Man City start their Champions League title defense; Man United win heats up top-four battle in Premier League

Happy Champions League week! After a months-long break, Europe’s top club competition is finally back with some enticing matchups this week. I’m Pardeep Cattry with a look at tomorrow’s games — and the competition that’s brewing to participate in next season’s Champions League.

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⚽ The Forward Line

🇪🇺 Let the Champions League games begin

The Champions League makes its long-awaited return with two teams eager to stake their claim as Europe’s best — Manchester City and Real Madrid. Both lead Chuck Booth’s power rankings ahead of the round of 16, with the reigning champions naturally occupying top spot as they return to full fitness. Midfielder Kevin de Bruyne is set to play his first Champions League minutes of the season against Copenhagen, while all eyes are on Erling Haaland not just to give City a commanding lead, but as James Benge writes, keep himself in the Golden Boot race.

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  • Benge: “I got to pick the guy who hit the top 20 scorers in the history of this competition within 35 games. At his current rate, the only thing stopping him breaking Cristiano Ronaldo’s all-time record is whether his body can hold up. The best striker in the world playing in the best team is a recipe for goals aplenty.”

While City will have all of their stars available, Real Madrid will be missing a big one — Jude Bellingham. The midfielder sprained his ankle in the team’s 4-0 win over Girona on Saturday and though he might be back in time for their second leg against RB Leipzig on March 6, Bellingham will be out for tomorrow’s first leg. As Booth notes, though, Carlo Ancelotti and company have developed a knack for surviving such tests thanks to their world-class offense.

  • Booth: “As injuries keep piling up, Carlo Ancelotti has kept Real Madrid moving forward. Defensively, it remains to be seen if they can get past teams like PSG and Manchester City, but Real Madrid’s attack stacks up with anyone in the world.”

Real Madrid have scored 12 goals in their last five games and counted on seven different goalscorers. Bellingham’s importance is undeniable — he had three goals in their last five games — but Vinicius Junior had four during that stretch, while Joselu scored twice and the likes of Rodrygo and Dani Carvajal also got on the scoresheet. Ancelotti has enough attacking firepower to be the favorites tomorrow without Bellingham, and it’s possible their attack-first strategy will keep them in the race for yet another Champions League title.

While Manchester City keep busy in the Champions League, the battle to compete in next season’s edition is intensifying in England. While City, Liverpool and Arsenal seem to have the top three spots locked up, the race for fourth place is now between three teams — Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Manchester United.

Spurs currently sit in fourth with 47 points, while Villa are a point behind them in fifth and United are in sixth with 41 points but the points totals are only the  beginning of the story. United are the most in-form team of the bunch and are in the midst of a four match winning streak after yesterday’s 2-1 win over Villa, who are in contrasting form. After a strong start to the season, they now have just two wins in their last seven games and both came against teams in the relegation zone. Tottenham, meanwhile, re-entered fourth place with a come-from-behind win over Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday and though it was their first Premier League win of 2024, they are unbeaten in five.

Each team has their strengths — for Spurs, it’s the fact that they are at full fitness for the first time all season, while for United, in-form individuals like Scott McTominay are leading the way, and Villa can fall back on an impressive tactical strategy. They all share the same weakness: a porous back line that gets in the way of their offensive talent, especially for a United team whose goal difference is currently zero.

It sets up for a fascinating finale to the season, and an incredibly competitive one. England currently lags behind Italy and Germany in the UEFA coefficient race, meaning the Premier League might not earn a fifth Champions League berth for next season. May the best team win.

🔗  Top Stories

🏆 They are the champions: Qatar won their second consecutive Asian Cup on Saturday, while Ivory Coast came from behind to beat Nigeria in yesterday’s Africa Cup of Nations final, courtesy of a big showing from Sebastian Haller.

🟦 Blue cards delayed: The IFAB reportedly postponed a decision to introduce blue cards and sin-bins after backlash.

🇩🇪 Leverkusen top Bayern: Leverkusen are now five points clear atop the Bundesliga after a 3-0 demolition of Bayern in which the losers had just one shot on target.

🔴 Liverpool injury update: Trent Alexander-Arnold re-aggravated a knee injury over the weekend, but Mohamed Salah is nearing a return after picking up a hamstring injury last month.

⏪ Weekend update: Arsenal thrashed West Ham to remain in the title race, Real Madrid beat Girona in a top-of-the-table clash, and Ousmane Dembele shone as PSG beat Lille.

🗣️ Kamal Miller interview: Nico Cantor sits down with Portland Timbers defender Kamal Miller ahead of the start of the MLS season.

🏈⚽ Football Meets Football: Retired NFL star JJ Watt joined the Champions League crew to talk about both sports before yesterday’s Super Bowl — and reveal Micha Richards’ best football position.

💵 UCL deal: As UCL returns make sure to check out our Paramount+ special one month extended free trial with promo code GOAT.

💰  The Back Line

💵 Best bets

  • Premier League: Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea, Monday, 3 p.m.
    💰 THE PICK: More than 2.75 goals scored (+103)
     — Four of Chelsea’s last five games have had at least three goals, while the same goes for three of Palace’s last five. The hope is that both will keep the trend going for an entertaining game to kick off the week’s action.
  • Champions League winner

📺 What’s on CBS Sports Golazo Network

☀️ Morning Footy (Weekdays 8-10 a.m.): Hosts Susannah Collins, Charlie Davies, Nico Cantor and Alexis Guerreros help fans get their day started on the network’s flagship morning show with highlights, interviews and the biggest soccer storylines. Morning Footy is also available in podcast form, so you’ll never have to miss an episode.

📦 Box 2 Box (Weekday afternoons): The news-driven show quickly recaps all the latest headlines from around the world with panelists previewing the top matchups of the day. Catch Box 2 Box on CBS Sports Golazo Network on the CBS Sports app, PlutoTV and Paramount+. 

3️⃣ Attacking Third (Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening): The leading women’s soccer podcast and social brand is now a live studio show. Just because the NWSL season is over doesn’t mean that our coverage of the women’s game is going anywhere. Our analysts will be breaking down the USWNT. NWSL offseason and European domestic season all winter long.

👟 Kickin’ It (Tuesday nights): CBS Sports Golazo Network’s new unfiltered interview show returns Tuesday Hosted by Kate Abdo, Clint Dempsey, Mo Edu and Charlie Davies, the group chat candidly with the biggest names from the Beautiful Game and share their stories from on and off the pitch. 

⚽ Call it What You Want (Monday night): A weekly podcast where Jimmy Conrad, Jesse Marsch and Charlie Davies cover all things USMNT and the state of the beautiful game in the United States.

🥅 Scoreline (Daily): Scoreline is the newest place for fans to catch up on all the biggest news and results impacting global football, match highlights from the top soccer competitions and all the can’t-miss goals from the day’s action, starting Thursday and airing seven days a week.

📺 How to watch: CBS Sports Golazo Network is a free 24/7 channel exclusively dedicated to offering unparalleled coverage of all the top soccer competitions worldwide. You can stream for free on the CBS Sports appPluto TV and Paramount+.

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