Champions League midway review: Barcelona, Leipzig in trouble; Ajax, Liverpool surging

    Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

There’s the journey, and there’s the destination. For a sport dominated by haves and have-nots — so, most sports — we generally understand that the winner of a league or tournament is going to come from a select minority of teams. But in instances in which the destination is predictable, or even a bit boring, the journey can entertain us all the same.

A good Champions League group stage probably isn’t going to change the destination all that much, and the current iteration of the tournament certainly hasn’t: At the beginning of the tournament, the top four favorites per FiveThirtyEight were Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Liverpool, respectively, and two months later, it’s Bayern, City and Liverpool, with Chelsea having plummeted all the way to … fifth.

But the journey has been fun. Sheriff Tiraspol, of tiny Moldova (or really, the even tinier Transnistria), eked out a qualification win over former champion Crvena Zvezda on the way to the group stage and immediately won against both Shakhtar Donetsk at home and mighty Real Madrid on the road. Manchester United have won two matches and lost one via clutch, late goals. Liverpool has won a pair of 3-2 classics. The Benfica vs. PSV Eindhoven playoff battle was epic, too.

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Mind you, the destination has changed for some teams. Let’s talk about that and some of the other main Champions League storylines, as we prepare for the back half of the group stage.

Jump to: Struggling teams | Surging teams | Can Sheriff advance? | Most important games in MD4

Whose odds have shrunk the most?

RB Leipzig: The good news for RBL and manager Jesse Marsch is that it seems like the tide has turned a bit. The Red Bulls took only four points from their first five Bundesliga matches and started their Champions League campaign by giving up six goals to Manchester City and losing at home to Club Brugge. Since then, however, they’ve taken 11 points from five domestic matches, and in their last UCL match they led PSG with 25 minutes left in the Parc de Princes.

Of course, they still lost to PSG, and they’re still sitting at zero points. Per FiveThirtyEight, their odds of advancing to the knockout rounds for the third straight season have fallen from 57% at the start of the tournament to 3% now. They could potentially benefit from making a Europa League run, but they have to make up four points on Club Brugge just to reach third place and qualify for Europa. The poor start was awfully costly even if RBL looks like RBL again from here.

AC Milan: Milan has certainly given a better account of itself than RBL, but the Rossoneri find themselves with zero points all the same. They led Liverpool at halftime in Anfield, but allowed two second-half goals to fall, 3-2. They led Atletico at home, but allowed an Antoine Griezmann goal in the 84th minute and fell via a Luis Suarez penalty in the seventh minute of injury time. They were tied with Porto until a Louis Diaz goal in the 65th minute. Their odds of advancing have withered from 32% in August to 4% now.

This has been a disappointing run, if not a particularly discouraging one. They’re tied atop Serie A with a torrid Napoli, having dropped only two points in 11 league matches. A young core roster — midfielders Sandro Tonali (21) and Franck Kessie (24), defenders Davide Calabria (24), Fikayo Tomori (23) and Theo Hernandez (24) and attackers Rafael Leao (22) and Brahim Diaz (22) — has paired well with veterans like Olivier Giroud and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and they’ve played well despite a run of injuries. If there are only three matches left in their continental journey, they could spin that as an opportunity to focus on winning Serie A instead.

Barcelona: Stuck between a veteran-heavy salvage job and a financially driven youth movement, Barcelona have been aimless thus far. They fired manager Ronald Koeman last week after a run of just three wins in 10 matches, and they stand in ninth place in La Liga following a weekend draw with 14th-place Deportivo Alaves. And they’re playing catch-up in the Champions League after matching 3-0 defeats against Bayern and Benfica to start group play.

Their 1-0 win over Dynamo Kyiv kept the door open — their odds of advancing remain at 50% (down from 77% at the start), but they’ve got another must-win in Kyiv on Tuesday. Lose, and they’re likely playing for third place and a shot at a Europa League run, which, honestly, wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for their young pieces — healthy-again winger Ansu Fati (18), midfielders Pedri (18), Gavi (17) and Nico Gonzalez (19), fullback Sergino Dest (20), defenders Ronald Araujo (22), Oscar Mingueza (22) and Eric Garcia (20), etc. But years of sketchy decision-making and a financial crisis off the pitch have very much caught up to the club on it.

Sporting CP: With a strong, defensive identity and solid continuity from last season’s Primeira Liga title run — the club’s first in 19 seasons — it wasn’t hard to see Ruben Amorim’s Sporting as a potential contender in Group C, a worthy foil to attacking Ajax and Borussia Dortmund squads. But they got run over by Ajax, 5-1 at home, in the opening match and suffered a frustrating 1-0 defeat at Dortmund. A win over Besiktas kept hope alive and their league form remains fantastic (they’re unbeaten and only trail Porto atop the table by goal differential), but their odds of advancing to the knockouts have still fallen from 42% to 16%.

This is another team that could benefit from a Europa League run, and the Leoes are well-positioned to land there. And hey, maybe keeping bigger clubs off of Amorim’s scent for a bit longer — the 36-year-old has been phenomenal since taking over in March 2020 — is worth a momentary setback.

Zenit Saint Petersburg: It’s been six years since Zenit topped Gent, Valencia and Lyon and won Group H. Since then, no Russian team has advanced to the knockout rounds, and only one (CSKA in 2017-18) has managed more than seven points in group play. With a second win over Malmo, Zenit would reach six points, at least, but 1-0 losses to Juventus and Chelsea have dropped their odds of advancing from 32% to 7%.

Defense hasn’t been an issue, at least. Zenit has allowed just two goals and matched both Juve and Chelsea blow-for-blow. But blown chances from veterans Artem Dzyuba and Yaroslav Rakitskiy and newcomer Claudinho left them with an uphill climb over the next three matches.

Whose odds have improved the most?

PSG: After a disappointing opening performance, PSG has navigated the Group of Death. They drew with Club Brugge on September 15 but put themselves in great position to advance with home wins over Manchester City (2-0) and RBL (3-2). Return trips to Manchester and Leipzig won’t be easy, but after starting out with just 54% odds of advancing, they’re now at 92%.

Let’s be honest: PSG have been uninspiring as a whole this season. They’ve been quite successful, mind you, losing only once in Ligue 1 play, and after losing the league title to Lille, they’re eight points clear of the field and repositioned to cruise to an easy win. Plus they beat Manchester City 2-0 and lead the Very Difficult Group! That’s clearly great.

But when a team adds Lionel Messi to an attack that already featured Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, visions of transcendence and wizardry fill the mind. Instead, we’ve seen cautious tactics, bare-minimum results and a general roster imbalance. Thanks to both injuries and load management, the transcendent trio above has only played together six times, winning just three of the six and scoring just 11 goals. PSG has enjoyed isolated moments of individual brilliance and if they ever click, it could be reminiscent of the 2015 Barca team that featured peak or near-peak versions of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. With that team, you could see goals coming six passes in advance.

For anyone with memories of that Barca squad, witnessing general, functional competence from PSG and watching them do just enough… that’s not what anyone signed up for from the most expensive attacking line of all time. They’re suffering from the weight of expectation, but they still have time to live up to it.

RB Salzburg: At this point last season, Salzburg had dropped 11 points in 12 league matches — in a race they’d eventually win with ease — and had generated one point through three Champions League affairs, giving both Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich hell before running out of gas in the last 15 minutes. This time around, they’ve dropped only four points in 12 league matches, and they’ve taken seven points from three Champions League matches (in an admittedly much easier group). They lost forward Patson Daka to Leicester City, midfielder Enock Mwepu to Brighton and manager Jesse Marsch to RB Leipzig… and got better?

After wins over both Lille and Wolfsburg, their odds of advancing to the knockout rounds have increased from 56% at the start of the year to 92% now. Teenage forward Karim Adeyemi has erupted (18-year-old Benjamin Sesko has been excellent in league play, too), and before Saturday’s draw with Ried, Salzburg had briefly risen to 15th in FiveThirtyEight’s club rankings, ahead of Juventus and La Liga-leading Real Sociedad and barely behind Manchester United. They remain 18th, pretty incredible for a team from the Other Bundesliga.

Juventus: After winning nine consecutive Serie A titles, Juve finished fourth in the league last season, salvaging a Champions League bid by a single point, and fired rookie manager Andrea Pirlo in favor of a more seasoned coach: Max Allegri, who had been responsible for five of those Scudettos and Juve’s last great Champions League runs (they were runners up in 2015 and 2017).

In league play, this move hasn’t even slightly paid off. After Saturday’s loss at Hellas Verona, they stand in 10th place, four points outside the top four and 16 points behind Napoli and Milan atop the table. They have already all but clinched a second year Scudetto-free, but they have handled their business in the Champions League, at least. With 1-0 wins over both Chelsea and Zenit, they stand in first place in Group H and despite underwhelming overall form, their odds of advancing have improved from 71% in August to 97% today.

Ajax: Ajax is on a spectacular run of form at the moment. They’ve won six Eredivisie matches by at least three goals thus far, and after getting smoked by a torrid PSV Eindhoven, 5-0, in the Johan Cruyff Shield back in early August, they repaid the favor with a 5-0 league win on Oct. 24.

But this isn’t about Ajax in the Eredivisie: they almost always dominate their league. No, this is about Ajax beating its first three Champions League opponents by a combined 11-1. They torched Sporting 5-1 in Lisbon in mid-September, then made Borussia Dortmund look tired and slow for 90 minutes in a 4-0 win in mid-October. Sebastien Haller has scored six goals in three UCL matches and 13 in all competitions, while Dusan Tadic and Steven Berghuis have combined for 10 more goals and 17 assists (all comps) as well.

While superclubs mostly just pass managers back and forth to each other, searching for super-club experience instead of actual potential, Ajax has managed to hold onto Erik Ten Hag for nearly four years. He led the club to the Champions League semifinals in 2019, and this year’s squad has already nearly clinched advancement to the knockout rounds. Not only that, but FiveThirtyEight also gives them the fourth-best odds of winning the entire tournament — 10%, behind only Bayern, Manchester City and Liverpool. Even by the standards of a four-time European champion, the team is on a high ebb right now.

Liverpool: It hasn’t been easy, but the Reds have handled their business thus far in Champions League play. They torched Porto, 5-1 on the road, but they needed two second-half goals to beat Milan 3-2, and they needed an Antoine Griezmann red card and a late Mo Salah penalty to win 3-2 at Atletico Madrid. Their nine points have taken them to the brink of advancement — their odds of doing so have increased from 77% in August to over 99% today.

A home win over Atletico on Wednesday would clinch Liverpool’s spot in the next round and potentially clinch a Group B win depending on the Porto-Milan result. That would be huge for a team that is navigating both Premier League and Champions League title pushes with a midfield light on depth. They’ve enjoyed better injuries luck than they did last year (if only because last year’s luck was so terrible), but any opportunity to rest a key player or two would be welcome.

Can Sheriff do it?

The five teams above have seen their odds of advancement improve the most. Did I forget to mention Sheriff Tiraspol, the Cinderella of the tournament and first-place team in Group D? Nope. As the team with by far the worst FiveThirtyEight rating heading into the tournament, the Moldovan champions had to advance through four qualification rounds just to reach the main field of teams, and they started the group stage with just a 2% chance of advancing.

Stirring wins over Shakhtar and Real Madrid have indeed put them atop Group D despite a loss to Inter, but they still have their work cut out for them. FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 23% chance of advancing — a major improvement, but not quite as much as the teams above — and a 67% chance of finishing third in the group.

They’ll need at least one more big upset to get the job done, in other words. Inter visits Sheriff Stadium on Wednesday, and Real Madrid does the same in three weeks. Winning one of these two (or taking a point or two while winning at Shakhtar in December) could get them close to the finish line. And honestly, it isn’t out of the question. They check a lot of “Sturdy Underdog” boxes — goalkeeper Giorgos Athanasiadis has been brilliant, their midfield has been excellent at progressing the ball into dangerous areas, Sebastien Thill has proven capable of long-range magic, and Adama Traore, hero of qualification, gives them particular quality up front.

“Your goalkeeper stands on his head, and your attackers make the most of just a few chances” has won plenty of matches through the years. Sheriff needs it to work one or two more times.

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This week’s most important matches

5. Ajax at Borussia Dortmund (Wednesday, 4 p.m. ET). This one’s big for BVB for a couple of different reasons. For one thing, a Dortmund loss paired with a Sporting CP win over Besiktas would leave them tied at six points each and put BVB’s advancement hopes at risk. For another, Ajax really did wipe the floor with them in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago, and a quick rebound would do a lot for overall perceptions and confidence. Either way, an extremely banged up BVB squad producing a result against one of the hottest teams in Europe is a tall ask.

4. Atletico Madrid at Liverpool (Wednesday, 4 p.m. ET). Atletico took only one combined point at home against Liverpool and Porto and finds itself tied for second with Porto at four points at the halfway mark. A huge trip to Portugal looms, but stealing a point at Anfield would be huge. Is Liverpool wobbly after a frustrating home draw with Brighton on Saturday?

3. Manchester United at Atalanta (Tuesday, 4 p.m. ET). Late-game heroics have put United in first place at the turn, but their overall mediocre form means they aren’t exactly safe just yet. Atalanta isn’t exactly hot either — three wins in their last eight matches — but has the identity United seems to lack. Can they build another early lead and finish the job this time?

2. Inter Milan at FC Sheriff (Wednesday, 4 p.m. ET). Sheriff’s work is far from done, and Inter comes to town in strong form, having lost just once in their last 10 overall matches. Is there more underdog magic in the cards, or will Nicolo Barella, Edin Dzeko and company have too much?

1. Barcelona at Dynamo Kyiv (Tuesday, 4 p.m. ET). This is nearly a do-or-die moment for Barca, their best remaining chance at three points. Win, and they could have a chance at locking up advancement with a win over Benfica in a few weeks. Lose, and they need a miracle. They beat Dynamo 1-0 at home a couple of weeks ago, but they haven’t won a match on the road since May. All in all, a huge moment for interim manager Sergi Barjuan.

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