The last 16 of the Champions League will be finalised this week, and there is plenty on the line with several intriguing storylines yet to be settled… not least with regards the Catalan giants
Matchday five in this season’s Champions League saw a number of clubs seal their progress to the knockout stages, with Manchester City and Manchester United both confirming themselves as group winners.
After Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho helped Michael Carrick win his sole European game in charge on the Tuesday, Pep Guardiola’s City came from behind against Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid ended Sheriff’s dream of a knockout run.
There was also an early elimination for Borussia Dortmund and some late drama between Atletico Madrid and AC Milan, with both those sides heading into Matchday six still looking to progress to the last 16.
With just one round of group games remaining, Mirror Football has picked out some of the most intriguing storylines from what promises to be a dramatic week of football.
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1. High stakes for Barcelona
Haris Seferovic missed a golden chance at Camp Nou to send Benfica through at Barca’s expense, and the Portuguese side will still progress if they beat already-eliminated Dynamo Kyiv and Barca fail to do the same against a Bayern Munich side with a 100% record in the competition.
Club president Joan Laporta has insisted Barca will pull off the “miracle” they need, but the Xavi’s side – who lost to Real Betis over the weekend – are more used to being on the wrong side of footballing miracles over the last few years.
2. Winner takes all in Bergamo
Villarreal qualified for this season’s Champions League by winning the Europa League last season, but Unai Emery’s side will hope they’re not in a position to defend their title by the end of the week.
A home defeat to Manchester United last time out left the Yellow Submarine in trouble, but Atalanta failed to take full advantage as they only managed a draw against Young Boys.
This means things are simple enough when the teams meet in Italy: a home win means a third straight trip to the last 19 for Gian Piero Gasperini’s men, but anything else will see the visitors return to Spain with a knockout spot secured.
If the game remains tight going into the final 10-15 minutes, we could be in for some high drama.
3. Ralf Rangnick’s first Champions League XI for Man Utd
Ralf Rangnick is in an enviable position at Manchester United, with a dead rubber at Old Trafford allowing him to experiment if he feels like doing so against Young Boys.
The interim manager tasted victory in his first game in charge, but there were some nervy moments against Crystal Palace.
With a busy December schedule in the Premier League, it will be interesting to see what changes the German makes as he looks to get more of a feel for his best starting XI.
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4. Jurgen Klopp ringing the changes
Liverpool are also expected to freshen things up, with Jurgen Klopp saying “The medical department would smash me if I played the same side again”.
After Diogo Jota was injured at this stage of last season’s competition, the Reds’ manager may be tempted to give opportunities to the likes of Divock Origi or Takumi Minamino in attack, as well as mixing things up elsewhere.
A match against a depleted AC Milan could also act as a dress rehearsal for the Merseyside club’s testing January, when they will be forced to make do without Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane during the Africa Cup of Nations.
5. Jostling for position in Madrid and Turin
Winning your group isn’t always a guarantee of an easy draw in the last 16, as Liverpool found out in 2019-20 when they were eliminated by Atletico Madrid.
However, the prospect of avoiding the Reds and Bayern Munich – both of whom have a perfect record so far – ought to see teams continue to fight for top spot.
There are two groups where first and second are settled but the order is not: Chelsea can lock up first place with a win away to Zenit, but things may be more intense in Group D where a win at the Bernabeu would see Inter Milan pip Real Madrid after spending the entire group stage behind them.
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6. Chaos in Group G
While seven groups have at least one team already through, and some have more than one, no one is assured of their progress from Group G.
Leaders Lille are the most likely to progress, and can do so with a point in Wolfsburg, while Red Bull Salzburg have their fate in their own hands at home to Sevilla.
Wolfsburg, however, are in the bizarre position of being unable to finish third and make the Europa League, but still in with a shot of ending the group stage in the top two.
The as-things-stand table in this group could end up being extremely confusing as the night goes on, but it’s unlikely to be dull.