UEFA Champions League Preview: 11 places still up for grabs

ONLY FIVE teams have qualified so far for the last 16: Bayern, Bruges, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Napoli. So, there’s plenty to play for in matchday five and there could be a couple of high profile clubs finding their way to the Europa League.

Group A: Ajax – Liverpool; Napoli – Rangers.

Ajax, for all their European heritage, are almost out of the competition, although they will probably qualify for the Europa League. Liverpool, despite a stuttering start to the season in the Premier, thought they were finding their form when they beat Manchester City, but they had another setback and lost 1-0 against struggling Nottingham Forest. A draw for Liverpool in Amsterdam will send them through to the next stage. Napoli have already qualified, they are currently the most exciting team in Europe and their performances in Serie A and the Champions League have been impressive. Sadly, Rangers have looked out of their depth and their 7-1 humbling at home to Liverpool really summed up their experience this season.

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

Bruges were one of the first teams to qualify for the knockout phase after winning three of their first four games. They are only the third Belgian team to reach the last 16 this century, Anderlecht (2000-01) and Gent (2015-16) were the others. Their opponents, Porto, need a win to keep some space between themselves and Atlético Madrid, but the second place in the group is likely to be decided by the meeting between these two teams on November 1 in Portugal. Leverkusen have been disappointing this season, both at home and in the Champions League, although they did beat Atlético in the last matchday.

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

Barcelona went perilously close to elimination in the last group game against Inter, which ended 3-3. Inter know that a win against Plzn will put Barca out, regardless of how they face against group leaders Bayern. There has been much angst in Barcelona since the game with Inter, with concerns about their financial situation should they fail to qualify for the last 16. Barca have also lost ground in La Liga, despite the goals of Robert Lewandowski. Bayern, who have qualified, have been impressive in Europe, winning all four of their games and averaging three goals per game, while conceding just two goals.

Group D: Eintracht Frankfurt – Marseille; Tottenham – Sporting Lisbon

Anyone could still qualify from this group, but victories for Marseille and Tottenham could take both through. Frankfurt were unlucky to lose 3-2 at Tottenham, but they bounced back with a five-goal performance in the Bundesliga against Leverkusen. Marseille have been going well but were beaten by title rivals in France, Paris Saint-Germain. Spurs’ early season effervescence has lost a little of its fizz, with defeats against Arsenal and Manchester United, but they are still upbeat. They are particularly strong at home.

Group E: Red Bull Salzburg – Chelsea; Dinamo Zagreb – AC Milan.

This group remains quite open but the fifth matchday should start to sort things out. Chelsea, leaders of the group, are in good form under new boss Graham Potter, although their last two games have been disappointing with draws against Brentford and Manchester United. Salzburg, league leaders in Austria, faced second-placed Sturm Graz. They are still unbeaten in the Champions League group. AC Milan and Zagreb are still in the mix but a win for either will knock the loser out of contention. Milan are still chasing leaders Napoli at home and have lost just once in Serie A.

Group F: Celtic – Shakhtar Donetsk; RB Leipzig – Real Madrid.

Celtic are out of the competition, but still have feint hopes of finishing third and qualifying for the Europa League. Shakhtar, who should be too strong for them, would probably keep themselves in contention with a win in Glasgow. They recently beat big rivals Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukrainian Premier League, but everything is overshadowed by the war with Russia. RB Leipzig have turned their season around in recent weeks and have won five of their last six games. Their two wins against Celtic in the group have revitalised their Champions League campaign. Real Madrid will be a tough task as they are unbeaten in La Liga and recently beat Barcelona in El Clasico, followed by a 3-1 win against Sevilla.

Group G: Sevilla – FC Copenhagen; Borussia Dortmund – Manchester City

This round of matches will effectively be the group leadership decider and the Europa League qualifier. Dortmund host City with the top two places up for grabs. City were beaten for the first time this season when they went down 1-0 at Liverpool, but they returned to winning ways against Brighton. Liverpool prevented Erling Haaland from scoring, but the huge Norwegian will be keen to score against his old club. Dortmund, who came through two table-topping games with Bayern and Union with just one point to show for their efforts, know a win will secure their place in the last 16. Sevilla have picked up in the past few games and should be too good for a Copenhagen side who struggle to win games, although they did achieve a credible draw with City in their last Champions League fixture.

Group H: Benfica – Juventus; Paris Saint-Germain – Maccabi Haifa

Benfica have enjoyed their Champions League campaign so far and are within touching distance of the last 16. Juventus, by contrast, are almost out, although a win in Lisbon will delay the ignominy of an early exit. Juve were beaten 2-0 in their last group game in Haifa, but won the Turin derby afterwards and beat Emploi 4-0 at the weekend. Speculation is still rife about the future of coach Max Allegri. Benfica warmed up for this game with a big clash against Porto. PSG should win against Maccabi Haifa and followed up their 1-1 draw with Benfica with a 1-0 victory against old rivals Olympique Marseille. PSG may be distracted due to the continued talk of Kylian Mbappe moving in January and there are also rumours about Lionel Messi returning to Barcelona.

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.

Club Brugge3300709

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.

Bayern Munich3300909
Inter Milan3201326
Viktoria Plzn30031120

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.