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.

Super League: Is this the self preservation society?

THE main protagonists in the European Super League saga have all had their say this past week and I’m sorry, gentlemen, your arguments are not convincing. They say that statistics can be made to reinforce any argument and you cannot help thinking that using a US survey to determine how Gen Z and Millenials feel about watching live sport just isn’t accurate in analysing the future appetite for European football. Moreover, the current landscape has been shaped by the very clubs that want to float their boat off into the sunset.

The football establishment, which doesn’t just include Real Madrid and Barcelona, has long felt uncomfortable about new competitors to their position at the top of the game. Chelsea, Manchester City and, particularly, Paris Saint-Germain are hated by clubs that enjoyed their position at the summit for decades upon decades.

There is a myth that says the big clubs all organically evolved from natural methods such as popularity, success and honestly-earned money. There’s no accounting for British Empire mill and factory owners exploiting their workforce and funding teams, clubs built on gambling and the pools or franchise football. Because it is in the past, it doesn’t matter. Furthermore, grasping capitalism with both hands to gain an advantage over peers is also ignored. At all levels of the game, “johnny-cum-latelies” are never popular with those that has ring-fenced their status. The jibe that a club has no history is also misplaced, for history is made every day, be it successful or unsuccessful. Liverpool and Tottenham both won their first trophies in 1901, Manchester City lifted their first silverware three years later and in 1908, Manchester United did likewise. Arsenal’s first prize came in 1930 and Chelsea were on the podium in 1955. Sounds like everyone has some sort of history.

The claim that football is losing its place as the world’s leading sport is pure fancy and looks like an attempt to whip-up a level of panic. Sport becomes vulnerable when economic times are hard and the past decade or more has seen the global landscape come under enormous pressure, not least because of the pandemic, but also the overhang from the financial crisis of 2008 and now the Ukraine war. There has been a rise in youth unemployment and wages have stagnated since 2008. Economies that were built around service industries have suffered and there has been a continent-wide surge in xenophobia and racism. At the same time, football has continued to pay its players more, transfer fees have grown and admission prices have continued to move beyond the reach of many young and low-earning people. For all its virtue signalling and appetite for social causes, football has become a game of exclusion because of its pricing policies. The sport remains the most popular and attended game on the planet, there is little sign of diminishing audiences in real terms.

Indeed, the English Premier League’s crowds are at their highest level since the post-WW2 boom. In 2022-23, the average is just under 40,000. Elsewhere, Italy, Spain and Germany are all enjoying healthy gates. In some cases, the size of the stadium restricts even further growth. The Champions League, in 2022-23, has an average of almost 46,000 this season, the best since the pandemic and the third highest in the past decade.

The information that is driving the supposed concern about football’s future is based on a survey among US people. The US has a very distinct portfolio of sports that are heavily marketed and part of American culture. But baseball as a spectator sport routinely declines each year by 1%. It is widely recognised that baseball teams struggle to fill their grounds and there has been criticism that tickets are too expensive. Overall, the classic US sports have stable attendances, while Major League Soccer appears to have stalled in terms of its crowds. If the research carried out suggests the last two generations have little interest in live sport, it is not the quality of the sport that is necessarily the problem, it is accessibility and the fact that there are many distractions. Rather than further polarise football – which is part of the issue – the solution is surely to make the game more user friendly for younger generations, in other words, make it cheaper.

There is recognition now that football’s polarisation has not been healthy for the game, something that has been discussed for the past decade by those on the outside. France (PSG), Germany (Bayern), Italy (Juventus) and Spain (Real and Barca) have dominated their domestic leagues, while England, for all its money and criticism, has been the most democratic of the big five. The Champions League is the trophy they all crave, but only Chelsea of the “new money” clubs have won the competition. The other winners in the past decade have been Bayern, Real, Barca and Liverpool – all definitely part of the pre-Abramovich era. The walls are closing in, though, and it is only a matter of time before PSG and Manchester City, the dreaded “state-owned” clubs, win the Champions League. Barcelona have admitted that their financial problems were partly due to their attempt to keep pace with the clubs backed by middle eastern states.

The underlying sentiment emerging from the desire to create a Super League does appear to be mostly self-preservation, and it is no surprise that PSG, for one, have not thrown their hat into the ring. It would seem unlikely that any future attempt to create a super-elite competition would gain the approval of the Premier League clubs, which would render the project unworkable and worthless. The response from fans in England when the first attempt was unveiled said everything.

There’s another aspect to this tale which does deserve consideration. If football’s age of capitalism has peaked, then why try to preserve a system that has become bloated, unsustainable, unbalanced and downright insane? Why not use this moment in time to rework the game across Europe for the benefit of all, with more modest levels of expenditure, remuneration and expectation? Barca claimed that if they were to be supportive of a super league, it will be because it is an open competition based on meritocracy. The club also said Barca represented the people’s football, the football of the fans. That boast doesn’t seem so genuine when you consider the implications of a super league which will go some way towards raising the level of polarisation.