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.

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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.

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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.


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.