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Early Pressure Points Across the UEFA Champions League

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 2021-10-18

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For a select few desperate to cling to elite status, the halfway mark of the group stage brings about potential inflection points in their respective seasons.

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It's still early in the UEFA Champions League group stage, but it's not too early for clubs and individuals with big expectations and lofty mandates to start sweating.

With an opening phase that has already featured some surprising results—Young Boys over Man United, Club Brugge over Leipzig, Sheriff Tiraspol over Real Madrid—the potential for some shocks with longer-lasting implications is both significant and very real.

The irony for some of those facing the most early pressure in the Champions League currently is that if they had gotten their way last spring, the same kind of scenarios wouldn't be so daunting. For those original Super League dozen , their place in the premier European competition would have been guaranteed in perpetuity, and while there would be disappointment about failing to perform well in it, there wouldn't be any concern about returning next season with the chance to do it again. The financial windfall they all so desperately would love to keep receiving and the place among the elite they would love to keep in their grasp still need to be earned in the current setup, though, which means the upcoming matches carry an extra layer of weight.

For a third of that Super League dozen, this week represents a significant marker in the season with their Champions League ambitions and outlooks hanging in the balance.

Sipa USA (3)

Manchester United

The good vibes surrounding Man United after its summer transfer window and sudden reunion with Cristiano Ronaldo are wearing away. The Red Devils are now winless in three straight league matches and tumbling into sixth place, albeit in a very tight, congested top half of the table. If not for Ronaldo's stoppage-time heroics in the last Champions League match vs. Villarreal, they'd be winless in five matches in all competitions.

Given the summer expenditure and expectation that came along with it, there's the potential for some genuine trouble if manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can't right the ship Wednesday at Old Trafford against group-leading Atalanta. A defeat would keep United out of the top two in the group—and, if Villarreal can beat Young Boys on Wednesday in conjunction with a United defeat, it would send the club into last place.

With Raphaël Varane out injured, United's weaknesses being exposed more regularly and with a hellish schedule through next month's international break, it feels like yet another definitive time for Solskjaer on the Man United bench. He's often responded when facing the heat in the past, coaxing the results necessary to stay the course, but failing to beat Atalanta at home would push things close to the brink, especially with the resources that have been dedicated to reinforcing the squad.

Milan's duo

Inter and AC Milan's resurgence in Serie A has not translated to the Champions League, where they have a combined one point through four games played and a combined three defeats compared to their one combined loss in domestic play. As the halfway point of the group stage hits, both already have to be feeling a sense of urgency.

With Liverpool and Atletico Madrid predictably in control of AC Milan's group, a defeat to a Porto team that's still unbeaten in Portugal's top flight, would spell doom. Milan would be without a point and four points out of third, with its hopes of reaching the knockout stage all but over.

For Inter, things are not as dire, especially considering the makeup of its quartet. But Sheriff Tiraspol's storybook-adjacent run to the top of its group has been a genuine curveball, and Inter's failure to score vs. Real Madrid and Shakhtar Donetsk coupled with its weekend defeat to Lazio have planted some seeds of doubt. If Inter becomes Sheriff's latest victim, then it, too, could be looking at a genuine possibility of a third-place finish becoming its best-case scenario. It's not exactly the return to European glory both sides envisioned, but it's still early enough to correct the course.

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Barcelona

Despite El Clásico looming this weekend, Barcelona cannot afford to be at anything but its best Wednesday at home vs. Dynamo Kiev, and the reasons go beyond the ignominy of residing in last place in the group. After a pair of 3–0 defeats to Bayern Munich and Benfica, Barcelona is staring at the very real possibility of failing to get out of the group stage for the first time since 2000–01.

This would prove costly both in terms of ego and the balance sheet. According to Spanish outlet Sport , Barcelona is banking on the revenue that comes with getting out of the group stage. Clubs receive a windfall for each round through which they progress, and club vice president Eduard Romeu claims that "our budgets expect that the first team will reach the Champions League quarterfinals.” Approximately 20 million euros ($23 million) are on the line if Barcelona cannot progress to the final eight, and as of now, it looks bleak.

There is a pathway forward: If Bayern Munich runs away with the group and Barcelona can sweep Dynamo Kiev and exact retribution on Benfica in the return match, then a second-place finish is in play. But anything less than resounding results in the two upcoming matches vs. the Ukrainian side would spell doom, quell the optimism surrounding the young core that's being cultivated and deliver a further blow to the club's bleak financial situation.

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