelsea the only team to go six from six

This column will bow to no one in its belief that Chelsea are the favorites for this season’s Champions League. If you don’t believe that now you may not once the group stage is over because frankly there is little to provide an adequate test for Thomas Tuchel’s side.

Certainly no one would expect that of Malmo or Zenit Saint Petersburg but a Juventus team that are reeling in Serie A will do well to stop Chelsea, who look to be the complete machine in every facet of the game. Tuchel’s immediate masterwork on his appointment in January was to take a relatively open side and turn them into defensive masters, capable of plugging any gaps with a 3-4-3 that effectively became a five man defense shielded by N’Golo Kante and another top tier midfielder. 

In 30 Premier League and Champions League matches under Tuchel opponents have registered an xG higher than one on just six occasions; in two of those games Chelsea spent at least half of the match down to 10 men. On 13 occasions the Blues have held their opponent under 0.5 xG with the average opponent getting shooting opportunities worth a combined 0.72 xG.

When you attack them Chelsea defend narrow, squeezing spaces and challenging you to create from wide when crosses will inevitably be cleared by Antonio Rudiger or Thiago Silva. They did so quite magnificently against Liverpool when a man down. They happily ceded the flanks to Liverpool but packed the middle, closed spaces and dragged everyone back if need be.

Chelsea pack the dangerous area in front of their box in their 1-1 draw with Liverpool, forcing their opponents to attack from wide. Jorginho acts as something akin to a free safety, able to pick any pass that the opposition attempt into that area
Wyscout/Sky Sports

Against the combined might of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Thiago, they allowed what were mostly bad shots from outside the box.

Chelsea’s defensive lines are in perfect tandem as Liverpool try to attack, once more keeping them away from the areas where they can damage the 10 men
Wyscout/Sky Sports

The issue early in Tuchel’s tenure was at the other end. Chances were being created, they were getting into the penalty box and shots were being taken but the ball was not flying in with sufficient frequency.

Romelu Lukaku has changed all that. Indeed early this season Chelsea are not shooting with quite the frequency that they did at the close of 2020-21. Their xG of 5.91 is seventh in the league through four games, though of course half of one of them was spent on the back foot against Liverpool. It does not really matter, though, if that trend continues. They continue to divert those shooting opportunities to one of the best strikers in the world (nearly 40 percent of their non-penalty xG has fallen to Lukaku) and unlike Timo Werner, who led the line for much of last year, he does not need more than one opportunity to score.

Chelsea then can rely on Lukaku to make the most of his chances early and then sit back and hold onto a lead knowing they are masters of protecting Edouard Mendy’s goal. So long as they don’t suffer anymore red cards they should beat everyone in front of them in Group H.

Extra bold prediction: Sheriff make the last 16

Look we call these bold predictions for a reason. And this is as bold as it gets. It will almost certainly be wrong but at some stage in your life don’t you want to be the person who called Emma Raducanu winning the US Open after the first qualifier, who two games into the 2015-16 Premier League said “I think Leicester might just win the league you know”?

The team from Transinistra overhauling two from Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk would be an upset of not dissimilar proportions. They have been placed in a group with three perennial domestic champions, two of whom are also the most successful teams in European footballing history. When Sheriff Tiraspol were founded in 1997 Madrid and Inter already had eight European Cups to their name but that does not mean this group of players are averse to the winning feelings as perennial champions of Moldova.

As for their Champions League group, it is safe to assume they will be battling for second place behind Real Madrid. As such a haul of nine points from the games against Inter and Shakhtar would seem a reasonable target for qualification. Neither of those teams are easy outs but equally the former is not the force it was last season when it did not make it out of the group stages whilst Roberto De Zerbi’s side looked extremely shaky without first choice goalkeeper Anatoliy Trubin, who is still unavailable.

It will help Yuriy Vernydub’s team no end that they begin with what is probably their ‘easiest’ match, at home to the Ukrainian runners-up. That will certainly not be three points in the bag but repeating the performance that earned them a 3-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb in the qualifiers would serve them well.

That was a match to show there is real quality in these minnows. Mali international Adama Traore could give him namesake in Wolverhampton something to think about in a foot race while Greek attacking midfielder Dimitris Kolovos leads an impressive counter. On the break is where Sheriff’s qualities lie, on the basis of their playoff win they look more than capable of soaking up pressure and springing into life. Win that first game on home soil and they will have precious momentum, probably not enough to earn them points in Madrid or Milan but at least enough to convince themselves they belong at this level. Then a couple of positive results at home and they are firmly in the mix.

In all likelihood that won’t happen. Sheriff’s three opponents are experienced Champions League operators, Vernydub’s side a cocktail of talent from across the globe with little experience at this level. But Dinamo Zagreb thought that the perennial whipping boys of the European qualifiers would not stand in their way. Look at what happened to them. 

What is Ronaldo’s new jersey number at Manchester United

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