Champions League: Barça on brink of exit, Messi powering PSG
LONDON (AP) — The Champions League enters the next-to-last round of games, with five teams — Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Napoli and Club Brugge — already qualified for the last 16.
Here’s a few things to look out for this week:
SPANISH TEAMS STRUGGLING
While Madrid has advanced with two games to spare, the other Spanish teams — Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Sevilla — face elimination after poor group-stage campaigns. Barcelona and Sevilla are in the toughest situations. Atlético, which hosts Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday, can go through with two victories to close out Group B. Barcelona may play its home match against Bayern Munich on Wednesday knowing it is already out of contention in Group C if Inter Milan defeats last-place Viktoria Plzen at home in the earlier game. It would mean a second consecutive elimination for Barcelona in the group stage.
Back-to-back wins over AC Milan have lifted Chelsea from the bottom of Group E to the top. The two-time champion still has work to do to qualify, though. Just three points separate the four teams in the group as Chelsea heads to second-place Salzburg on Tuesday and Milan travels to Dinamo Zagreb. The loser of the game in Zagreb will likely be knocked out of contention. If it’s a draw, the winner of the Salzburg-Chelsea game will advance. Salzburg is looking to advance to the round of 16 for the second straight year, whereas Chelsea hasn’t failed to advance from the group stage since the 2012-13 season — when it was the defending champion. Even if Chelsea loses in Austria, the team will get another chance to qualify when Dinamo visits Stamford Bridge in the final round. Of the other English teams, Tottenham leads another tight group — Group D — and will advance if it beats Sporting at home on Wednesday, while Liverpool just needs a point at Ajax on Wednesday to go through alongside Napoli in Group A.
Lionel Messi looks to maintain his stellar form for Paris Saint-Germain, which remains unbeaten this season and will seal a place in the last 16 with a home win against last-place Maccabi Haifa in Group H on Tuesday. Even a draw at Parc des Princes is enough if Juventus does not win away to Benfica. Messi is getting his sharpness back and is combining brilliantly with Neymar again, just like during their Barcelona days. Messi’s connection on the field with Kylian Mbappé is improving quickly. He assisted on both of Mbappé’s goals in a 3-0 French league win on Friday, with Mbappé setting up Messi’s goal. With Neymar also impressing, this is bad news for Maccabi, which must win to stand any chance of going through. Meanwhile, Marseille’s league form has fallen apart after a third straight defeat, and European soccer seems like a release for the 1993 champion. Victory away to German side Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday will give Marseille a third straight win in a tight Group D, and boost its chances of finishing top with Tottenham to follow at home.
FILLING LEWANDOWSKI’S BOOTS
Cameroon striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting is helping Bayern forget about Robert Lewandowski before their reunion at Barcelona on Wednesday in Group C. Lewandowski, who scored 344 goals in 375 games for Bayern in a trophy-laden spell from 2014-22, switched in the summer to Barcelona, where he has continued as he left off. There were concerns that Bayern missed the Poland star’s clinical presence as it endured four straight Bundesliga games without a win, but those worries have been eased since the international break with Choupo-Moting scoring four goals after starting in Bayern’s last three games. Choupo-Moting played a one-two with Serge Gnabry and scored again Saturday to seal Bayern’s 2-0 win at Hoffenheim. Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann praised the 33-year-old forward as a “fully fledged top striker who scores, who works and who holds the ball well up front.”
EARLY EXIT FOR JUVENTUS?
Juventus is facing the prospect of going out of the Champions League at the group stage for the first time since the 2013-14 season. Anything but a win at Benfica on Tuesday in Group H would consign Juventus to an early exit as it is five points behind the Portuguese side and Paris Saint-Germain. Even a victory would still leave Juventus needing to win against PSG in the final group match to have any hope of progressing. Both PSG and Benfica are unbeaten in the competition this season. Juventus routed Empoli 4-0 on Friday for its second straight Serie A win and has been further boosted by the return of Federico Chiesa to training. However, it lost midfielder Leandro Paredes for at least two weeks with a thigh injury. Ángel Di María, Gleison Bremer and Mattia De Sciglio are also still injured.
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