Champions League last-16 draw: tie-by-tie analysis | Champions League

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Last month, Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, advocating for a Super League, lamented that his club have faced Liverpool in just nine competitive games. His wish for more has been granted sooner than he expected and perhaps would have liked. Real beat Liverpool reasonably comfortably in last season’s final and had few issues topping a relatively straightforward group, while Liverpool have suffered a miserable start to the season. With Mohamed Salah returning to form, though, Jürgen Klopp’s side may have improved by February and, out of the title race, can afford to focus on Europe. Aurélien Tchouaméni has joined Real and Eduardo Camavinga was beginning to make an impact last season, but the sense remains that the post-Casemiro midfield is yet to be really tested.

Winners Liverpool.

RB Leipzig's André Silva is congratulated after scoring against Manchester City last season
RB Leipzig’s André Silva is congratulated after scoring against Manchester City last season. Photograph: Ronny Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images

RB Leipzig v Manchester City

These teams met in last season’s group stage, City winning 6-3 at the Etihad before a 2-1 defeat in Germany, with qualification long since secured. In the first of those games, Leipzig were managed by Jesse Marsch; in the second by the caretaker Achim Beierlorzer. Since then Domenico Tedesco has come and gone and now, under Marco Rose, there has been a significant upturn. Saturday’s 3-0 win at Hoffenheim extended Leipzig’s unbeaten run to 11 games and they have been prolific in that time. The front four of André Silva, Dominik Szoboszlai, Christian Nkunku and Timo Werner, who should be back from his ankle injury by February, will test City on the counter.

Winners Manchester City.

Club Brugge v Benfica

Club Brugge were the great surprise of the group stage, winning their first three games without conceding a goal. They secured progress with a 0-0 draw at Atlético Madrid, but the heavy home defeat to Porto that ultimately cost them top spot perhaps gave a truer impression of their abilities: no pushovers, well-organised, but essentially limited. Benfica, meanwhile, ended the group stage in joyous form, with Rafa Silva and João Mario playing probably the best football of their careers. There may be defensive concerns but, even more than the 6-1 win at Maccabi Haifa that meant they topped the group, the 4-3 win over Juventus, when they should have won far more convincingly, demonstrated just how dangerous Roger Schmidt’s side can be.

Winners Benfica.

Milan v Tottenham

Tottenham have not lost to Milan in their four previous meetings, a Peter Crouch goal giving them a 1-0 win at San Siro in their last tie in 2010-11, but how good they are at the moment is anyone’s guess. Hampered by injuries to forwards, with a weird inability to play in the first half (particularly when Dejan Kulusevski is absent) and a dislocation between the midfield and the forward line, their results have been rather better than performances so far this season. The Italian champions have suffered only two defeats in Serie A and have in Rafael Leão one of the more exciting forwards in Europe, but they were desperately poor in losing twice to Chelsea during the group stages, with injuries offer only some excuse.

Winners Tottenham.

André-Frank Zambo Anguissa celebrates scoring Napoli’s second goal in their 4-1 win against Liverpool in September
André-Frank Zambo Anguissa celebrates scoring Napoli’s second goal in their 4-1 win against Liverpool in September. Photograph: Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Eintracht Frankfurt v Napoli

Top of Serie A, unbeaten domestically and hugely impressive in the group stage, Napoli may be the most serious Italian challengers since Juventus decided five league titles in five seasons just wasn’t good enough and got rid of Max Allegri. They are playing fast, dynamic football under Luciano Spalletti and, after the failure of Italy, Nigeria and Georgia to qualify for the World Cup, have an unusual number of players who should be refreshed by a winter break. But unfancied as they may be under Oliver Glasner, Eintracht Frankfurt have become masters of the European away leg. Their Europa League success last season featured victories at Real Betis, Barcelona and West Ham, and this season they won on the road against Marseille and, when they absolutely needed it, Sporting.

Winners Napoli.

Borussia Dortmund v Chelsea

After a shaky start, progress from the group ended up being straightforward for Chelsea, but this is a club still undergoing transition as the recent league defeats to Brighton and Arsenal have shown. There were problems to be addressed in the squad even before the complications of sanctions, and recent injuries have exposed the imbalances that Graham Potter will need to resolve. With Sevilla in miserable form, Borussia Dortmund qualified for the last 16 easily enough, thanks in no small part to a 4-1 win in Spain, a game that highlighted just how important Jude Bellingham has become to Alen Terzic’s side. He may be only 19 but only he, Julian Brandt and Nico Schlotterback have played all 13 league games this season.

Winners Chelsea.

Internazionale v Porto

Porto trail Benfica by eight points domestically but they showed admirable resolve to bounce back from successive defeats at the start of the group stage to qualify with four wins in a row. After suffering a knee injury a month ago, Pepe is a doubt for the World Cup but Porto should have his experience back at the heart of the defence for the last 16. This has not been an easy season domestically for Internazionale and they were twice well-beaten by Bayern Munich, but two fine counterattacking performances against Barcelona ensured progress to the knockout phase for only the second time in the past decade. If Romelu Lukaku can rediscover his form and fitness, his partnership with Lautaro Martínez represents a major threat.

Winners Porto.

PSG’s Keylor Navas concedes the only goal of the 2020 Champions League final to Bayern Munich's Kingsley Coman
PSG’s Keylor Navas concedes the only goal of the 2020 Champions League final to Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman (second right). Photograph: Miguel A Lopes/AP

Paris Saint-Germain v Bayern Munich

For most of the group stage Paris Saint-Germain seemed to be cruising to top spot, but they were undone at the last by Benfica’s flurry away to Maccabi Haifa and are punished with a repeat of the 2020 final. In a sense they fell into a trap they had dug themselves by drawing at home against Benfica the day after stories broke of Kylian Mbappé’s supposed unhappiness at the club. The competing egos will always be the biggest challenge for a PSG coach. Bayern are top of the Bundesliga again, but four draws and a defeat at Augsburg have led to a certain amount of chuntering about Julian Nagelsmann, despite six wins out of six in the Champions League. His record in big European games is not brilliant.

Winners Bayern Munich.

Champions League roundup: Eintracht Frankfurt reach last 16 for the first time | Champions League

Eintracht Frankfurt staged a second-half comeback, scoring twice in 10 minutes to beat the hosts Sporting Lisbon 2-1 on Tuesday and qualify for the Champions League last 16 for the first time, knocking the Portuguese club out of the competition.

Sporting needed only a point to advance and they took the lead when the winger Arthur Gomes volleyed in at the far post after a looping cross was headed on in the 39th minute.

Eintracht, the Europa League champions last season, hardly got a look-in during the first half but came out fighting after the break, needing a win to secure a top-two finish.

A handball by the Sporting captain, Sebastian Coates, in the 62nd minute gave Frankfurt a penalty and Daichi Kamada drew them level with a well-taken spot-kick.

The France international Randal Kolo Muani then powered into the box and drilled home the winner 10 minutes later to complete their comeback and secure second place behind Tottenham in Group D.

Bayern Munich completed a perfect group stage by beating fellow qualifiers Internazionale 2-0 thanks to goals from Benjamin Pavard and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting in their final Group C game.

Bayern ended top on 18 points, eight ahead of second-placed Inter with both teams having already reached the knockout stage.

In Pilsen, Ferran Torres scored in each half as Barcelona eased past Viktoria Plzen 4-2 but both sides were already eliminated from the competition. Barcelona remained in third place in Group C behind Bayern and Inter and will drop into the Europa League. Plzen ended their European campaign without a point.

Barcelona, who rested a number of regulars including Robert Lewandowski, struck six minutes into the match when the defender Marcos Alonso poked the ball over the line.

The visitors doubled the lead just before the break when Jordi Alba deftly nodded the ball to the feet of an unmarked Torres who calmly slotted the ball into the net for a goal initially ruled out before a VAR review.

The Czech champions briefly cut the deficit in half when Tomas Chory converted a penalty after winning a spot-kick in the 51st minute before Torres nabbed his second of the night on the break minutes later.

Plzen responded with a glancing Chory header in the 63rd minute to potentially set up a nervy finish until Pablo Torre slammed a shot into the roof of the net on his Barcelona debut to wrap up the victory.

Porto’s Iranian forward Mehdi Taremi celebrates after scoring against Atlético Madrid
Porto’s Iranian forward Mehdi Taremi celebrates after scoring against Atlético Madrid Photograph: Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images

Goals from Mehdi Taremi and Stephen Eustáquio helped Porto to secure a 2-1 win at home against Atlético Madrid to finish top of Group B.

Porto had already qualified for the last 16 but leapfrogged Club Brugge to finish as group winners with 12 points, one point ahead of the Belgian club who also went through. Atlético finished last, failing even to qualify for the Europa League knockout round playoffs.

Porto went ahead in the fifth minute when the forward Taremi tapped in a cross from Evanilson, registering his fifth goal in the Champions League this season.

The midfielder Eustáquio doubled Porto’s lead in the 24th minute, drilling the ball into the bottom corner after Galeno sprinted down the left and played a cross inside the box.

Atlético’s Antoine Griezmann found the net in the 68th minute but the referee had already blown the whistle for a foul from Rodrigo De Paul on Galeno in the build-up, while the Porto keeper Diogo Costa saved a shot from Angel Correa six minutes later.

The Porto defender Ivan Marcano scored an own goal in added time, but it did not do much damage to Porto who went on to seal three points.

Club Brugge finished second in their Champions League group after failing to win at Bayer Leverkusen, drawing 0-0 in their final Group B game.

Brugge had already qualified for the round of 16 in February following their first four games after emerging as the surprise package of the Champions League group campaign.

But a 4-0 defeat at home against Porto last week and the draw at the Bay Arena on Tuesday meant they ended on 11 points from their six games, one behind Porto.

Leverkusen finished third to take a Europa League place ahead of Atletico on their head-to-head results against the Spanish club.

Brugge came closest to victory when their Canada international Tajon Buchanan struck the upright shortly after half-time although Leverkusen were the more attacking and forced visiting goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to make some key saves. Mignolet kept five clean sheets in the six group games.

‘Crazy Inter’ are back but Simone Inzaghi has them on an upward swing | Serie A

Simone Inzaghi never did fear the madhouse. His predecessor at Internazionale, Antonio Conte, made it a mission to end the club’s reputation as “Pazza Inter” – Crazy Inter – insisting they should instead be “regular and strong”. That goal was achieved as they marched to the 2020-21 Scudetto. Once they claimed top spot, they never let go: 11 clean sheets in the final 21 games ensuring their rivals never got a sniff.

It was a different story last season, when Inzaghi’s Inter led in December only to stumble through the winter and finish second. One journalist asked whether the pazza days had returned. “If being crazy means reaching the last 16 of the Champions League and the final of the Coppa Italia,” Inzaghi replied, “then I hope I always will be.”

He was right to feel proud of such achievements. Inzaghi was the first manager in a decade to steer Inter to the knockout phase of Europe’s top club competition, and he would guide them to victory in that Coppa Italia final as well. Not bad, for a side that had been weakened since Conte’s departure by the sales of Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi.

The Belgian’s return this summer fuelled hope for a fresh title challenge. Although Ivan Perisic and Alexis Sánchez left on free transfers, Inter otherwise kept the core of their first team together. Inzaghi had dug his heels in when it came to the defence, persuading the board not only to resist big offers for Milan Skriniar, Alessandro Bastoni and Denzel Dumfries but to loan Francesco Acerbi from his former club Lazio as well.

With Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the promising 20-year-old Empoli midfielder Kristjan Asllani adding depth further up the pitch, the sense was that this team ought to be stronger. That was before Lukaku, having scored on his first game back and provided an assist in his second, sustained a hamstring injury that has ruled him out now for the best part of two months.

Inter lost away at Lazio, Milan and Udinese, and at home against Roma as well. They opened their European campaign with a 2-0 defeat by Bayern Munich at San Siro that felt more emphatic than the scoreline suggests.

At times Inter looked toothless. Lautaro Martínez, the main man in Lukaku’s absence, endured a crisis of confidence, going eight games without a goal. Edin Dzeko delivered some winning interventions but, at 36, could not do it every week.

There were bigger problems at the back. The defence Inzaghi had been so anxious to protect conceded 14 goals in its opening 10 league games. Lazio, Milan, Udinese and Barcelona each scored three times against them. On Saturday, Fiorentina did the same.

Everything had looked so straightforward for Inter after a quarter of an hour. The Nerazzurri took the lead in the second minute through Nicolò Barella, before Lautaro made it 2-0. But they let their opponents back in when Federico Dimarco crashed his studs into the knee of Giacomo Bonaventura as the Fiorentina player attacked a cross.

Nicolò Barella tumbles to the pitch while opening the scoring for Inter against Fiorentina
Nicolò Barella tumbles to the pitch while opening the scoring for Inter against Fiorentina. Photograph: Massimo Paolone/AP

It was a shocking challenge – late, high and dangerous – missed by the referee in real time but picked up by VAR. Paolo Valeri awarded a penalty after seeing the replay, yet inexplicably chose not even to card Dimarco, who ought to have been shown a straight red.

Arthur Cabral converted his spot-kick to bring Fiorentina back into the game. They equalised in the second half with a brilliant goal from Jonathan Ikoné, who chased Acerbi on to his heels as he cut in from the left before firing into the far top corner.

Inter bounced back, Lautaro winning and then scoring a penalty of his own. Still, they failed to close the game out. In the final seconds of regular time, Nikola Milenkovic headed down a corner, and Luka Jovic hooked home an acrobatic volley.

The Viola celebrated his equaliser as though it were a winner. They have had a disappointing start to this campaign, struggling to score goals and languishing in the bottom half of the table. To persevere and get a result after the injustice of Dimarco’s non-dismissal felt like a potential turning point.

Yet this game still was not finished. In the fourth minute of injury time, Inter broke forward again, Dzeko feeding Barella, whose square ball for Mkhitaryan instead found the defender Lorenzo Venuti. His attempted clearance hit the Armenian, and rebounded into the net to give Inter a 4-3 win.

Crazy Inter? You could say they were simply a very lucky Inter here. Besides the Dimarco incident, Fiorentina felt the final goal ought to have been ruled out after some borderline contact from Dzeko during the buildup. The home side’s manager, Vincenzo Italiano, was within his rights at full-time to call it an undeserved defeat.

Inzaghi could hold on to the positives for his team all the same. This was Inter’s fourth win in five games across all competitions, with the only exception being a 3-3 draw away at Barcelona. They might have won that game, too, if Asllani had shown the same presence of mind as Barella and squared the ball for Mkhitaryan at an almost identical moment of second-half injury time.

Just as last season, it seems as though Inter may draw strength from their European exploits. They arrived for their home game against Barcelona at the start of this month with low expectations after consecutive league defeats, but a 1-0 win that day transformed the mood at the club. Lautaro broke his drought in the return fixture at the Camp Nou and has added three more goals since.

It is not the first such cold streak the Argentinian has endured in his five years at Inter, and during a similar patch last season he confessed that he would go to bed “thinking about it every night”. The contrast between his gamechanging best and anonymous worst would be a puzzle for any manager. Lautaro is the only player in Serie A to have scored three times this season off each his left and right boots.

Quick Guide

Serie A results


Juventus 4-0 Empoli, Salernitana 1-0 Spezia, Milan 4-1 Monza, Fiorentina 3-4 Inter, Udinese 1-2 Torino, Bologna 2-0 Lecce, Atalanta 0-2 Lazio, Roma 0-1 Napoli

Monday: Cremonese v Sampdoria, Sassuolo v Hellas Verona

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Inzaghi will be grateful to have Lukaku back, possibly as soon as Wednesday, to share the scoring burden, but there is no such quick fix available for Inter’s defence. He already replaced Samir Handanovic in goal with André Onana, the Cameroonian starting all of these last five games. As good as Inter’s results have been in this stretch, they have still conceded seven times along the way.

It feels as impossible as ever to know if Inter are turning a corner or simply banking into another corkscrew on a rollercoaster ride. There is talent enough in this team to beat almost anyone, with Marcelo Brozovic also expected back soon from injury and Barella in irrepressible form. Yet it feels as though there is self-destructiveness enough to lose any game as well.

Inzaghi does not aspire to rewrite the club’s DNA as Conte did. He was happy to embrace the crazy last season, but now he must harness it to his own ends.

Robert Lewandowski keeps Barcelona alive in pulsating draw with Inter | Champions League

Barcelona stepped back from the edge but they still stare into the abyss. A late, late goal from Robert Lewandowski, his second of the night, keeps them in the Champions league – but only just and quite probably not for long. Three-two down, Robin Gosens having seemingly slipped in the knife with just two minutes to go, they were in the 92nd minute when the Pole headed Barcelona level. Their fate is not in their own hands, but at least they are not finished. Not yet, anyway.

This was a wild night, with an even wilder finish. From 1-0 up to 2-1 down, from 2-2 and chasing the winner that would change everything, to 3-2 down and then 3-3, Barcelona were left breathing, if barely. Having seemingly lost it and then found a way back in, they almost lost it again, only for Marc-André ter Stegen to make an astonishing save right at the death. Had that gone in, and it should have done, they would have been knocked out of the Champions league with two games to go. Instead, they stumble on. They need to win their final two games and hope Inter do win either of theirs.

The place was packed and Barcelona were keen to get on with it, the fans whistling Inter goalkeeper André Onana for wasting time before he had had any time to waste. It was true though that on his return to the stadium where he once lived but never played, he wasn’t in the kind of hurry the home side were – and yet it was Inter who had the first chance, when Lautaro Martínez escaped on the left and struck a shot into the side-netting.

As it turned out, the flag was up but that was an early glimpse of the threat that Inter posed when they went long beyond the press and of Barcelona’s vulnerability to that out-ball. That risk was revealed again when from a Barcelona corner Nicolò Barella pushed his way past Gavi and into the open space beyond, reaching the area and rolling the ball into the path of of Denzel Dumfries, whose shot was blocked by the left arm of Ter Stegen.

By then, Inter had come even closer as Edin Dzeko dived in to take Hakan Calhanoglu’s delivery on the bounce, his half-volley hitting the bar and dropping on to the line, where it was somehow scrambled away from the waiting Martínez. Yet it was Barcelona who carried the weight of the game, Lewandowski seeing an early header cleared off the line. The problem at that stage appeared to be that it was a little predictable, the ball put into the area too early. A superb angled ball from Eric García in to Pedri was an exception.

Robin Gosens (right) celebrates with his teammates after scoring Inter’s third goal on the counterattack
Robin Gosens (right) celebrates with his teammates after scoring Inter’s third goal on the counterattack Photograph: Joan Monfort/AP

Chances came though, and Barcelona were growing. So was the corner count, reaching seven within half an hour. Raphinha volleyed over the clearest of the opportunities from Lewandowski’s cross. Onana almost knocked the ball into his own net as his dive saw him fall on to the ball from an Ousmane Dembélé shot, next he spilled a Sergi Roberto shot, just about recovering as Lewandowski slid in, and then he made a sharp save at the feet of Pedri.

Barcelona though did find a way through. From deep in the corner Raphinha won the ball and took Federico Dimarco and Henrikh Mkhitaryan out of the game with a clever pass into Sergi Roberto. Alone in the area, he sent it across to Dembélé, who sprinted in to score and didn’t stop running until he had reached the touchline and was in Xavi’s arms.

That was five minutes before the break; five minutes after it, Inter were level. A speared pass to Alessandro Bastoni caught Gerard Piqué behind his defence, playing everyone onside. Worse, not only did he step up late, he raised his hands to see the ball through, unaware of the danger behind him. Barella, to Pique’s horror suddenly alone from close range, controlled, turned and provided the finish.

The urgency returned, the game opening up: This was a lot of fun – or it would have been had there not been so much depending on it, tension tearing at Barcelona, on edge. Lewandowski volleyed over at one end. At the other Gavi had to make a sharp intervention, Ter Stegen saved superbly from Bastoni, and Marcos Alonso had to rescue Piqué deep inside his area. When Busquets gave the ball away and Calhanoglu struck another long diagonal into the box, Martínez stepped away from García and struck a shot that flew into the net off both posts.

Barcelona threw everything at this now. They had to, whatever the risks. There was no other way back. Frenkie De Jong, Alejandro Balde, Ansu Fati, Franck Kessié and Ferran Torres were all sent on, the noise level rising. Lewandowski scored one, had one ruled out for offside, then drew a save from Onana.

A long ball sent Dembélé scampering but he shot into the side netting. Time raced and so did they, Balde bombing up the line to deliver the ball that got them level. Stefan De Vrij made a mess of the clearance and Lewandowski was there, a deflected shot making it 2-2 and bringing brief hope and a wild finish but ultimately a troubling reality.

European roundup: Tomori on target to help Milan defeat struggling Juventus | European club football

Milan secured a 2-0 win over rivals Juventus with goals from defender Fikayo Tomori and midfielder Brahim Díaz in a spirited Serie A clash at the San Siro.

The defending champions provisionally moved up two places to third in the standings on 20 points, level with leaders Napoli and second-placed Atalanta who both have a game in hand.

Juventus, who appeared to have turned a corner after beating Bologna 3-0 at home last weekend, following that up with a 3-1 victory against Maccabi Haifa in the Champions League in midweek, remain eighth on 13 points.

Milan made it 1-0 just before the break through Tomori who followed up a shot by Olivier Giroud and rifled the ball into the roof of the net. Díaz doubled Milan’s lead in the 54th minute when he took advantage of Dusan Vlahovic’s mistake and raced towards Juve’s goal, finishing off a solo effort with a brilliant strike.

Edin Dzeko’s 100th and 101st Serie A goals gave injury-ridden Internazionale a 2-1 victory at Sassuolo. The 36-year-old became the third-oldest player to reach the milestone behind Goran Pandev and Sergio Pellissier.

In Spain, Ángel Correa scored twice as Atlético Madrid won 2-1 against Girona to move up to fourth in La Liga. Girona made it difficult for the home side who relied on an inspired performance from Jan Oblak and got lucky when two second-half strikes from the visitors hit the post.

Both Correa’s goals were scored in the early minutes of each half. The Argentina international stroked in a close-range, first-time shot from an Antoine Griezmann cross to open the scoring after five minutes. Three minutes after the break, Correa intercepted a poor pass from goalkeeper Juan Carlos inside the box and buried the ball in the open goal.

Ángel Correa watches his shot go past Juan Carlos for Atlético Madrid’s second goal
Ángel Correa watches his shot go past Juan Carlos for Atlético Madrid’s second goal. Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters

Girona reduced the deficit in the 65th minute when Rodrigo Riquelme’s long-range shot deflected off defender José Maria Gimenez, which took it beyond Jan Oblak.

Aleix García smashed a thundering strike off the post in the 77th minute and had a similar strike from the same spot that Oblak acrobatically tipped away. From the resulting corner, Santiago Bueno jumped high to deliver a towering header that smashed against Oblak’s left post. That was as close as Girona came to an equaliser.

Atlético’s win lifted them to 16 points, a point behind third-placed Athletic Bilbao who drew 1-1 at Sevilla, Mikel Vesga equalising for the visitors after Óliver Torres’s early goal. Atlético are three points behind the leaders Barcelona and Real Madrid, who have a game in hand.

In the main game in Germany, Borussia Dortmund scraped a 2-2 draw at home to Bayern Munich. Earlier, Bayer Leverkusen’s Moussa Diaby scored once and set up two for Jeremie Frimpong in a 4-0 demolition of visiting Schalke to give Xabi Alonso a winning start as a coach in the Bundesliga.

Diaby thundered in a shot from outside the area in the 38th minute before setting up Frimpong to drill in from a tight angle three minutes later.
The pair combined again eight minutes after the restart with Diaby again the provider and Dutch midfielder Frimpong slotting in from close range. Paulinho completed the rout with a well-timed run in the 90th minute.

This story will be updated

Champions League roundup: Napoli pummel Ajax 6-1, Inter beat Barcelona | Champions League

Giacomo Raspadori scored twice as Napoli came from behind to deliver a masterclass and score a runaway 6-1 win at 10-man Ajax in the Champions League on Tuesday.

The captain, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Piotr Zielinski, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and the substitute Giovanni Simeone added the other goals for the Italian league leaders, after Mohammed Kudus had given the hosts the lead inside the opening 10 minutes.

Napoli, who might have scored more such was their dominance, have a 100% record at the halfway point in Group A, leaving Ajax with three points from their opening three games and in danger of missing out on next year’s knockout stages after their biggest defeat in European football.

Internazionale bounced back after two consecutive losses in Serie A with a crucial 1-0 win against Barcelona thanks to a Hakan Calhanoglu goal. The midfielder slotted home a clinical strike from just outside the area, with the ball going into the corner to the goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen’s right in added time before the break. The home win lifted Inter to second place in Group C on six points, three behind leaders Bayern Munich and three in front of Barcelona.

Bayern struck three times in the opening 21 minutes en route to a 5-0 demolition of Viktoria Plzen to set a record for the longest unbeaten run in group matches. The German champions have now gone 31 group games in the competition without defeat.

Elsewhere, goals from Club Brugge forwards Kamal Sowah and Ferran Jutglà saw the Belgian champions beat Atlético Madrid 2-0 at home to extend their perfect run in Group B this season. The hosts took the lead in the 36th minute when Jutglà’s low pass across the goal found Sowah, who tapped the ball into an empty net for his second European goal in three games.

Jutglà doubled the lead in the 62nd minute after winger Tajon Buchanan calmly waited for the right moment to set up the Spanish forward inside the box. Atlético had a chance to get back into the match with a penalty 15 minutes later but Antoine Griezmann lashed the ball against the bar and moments later the forward thought he had scored but his effort was ruled out for offside. Porto substitutes Zaidu and Galeno were both on target as they beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 to seal the Portuguese side’s first victory in the group stage. They are level on points with Leverkusen after three matches.

Marseille secured their first Champions League win of the season when they recovered from a shaky start to outclass 10-man Sporting 4-1 in an incident-packed Group D encounter at an empty Stade Vélodrome. The game, played behind closed doors after crowd trouble marred Marseille’s home match against Eintracht Frankfurt, was delayed by more than 20 minutes following Sporting’s late arrival at the stadium due to a traffic jam.

When Ronaldo joined Inter from Barcelona and tore Serie A to shreds | Football

It’s 8 June 1997 in Lyon, where Italy and Brazil are preparing to square off in Le Tournoi for their first meeting since the World Cup final three years earlier. Italy coach Cesare Maldini walks over to Fabio Cannavaro and says: “Fabio, we’ll see if this Ronaldo truly is a phenomenon.” By the end of a pulsating 3-3 draw, Ronaldo has scored and tormented both Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini. Cannavaro returns to his manager and tells him that the young Brazilian is indeed the real deal, to which Maldini replies: “Yes Fabio, you are right.”

Ronaldo joined Inter six weeks later. According to former Inter president Massimo Moratti, the idea of signing Ronaldo occurred after a drab, goalless draw at Fiorentina three months earlier. Moratti supposedly concocted the plan in the back of a Florentine taxi. And true to his word, he delivered, exploiting rising tensions between Ronaldo and Barcelona to activate the Brazilian’s buyout clause. The transfer sent a wave of excitement through Italian football not seen since the summer Diego Maradona joined Napoli 13 years earlier.

The revisionist narrative surrounding Ronaldo’s career is that the year in Barcelona was the pinnacle of his career. According to the statistics, this is true. The fact he rifled in 47 goals in 49 games in all competitions, including the wonder goal against Compostela in October 1996, where he swat away defenders with such outrageous ease, reinforces the narrative.

Yet his true peak came in his first season at Inter, where this perfectly assembled force of nature destroyed everything in his path. Rampaging through La Liga was one thing, but doing it in Serie A – by far and away the greatest league in the world (and with 1997-98 perhaps the strongest single season the sport has ever seen) – was quite another.

Bobby Robson, José Mourinho and Ronaldo celebrate winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997.
Bobby Robson, José Mourinho and Ronaldo celebrate winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997. Photograph: Colorsport/REX/Shutterstock

Serie A had been home to the world’s best players and the game’s most feared strikers for years. Italy’s grizzled defenders were used to locking horns with great foreign players, but they weren’t quite ready for Ronaldo. If Maradona possessed dribbling genius, Zinedine Zidane the ethereal technique and Marco Van Basten, Gabriel Batistuta and George Weah raw physicality and pace sprinkled with a dash of elegance, Ronaldo was an intoxicating cocktail of them all. A PlayStation footballer come to life.

Ronaldo’s highly anticipated debut was upended by Álvaro Recoba, who scored two howitzers in the space of five minutes to overcome Brescia. The second game of the season saw Inter travel to face Bologna in a game billed as “Ronaldo v Baggio”, a battle between the game’s two premier players for a large stretch of the decade. The game at the rain-drenched Stadio Dall’ara was an instant classic, with Baggio scoring two and Inter scoring four. Ronaldo got off the mark, twisting Bologna defender Massimo Paganin like a pretzel on the edge of the box with a right foot shimmy before planting the ball into the bottom corner with his left.

“Ronaldo? Mamma mia! What a player,” reflected Baggio in 2021. “He came from the future. He played football with technique and speed ahead of his time. I saw him do things that were unthinkable, which no one had done or thought of until then. He was unique.”

Ronaldo scored six in his next seven games, including a mesmeric performance against Parma in October. He danced and glided his way past players at will, even crashing a free-kick past Gianlugi Buffon from 25 yards out that clipped the underside of the crossbar. By Christmas, he had nine goals in 13 games.

“He was an alien among humans,” said Buffon. “It seemed like he was created in a lab. He was the perfect player, as he had power, speed, intuition, technical skills and quickness.” That was the beauty of the first Ronaldo. He could do everything: he took penalties, free-kicks and even corners in his first season at Inter; he would pick up the ball near the halfway line and dribble past as many players dared stand in his way.

Ronaldo and Inter suffered a bit of a dip following the 1-0 win against Juventus in early 1998, dropping 10 points in January and February. His one and only league hat-trick came in the 5-0 demolition of Lecce in the middle of this sticky patch.

Ronaldo has his boots polished after scoring in the Uefa Cup final.
Ronaldo has his boots polished after scoring in the Uefa Cup final. Photograph: John Sibley/Action Images/Reuters

If you want a snapshot of just how good Ronaldo was during his golden period at Inter, his performance against Spartak Moscow in the second leg of their Uefa Cup semi-final is the perfect distillation of a player operating in a different orbit. Describing the pitch at the old Dynamo Stadium as a potato field would be an affront to potato fields the world over. Even though the surface was laced with ice and snow, the game was inexplicably allowed to go ahead. It made little difference to Ronaldo.

He scored twice and his second was spectacular. Like his goals against Sampdoria, Lecce and Schalke, Ronaldo collected the ball from deep. He spun on a dime, ran deep into the heart of the defence and passed to Iván Zamorano, who squeezed the ball back to Ronaldo, who danced through two defenders with a single touch, rounded the goalkeeper and slotted the ball home, while effectively playing on an ice rink. “Straordinario” shouted legendary Rai commentator Bruno Pizzul.

The season had been building to the titanic clash between Inter and Juventus at the end of April. The most important Derby d’Italia in years, with only a point separating them, was essentially stripped down to a battle between Ronaldo and Alessandro Del Piero, the two best players in the world. They had been upstaging one another all season, forcing the other to raise the stakes even higher. “When you arrived at Inter you were already in my head, and you inspired me to become better,” said Del Piero to Ronaldo in 2020. Ronaldo had scored 22 in 28 Serie A games and had dominated the Uefa Cup; Del Piero had 20 in 30 games and had dominated the Champions League. Whoever won the game would win the title.

The game now lives in infamy, a tale of two penalties: one denied to Inter and one given to Juventus just 15 seconds later. The controversy went right to the top, with Italian politicians even debating the decision – and fighting over it in parliament. But the truth is that Ronaldo had missed several chances before Mark Iuliano sent him tumbling in the box. The story of the game was of missed chances rather than a penalty not given. The 1-0 defeat knocked the wind out of Inter’s sails and, with the league mathematically gone following a surprise defeat to Bari in early May, the focus now became the Uefa Cup final against Lazio in Paris.

Ronaldo stole the show. “I have watched that game on video so many times since then, trying to work out what I did wrong,” recalled Alessandro Nesta. “We lost 3-0, but I don’t think it was my fault. Ronaldo was simply unstoppable. He is so quick he makes everyone else look as if they are standing still.” Nesta, one of the most elegant defenders Italy ever produced and a player who shackled Lionel Messi at the age of 36, could do little to stop Ronaldo at 22.

The Brazilian produced the most complete performance of his career, toying with Lazio for 90 minutes. Javier Zanetti and Zamorano had already scored before Ronaldo sprung Lazio’s offside trap in the 69th minute to utterly bamboozle the hapless Luca Marchegiani, putting the goalkeeper on the floor without so much as touching the ball before stroking it into the empty net.

Ronaldo lifts the Uefa Cup in 1998.
Ronaldo lifts the Uefa Cup in 1998. Photograph: Kolvenbach

“It was incredible, but he did tricks like that in every training session,” recalled Youri Djorkaeff. “We were used to it. Ronaldo was phenomenal. He proved that he was a cut above the rest that season.” It became one of the defining goals of the 1990s, confirmation that Ronaldo was a 21st-century footballer playing in the dying embers of the 20th.

Ronaldo would end the 1997-98 season with 34 goals in all competitions, 25 in Serie A. He had torn the most unrelenting league the world has ever seen to shreds. “My toughest opponents would be Maradona, Ronaldo, who was phenomenal in his two years at Inter, and Zidane,” said Maldini when asked by La Gazzetta dello Sport to name the players who gave him the hardest time in his 24-year career. “Ronaldo was the only player who really stirred fear in me. Just walking on the same pitch as he did was terrifying for me,” wrote Cannavaro in 2018.

Inter did not win the Scudetto, but going into France 98 there was no doubting Ronaldo was the finest footballer on planet Earth. Everything seemed to be there for the taking and most assumed that he would only get better. Yet, just two months after his Uefa Cup zenith in Paris, the same city bore witness to the beginning of the end of peak Ronaldo, and he was never the same. The human knee simply wasn’t built for that level of contorting, pulling and pushing – not on a frame as muscular as Ronaldo’s and at such devastating speed.

But, if you were fortunate enough to witness it, Ronaldo was special in 1997-98. The ultimate cheat code player. Il Fenomeno.