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December 7, 2021

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Barca, Atleti facing UCL exit risk

Xavi Hernandez faces his first critical test as Barcelona coach with the club at risk of failing to make the UEFA Champions League knockout stages for the first time in two decades.

A goalless draw at home to Benfica last month left Barcelona with its destiny in its own hands, but with a much trickier final game away to Group E winner Bayern Munich.

Spanish champion Atletico Madrid also has its work cut to secure one of the five unclaimed last-16 tickets after three defeats on the spin, while all four teams remain in the hunt in an unpredictable Group G.

Barcelona finds itself on the ropes ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Germany, but it could have been far worse were it not for Benfica forward Haris Seferovic’s glaring miss in stoppage time at Camp Nou.

Bayern is one of three teams with a perfect record in this season’s competition, and Robert Lewandowski’s perceived Ballon d’Or snub may give the star striker extra incentive to prove a point.

Xavi suffered his first defeat as Barcelona coach on Saturday against Real Betis. He rested key players with a view to the game in Munich, where victory would guarantee the Catalans go through as runners-up in Group E, extending their 20-year run of reaching the knockout phase.

A youthful Xavi was establishing himself as a mainstay of the midfield when Barcelona exited in the first group stage of the 2000-01 competition.

Failure to secure maximum points would open the door for Benfica to pip Barcelona to second place, with the Portuguese needing to beat Dynamo Kiev in Lisbon.

In Group B, Porto, AC Milan and Atletico will battle it out for the second qualification spot behind Liverpool.

Two-time former European champion Porto holds a one-point edge over both rivals ahead of the visit of Atletico. Milan hosts a Liverpool side that Juergen Klopp could rotate heavily ahead of a busy festive schedule.

Last season’s Europa League winner Villarreal, beaten at home by two late Manchester United goals on matchday five, goes to Atalanta knowing it will advance at the expense of the Italians if it avoids defeat in Bergamo.

Austrian champion Salzburg appeared to be coasting through after accruing seven points in three games, but back-to-back away losses mean it could still miss out.

Lille tops Group G with eight points and will progress if it gets a point at VfL Wolfsburg. The Germans are last in the section but victory would send them through instead.

Salzburg can seal a knockout berth with a draw at home to Sevilla, which in turn would qualify if it wins.

Eleven clubs are assured of their place in the last-16 draw next Monday, five of which have already clinched top spot.

Erik ten Hag’s impressive Ajax will attempt to complete a perfect group stage for the first time in club history at home to Sporting Lisbon, certain of second above Borussia Dortmund irrespective of today’s results.

Manchester City cannot be caught by Paris Saint-Germain in Group A, while Real Madrid has a two-point lead over Inter Milan in Group D ahead of their Bernabeu showdown.

Holder Chelsea, which goes to Zenit Saint Petersburg for its final Group H game, will nail down top spot if it matches Juventus’ result at home to Swedish outfit Malmo.

Ralf Rangnick made a winning start to his spell as United’s interim manager and is safe in the knowledge his team will move on as winner of Group F come what may against Switzerland’s Young Boys.

All third-placed clubs will drop into the Europa League, but a revised format now sees them face the group runners-up from the second-tier tournament in a playoff round before the last 16.


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