Set your DVRs, plan your late long lunches, etc. The Champions League is back. If you're a follower of European club football, you're excited as we are. If not, but you plan to watch the World Cup this summer, this is the competition you need to watch to get ready. Here are our previews of this week's four first leg matches, with a focus on which players to watch on each team (and a particular focus on players that will feature prominently at the World Cup this summer): Man City-Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen-PSG, Arsenal-Bayern Munich and AC Milan-Atlético Madrid.
With two weeks until the final matches of the Europa League group stages, 14 clubs have clinched spots in the knockout rounds of the cup with a game to spare. With the eight teams that finish third in their UEFA Champions League groups transferring over to Europe’s second-tier competition, that leaves 10 spots.
Anderlecht, who alone won all 5 of the first 5 group matches, FC Twente and Sporting Lisbon had already qualified even before Thursday’s matches kicked off, as had PSV Eindhoven and Legia Warsaw before Wednesday’s matches.
Meanwhile, former frontrunner Tottenham’s loss to 10-man PAOK Thessaloniki at White Hart Lane puts makes them unlikely to join the last 32. As punishment, perhaps Jermaine Defoe should write “Panthessaloníkios Athlitikós Ómilos Konstantinoupolitón” 100 times on the blackboard.
FC Twente (Netherlands)
Sporting Lisbon (Portugal)
Atlético Madrid (Spain)
Hannover 96 (Germany)
FC Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine)
PAOK Thessaloniki (Greece)
Standard Liège (Belgium)
Lokomotiv Moscow (Russia)
Legia Warsaw (Poland)
Schalke 04 (Germany)
PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)
At the beginning of November, Tottenham had been tipped to take home the silverware, but their loss to PAOK on Wednesday made it such that while it’s still mathematically possible if they go on a goal spree against Shamrock Rovers and Rubin Kazan loses, it’s unlikely. For one, Redknapp may not even truly wish to progress. One school of thought says exiting the competition would help them finish in the top 3 or 4 in the Premier League, not playing weekend matches on the heels of Thursday nights in Europe and avoiding overall fixture congestion with all the two-leg showdowns to come.
Currently, odds are on Atlético Madrid to hoist the trophy on May 9 in Bucharest. Other frontrunners include Schalke 04, PSV Eindhoven, Paris Saint-Germain and Athletic Bilbao, despite the latter two having not yet qualified.
Our preview of Olympique Marseille‘s visit to Old Trafford a couple weeks ago focused in large part on their young Ghanaian striker Andre Ayew (and by extension his famous father Abedi Pele). And then we told you to watch Le Classique this past weekend.
Well, hopefully you’ve been listening to us. Although Marseille disappointingly couldn’t score against Man U, you would have been watching for Ayew in Sunday’s match, and he did deliver, scoring a beauty of a goal OM over their capitol city rivals PSG:
We’ll be watching for Marseille’s remaining Ligue 1 matches, to see if they can catch Lille at the top of the table (or conversely, hold off Rennes and Lyon to ensure a return to the Champions League next fall). A match to circle on the calendar: Lyon visits Marseille on May 5.