This year’s dead sprint through group play is almost over. Fortunately, quite a bit is still up in the air, which should give Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s games a “saving the best for last” feel. Thanks to a few teams that squandered golden opportunities on Matchday 5 to make Matchday 6 irrelevant, the slate ahead offers a lot of high-stakes action.
In Group H, one of Manchester United, PSG or RB Leipzig – all of which have nine points – is going home.
In Groups D (Ajax-Atalanta) and F (Lazio-Club Brugge), first place is locked up, but the teams fighting for the all-important second-place finish meet in must-see games.
And there’s a just bit worth keeping an eye on in Group B, where no one is guaranteed a spot in the round of 16, and all four clubs – Monchengladbach (8 points) Shakhtar Donetsk (7), Real Madrid (7) and Inter Milan (5) – have a chance to advance.
There are plenty — or at least a few more — blue-chip teams that have work to do to avoid shocking failures to advance, as we’ll detail below. I should acknowledge here that there are also a lot of teams with little to play for, which means a lot of games in Tiers 3 and 4.
For a full breakdown of exactly what each team has to do to advance, ESPN has you covered with a helpfuul piece available here.
Notes: the tiers are self-explanatory, I hope. All kickoff times listed are U.S. eastern and the home team is listed first. All matches in the US are on CBS All Access.
TIER 1 – MUST-SEE
1. RB Leipzig (+150) vs. Manchester United (+160) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
There have been plenty of shocking results throughout group play, but ManU pasting RB Leipzig 5-0 on Matchday 2 was arguably the most head-turning thing we’ve seen. Tuesday’s rematch is the clear No. 1 this week.
The following was apparent (or should have been) long before they drew Bayern Munich 3-3 on Saturday, but it’s now undeniable: RB Leipzig is absolutely for real.
Manchester United is also in good form domestically, with four wins in a row in the EPL, but didn’t exactly look like a threat to win the UCL last week. That 3-1 loss to PSG is why I like RB Leipzig here (at a great price), but I agree with the oddsmakers that this one will be tight.
Two interesting things to note: 1) this line is on the move (it was +155 for both teams at 10 a.m. Monday morning before RBL was made a slight favorite an hour later) and 2) I’ve always been convinced – don’t ask me for any hard data to support this theory — that a team that lost the first time gets a boost when seeking revenge in the rematch. We’ll see how that theory holds up here.
It’s a shame they didn’t schedule this at 12:55 p.m., alongside a meaningless game, to make it easy to focus on, but oh well.
Assuming PSG beats Istanbul Basaksehir, the good news for ManU is that a draw would do the trick.
2. Ajax (+135) vs. Atalanta (+180) Wednesday, 12:55 p.m.
A win or draw sends Atalanta through, while Ajax needs a win to advance. I expected Atalanta to push Liverpool, at least somewhat, for first place in this group. And if you’d have told me before this group began that Liverpool would lose what it lost to injuries and still win a tough group this easily, I’d have had my doubts. I also thought Ajax had lost too much from the past two seasons to make it out of a tough group, but they’ve got a chance to do just that. So I haven’t exactly had this group pegged.
In addition to handling Midtjylland twice and drawing Atalanta in their first meeting, Ajax held Liverpool to just one goal in both meetings with the reigning EPL champs. Dusan Tadic, David Neres and Manager Erik ten Hag are proving this team should never be underestimated, but can they take down Atalanta? I honestly have no clue, but this is one you have to tune in for. Fortunately, you can give it all your attention, as the only other game at this time is Liverpool’s meaningless battle with Midtjylland.
3A. Real Madrid (-136) vs. Monchengladbach (+410) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
3B. Inter Milan (-345) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (+850) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
While the thought of Monchengladbach and Shakhtar coming out of this group, with Real Madrid and Inter Milan limping off to the Europa League, is fascinating, oddsmakers don’t see that happening. In addition to the lopsided lines in both these games, current top-2 odds for this group are the following:
- Real Madrid (-670)
- Inter Milan (-139)
- Monchengladbach (-112)
- Shakhtar Donetsk (+450)
No matter how convinced oddsmakers are that Real Madrid and Inter Milan will shape up and handle their lesser-known opponents, I’m not so sure. Don’t be surprised if one of, if not both, of Monchengladbach and Shakhtar pull an upset.
One other thing to keep in mind: If Inter Milan wins (as expected), but there is a a draw between RM and Monchengladbach, the Serie A side is going home. So Inter needs three points and a little help. Fingers crossed we don’t see RM-Monchengladbach playing for the mutually beneficial draw.
5. RB Salzburg (+230) vs. Atlético Madrid (+112) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
Atleti nearly beat Bayern Munich “B” last week, but that draw means they have work to do on the road at RB Salzburg. The good news is that they’ll go through with a draw, and if there’s one team that can grind out a 0-0 result, it’s Diego Simeone’s club. Still, they’re in a dangerous spot here on the road, as RB Salzburg will pour forward from the start. I like Atleti here, but this one will be close.
6. Lazio (-141) vs. Club Brugge (+390) Tuesday, 12:55 p.m.
Lazio nearly pulled its second upset of Borussia Dortmund last week, but settled for a draw. They still are expected to advance, but do need to avoid a loss at home in this one. Expect them to move on, but keep in mind that these teams’ Matchday 2 meeting ended in a draw. Surely Juventus won’t be the only Serie A team in the round of 16, will they?
TIER 2 – WORTH A LOOK (AND A SHORTER BREAKDOWN)
7. PSG (-910) vs. Istanbul Basaksehir (+2,000) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
I can’t put a PSG team in a three-way tie for first (or third, depending how you look at it) lower than Tier 2 just in case they’re not sharp at home, but as the line tells you, they should cruise. Last week’s showing vs. ManU inspired confidence PSG will go through, but their place in the knockout stage is not secure yet.
8. Barcelona (+110) vs. Juventus (+235) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
If you believe Barcelona Manager Ronald Koeman, we will see Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo in this one. That alone means that despite the low stakes, this one’s worth a look.
TIER 3 – THERE’S ALWAYS WORSE THINGS TO BE DOING THAN WATCHING SOCCER
9. Rennes (+220) vs. Sevilla (+130) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
With Rennes star teenage midfielder Eduardo Camavinga’s days with the French club almost certainly numbered – he just signed with prominent agent Jonathan Barnett – now’s the time to check him out before the speculation surrounding his future ratchets up during the January transfer window.
10. Chelsea (-345) vs. Krasnodar (+850) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
Chelsea is just playing too well, and their attack is too entertaining, for me to put this game in Tier 4.