There is only one round left in the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League group stage after six games on Wednesday.
Here are five quick thoughts after a consistent Matchday 5:
Mohammed Salah drives Liverpool in the KO round
The visitors were on the backfoot for the first 41 minutes of Wednesday’s game between Liverpool and Ajax in Amsterdam. The Dutch side was all with the Reds. It only seemed a matter of time before they would score.
Instead, Mo Salah did what he’s been doing all season in the Champions League. Turning his pathetically inconsistent team on their backs, he scored his seventh goal that led the competition to send Jurgen Klopp’s side through to the second round:
The strike changed the game. Liverpool doubled their lead four minutes after half-time with a Darwin Núñez free-kick and Salah helped put the game out of the hosts’ reach when Harvey Elliott’s sighted pass led the Reds to a third goal.
In an up and down season for a club who have reached three of their last five Champions League finals, where would Liverpool be without Salah this season?
No quick fix for Barcelonawho go out early again
Speaking to Bayern Munich hosts on Wednesday, Barca coach Xavi said his team need “more than a miracle” to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League.
You didn’t get it; The five-time European champions were mathematically eliminated from the knockout stage before the game had even started at the Camp Nou with Inter Milan’s 4-0 win over Czech side Viktoria Pilsen kicked off a few hours earlier.
With nothing but pride left to play, the lifeless Blaugrana suffered a deserved 2-0 defeat to a multi-reserved Bayern side after punching their second-round ticket last week. Now, for one of the continent’s superpowers, it’s back to the second tier Europa League for the second time in a row.
That this awkward state was a foregone conclusion after Barca had clinched just four points from their first four Champions League games is little consolation for a club that has won four of those European titles this century. It’s now clear how damaging the financial mismanagement was that prevented Barcelona from re-signing Lionel Messi last summer (and forced them to part ways with several players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who could have helped).
Perhaps Messi, who will be a free agent in July, will return for 2023-24. But for Barca there is no quick fix here. The class gap between them and Bayern on Tuesday only reinforced this hard truth.
Bavaria, Naples stay perfect
Bayern’s clean away win increased their record to 5-0. The only other team still perfect in the competition is Napoli, who easily eliminated Group A’s Cellar-Dwellers Rangers on Wednesday.
It has been a magical 2022-23 so far for the Neapolitans, who are also at the top of Serie A as they chase their first Italian title since Diego Maradona played for the club more than three decades ago. The Scudetto is certainly more important to their fans than the European Cup. And the Champions League gets tougher from next week when Napoli visit a Liverpool side keen to exact revenge on an opponent who sent them off on September 7 to open this year’s tournament.
Still, it’s unmistakable after five games: Napoli look like a real challenger.
Chelsea undergoes an impressive turnaround under Graham Potter
The 2021 champions looked like they might be heading for a first–Round leave this campaign based on their first two games. A shock Croatia defeat to Dinamo Zagreb in the Blues’ opening game cost then-manager Thomas Tuchel his job. Chelsea then drew FC Salzburg in the second home game.
As the calendar swung to October, the Blues slowly began to turn things around – culminating with their third straight win of the month on Tuesday. The 2-1 win in Salzburg sent them into the knockout stages with another group stage game – at home against Dimamo – on 2 November.
Kai Havertz, who gave Chelsea the title two seasons ago, converted the second-half winner with a stampede:
The Blues are also beginning to gain a foothold in Premier League play under Potter. It’s too early to predict where they will be when business of Europe’s top club competition resumes early next year, especially with a World Cup by then.
But if Chelsea’s first two Champions League games featured one of the continent’s most talented sides who looked like Rans too, their last three suggest another deep run this spring is a realistic goal.
Where does juventus go from here?
Juventus needed to beat Benfica on Tuesday to avoid a humiliating group stage elimination. Not only did they fail, they were thoroughly and solidly beaten in Portugal – even if the 4-3 result makes it look like a close one.
It was not. Benfica, who qualified for the second round alongside Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, led 3-1 at half-time. Five minutes after the break, just when one would expect the biggest counter-attack from Max Allegri’s side, Rafa Silva punished a sloppy giveaway by scoring his second goal to make it 4-1.
That wasn’t to be the case for Juve this season after letting the likes of Federico Bernardeschi, Álvaro Morata and Aaron Ramsey leave the club for nothing. New signings Paul Pogba and Ángel Di María were both injured, while colleague Leandro Paredes missed Tuesday’s competition after injuring his biceps last week.
Understandably, Juventus see themselves as one of Europe’s leading clubs. They are desperate to win their second Champions League title and first since 1996. But they couldn’t do it with a near-best Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2018-2021 squad, and they haven’t even made it into Italy’s top three since their nine-season winning streak came to an abrupt halt three years ago.
At the moment they are eighth in Serie A. Juve play PSG for pride next week. They should like it. Unless something changes soon, they won’t have to worry at all about the Champions League next season.
Doug McIntyre, one of North America’s leading football journalists, has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at several FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer at ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @By DougMcIntyre.
Get more out of the UEFA Champions League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more