Matchday four of the 2023/24 UEFA Champions League campaign has just wrapped up, and there were shocks aplenty right across the continent. Three-time champions of Europe Manchester United conspired to throw away 2-0 and 3-2 leads to lose to lowly FC Copenhagen deep into second-half stoppage time. Last season’s beaten semifinalists AC Milan managed to keep their hopes of progression alive with a victory against Paris Saint-Germain at the San Siro.
Unfortunately for the Spanish quartet, there was also a shocker on the cards…
Reigning La Liga champions Barcelona have been in imperious form so far this term. They had won all three of their group games thus far, picking up victories against FC Porto, Royal Antwerp, and Shakhtar Donetsk. They headed to Germany to face the latter on week four and another victory was expected. Unfortunately for the Blaugrana however, that victory never came.
Instead, it was the Ukrainian side that managed to keep their slim hopes of progression alive with a shock victory in Hamburg, with attacker Danylo Sikan netting the only goal of the game. The Catalonians piled the pressure on throughout, but they were unable to find the net. With three victories already under their belt, they are joint top of the group alongside FC Porto and a third consecutive group stage exit doesn’t appear to be on the cards.
But with star striker Robert Lewandowski currently looking usually goal-shy – the Polish hitman hasn’t scored in his last six appearances in all competitions – perhaps manager Xavi should be somewhat worried. Barca aren’t considered as one of the frontrunners for glory, and Bovada sportsbook has picked them as +1600 sixth-favorites. It’s imperative that they manage to stay ahead of their Portuguese rivals and ultimately top their group to secure a favorable tie in the last 16.
While their eternal rivals Barcelona may be struggling, Real Madrid are firing on all cylinders. 20-year-old Englishman Jude Bellingham has looked like the second coming of Zinedine Zidane in his first three months at the Bernabeu. The former Borussia Dortmund midfielder has netted 12 goals in 13 appearances in all competitions including a brilliant brace against Barca in the recent El Clasico at the Lluís Companys Olympic Stadium.
He has also been in blistering form in the Champions League specifically. He bagged a last-gasp winner in Los Blancos’ opening game against Union Berlin before finding the net once more on match week two away at Napoli. Back-to-back victories home and away against Braga have consolidated Real’s position at the top of their group and with four wins from four, they have already qualified for the last 16. A point in either of their last two games – at home to Napoli and away in Berlin – will secure their spot as group winners.
The record 14-time champions look set for yet another attack on the summit of European football.
The job Diego Simeone has done at Atletico Madrid doesn’t get the praise it deserves. When he took over the club in December 2011, Los Rojiblancos were in disarray. They had been through five managers in the last three years and were sitting way down in tenth in the La Liga table, despite winning the Europa League with a 2-1 victory against Fulham barely 18 months prior. What has transpired since El Cholo’s appointment beggars belief.
The former Argentina midfield dynamo led Atleti to another Europa League triumph at the end of his first half-a-season in charge. He would claim that crown once more in 2018 with a 3-0 victory against Marseille in Lyon. He has also led the club to the Spanish title twice, in 2014 and again in 2021. In the former of those two successes, Simeone led Atleti to their first-ever UEFA Champions League final and he would do the same again two years later. Unfortunately for them, they lost to cross-city rivals Real on both occasions.
This season, Simeone and Los Rojiblancos look set to go deep into the tournament. A 6-0 drubbing of Scottish champions Celtic has secured them top spot in Group E, a point clear of Lazio with Dutch champions Feyenoord a point further back. They still have to play Feyenoord in Rotterdam before welcoming Lazio to the Wanda Metropolitano on the final match day, and Simeone will be expecting his side to finish as group winners.
This year’s surprise package – at least from the Spanish sides – is without a doubt Real Sociedad. The Basque outfit are competing in the tournament for just the third time ever and for the first time in a decade, but they do not look out of place. Victory against Portuguese giants Benfica in week three has seen them jump to the top of Group D. They are unbeaten at present and are currently ahead of last season’s beaten finalists Inter Milan on goal difference.
They will have to head to the San Siro to battle it out with the Nerazurri on the final matchday and that fixture will have huge implications as to who tops the group. If it is Sociedad, don’t expect them to follow in the footsteps of other Spanish underdogs such as Villareal and reach the latter stages – perhaps even the semifinals.