UEFA Champions League bold predictions: Tottenham to qualify; Shakhtar continue their miracle run



The end is in sight for the group stages of the Champions League (catch all the action only on Paramount+). Twelve of the 16 places in the knockout rounds have been claimed but there is plenty at stake for teams still looking to qualify as well as those chasing history. Here are three key storylines to follow:

Tottenham scrape past Marseille

All is not right on White Hart Lane. Even if Antonio Conte’s side returned to winning ways on Saturday, it should not take a last minute cavalry charge for Tottenham to overcome a two goal deficit to Bournemouth. This was a team that had realistic aspirations to be the best of the rest in 2022-23; though the table has them in a creditable third position, averaging two points per game, everything seems to have been done through treacle in this slog of an early season. The same is true in the Champions League, where Spurs seem insistent on making a favorable group far tougher than necessary.

The big issue is obvious, if difficult to solve. They simply do not create enough chances from open play. Conte’s most obvious solution is for Dejan Kulusevski, sidelined with a thigh issue for the last month, to be fit for every single game they play on their brutal schedule. Alternatives might be that 33 year old Ivan Perisic, impressive off the bench against Bournemouth, swiftly adapts to the pace of the Premier League or that the front two start creating even more for each other. Heung-min Son averages 0.24 expected goals assisted (xAG) in the Premier League this season, but well over a third of his shot-creating actions have come from set pieces. Meanwhile Harry Kane’s creative numbers have taken something of a drop back, perhaps in part because of Son’s struggles for form. Their instinctive relationship was the crux of Tottenham’s best form in recent years and the bigger picture problem that few in north London want to answer is when one of these two titanic figures eventually falls off, does the other suffer a drop off anyway?

That is for the future — a long way into it Spurs will hope. For now there is a Champions League group to escape and a trip to the Stade Velodrome that might just suit Tottenham. Marseille have been one of the competition’s most watchable sides so far this season, for good and bad. Undoubtedly this will be a team that tests Spurs. If nothing else OM have plenty of players in their squad — Matteo Guendouzi, Nuno Tavares, Alexis Sanchez — for whom the sight of the other team from north London should be like a red rag to a bull. They have also excelled defensively, giving up fewer expected goals (xG) than anyone bar Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea.

Though they have stayed in this competition off the back of their defense there can be a gloriously chaotic energy to this team, one that can throw a clown car full of defensive errors at Frankfurt one week before ripping an impressive Sporting to shreds the next. With victory required to reach the knockout rounds, Igor Tudor’s side are going to have to throw caution to the wind, likely pushing upfield what is already a high defensive line.

As Sporting have already proven in this competition, in a match they started superbly before goalkeeper Antonio Adan blew things up, there are gaps to be exploited. This move in the build up to Francisco Trincao’s opener could have been ripped from the Kane-Son playbook.

Edward’s run towards the ball brings his center back with him, opening space for Trincao to run in behind
Wyscout/Sport 3

A few days earlier they had conceded a strikingly similar goal against Rennes. Last weekend they were twice undone by crosses against Strasbourg and had at least one nervy moment from a corner, which is very much Spurs’ offensive weapon du jour. For the most part Marseille have looked solid defending those dead balls though doubtless Gianni Vio, Tottenham’s set piece coach, will have spotted the issues PSG created for their great rivals when they fired deliveries at the near post. Spurs have the most goals from set pieces in the Premier League this season with five, Marseille are resolutely midtable in Ligue 1 for the number of shots they are giving up off dead balls.

The bigger picture is that Spurs should expect slightly more from their team than late fightbacks and set piece dominance. But for now that should be enough.

Viktoria Plzen set unwanted record

This could be a big week for Dinamo Zagreb. Not for the obvious reason, that they can advance to the knockout stages of the Europa League with a win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Instead this could be a moment of celebration for the class of 2011-12. They were one of 20 teams in the current format of the Champions League to end the group stage without a point to the name but they hold an ignominious place in history for doing so with the worst record on a goal difference of -19.

That may well get beaten this week. It might even be beaten twice. Up first come Rangers, victims of a string of shellackings from Liverpool, Napoli and Ajax. The Dutch giants got the ball rolling in week one and a two goal margin of victory for them at Ibrox would be enough to inflict history upon Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side. But you sense this may not be the game where the record is broken. For one thing, Ajax have gone swiftly off the boil in the Champions League — and even look defensively vulnerable against the Eredivisie’s minnows — whilst Rangers are not anywhere near as bad a side as their record suggests.

Indeed you could envisage the Scottish side winning as they battle for a spot in the Europa League. What does feel more plausible is that they go down swinging and perhaps claim a draw or narrow victory to end their European involvement for another year.

All together more at risk are Group C’s bottom dwellers, who must have feared the worst when they were placed alongside Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Inter Milan. Given their opponents a goal difference of -17 after five games is hardly unforgivable and there have at least been moments in some of the games where Viktoria Plzen have given these European superpowers a few headaches. Perhaps in their last game at home — a dead rubber against Barcelona — they will be able to pick up a point to end their campaign in style. But you fear the worst, that a team licking the wounds of their drop into the Europa League will be inclined to lash out and that whatever fringe players Xavi fields will have a point to prove. A three goal defeat and the Czech champions are bound for the history books. It might just happen.

Napoli and Bayern make it six from six

It is probably fair to assume that Bayern Munich will have few problems from an Inter Milan side just looking to stave off injuries. Julian Nagelsmann is in the rather different position of welcoming players back into the squad with Lucas Hernandez perhaps back in contention and the looming return of Leroy Sane present to spur on whoever lines up in attack for the Bundesliga champions. A 6-2 win over Mainz was another sign that Bayern have found their rhythm, Nagelsmann won’t want to lose it.

More intriguing will be events at Anfield, where Napoli need only avoid a drubbing to claim top spot in Group A. But what value for Luciano Spalletti’s side in the statement that would echo around Europe if they were to beat Liverpool home and away? It need not matter to them that Jurgen Klopp’s side have dramatically subsided in defeats to Leeds and Nottingham Forest, that their midfield seems heavy-legged and wracked by injuries, that the frontline is not clicking into gear without Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz. Part of being a serious Champions League contender is proving that you can pounce on a wounded animal.

Right now, Napoli are at the stage where they should be looking to prove that they are exactly that, to live up to the heady billing that Klopp, among others, is giving them. “If they play like they play in the moment, they have a good chance to go to the final. That’s how it is. How I said, I think Napoli is in the moment the team in form in Europe. 

“Spalletti is a very, very experienced coach, [he] was all over the world working everywhere pretty much and it looks like now really all his experience – with all his experience – and a few really good signings, good decisions, he brought a group together which works on an exceptionally high level together. Looks really good, to be honest.”

Klopp spoke of wanting to see “fight” most of all from his team, frankly a greater concern for him might be whether his players are displaying the quality to overcome Napoli. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Piotr Ziolinski have the verve and energy in midfield that Liverpool so lack. This increasingly error-prone version of Virgil van Dijk looks like one who could be punished by Victor Osimhen. We have already seen the damage that Kvicha Kvaratskelia and company can do to the Reds fullbacks. 

This Napoli team look like the coming force in European football. Liverpool look understandably spent by the years they have spent at the top of the pile. 

So who gets the last four spots?

It will have been apparent earlier that I’m backing Tottenham to take one of Group D’s two available places. Expect Sporting to follow them, inconsistent though the Portuguese side may have been they have shown a ceiling that is far higher than their opponents, as they prove in a 3-0 win at Eintracht Frankfurt on the first matchday.

Second place behind Chelsea is intriguing. On paper one might assume that the institutional know how and experience needed to escape the group stage would be on AC Milan’s side, but even though some of the key cast members have departed since, it is Salzburg who are the experienced pros when it comes to getting across the group stage line, as they did last season. Noah Okafor and Junior Adamu have delivered on a consistent basis but I’m still leaning to Milan shading this, perhaps with the draw that would preserve their one point lead in second place.

In Group F it is win or bust for Shakhtar Donetsk against RB Leipzig. They might well do exactly that. After all whilst the Bundesliga side are greatly improved from the team that were thrashed on the opening matchday, they are still the same players who were thrashed on the opening matchday. In a match filled with quality forwards Mykhailo Mudryk might just be the most reliable game winner in this competition.





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