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There’s only one round of games left in the group stage of the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League following Wednesday’s slate of six contests.
Here are five quick thoughts following a consequential Matchday 5:
Mohamed Salah propels Liverpool into the knockout stage
For the first 41 minutes of Wednesday’s match between Liverpool and Ajax in Amsterdam, the visitors were on the back foot. The Dutch side were all over the Reds. It seemed only a matter of time before they would score.
Instead, Mo Salah did what he’s been doing all season in the Champions League. He put his woefully inconsistent team on his back, scoring his competition-leading seventh goal to send Jurgen Klopp’s side into the second round:
The strike changed the match. Liverpool doubled their lead through Darwin Núñez’s free kick four minutes after halftime, and Salah helped put the game out of the hosts’ reach when his seeing-eye pass set up Harvey Elliott for the Reds’ third score.
During an up-and-down season for a club that has reached three of the last five Champions League finals, where would Liverpool be this season without Salah?
No quick fix for Barcelona, who go out early again
Before hosting Bayern Munich on Wednesday, Barca manager Xavi said his team needed “more than a miracle” to qualify for the knockout phase of the Champions League.
They didn’t get it; the five-time European champ was mathematically eliminated from knockout stage contention by Inter Milan’s 4-0 victory over Czech side Viktoria Plzen, which kicked off a couple of hours earlier, before the match at the Camp Nou even started.
With nothing but pride left to play for, the lifeless Blaugrana suffered a deserved 2-0 loss to a Bayern team fielding several reserves after punching their ticket to the second round last week. So now it’s back to the second-tier Europa League for one of the continent’s superpowers for the second year in a row.
That this embarrassing state of affairs was a forgone conclusion after Barca took just four points from its first four Champions League matches is little consolation for a club that won four of those European titles this century. It’s now clear just how damaging the financial mismanagement that prevented Barcelona from re-signing Lionel Messi last summer (and forced them to part ways with several players, like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who could’ve helped) really was.
Maybe Messi, who’ll be a free agent in July, returns for 2023-24. But there’s no quick fix here for Barca. The gulf in class between them and Bayern on Tuesday only reinforced that hard truth.
Bayern, Napoli stay perfect
Bayern’s clinical away win upped their record to 5-0. The only other team still perfect in the competition is Napoli, which easily dispatched Group A cellar dweller Rangers on Wednesday.
It’s been a magical 2022-23 so far for the Neapolitans, who also sit atop Serie A as they chase their first Italian title since Diego Maradona played for the club more than three decades ago. The Scudetto is more important to their fans than the European Cup, to be sure. And the Champions League will get tougher starting next week, when Napoli visits a Liverpool team bent on exacting revenge on an opponent that played them off the pitch on Sept. 7 to open this year’s tournament.
Still, five games in, it’s impossible to ignore: Napoli looks like a genuine contender.
Chelsea completes impressive turnaround under Graham Potter
The 2021 champs looked like they might be headed for a first–round exit this campaign based on their first two matches. A shocking loss in Croatia to Dinamo Zagreb in the Blues opener cost then-manager Thomas Tuchel his job. Chelsea then drew FC Salzburg at home in their second game.
When the calendar flipped to October, the Blues slowly began to turn things around — culminating with their third straight win this month on Tuesday. The 2-1 victory in Salzburg sent them into the knockout stage with one more group stage game — at home to Dimamo — to come on Nov. 2.
Kai Havertz, who scored the goal that gave Chelsea the title two seasons ago, converted the winner in the second half with a postage-stamp strike:
The Blues are beginning to find their feet under Potter in Premier League play, too. It’s too early to predict where they’ll be when the business end of Europe’s top club competition resumes early next year, especially with a World Cup between now and then.
But if Chelsea’s first two Champions League games had one of the continent’s most talented squads looking like also-rans, their last three suggest that another deep run this spring is a realistic goal.
Where does Juventus go from here?
Juventus needed to beat Benfica Tuesday to avoid a humiliating group-stage exit. Not only did they not get it, they were thoroughly and soundly beaten in Portugal — even if the 4-3 score line makes it look like it was close.
It wasn’t. Benfica, who along with Paris Saint-Germain qualified for the second round Tuesday, were up 3-1 at halftime. Five minutes after the break, just when you’d expect the most pushback from Max Allegri’s side, Rafa Silva punished a sloppy giveaway by scoring his second to make it 4-1.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go for Juve this season after they let the likes of Federico Bernardeschi, Álvaro Morata and Aaron Ramsey leave the club for nothing. New signings Paul Pogba and Ángel Di María have been injured, while fellow recruit Leandro Paredes missed Tuesday’s contest after hurting his biceps last week.
Understandably, Juventus see themselves as one of Europe’s leading clubs. They are desperate to win their second Champions League title and first since 1996. But they couldn’t do it with a close-to-his-prime Cristiano Ronaldo in the fold from 2018-2021, and they haven’t even finished in the top three in Italy since their nine-season winning streak came screeching to a halt three years ago.
Right now they’re eighth in Serie A. Juve will play for pride next week against PSG. They should relish it. Unless something changes soon, they won’t have to worry about the Champions League at all next campaign.
One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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