Football

The UEFA Champions League: A Group Stage Preview

This year’s Champions League is fast approaching the first major cut of the season, with the final fixtures of the group stage scheduled for this week.

12 teams have already claimed a coveted place in the last 16 of the Champions League, with a total of six sides competing for the final four spots. A handful of teams are still in pursuit of a Europe League berth, so there’s all to play for as the group stages draw to a close.

Below, we’ll consider the outstanding qualification issues, review the final round of fixtures and see who the likely winners are…

What has yet to be decided?

Many of Europe’s leading lights have already qualified for the knockout stages, including Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Juventus.

These clubs have been joined by FC Porto, Schalke, Ajax, Roma and Manchester United, with the latter qualifying with a game to spare despite their indifferent home form.

Interestingly, two of the Premier League’s four representatives are still fighting for their Champions League, with Spurs facing a particularly difficult challenge in their bid to reach the knockout stages.

At present, Mauricio Pochettino’s men are in second place by virtue of their superior head-to-head record with Inter Milan, following a last-gasp 1-0 win over the Serie A giants last time out.

So while Spurs only need to match Inter’s result at home to PSV Eindhoven tomorrow, they also face the difficult task of taking on Spanish champions Barcelona at the Nou Camp.

Spurs will draw comfort from the fact that Barca have already qualified for the knockout stages and won the group, but with Inter expected to win at the San Siro, Pochettino may still have to mastermind an unlikely victory against the in-form Catalans.

Liverpool also face an incredibly difficult challenge if they’re to qualify from an ultra-competitive Group C, with the Reds currently third in the table and three points behind leaders Napoli.

Despite beating PSG 3-2 in their opening game at Anfield back in September, Jurgen Klopp’s men have since lost three of their next four matches and must beat Napoli at home tomorrow to have any chance of qualifying.

Even if they do beat the Serie A side, they’ll need to do so by two clear goals if Napoli score at Anfield. This is because a subdued Liverpool lost 1-0 in Naples courtesy of an injury-time strike by Lorenzo Insigne, so away goals will prove crucial in determining the final head-to-ahead.

This is assuming that PSG gain a positive result in Belgrade against Partizan, of course, with a point good enough to secure the Parisians qualification given their superior head-to-head record with Liverpool.

Incredibly, the group is so tight that Liverpool could just as easily come first as be eliminated, and there’s a great deal of work to do if Klopp’s men are to qualify.

The final qualification slot will be contested between Lyon and Shakhtar Donetsk in Group F, with these two side set to do battle at the Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv.

Lyon, who have performed superbly in taking four points off Manchester City during the group stage, currently hold second place with seven points, although their rivals could overtake them with a victory (they currently have five points from five games).

The head-to-head can’t come into play here, so a win or a draw for Lyon will take them through to the knockout stages, whereas a simultaneous defeat for leaders Manchester City at Hoffenheim could even see them top the group.

Tying up the Other Loose Ends with the Final Round of Fixtures

Tomorrow’s fixtures will also see first and second place determined in some instances, with a win for Atletico Madrid at Club Brugge enough to give them the honours in Group A. However, a draw or a defeat here would enable Dortmund to claim top spot with a victory at struggling Monaco.

With first and second place decided in Group D, all that’s left is for Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow to compete for a Europa League place. Group E is even more settled, with Munich and Ajax having qualified with ease and Benfica having secured third place.

In Group G, both Real Madrid and Roma have already qualified, while Los Blancos are also sure to top the Group courtesy of their three-point advantage and superior head-to-head record with Roma.

This makes their respective games against CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen largely inconsequential, although both of these teams are locked on four points and chasing a place in the Europa League knockout stages.

In Group H, Juventus will top the group with a win against the already-eliminated Young Boys. However, if Juve draw or lose here then Manchester United will be able to claim top spot, so long as they beat Valencia at the Mestalla Stadium (the Red Devils’ have a better head-to-head record thanks to their 2-1 in Turin last month).

As for Valencia, they’re already assured of a place in the Europa League, regardless of how they fare against United on Wednesday.

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