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.
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.
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.