Champions League grand masters Ronaldo and Messi upstaged by youngsters

Rodrygo and other next-generation stars dominated the opening round

The Young Boys of Berne truly set down a marker. The opening match of the group phase of the 2021-22 Champions League produced the first of a few stirring comebacks, the first shock result and it rather burst the balloon of the old master around whom so much attention had been focused.

A shame for Cristiano Ronaldo, who had done what he could - and regularly does - to maintain his sense of hierarchy in a competition where he owns several of the towering records. He scored on his European return for Manchester United; he was not on the pitch when the upstarts from Switzerland reversed the contest, with their late second goal and a 2-1 win.

In a raucous Bruges the following night, that other grandmaster Lionel Messi also encountered resistance to his fairytale scenario. Messi started for Paris Saint-Germain, his new club, for the first time, and he struck the crossbar in the first half. But he could hardly complain at the manner in which a bullish Club Bruges responded to falling behind and, chance for chance, more than matched PSG’s expensive assembly of attacking stars. Bruges pulled back to a 1-1 draw.

Young Boys had shown Bruges the way. And it would be an exceptional round for youngish boys at many venues. More than 50 of the players involved in the 16 Champions League matches this week were born in the 20th century, or, put another way, not yet born when Messi, 34, and Ronaldo, 36, were already purposeful teenagers on their own fast tracks to greatness.

Some of the starlets are already well-versed in making a precocious impact on club football’s grandest stage. Take Rodrygo Silva de Goes, the mercurial Brazilian winger whose young career seems to work to its own distinct timetable.

He flits in and out of Real Madrid’s seasons, occasionally electric, sometimes exasperating to his head coaches, but can be relied upon to bend the group phase of each Champions League autumn his club’s way, year after year.

Rodrygo was 18 when he made his home Champions League debut against Galatasaray in 2019. He scored a hat-trick and set up another of the six goals Madrid scored that night.

In his next two starts in Europe he scored once and assisted twice. Rodrygo then went into what has become his typical winter hibernation, a period disrupted by injury in the last two seasons and then a struggle to gain form and momentum.

But when the Champions League group phase comes around again, the starlet Rodrygo is reborn. Last season he made the difference in a tight, topsy-turvy group thanks to his late, match-winning strike for Madrid against Internazionale. He then all but scored in the away fixture at Inter, a decisive strike designated as an own goal, off Achraf Hakimi, in what would be a crucial double over the Italian club. Madrid only scraped out of third place in the group on the sixth matchday, when, naturally, a Rodrygo pass helped them to defeat Borussia Monchengladbach.

On Wednesday Madrid were at Inter again. And Rodrygo came off the bench again to act as Inter’s nemesis. His 89th minute winner was the only goal of the game. “I think every time I play in the Champions League I do something to help the team”, said Rodrygo, who turned 20 in January as he looked over a record of a goal per 112 minutes of European action.

All he needs now is to replicate that effectiveness in La Liga. “It’s always difficult at Real Madrid to find a space in the side,” he reflected, as his head coach, Carlo Ancelotti, counselled: “It’s not how many minutes you play, it’s what you do with those minutes that’s important.”

The Rodrygo winner against Inter had been set up by Eduardo Camavinga’s stylish volley, a nice memento for Camavinga to take from his European debut for Madrid.

It had been a good night for Camavinga’s fellow 18-year-old, Jude Bellingham, brilliant as an assister and goalscorer in Borussia Dortmund’s 2-1 win at Besiktas, where he was joined on the field by Youssoufa Moukoko. Moukoko made his Champions League debut last December, but is still more than two months shy of his 17th birthday.

Barcelona used four teenagers against Bayern Munich, whose own 18-year-old Jamal Musiala outshone them all. RB Salzburg used three teens in the draw against Sevilla, and at Anfield, a 19-year-old came off the bench in the see-saw Liverpool-AC Milan game. He was Daniel Maldini, making his debut in the European Cup, a competition which his grandfather Cesare won in 1963 and his father Paolo won five times in all.

Updated: September 16th 2021, 2:28 PM
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