The first matchday of the 2015-16 UEFA Champions League group stage took place across the evenings of Tuesday and Wednesday, 15-16 September. While there were several contenders for the best goal of these first set of fixtures – a magnificent strike from just inside the Barcelona half by Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi, which sailed from the right touchline directly over the head of Ter Stegen and in off the post; a fine effort from the left foot of Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann against Galatasaray, as he cushioned across the ball from the edge of the penalty area; and a crafty clipped finish from Angel Di Maria to open the scoring for Paris Saint-Germain against Malmo – Culturedarm’s award at least goes to Edinson Cavani, who scored Paris-Saint Germain’s second of the game.
Florenzi’s goal surely stands as one of the best there has been from long range: in a significant match between two of Europe’s grandest sides; from a tight position, running under pressure down the right flank; and unlike many other famous efforts from around the half-way line, Florenzi’s did not require a mistake from the opposition goalkeeper. Marc-Andre ter Stegen was certainly taken by surprise, but he didn’t flounder, slip, or fumble, and it would be harsh to be critical of his positioning.
Still, although Cavani’s goal wasn’t against quite so stern opposition, it was the most breathtaking of matchday one, and largely thanks to the improvisational ability of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Zlatan ran with the ball beyond a couple of Malmo midfielders before feeding Maxwell down the left wing, and continued his run into the box. When Maxwell’s cross came in towards the near post, Ibrahimovic was in front of the tracking defender, flicking the ball with the outside of his right boot beyond two players to find Cavani unmarked, free to head in from the six-yard line. The flick was so subtle and unexpected that it was barely appreciated in the moment, with some even questioning whether it was deliberate, such was the extent of their surprise. But this was Ibrahimovic – who practised taekwondo as a child, and is a master of such manoeuvres whether scoring goals, providing assists, or simply keeping moves going – and so it was entirely deliberate.
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Playing in Group A and in the Parc des Princes, Ibrahimovic was substituted after 75 minutes, only recently returning to action after suffering a knee injury which kept him out of the opening matches of PSG’s league campaign. PSG vs. Malmo ended 2-0, and Ibrahimovic commented after the game on the team with which he began his career, scoring 16 goals in 40 appearances before moving on to Ajax:
‘It was a great feeling to play against one of my former teams In addition they are a Swedish club, it does not happen often to see them in the Champions League and here I had the chance to confront them. It was a bit like a dream. But I was motivated, believe me, I wanted to score. I did not do it.’
In the other match from Group A on Tuesday, Real Madrid routed the visiting Shakhtar Donetsk 4-0. They were significantly aided by their Ukrainian opponents. With Karim Benzema’s effort the only thing separating the sides at the break, Taras Stepanenko was sent off for a second yellow card at the beginning of the second half, and Shakhtar proceeded to give away two penalties, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo two easy goals before he completed his hat-trick late on with a header. The first penalty decision was especially unfair, given for handball when the ball clearly struck Darijo Srna in the square of the back.
In Group B, it took Wolfsburg’s big-money new signing Julian Draxler to break the deadlock against CSKA Moscow. Wolfsburg spurned several good goalscoring opportunities, many of them crafted by Ricardo Rodriguez’s left foot, before Draxler – a €36 million replacement for Kevin De Bruyne – scored the only goal of the game after 40 minutes, following up sharply after his first attempt was saved. And despite Memphis Depay putting Manchester United into the lead against his former club, PSV Eindhoven came back to win 2-1 with goals either side of half-time from Hector Moreno and Luciano Narsingh. The match was marred by a double fracture of the right leg, suffered by Luke Shaw under a challenge from Moreno early in the first half.
In Group C, an early flurry from Atletico Madrid – finalists two seasons ago – proved too much for Galatasaray, with the away team creating a host of chances before Griezmann struck twice in seven minutes to earn a 0-2 success. Benfica were more wasteful still, but nevertheless triumphed 2-0 at home to FC Astana courtesy of second-half goals from Nicolas Gaitan and Konstantinos Mitroglou. Astana are the first team from Kazakhstan ever to make the group stage of the Champions League, and they showed good defensive organisation, coming close to a goal of their own when substitute Aleksei Schetkin hit the post.
Meanwhile in Group D, Manchester City took the lead against Juventus after a Giorgio Chiellini own-goal – the Juve centre-back inadvertently heading into his own net as Vincent Kompany climbed all over him. But Manchester City have struggled to assert themselves thus far across their Champions League adventures, and they ultimately lost out to goals from Mario Mandzukic – after a superb pass from Paul Pogba – and Alvaro Morata. So a big win for last season’s runners-up, who have started poorly in Serie A. Borussia Monchengladbach are having an even worse time in the Bundesliga, currently rock bottom after four games, and they were dominated away to Sevilla, who won 3-0 thanks to Kevin Gameiro, Ever Banega, and new-signing Yevhen Konoplyanka, the first two goals coming from the penalty spot.
On Wednesday, an early goal from Admir Mehmedi helped Bayer Leverkusen on their way to a 4-1 victory over BATE Borisov: the Belarusian side soon equalling the score, but succumbing to two second-half goals from Hakan Calhanoglu, and to Javier Hernandez’s first goal after his move from Manchester United. In the other group game, arguably the tie of the round saw Roma and Barcelona draw 1-1, Florenzi’s outstanding strike cancelling out Luis Suarez’s opener, a header from close range.
Group F began poorly for Arsenal, who fell to a 2-1 defeat in Zagreb against Dinamo. Overlapping left-back Josip Pivaric’s shot rebounded in off Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, before Olivier Giroud was harshly sent off for a second bookable offence. Junior Fernandes then headed home to double Dinamo’s lead, and though Theo Walcott finished well with just over ten minutes remaining, Arsenal couldn’t complete an unlikely comeback. This was Dinamo Zagreb’s first victory in the group stage of the Champions League since 1999-2000, and their first ever victory over an English side in the modern competition. However, they are currently on a run of forty-two games unbeaten in all competitive fixtures. In Group F’s other game, Bayern Munich left it late to confirm their success over Olympiacos in Piraeus. Thomas Muller scored his seventh goal already this season after 52 minutes, with a fortuitous looping cross, before a Mario Gotze strike on 89 minutes and a Muller penalty in injury time completed the win.
Chelsea prevailed 4-0 at home to Maccabi Tel Aviv in Group G, but only after Eden Hazard extended his poor start to the season by skying an early penalty. Willian subsequently made amends, when his free-kick evaded everyone in the area; Oscar then took over penalty duties to double Chelsea’s advantage; and pleasingly for a side which has suffered its worst league start for twenty-nine years, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas rediscovered enough from to embellish the result. In Ukraine’s Olympic Stadium, a last-minute equaliser from Vitaliy Buyalskyi saw Dynamo Kiev finish 2-2 against Porto. Oleh Husyev scored the first goal of the game, before Vincent Aboubakar struck twice to put Porto briefly ahead.
Finally Group H saw Valencia pull their way back against Zenit Saint Petersburg, after Hulk fired the Russians into a two-goal lead, only for Axel Witsel to give Zenit the victory inside the last fifteen minutes. Both of Hulk’s goals came in the first half, via his powerful left foot; and though Joao Cancelo and Andre Gomes levelled the tie, it took just three minutes for Witsel to decide the match and hand Zenit their first Champions League win in Spain. Elsewhere Gent and Lyon played to a 1-1 draw in dramatic circumstances, as the Belgians ended the match with nine men. Brecht Dejaegere received a straight red card in the first half – only a sending off according to the absurd interpretation of the rules which condemns any raised foot as a potential leg-breaker, for there was no force in Dejaegere’s challenge, with the player simply attempting to nick the ball. And with the score tied, three minutes from time Thomas Foket was also sent off as he conceded a penalty – saved by Matz Sels from Alexandre Lacazette.