Tonight: English clubs underwhelming early in Champions League

Chelsea's Thiago Silva reacts after their win in the English Premier League soccer match against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park stadium, in London, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/David Cliff)

The Premier League has provided six of the last 10 Champions League finalists and its clubs were by far the biggest spenders in the summer transfer window, strengthening their already-deep squads and weakening some of their European rivals in the process.

No wonder many were anticipating English domination of the Champions League this season.

It’s not happened.

After two rounds of the group stage, it has been an underwhelming start by the English teams, with three of the four having already lost a game and far from sure of advancing to the round of 16.

Chelsea is in the most trouble.

After a loss at Dinamo Zagreb in Group E and only a draw at home to Salzburg, Chelsea — champion twice in the past decade and the club which had a Europe-high outlay of nearly $300 million in the summer — heads into a tough double-header against Italian champion AC Milan in a sticky spot and with a new coach still trying to work out his best lineup and formation.

Graham Potter only took charge last month after the firing of Thomas Tuchel, hardly an ideal situation for a team nearing midway through a Champions League group-stage campaign. On the plus side for Chelsea ahead of Wednesday’s home game, it rallied to beat Crystal Palace 2-1 in the Premier League at the weekend.

Liverpool, meanwhile, opened with a chastening 4-1 loss at Napoli in Group A and might have been in a similarly tough position as Chelsea if it wasn’t for a last-minute goal by Joel Matip to beat Ajax 2-1.

Now, there’s a sense of optimism around the Reds’ European hopes, especially given two straight games against last-place Rangers, starting Tuesday — after which Liverpool could be yet in sight of qualification.

Then there’s Tottenham, which only beat 10-man Marseille in Group D thanks to two late goals from Richarlison and was then way below par in a surprise loss at Portuguese team Sporting.

Spurs now have two matches against Eintracht Frankfurt, starting in Germany on Tuesday. It goes into the game after a 3-1 defeat in the north London derby at Arsenal.

Manchester City, which routed rival Manchester United 6-3 on Sunday, is the only English team in a strong position after wins over Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund already. Next comes back-to-back games against FC Copenhagen, with City having a good chance of advancing from Group G with two matches to spare. Their first game is on Wednesday.

Here’s what else to look out for in the third round of games: DOMINANT MADRID

Defending champion Real Madrid can take full control of its group with a home win against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday. A victory would give Madrid a five-point lead after only three matches in Group F, considered one of the easiest. Madrid got off to a perfect start to the season in all competitions but was held 1-1 at home against Osasuna in the Spanish league on Sunday. Madrid has six points — two more than second-place Shakhtar. Madrid’s big rival, Barcelona, isn’t in such good shape after losing to Bayern Munich last time out. Barca visits Inter Milan on Tuesday in a match that could help decide the second-place qualifier in Group C, with both teams on three points, three behind Bayern.

NAPOLI’S (MANY) OPTIONS

With every match, it seems, Napoli discovers a new weapon. It started with Georgia dribbling wizard Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and South Korea center back Kim Min-jae. Then Poland midfielder Piotr Zieliński stood out in the 4-1 win over Liverpool last month, followed by Giovanni Simeone and Giacomo Raspadori each asserting themselves at center forward during the absence of Victor Osimhen. On Saturday, it was André-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s turn as the Cameroon midfielder scored twice in a win over Torino for his first goals in the Italian league. And now Osimhen could return from injury at Ajax on Tuesday in Group A as the Partenopei look to extend their perfect start to the Champions League and keep intact an unbeaten record across all competitions.

BAYERN BACK IN BUSINESS

Ominously for visiting Plzeň on Tuesday, Bayern Munich has ended talk of a crisis and got back to its traditional dominance in the Bundesliga with a 4-0 rout of Bayer Leverkusen. The Bavarian powerhouse traditionally endures a mini-slump early in the season before returning to old strengths for the rest, and it appears to be Plzeň’s misfortune that Julian Nagelsmann’s team seems to have shaken off its insecurities for the return of Europe’s premier club competition. Bayern’s players usually up their performances in the Champions League, too. The only worry for Nagelsmann will be the likely absence of influential players Thomas Müller and Joshua Kimmich. Both tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday.

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PSG VISITS BENFICA

Benfica and PSG will fight for the outright Group H lead on Wednesday as they both have six points while Juventus and Maccabi Haifa have none. PSG edged Nice 2-1 on Saturday with goals from Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe to retain its two-point lead over Marseille in the French league. Center back Presnel Kimpembe and midfielder Marco Verratti were both suspended against Nice and were still injured anyway. Messi was arguably the best player against Nice while Neymar’s form has recently dipped. Nice prevented PSG from creating chances for most of the first half by pressing high up the field. Benfica will look to bully PSG in the middle as the two central midfielders can sometimes be isolated.

MARSEILLE’S NIGHTMARE

Marseille desperately needs a win against Sporting Lisbon after losing the first two games to Tottenham and Eintracht Frankfurt in Group D. The French club hopes to avoid a repeat of the 2013-14 campaign when it finished the group stage with zero points. Marseille thrashed Angers 3-0 on Friday to remain second in the French league. Striker Alexis Sanchez was rested as he stayed on the bench after playing two full matches for Chile during the international break. Defender Sead Kolasinac is doubtful for Tuesday’s game. Marseille is still unbeaten in the French league but its defensive frailties have been exposed in the more competitive Champions League.

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