UEFA Champions League Preview: Napoli, Inter, Atlético stage huge group games

THE FIRST evening’s games had dire consequences for at least two club managers. Thomas Tuchel, who won the Champions League in 2021, was sacked by Chelsea after their surprise 1-0 defeat in Zagreb, and RB Leipzig also parted company with Domenico Tadesco after Shakhtar Donetsk won 4-1 in Germany.

Ajax – Rangers

Ajax, as ever, have been busy selling players in the summer, a key part of their business model. They also waved goodbye to their coach, Erik Ten Hag, who joined Manchester United. His replacement, Alfred Schreuder, has benefitted from the arrival of Steven Bergwijn from Tottenham, who cost € 31 million. Bergwijn has already scored six goals this season. Rangers, who had an excellent Europa League campaign in 2021-22, losing to Frankfurt in the final, go into this game on the back of a 4-0 humbling by Glasgow rivals Celtic. Rangers fans will enjoy their brief stay in Amsterdam, but their team may find it difficult to return with some Champions League points.

Napoli – Liverpool

This will be the third time since 2019 that these two sides have met in the Champions League group phase and the past games in Italy have both ended with Napoli winning, by 2-0 and 1-0. Napoli have started the season well and won 2-1 at Lazio prior to this tie. They have been active in the market and new signings Kim Min-Jae and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia are settling in well. Liverpool, meanwhile, have had a stuttering start to the campaign by their standards, prompting a lot of sould searching about the strength of their squad, which looks rather light in midfield. Although Mo Salah hasn’t been at his absolute best, Liverpool have front-line options, notably in the form of raw arrival Darwin Núñez and past signings Diaz and Jota.

Atlético Madrid – Porto

These two sides met in the group stage last season and drew 0-0 at the Wanda Metropolitan stadium. Atléti, who endured a disappointing 2021-22, have had a patchy start to the new season, but have played three of their four La Liga games away from home. There have been no big signings, Axel Witsel was acquired from Dortmund, but he’s 33 years of age. Given Porto’s reputation as a proficient player trader, it was no surprise that they generated around € 80 million in the market, selling Fabio Vieria and Vitinha to Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain respectively. Porto won the Portuguese double in 2021-22 and have won four of their five league games this term.

Bruges – Leverkusen

Bruges were champions of Belgium last season but have lost some of their key men, notably leading scorer Charles De Ketelaere (AC Milan) and defender Stanley Nsoki (Hoffenheim). It’s often forgotten that Bruges reached the European Cup final in 1978, but their ambitions today are more modest and they will do well to get into the knockout phase. Bayer Leverkusen have had a disastrous start to 2022-23, losing four of their five Bundesliga games and going out of the DFB Pokal. They still have Euro 2020 stand-out star Patrik Schick in their line-up and have added Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi to their squad on a loan deal.

Barcelona – Viktoria Plzn

The most talked-about club in Europe this summer has been Barcelona, who have spent heavily despite revealing financial troubles. Barca spent € 158 million, buying Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Kounde, among others. In 2021-22, they failed to get out of the group stage, but they have performed well so far this season, winning three of their four games. Viktoria Plzn, from the famous beer-making city, were Czech champions in 2021-22, losing just two games. They are unbeaten in the league this season and have overcome Qarabag, Sheriff and HJK to reach the group stage.

Inter Milan – Bayern Munich

A repeat of the 2010 Champions League final is one of the games of the first matchday this season. Inter relinquished their Serie A title to neighbours AC Milan in 2021-22 with Simone Inzaghi at the helm. They won through the Champions League group stage but were beaten by Liverpool in the last 16. They have secured their former striker, Romelu Lukaku, on loan from Chelsea, and paid € 25 million for Lazio’s Joaquin Correa, but they have lost two of their five league games this season. Bayern Munich lost their talismanic goal scorer Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona, but filled his role with Liverpool’s Sadio Mané at a bargain €33 million. Bayern have also signed Matthijs de Ligt from Juventus for € 67 million.

Eintracht Frankfurt – Sporting Lisbon

Frankfurt won the UEFA Europa League to gain automatic inclusion in this season’s Champions League. On route to securing their first European prize, they beat Barcelona, West Ham, Real Betis and Rangers in the final. This year, they started with a crushing 6-1 defeat at home to Bayern, but they appear to have recovered and they have scored four goals in each of their last two games. Sporting were Portuguese champions in 2021 and lost their title by six points to Porto. They also enjoyed a run to the last 16 of the Champions League coming out of a tough group that included Ajax and Dortmund. They have a highly-rated coach in Rúben Amorim, who could be on the shopping list of some bigger clubs.

Tottenham – Marseille

Tottenham are supposedly transformed under Antonio Conte, so they go into the group games with confidence high after a very good start to 2022-23. Spurs have added some interesting and talented players to their squad, notably Yves Bissouma, Richarlison and Dejan Kulusevski (loan). They are unbeaten in their first six games and they should have enough to get through to the knockout rounds. Marseille were runners-up in Ligue 1 last season and have been in excellent form and are unbeaten. They have some familiar faces in their squad, including Alexis Sanchez, who was signed on a free from Inter Milan.

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