A six-game season leaves very little margin for error. This can be easy to forget with Champions League because the group stage is so spread out, leaving too much time to fine solace in the two months teams have to recover. But if this were a league and one-sixth of the season (six or seven games) had done by, every headline about the team would include the word “panic.” The truth is surely somewhere in between.
A better, more nuanced way to look at it: There are certain matches you expect to win to get the points you need to advance. When that doesn’t happen, group stage becomes unforgiving. All of a sudden you’re staring at games you thought you could lose realizing you now need a result.
That’s where Real Sociedad is after today’s loss. Same with Galatasaray, Olympaicos, and Viktoria Plzen. Each team lost at home, meaning at some point (if they want to advance) they’ll need to go on the road to reclaim what they’ve lost.
Conversely, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, and Shakhtar Donetsk each created room for error. With road wins, they bought themselves one slip. Drop points at home later in the tournament, and they can lean on today’s result. In the case of Shakhtar, if you’re likely to be in a battle for a knockout round spot with the team you just beat, you’ve created a huge obstacle for your rival.
Beyond the standings, those are the scenarios you have to look at after match day one. It’s not so much where you sit right now. It’s more about whether you’ve taken points you shouldn’t have or dropped points you wanted.
Here’s where Groups A through D stand after day one of Champions League.
To each of these standings we’ve added a column labeled +/-: a crude attempt to track how many points a team has dropped at home (minus) or picked up on the road (plus). It’s a very crude attempt to gauge the extent to which teams are holding serve.
Manchester United’s win was convincing, but they essentially held serve at home against Bayer. The Germans now know where they stand without dropping any significant points. Every team’s aware they could lose at Old Trafford.
Shakhtar, however, scored a huge win, particularly considering they were decidedly outplayed in the first half at San Sebastian. After two second half goals, the Ukrainian champions snatched three road points against one of the teams they’ll compete with for (at least) second place. In the process, they dealt Real Sociedad a significant blow.
Gala’s plus-minus column reads -3, but they’re not the only team that’s going to lose at home to Real Madrid. There’s some chance that may even out over the course of the tournament.
Likewise, Juventus may be disappointed with their result, but the big picture’s more kind. They picked up a road point, and while they may have expected to get a win in Copenhagen, holding serve at home will likely get them into the knockout round.
This is what’s so crazy about PSG’s performance (and Shakhtar’s, for that matter). They were second best for 45 minutes but still even going into halftime, where they could have braced themselves to dig in and survive their road challenge. Instead, they go out and secure a multi-goal victory, turning a tolerable draw or loss into three road points.
On the other end of that is Olympiacos, whose loss isn’t as disastrous as Real Sociedad’s. PSG is the clear alpha in this group and could take points in their other road matches. If that happens, Olympiacos’s loss could turn out to like Anderlecht’s: Disappointing, but ultimately not a big deal.
The problem for Plzen, who may be looking at Europa League (third place) as a viable goal, is not so much the loss today. It’s what happens when Manchester City goes to Russia. City could win there, to0, giving CSKA the same -3 road points Plzen were dealt today. But CSKA’s also capable of winning that game. Or at least drawing. Plzen may not have lost ground on City as much as they’ve potentially lost ground to CSKA.
For the Russians, today’s result was a rare loss from a team that’d gone undefeated through eight Russian rounds. But ultimately, this group isn’t going to be defined by results in Munich.