Preview: Inter surge back on to Champions League stage, Barcelona and Napoli eye last chance

AP , Monday 19 Feb 2024

After Kylian Mbappé, Real Madrid and Manchester City seized center stage last week, the Champions League spotlight can now turn to shine on others.

Inter
Inter Milan s Lautaro Martinez, right, celebrates with his teammate Marcus Thuram after scoring his side s second goal during the Serie A soccer match between Inter Milan and Salernitana at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy, Friday, Feb.16, 2023. AP

The four remaining first-leg games in the round of 16 this week feature the beaten finalist last season, the champions of Italy and Spain, plus the team with the best record in any of the top European leagues this season.

Inter Milan hosts Atletico Madrid on Tuesday as the clear leader in Serie A and looking a more solid contender now than on its run to the 2023 final against Man City.

Napoli hosts Barcelona on Wednesday in a pairing of teams unlikely to retain their domestic league titles and seem to have just one chance left to win a trophy this season.

PSV Eindhoven is a hot favorite to win the Dutch league having dropped the fewest points (four, drawing two of 22 games) and amassed the biggest goal difference (60) in any of the major European leagues.

PSV hosts Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday in a clash of clubs that each lifted the European Cup trophy once.

Arsenal goes to Porto on Wednesday after back-to-back away wins by a combined score of 11-0 in the Premier League.

Arsenal is the only English team in European action this week though its title rivals at home, Liverpool and Man City, each has a Premier League game in midweek.

INTER’S PROGRESS

Inter Milan was an unexpected finalist last season avoiding any English or Spanish opponent in the knockout rounds until the final. An unlucky 1-0 loss to Manchester City in Istanbul showed doubters the three-time European champion was worth its place.

Inter goes to Madrid after six straight wins in Serie A helped it build a nine-point lead ahead of Sunday’s games.

Inter and Atletico will put up their traditionally solid defenses against productive attacks this season: Inter’s Lautaro Martínez and Marcus Thuram have combined for 35 goals in all competitions while the Álvaro Morata- Antoine Griezmann duo has 37 for Atletico.

LAST CHANCE

There is much at stake for Barcelona and Napoli in their two meetings over the next three weeks, starting at the Italian club’s stadium named for Diego Maradona.

Each trails by a distance in defense of their domestic league title, both are out of the domestic cup and whichever is eliminated in the Champions League cannot qualify for the lucrative 32-team Club World Cup that FIFA relaunches next year in the United States.

Barcelona coach Xavi will leave at the end of the season and his successor likely will inherit a Champions League entry.

Napoli is currently ninth in Serie A and the only route back to the Champions League for coach Walter Mazzarri, who replaced the fired Rudi Garcia during the group stage, could be to win this one.

RETURN GAMES

Second-leg games are played three weeks after the first leg.

On March 5, Bayern Munich will host Lazio trailing 1-0, and Paris Saint-Germain takes a 2-0 lead to Real Sociedad.

Mbappé scored the first goal Wednesday in Paris one day before it was confirmed he told the club he will leave as a free agent when his contract expires in June.

On March 6, Real Madrid — Mbappé’s expected next employer — hosts Leipzig with a 1-0 lead and defending champion Manchester City has a 3-1 lead against visiting Copenhagen.

The other second-leg games are played March 12-13. The draw for the quarterfinals and semifinals is made March 15 at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.

EUROPA LEAGUE DRAW

The European action continues beyond Wednesday. Second-leg games in knockout playoffs for the Europa League and Europa Conference League are on Thursday, one day before the round of 16 draws for both competitions.

Friday is when Liverpool and Bayer Leverkusen re-enter the picture — two clubs who more and more seem to have a shared sense of destiny this season.

Both will enter the Europa League draw as seeded teams having won their groups, leading their domestic title races and with as much attention on their coaches as their players.

Jürgen Klopp has said he will leave Liverpool after a remarkable nine-year run and the best option to replace him could be Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso, who would be returning to the club where he won a Champions League title in 2005 and which he says he still supports.

Liverpool and Leverkusen cannot be paired in the round of 16 but a final between them on May 22 in Dublin could beat the Champions League final 10 days later for narrative drama.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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