Just like that, we’ve found ourselves halfway through the 2022-23 UCL group stage. This season has continued to give football fans and pundits tons of things to debate. So far, it appears that some of the big dogs are struggling on club football’s grandest stage, while a couple of underdogs seem to be making a statement.
With matchday 4 just a few days away, here’s a look back at this week’s biggest winner and loser
Winner: There’s Joy in Naples
Many pundits predicted that the loss of Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne, and Dries Mertens in one summer spelled trouble for the 2× Serie A champions. But Napoli has responded perfectly to these departures with an 11-game unbeaten streak across all competitions. This run includes wins against fellow Serie A powerhouses Lazio and Juventus and last season’s champions league runner-up Liverpool.
Napoli went riot on Matchday 3, obliterating Ajax by six goals to one, handing the Dutch giants their worst defeat in a European Competition in 122 years. Ajax started the game in front after Mohammed Kudus scored in the tenth minute, but their joy was short-lived after Giacomo Raspadori’s header saw the back of the net. It was all goals galore for the away side after the equalizer as Napoli displayed arguably the most lethal offensive performance on Matchday 3.
Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Piotr Zieliński registered their names on the scoresheet to give Napoli a 3-1 lead at halftime, and the Italian side took off from where they left with an early second-half goal from Giacomo Raspadori. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Gio Simeone added more salt to injury on a forgettable game night for Ajax fans.
Napoli’s away dominance over one of the competition’s biggest teams should surely put the world on notice. It gets even more interesting because they are without a star attacking piece in Victor Osimhen.
The Raspadori-Kvaratskhelia bond appears to be working according to the script. The latter is arguably Europe’s breakout player and could well cause a whole lot of trouble for opposing teams, should he at least maintain his current form.
Napoli currently sits atop the Serie A table and is one of the five teams to boast a perfect champions league record. Spalletti’s men are surely one of the teams to avoid the knockout stages.
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Loser: Barcelona’s VAR Woes
Will a football week ever come and go without at least one VAR controversy? It appears the answer is no, and the Catalan giants were on the receiving end this time around.
A new-look Barcelona has enjoyed domestic success so far this season under Xavi, but the outcome of their last two European displays is starting to pile up some pressure. Blaugrana have failed to score in their previous two champions league games, despite boasting one of the finest scoring machines in the world: Robert Lewandowski.
While Barça had themselves to blame in their 2-0 loss against Bayern Munich, all eyes were on the controversial refereeing decisions in their 1-0 loss at the San Siro on matchday 3. Pedri’s goal was disallowed after Ansu Fati was judged to have handled the ball with his hands; a harsh decision considering how the ball ricocheted through Inter’s Andre Onana to Ansu’s fingertips. Clearly not intent there.
This decision was compounded late in the second half after the referee refused to point to the spot for a penalty after an obvious Denzel Dumfries handball in the 18-yard box. Eyebrows were raised after the referee and his officiating team waived a screen check despite intense conversations.
Xavi’s men were made to settle for another champions league loss despite their dominating display. The defeat leaves them in a dicey situation as they currently sit third in Group C, trailing Bayern and Inter by six and three points, respectively.
Wednesday’s rematch against Inter is a must-win for the Blaugrana to keep their UCL hopes alive.