UEFA Champions League Preview: Shaping things to come

AS THE pressure grows, some teams may have to start making plans for the Europa League. All four of these groups are quite open in terms of the first three placings. It should make for an interesting conclusion to matchday four.

Group A: Napoli – Ajax; Rangers – Liverpool

Napoli are in great form, unbeaten in Serie A , two points clear at the top of the table, and scoring goals for fun. Luciano Spalletti’s team won 4-1 at Cremonese last weekend, just a few days after winning 6-1 in Amsterdam against Ajax. They’ve scored 13 goals in their three Champions League games. Ajax were stunned by that home defeat but they bounced back with a 4-2 win at Volendam, but they are still in second place behind AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie. Ajax’s form has been a little patchy, which has been blamed on a summer of disruption at the club, which included the loss of coach Erik ten Hag. Rangers have another difficult game ahead of them when they welcome Liverpool, who may not be at their best but should still be too strong for the 2021 Scottish champions, who have yet to score a goal in the group. Liverpool have won two of their eight Premier League games but will be eager to get back on track before they face Manchester City in their next fixture. There’s been a lot of speculation about Liverpool’s supposed decline, highlighted by that heavy defeat in Naples in their opening group outing, but they have lost only two league games – hardly a major crisis at this stage.


Group B: Atlético Madrid – Club Brugge; Bayer Leverkusen – Porto

You could say Bruges have been something of a surprise package in this group, maximum points after three games. After beating Atléti 2-0 in Belgium, they will find Diego Simeone’s team tougher at the Wanda Metropolitano. However, their form in La Liga at home has been inconsistent and their two league defeats have been on their own turf. Atlético have signed Antoine Griezmann from Barcelona on a permanent basis for € 20 million, a reduced fee after Barca asked for twice as much. Griezmann joined Barca from Atléti in 2019 but returned on loan in 2021. Prior to the permanent deal, Simeone was only using Griezmann sparingly due to the terms of his agreement with Barca. Bruges have a six-point lead over the rest of the group and a victory in Spain would probably secure top spot. Bayer Leverkusen host Porto and should be in a better frame of mind after their 4-0 win against Schalke in the Bundesliga.  Porto are still three points behind Benfica in the Portuguese Primeira and have lost just once in the league. They secured their first Champions League win when they beat Leverkusen 2-0.

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Group C: Barcelona – Inter Milan; Viktoria Plzn – Bayern Munich

Barcelona versus Inter Milan is a genuine clash of European giants. Barca coach Xavi has called it “a final” and there’s no doubting how important it is for the shape of the group given Inter won their first meeting in the San Siro. Barcelona will be without Jules Kounde, their summer signing from Sevilla, and the talk is that Xavi will play with a three-man defence. Barca are top of La liga although level with Real Madrid on points. They beat Celta Vigo at the Camp Nou at the weekend. Inter are in seventh place in Serie A after their 2-1 victory at Sassuolo. Romelu Lukaku is almost fully fit and may be included on the bench, but it seems probable that Inter will line-up with Edin Džeko and Lautaro Martinez up front. Viktoria Plzn, who have lost all three of their group games, host Bayern Munich, who are currently having problems with injuries. Alphonso Davies received a bad head injury in the 2-2 draw with Dortmund, a game that saw Bayern throw away a 2-0 lead. Bayern have a 100% record in the Champions League and have yet to concede a goal, but they are in third place in the Bundesliga.

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Group D: Sporting – Marseille; Tottenham – Eintracht Frankfurt

This tight group could open up a little after this fourth round of matches. Sporting face Marseille, with the French side desperate to pick something up in Lisbon. OM lost their first Ligue 1 game of the campaign when they were surprisingly beaten by Ajaccio despite Dimitri Payet scoring his 100th league goal. The defeat pushed them into third place. Sporting, meanwhile, won  2-1 at Santa Clara at the weekend but are nine points behind leaders Benfica. They look set to place a huge release clause on their 21 year-old midfielder, Manuel Ugarte who has attracted the attention of Premier League clubs, including Tottenham. Spurs, sitting third in the Premier League, host Frankfurt well aware that a victory would consolidate their position in the group. Antonio Conte’s team will be without Dejan Kulusevski, but Lucas Moura and Richarlison are set to be involved. Frankfurt received a blow in training when their on-loan winger Ansgar Knauff was injured. Another youngster, Luca Pellegrini has also been ruled out.


Let’s hear it for the French

SOMETIMES football’s administrators seem to adopt the sort of approach that eccentric writer William Burroughs used to concoct sentences when he was penning his novels. He would cut up various words and come up with very creative passages of prose, often out of nowhere. When it comes to future tournament structures, such as the bloated 48-team World Cup and now an idea to introduce an additional European club competition concept, you have to wonder if the backroom staff sit around a table and try to make the football calendar even more crowded in a very similar, random fashion.

But the people governing football really cannot win – they preside over a pastime that millions and millions believe is their personal property. It’s a ludicrous idea that a sport that is now a fully-fledged business sector is some sort of sporting socialism, because it is as much a child of capitalism as the most aggressive form of commerce. The governing bodies are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The French are getting some criticism at the moment, largely due to their handling of the UEFA Champions League, but it is fair to give credit to a nation that really created the framework that modern football adheres to. The World Cup, European Championship and European Cup (Champions League) are all ideas that were germinated in France. Men like Jules Rimet (pictured in 1951), Henry Delaunay and Gabriel Hanot helped to shape modern football. And all this despite the fact that French football, on the international stage, has been an inconsistent player – only recently enhanced by the winning of the European Championship in 1984 and 2000 and the World Cups in 1998 and 2018.

Let’s not deny France has had some great players down the years: Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Raymond Kopa, Just Fontaine and Thierry Henry to name but a few. France was among the forerunners of intelligent writers on the game. L’Equipe and France Football were among the first “serious” publications to examine football and both were instrumental in the development of the European game. France Football was the sponsor of the Ballon D’Or, while L’Equipe, a sports paper, was a big advocate of the European Cup.

Rimet was a liberal character full of ideals. He founded the Paris club, Red Star, in 1897 and was one of the people behind the formation of FIFA. At an early stage, he nurtured the idea of a global professional football competition, but had to make do with an amateur competition at the 1908 Olympic Games. It wasn’t until 1928 that the idea of the World Cup started to take shape. The choice of venue, Uruguay, was controversial, but it was largely due to the fact that the Uruguayans had agreed to pay all related costs. Rimet, along with the competing teams, all travelled to South America on the Italian ship, SS Conte Verde and for the entire voyage, Rimet carried his trophy in a bag alongside him.

Delaunay was Rimet’s friend and colleague. He was also involved in the foundation of the World Cup, but in 1927, proposed the inauguration of a European competition. It wasn’t until 1960 that the first European Nations Cup took place. The trophy bears his name. Gabriel Hanot has never had his name on a trophy as far as I know, but he was the instigator of discussions around European integration. Hanot, a journalist and former footballer, was inspired by the pre-war Mitropa Cup and Copa Latina (Latin Cup). But it was also the claim made by Wolverhampton Wanderers that they were “champions of the World”, after beating Hungary’s Honved at a floodlit Molineux, that spurred him on. One senses that the French did not like this self-appointed title and wanted to prove the Brits wrong. Interestingly, England spurned the idea of the competition, much as they had the World Cup. Elsewhere, it was warmly received.

So why were the French so influential in the development of the pan-European game?  I suggest it echoed the desire to create an integrated continent in the aftermath of World War Two. The French were at the heart of the Common Market and likewise, England’s own reluctance in 1955 to allow Chelsea to enter the European Cup was as “isolationist” as Britain’s initial nervousness about an economic union. Actually, Manchester United’s Matt Busby saw the way things were heading and his club entered in 1956-57, having seen how successful the first European Cup had been.

Let’s remember, too, the French didn’t do all this to feather their own nests. Only one French club, Marseille, has won the competition and down the years, they have never been one of the dominant countries. Paris St. Germain may have something to say about that going forward.

Organised football had its roots in England and the FA Cup is arguably the world’s oldest competition of its kind. But the global expansion of the game is as much a product of French creativity and the vision of a handful of football administrators who today would be derided as “suits”.