The Champions League is back and how! Tonight, 17 September, some of the behemoths of the European game throw the first brawny punches that will set the early tone of the season. There's something for everybody, even the neutrals " especially the neutrals " for they have the power to switch between channels while fans of the teams who feature, wouldn't dare to miss a split second of the action.
For the fans of Liverpool, Chelsea, Valencia, Barcelona, Napoli, Dortmund, Benfica, Leipzig, this is a match preview. For others, this is an entertainment guide that comes with ratings. You're welcome.
Napoli vs Liverpool FC
Last weekend, Liverpool FC showed that they can be delayed but not denied. Liverpool were trailing to Steve Bruce's Newcastle United to a strong weak-foot shot. Bruce built defender-shaped parapets in front of the Kop End; his units well-drilled in the tactics of absorb-and-shock. But substitute Roberto Firmino walked where the roof meets the wall. He scaled down from the ramparts and cut Newcastle's stained glass windows with a diamond-nibbed glass cutter and opened the moat door.
If Firmino's first assist for Sadio Mane had the effect of a blow torch on a slab of cheese, in Liverpool's third goal, Firmino drew a parabola with his cleats. He will be tired against Napoli.
Napoli's head coach Carlo Ancelotti (L) speaks to his players during a training session at SSC Napoli training Center in Castel Volturno, near Naples on the eve of their Champions League match against Liverpool. AFP
Liverpool with Roberto Firmino in the side has the ferocity of Shigeru Kayama's Gojira. Without him, they are a slightly watered down, the re-edited American adaptation of Godzilla: A bit ponderous, lacking a metaphor. It remains to be seen if he's started by manager Jurgen Klopp. He touched upon the fact that the Liverpool no. 9 was jet-lagged, having to take a transcontinental flight from Brazil following international duty.
With Divock Origi also a doubt for this fixture, we may well see Alex Oxlade Chamberlain in a forward role if Firmino is indeed rested, to maintain the front-foot press and the frequency of rubberband through ball. A midfield choke of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and Fabinho is likely to be deployed on Zielenski, Elmas, and Ruiz.
Elsewhere in Italy, giants are hiccupping. Second-placed Napoli were denied (only) their third Serie A title in history, first since 1990, by 35-time champions Juventus last season. Juventus' grip, however, appears to be starting to slip: For 552 consecutive days, starting March 2018, they were like the immovable hermit at the top of the mound, refusing to part from his points. This has enlivened Carlo Ancelloti's Napoli who notched up a convincing victory versus Sampdoria.
In-form double-scorers from the weekend Dries Mertens (Napoli) and Sadio Mane (Liverpool) at either end of the pitch will test full-backs to the utmost, and they will be flanked by the nitro boosters of Callejon (Napoli) and Mohamed Salah (Liverpool).
Liverpool have had blushes at Napoli last season, with some inexplicable defending. They have a blooper still in them. Napoli, on the other hand, have to be carefully prodded. Carlo Ancelotti's teams take on the characteristic of a rat-trap. And Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool's cat-pawed adventure can lead to the trap to snap.
Entertainment quotient for neutrals: 8/10
Chelsea FC vs Valencia CF
Valencia reek of mismanagement from the collar to the sole. Former manager Marcelino Garcia Toral won the Copa del Rey for the Ibiza-facing city last season at the expense of LaLiga champions Barcelona. Now, with their manager fired, their form has taken a holiday and Barcelona have exacted an over-due toll.
The Catalans scored five goals past a hapless Valencia last LaLiga matchday. Valencia fans took to social media to protest against their Singaporean owner, Lim. Common consensus turned into acerbic accusations that sacking Marcelino has destabilised the most successful Valencia project since the Rafael Benitez days. And little less than 12 hours ago celebrated Valencia sporting director Mateu Alemany has announced that he will leave the club.
The Spanish club visits London in the midst of turmoil. A dark mood has spread, and it remains to be seen if the struggle will rally the Valencia players or Chelsea's in-form Tammy Abraham will roll them over for the headshot.
Chelsea scored five past Wolverhampton last Saturday " not on the easiest places to visit. Nuno Gomes' Wolves were the only club last season that defeated all the four Champions League all-English semi-finalists in domestic competitions. Indications are that this could be a one-sided encounter. Chelsea's defence has been equally susceptible, and Valencia should go into this match with a brave face.
Entertainment quotient for neutrals: 5/10
Leipzig vs Benfica
German club RB Leipzig were battered and bruised like a tine hat in a heavy-duty hailstorm by last season's league champions Bayern Munchen, but they held out for a draw. "It was like if a bear ran after you in a forest," said Julian Nagelsmann of the contest. Elsewhere, Benfica rounded up a routine win vs Gil Vicente while rotating their squad. Starlet Joao Filipe (Jota) was brought off the bench in the last quarter of the match and he'd be raring to prove why he regarded as Portugal's next big hope.
The German title pretenders will be sore from the effort and Portuguese league champions Benfica would be relishing the possibility of setting traps. A lot will depend on Emil Forsberg, Leipzig's box-to-box midfielder and forward Timo Werner in setting the front-foot press.
Entertainment quotient for neutrals: 6/10
Borussia Dortmund vs FC Barcelona
"Berlin's world has been turned upside down after winning vs giants," plastered Berliner Morgenpost on their first page. Underneath, it read: "3-1 to Unbelievable Berlin!"
Urs Fischer's upstarts Union Berlin, in what is a mini-miracle, not only find themselves in the Bundesliga but are also midtable in their debut season with a win at the expense of German title contenders Borussia Dortmund " a team that boasts the likes of Mats Hummels, Jordan Sancho, Marco Reus, Lukas Piszczek.
Dortmund are not usually made to feel like a step-ladder by minnows, and Lucien Favre's team would be doubly-determined to regain respectability by hosting Barcelona with illest of manners. Paco Alcacer, former Barcelona surplus turned Borussia revelation, quadruply so. Paco was the only scorer for Dortmund in this weekend's upset and has found the net at almost a goal-a-game basis for the German side, and will too to provide an exclamation mark in the match report.
Barcelona and Luis Suarez are in unforgivable mood coming into this match. Starlet Ansu Fati, the scorer of the first goal against Valencia, has announced his talents to the world and will look for another audition in Germany. Both teams suffer from leaky defences, and this could be a case of who outscores the other. Worth your time.
Entertainment quotient for neutrals: 9/10