UEFA Champions League Preview: Vital games for Tottenham, Inter, Liverpool

THE THIRD matchday of the group stage sees some crucial games as the halfway stage is reached. Some clubs cannot afford another slip-up if they are to maintain an interest in the competition.

Ajax – Napoli

There couldn’t be a more challenging time for Ajax to play host to Napoli. The Italian side are top of Serie A and have started their Champions League campaign impressively. Napoli continued their good league form with a 3-1 home win against Torino. Kvicha Kvaratskhelia continues to win plaudits and scored one of the goals, the other two came from Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa. Napoli have maximum points from their first two Champions League games, a 4-1 trouncing of Liverpool and 3-0 victory in Glasgow against Rangers. Ajax have not been at their absolute best on the domestic front and have lost and drawn their last two Eredivisie games and are in second place, behind Alkmaar.

Liverpool – Rangers

Liverpool are still not clicking properly – they drew 3-3 at home to Brighton leading up to this game and are way off the pace in the title race. Although the Reds were close to winning, manager Jürgen Klopp said Liverpool didn’t deserve to secure all three points. Liverpool have only lost one game, but four draws in seven games may prove costly as they chase the likes of Manchester City. Liverpool bounced back from their mauling in Naples to win their second Champions League game against Ajax and will be looking to add another three points to their challenge. Rangers are looking out of their depth in the competition and have conceded seven goals in two games against Ajax and Napoli. In the Scottish Premiership, they won 4-0 at the weekend against Hearts with Antonio Colak scoring twice. They trail Celtic at the top of the table by two points.

Bruges – Atlético Madrid

Despite winning 3-0 against Mechelen in their last league game, Club Brugge are five points behind leaders Antwerp. They have been going well in Europe, though, and won 4-0 in Porto in what was something of a shock result. They have a 100% record in the Champions League. Atléti won 2-0 at Sevilla in their most recent La Liga game, with goals from Alvaro Morata and Marcos Llorente. At the moment, coach Diego Simeone is only using Antoine Griezmann sparingly because of contractual issues around his loan spell from Barcelona. Will he risk not using the Frenchman for the whole game rather than rolling him out for his usual half hour?

Porto – Bayer Leverkusen

Leverkusen’s season of woe continues with a 4-0 defeat at Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich. The club is enduring its worst ever start to a league campaign. Gerardo Seoane’s team are now in the relegation zone and pressure may be starting to build on the coach.  One of Leverkusen’s rising stars, Piero Hincapié, is now on the shopping list of a few Premier League clubs. Porto, meanwhile are behind Benfica and Braga in the Portuguese Primeira but beat Braga 4-1 to suggest they are finding their form once more.

Inter Milan – Barcelona

It’s hit or miss for Inter this season, with four wins and four defeats in their eight Serie A games. Barca, by contrast, have surprised most people with their consistency. Inter lost their most recent game 2-1 at home to Roma, meaning they are now eight points behind leaders Napoli. Inter’s fans are losing faith with their on-loan striker Romelu Lukaku, who looks like he might be heading back to his employer, Chelsea. Other Inter players, such as Alessandro Bastoni, Nicolò Barella and Lautaro Martínez are being eyed by a number of clubs, notably Liverpool.  Barca won 1-0 in Mallorca thanks to another goal from Robert Lewandowski. They’ve still only conceded one goal in La Liga this season.

Marseille – Sporting

Marseille remain unbeaten in Ligue 1 and are chasing PSG all the way. The two sides meet on October 16. Marseille seem to be in some turmoil, with rumours about a takeover and the supposed resignation of owner Frank McCourt from the club’s supervisory board. On the pitch, they have lost both of their Champions League games. Sporting, on the other hand, have won both of theirs against Tottenham and Frankfurt and they have demonstrated their fitness by scoring all their goals in the second half. One player who has caught the eye this season is winger Marcus Edwards, who started his senior career with Tottenham. In the league, Sporting have lost three of their eight games. There have been some rumblings about Cristiano Ronaldo ending his playing days with his old club, but that may seem some way off at the moment.

Bayern Munich – Viktoria Plzn

Bayern have been in the midst of their worst run in years, but they bounced back with a 4-0 win against Leverkusen in Munich. People started to talk about crisis, but Bayern have too much strength to linger too long in the doldrums and they are still coming to terms with losing their talismanic striker, Lewandowski. However, they have Sane, Mane and the rapidly emerging Jamal Musiala, who scored one and made two. They are still the leading scorers in the Bundesliga and nobody has conceded fewer goals. Crisis? Not really. Viktoria Plzn are four points clear at the top of the Czech First League after a 1-1 draw with Bohemians in Prague. They are the only unbeaten side in the league.

Eintracht Frankfurt – Tottenham Hotspur

Frankfurt beat Bundesliga leaders Union Berlin 2-0 to move into the top six. Their goals came from World Cup matchwinner Mario Götze and the much-coveted Jesper Lindstrom, a 22 year-old Danish international. They will be up against a Tottenham side who were comfortably beaten in the North London Derby 3-1. As usual, there is talk of coach Antonio Conte leaving, notably to Juventus, but Conte dismisses the rumours and calls them disrespectful. Spurs have started the season well and the loss at the Emirates was their first of the Premier campaign, but Conte will surely be concerned at his team’s performance.

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.