Believe it or not, by the end of next week, we’ll be halfway through the group stage of the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League.
We’re once again putting all 16 games into one of four tiers:
- Tier 1 – Actually worth watching;
- Tier 2 – Worth a look (and a shorter breakdown);
- Tier 3 – There’s always worse things to be doing than watching soccer; and
- Tier 4 – Admittedly not sure what to say on these.
For those who haven’t been following the UCL, each team will have met every opponent in its four-team group by the end of this matchday. Matchdays 4, 5 and 6 will offer added intrigue for two reasons: A) everyone will be familiar with each other and B) More importantly, the stakes will be raised (unless the team in first is already way ahead of the pack).
But that’s enough more than enough throat-clearing for now.
Tier 1 – Actually worth watching
1. Inter Milan (+143) vs. Borussia Dortmund (+185) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
Inter Milan is probably a much better team than the results of its first two games — a draw vs. Slavia Prague and a loss to Barcelona — would indicate. But the standings don’t care about that, as Inter is in last place with just one point. Another loss or draw vs. BVB would mean this team would probably need to win all three of its remaining games, and still need some help, to finish top-two.
With a win, Inter and Dortmund would be tied for second with 4 points, assuming Barcelona wins at Slavia Prague. Inter is a good team (18 points through seven Serie A games) with a good manager, so I think they’ll manage three points here, but it will be tough without injured Alexis Sánchez (can you imagine saying that just 6 months ago???). BVB has been in a funk domestically, settling for draws in each of their last three.
2. Red Bull Salzburg (+170) vs. Napoli (+143) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
All RBS have done so far is produce a historic 6-2 blowout over Genk (it was 5-1 at halftime!) and give Liverpool everything they wanted. And yet they’re the underdog on their home field when Napoli comes to town this week. If you weren’t watching when this team erased a 3-0 deficit at Anfield, tying the game in the 60th minute before losing 4-3, I’ll forgive you – I missed it, too, sadly.
But there’s no excuse not to have an eye on this game. As if that effort by RBS wasn’t impressive enough in itself, they did it with star Erling Braut Haland watching from the bench for the first 56 minutes! We don’t have an official High Press Soccer UCL “League Pass” (most entertaining) ranking – at least not yet – but if we did, this team would have a case for the No. 1 spot. They’ve scored 46 goals in 10 games in the Austrian Bundesliga to go with nine through two Champions League games.
Napoli, for their part, has a win over Liverpool as well as a 0-0 draw against Genk, making them the field’s biggest wild card.
3. Ajax (+125) vs. Chelsea (+210) Wednesday, 12:55 p.m.
Speaking of teams that would rank toward the top of a “League Pass” list … Ajax are everyone’s favorite upstart juggernaut (it’s time to start calling the No. 6 team in our Global XI Soccer Table what it is, with or without Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs de Ligt).
They can reach the halfway point with nine points if they beat Chelsea. They’re favored here, so this line as not as ridiculous as the one for their last game, but how do you not bet on this team at home at +125?? Chelsea’s another fun team to watch thanks to Frank Lampard’s willingness to unleash young stars Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham (and hopefully Christian Pulisic, too, sooner than later).
Tier 2 – Worth a look (and a shorter breakdown)
4. Lille (+185) vs. Valencia (+160) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
Staying in Group H, lines don’t get much more even than this one. Lille was blown out by Ajax before playing Chelsea tough in a 2-1 loss on Matchday 2. That’s about the best case I can make for tuning into a Ligue 1 club other than PSG clashing with Valencia, which is, at best, La Liga’s fifth-best team right now.
5. Benfica (+105) vs. Lyon (+235) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
Once again, I’m expecting a close match based on the lines. Benfica, which lost its first two in Group G, can probably forget about the knockout stages if they don’t win this one. Lyon is tied with Zenit St. Petersburg for first in the group, with four points. In a foursome with no bona fide European power, Lyon has reason to like its chances to advance, especially with a victory in this one.
6. Galatasaray (+440) vs. Real Madrid (-162) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
To be honest, this one should probably be a tier or two lower, but I really don’t want to call 11 of 16 games this week barely/not very watchable. Real Madrid, on paper, should finish in the top 2 of Group A with ease. But they have just one point so far and are playing this game in a hostile atmosphere. I don’t think RM makes it back-to-back disappointing draws, but keep your eye on this match-up, especially early, to see how Zinedine Zidane’s banged up squad looks. It’s also worth noting that last time Los Blancos were heavily favored, Club Brugge happened, as Zidane’s team fell behind 2-0 before salvaging a draw.
Tier 3 – there’s always worse things to be doing than watching soccer
7. Manchester City (-530) vs. Atalanta (+1300) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
I understand why City are such heavy favorites here, but Atalanta is better than its first two performances would lead us to believe (I think). Either way, we have a high-scoring European power taking on an Atlanta team that is both desperate and high-scoring in its own right.
I refuse, however, to call a team with UCL losses to Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk a “European power.”
8. Genk (+850) vs. Liverpool (-360) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
9. Slavia Prague (+550) vs. Barcelona (-210) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
The road teams in these two match-ups should cruise, but Liverpool is worth watching, regardless of the opponent. The same can be said for Barcelona when Lionel Messi is fully fit, which he should be for this one. Expect Barcelona’s first comfortable UCL victory of the year.
Tier 4 — admittedly not sure what to say on these
(*fingers crossed this is the only time this category features six games it’s hard to make a case for*)