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: The first exits?

MATCHDAY four could be the point at which some clubs find qualification for the next phase impossible. Who will be the biggest name to find themselves exiled to the Europa League or even without European football beyond their group?

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

Nobody is taking control of this group yet, although if AC Milan and Chelsea draw in the San Siro, a win for Salzburg can put some breathing space between themselves and the big two. Chelsea and Milan both need to avoid defeat to set themselves up for the final two games, so this could be a tense, tight affair. Chelsea are in good spirit, despite losing Kante and Ziyech from their squad through injury. They’ve won their last two games by 3-0, against Milan and Wolves, so it looks like Graham Potter is getting his feet under the table at Stamford Bridge. Milan won the big game of the weekend in Italy, beating Juventus 2-0 and are in the mix at the top of Serie A. Austrian champions Salzburg won 3-2 in their last game against Altach, but Zagreb had a blank weekend. A defeat in the Croatian capital will probably put Dinamo out of contention.

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

Celtic could be on the brink of elimination if they lose at home to Leipzig having only earned a single point so far in the group phase. They may have to face the German side without Portuguese winger Jota, who was injured against St. Johnstone, a game that saw Celtic win 2-1. Leipzig, who appear to be picking up after a poor start to the season, drew 1-1 at Mainz, with in-form striker Christopher Nkunku scoring once more. Leipzig should also have Timo Werner in their line-up after he fell ill at the weekend. Shakhtar Donetsk host Real Madrid in Warsaw, determined that the recent escalation in the war with Russia will not undermine their morale. Real are in second place in La Liga, level on points with leaders Barcelona. They won 1-0 at local rivals Getafe in their last game. They have yet to concede a goal in the Champions League and are poised to clinch qualification to the last 16.

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

This group is now a battle between Manchester City and Dortmund for top spot, although City with their awesome goal machine, Erling Haaland have to be favourites. City are firing on all cylinders and beat Southampton 4-0 at the weekend. They have a big game coming up after their trip to Copenhagen with an away game at Liverpool. It remains to be seen if Pep Guardiola may decide to rest one or two players at Parken. FCK drew 1-1 with league leaders Nordsjaelland in their last game and they’re still way behind in the league table. Dortmund came back from two-down against Bayern Munich in front of 81,000 people in their last Bundesliga fixture. They are up against a struggling Sevilla side that is now under new management after Julen Lopetegui was recently sacked. Jorge Sampaoli has been named as his successor. Victory for Dortmund will eliminate Sevilla and will leave them to fight out a Europa League place with Copenhagen.

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

The pressure continues to build on Juventus coach Max Allegri after his side were beaten 2-0 against Milan. Juventus had their chances, but they clearly lack goal power. Juve cannot afford a slip-up in Isreal where they will be confronted by an intense atmosphere at the Sami Ofer stadium. Meanwhile, in Paris, Benfica will be hoping to maintain their Champions League form against PSG which has pushed two of their players, Antonio Silva and Odysseas Vlachodimos into the spotlight. Both are being watched closely by Premier League clubs. PSG will be without the injured Lionel Messi. PSG drew 0-0 in Reims at the weekend, with Sergio Ramos sent off. There are still persistent rumours about the strained relationship between Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, in fact some suggest the former is looking to leave the club.

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