Sport

BATTLE FOR LAST 16

Group stage nears business end in compressed Champions League 

Group stage nears business end in compressed Champions League 
Manchester City's Cole Palmer, left, in action against Southampton's Joe Aribo during their English Premier League match in Manchester, Britain, 8 October 2022. Manchester City can reach the next round of the Champions league with either a win or a draw against Copenhagen. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ Adam Vaughan)

While some sides are out to maintain perfect Champions League records and qualify for the next round, others need wins to ensure they bounce back following slow starts in the group phase.

The group phase of the Uefa Champions League is fast approaching the business end.

As opposed to previous seasons, where matches were played every fortnight, with the 2022 Fifa World Cup little more than a month away, the elite European club competition has been forced to condense the group fixtures in a two-month window.  

While some teams have cruised through their respective mini-league campaigns and are virtually guaranteed of making it to the knockout phase, others still have to sweat and grind out the desired results.  

Teams such as Manchester City, defending champions Real Madrid, German giants Bayern Munich, Italian club Napoli, as well as surprise package of the season Club Brugge can reach the next round with wins or draws from their games.

The five sides have kept their records so far at 100%, winning all three of the games they’ve played. Though they are aware that a single point will be sufficient to progress mathematically, each will be out to maintain their winning momentum.

Pep Guardiola’s rampaging City side visits Copenhagen. In the reverse fixture a week ago, the Citizens proved too strong for their opponents — dismantling the Danish side 5-0 in Manchester.

Such comfortable victories have allowed the City boss to rotate his talented squad and keep his players fresh in the midst of a tight domestic and continental schedule.

“It is true, the last 25, 30 minutes when games are tight, that is when fatigue and risk for injuries rise,” said the two-time Champions League winning manager.

“Lately we were lucky to score goals in the first half. Not to rest players or avoid fatigue, but because it’s good to play everyone and when we need them they will be ready,” added Guardiola.

“Every game is different. Players can handle 90 minutes. I like when everyone can help the team and play as best as possible and reach the best level. I like this. Now we have a weapon with more substitutions. That doesn’t mean you always use it. Sometimes I will use five, we will see.”

In pursuit of perfection

Reigning and record Champions League winners Real Madrid travel to Warsaw, Poland knowing that another victory over exiled Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk will seal their path to the next round.

In the last match between the two, the Spanish side edged it 2-1 to make it three wins in three. However, Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti will be eyeing a more assured performance — plagued by less profligacy.


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As for Bayern, the manager of their Czech opponents Viktoria Plzeň, Michal Bílek, summed up just how efficient they were in their previous clash saying: “Bayern showed their quality, which was out of our reach.”

This after the Bavarians had blasted five goals in, without response. The Czechs have little chance of exacting any revenge. Nonetheless, they will try to frustrate the Germans.

Meanwhile, Napoli will be apprehensive of underestimating an Ajax Amsterdam side they demolished 6-1 in the reverse fixture. Still, form favours the Italians to seal yet another victory and make it to the round of 16.

The Naples-based team is unbeaten in 11 games across all competitions so far this season, winning nine and playing to two stalemates.

Fight to qualify

Whereas the fortunes of the aforementioned quintuple have been positive, some teams have struggled for consistency and grinding out the desired results.

One of those clubs is Chelsea. After a slow start which ultimately cost its former manager Thomas Tuchel his job, the Blues have looked in better shape. Having drawn and lost their first two matches, the London club finally claimed a win as they beat Italy’s AC Milan 3-0 a week ago.

Chelsea are now level on four points with Milan (with both trailing Group E leaders Salzburg by a single point). Each side knows the result from this clash could have an impact on whether either can make it to the knockout stage, or not.

Blues defender Thiago Silva, who also played for Milan early in his career expects a great pushback from the seven-time European conquerors on home soil.

“They had a bad game last week against us, that can happen, but great clubs like AC Milan won’t make a mistake like that twice. You can see the great result they had against Juventus in their last game,” the Brazilian said.   

Another English side, Liverpool, have been in indifferent form. Though the team is in a better position to reach the next round following two wins in three matches. Their only loss so far came against Napoli on match day one.

The Reds have also been assisted by the fact that the other two teams in Group A, Ajax and Rangers, are just as off-touch as the Merseysiders — or else, with their domestic form in mind, the club might be in a more precarious position.

Spanish outfit Barcelona does find itself in this awkward position. They only have three points to show after three matches. Despite coming into the tie in better form, the Blaugrana were edged 1-0 by Inter Milan last time out.

They butt heads again this week, with Barcelona being the hosts. Their manager Xavier Hernández knows the importance of the clash if they are to avoid emerging from the group phase for a second season on the trot.

“In the Champions League, we have three finals left — and that’s how we’ll treat them,” said Xavi. DM

Selected Champions League fixtures: 

Tuesday:

Copenhagen vs Manchester City (6:45pm)

Paris Saint-Germain vs Benfica (9pm)

Milan vs Chelsea (9pm)

Shakhtar Donetsk vs Real Madrid vs (9pm)

Wednesday:

Napoli vs Ajax (6:45pm)

Rangers vs Liverpool (9pm)

Barcelona vs Inter (9pm)

Viktoria Plzeň vs Bayern Munich (9pm)

Tottenham Hotspur vs Eintracht Frankfurt (9pm)

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