Champions League royalty go head-to-head on Tuesday when Liverpool hosts the holder Real Madrid at Anfield. The two giants of European soccer meet in a repeat of last year’s final and the standout match of the round of 16. While Liverpool and Real Madrid share 20 Champions League titles between them, Manchester City continues its quest to win the trophy for the first time and Napoli has emerged as a surprise contender after an outstanding start to the season.
Liverpool has the chance to avenge the 1-0 loss to Real in the final in Paris last May and goes into the first leg in much-improved form after back-to-back wins against Everton and Newcastle in the Premier League.
It has been a season of struggle for a team that was competing for an unprecedented quadruple of trophies last year. So much so that, up until the past week, winning the Champions League looked like its best chance of qualifying for next season’s competition.
But there have been encouraging signs in those morale-boosting wins that leave Jürgen Klopp’s team just six points off the top four and a Champions League-qualifying spot.
Real Madrid is aiming to be crowned champion of Europe for a record extending 15th time and is fresh from winning the Club World Cup earlier this month. But it faces a fight to hold onto its Spanish league title, with Barcelona leading the way at the top of the standings.
The Champions League is the one major trophy City has failed to win since being taken over by Abu Dhabi’s ruling family in 2008. While the arrival of Erling Haaland last summer looked like a potential game-changer in Europe, question marks hang over Pep Guardiola’s team in the Premier League.
A 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest on Saturday saw Arsenal overtake City at the top of the table and highlighted vulnerabilities that have been evident for much of the season. But City has looked strong in the Champions League, cruising through the group stages and is the overwhelming favorite to win when it travels to RB Leipzig on Wednesday.
But Guardiola’s time in charge at City has been punctuated by surprise exits in Europe, so the potential for an upset is real. The City manager is still waiting to win his first Champions League title with a team other than Barcelona featuring Lionel Messi, having lifted it twice with the Catalan club in 2009 and 2011.
Napoli was the most impressive team of the group stages and is racing away at the top of the Italian league, leading by 15 points. It faces Eintracht Frankfurt away on Tuesday on the back of a five-game winning run. Striker Victor Osimhen looks unstoppable in front of goal, with 19 this season and nine in his last nine games.
His performances have seen him linked with a summer move to Manchester United and he can further enhance his reputation as the Champions League returns. Based on form, Napoli looks like one of the leading contenders to win the trophy and will take some stopping if it can maintain it.
Inter Milan, which is the closest challenger to Napoli in Italy, is also in action in the Champions League this week when it hosts Porto on Wednesday. If it is to stand a chance of going far in the competition, much could rely on Romelu Lukaku staying fit and getting his goal-scoring form back.
In that sense, it was encouraging to see him score for the first time since October in Inter’s 3-1 win against Udinese on Saturday - even if it did come from the penalty spot. World Cup winner Lautaro Martínez has been lethal in front of goal since returning from Argentina’s success in Qatar, scoring eight in his last 10 games.
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