Champions League knockout stage starts with Man City and Real Madrid again looking best in Europe

Sun, Feb 11, 2024
Soccer News (AP)

Champions League knockout stage starts with Man City and Real Madrid again looking best in Europe

The Champions League narrative is so often about Manchester City and Real Madrid.

The past two champions of Europe were the only teams to sweep through the group stage with six wins. They also are first in action Tuesday when the most prized competition in club soccer resumes in the round of 16.

Man City is away to a Copenhagen team playing in the knockout stage for the first time in 13 years and Madrid is at Leipzig for the first leg.

The two teams favored to lift the trophy warmed up with comfortable wins Saturday and goals from signature players.

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Erling Haaland confirmed his return to form after a foot injury with both goals in Man City's 2-0 win over Everton, his first since Nov. 28 when Leipzig was beaten 3-2 in their Champions League group.

Haaland has a Premier League-leading 16 goals and Madrid's Jude Bellingham has a La Liga-best 15 after also scoring twice in a 4-0 rout of second-place Girona, which is owned by the same Abu Dhabi group as Man City.

But Bellingham has an ankle injury, having asked to be substituted Saturday, and is a doubt to face Leipzig.

At the same time Madrid was imperious in its domestic title-chasing clash, Bayern Munich was falling to an embarrassing 3-0 loss at Bayer Leverkusen in its own table-topping game.

Bayern now trails Bundesliga leader Leverkusen by five points and its run of 11 league titles is at risk again after barely holding on to the trophy on the last day last season.

The 2020 Champions League winner visits Lazio on Wednesday with its aura dimmed despite Harry Kane's 28 goals this season and coming through the group stage unbeaten for the sixth straight year.

Also Wednesday, Paris Saint-Germain hosts Real Sociedad, which was the surprise winner of a group ahead of last season's beaten finalist Inter Milan.

PSG is the in-form team though it was edged for first place in a tough group won by Borussia Dortmund.

The French champion - with Kylian Mbappe in the last few months of his contract - is unbeaten in all competitions for three months, since a 2-1 loss at AC Milan. Real Sociedad has slumped and has just one win in eight league games, including four goalless draws.

REST OF THE ROUND

The first-leg games continue Feb. 20 when Inter goes to Atletico Madrid and PSV Eindhoven hosts Dortmund. On Feb. 21, Napoli hosts Barcelona and Porto hosts Arsenal.

Second-leg games are played from March 5-13. UEFA draws pairings for the quarterfinals and semifinals on March 15.

MORE TO PLAY FOR

This Champions League has even more at stake. Four more entries must be decided for the 2025 Club World Cup, the FIFA event relaunching at the end of next season with 12 European teams in the lineup of 32.

The Club World Cup rebrand sees a month-long tournament - a group stage and 16-team knockout bracket - played every four years in June-July, starting in 2025 in the United States. FIFA will pay tens of millions of dollars in prize money.

Europe will send each Champions League title winner from 2021 to '24 - Chelsea, Madrid and Man City so far - plus the top eight or nine teams in a ranking table counting all Champions League results in that four-season period.

Countries can enter only two teams unless it has at least three different title holders. So, the door is still open for Arsenal.

Already definitely in on the basis of ranking are Bayern, PSG, Inter, Porto and Benfica.

Atletico is the next-best Spanish team in ranking so Barcelona must advance past Napoli to stay in contention. Dortmund is ranked second among German teams and will be confirmed if Leipzig is eliminated by round of 16 opponent Madrid.

Also in line is Juventus, despite serving a one-year ban from UEFA competitions for financial wrongdoing. Napoli and Lazio need to advance deep into this Champions League.

BONUS ENTRIES

Every result in the Champions League, plus the Europa League and Europa Conference League, also counts toward UEFA's longstanding ranking table of each country's collective performance.

What's new is the rankings award extra places in the expanded, 36-team Champions League next season to the two countries that collectively did best in the three UEFA competitions this season.

That's key for teams who might finish fifth this season in the biggest leagues because Italy currently leads the rankings with Germany barely edging England into third place. Spain trails a little in fourth.

Each Champions League win for Inter, Napoli and Lazio is good for all Italian clubs doing well in Serie A.

It could be that Manchester United's path back into the Champions League is to rise to fifth in the Premier League while English clubs' UEFA ranking is boosted by its biggest rivals winning European trophies - Man City plus Europa League contender Liverpool.

And so, the 29 games left in the Champions League through the June 1 final in London have great value beyond the 16 clubs directly involved.

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