Now is when the rubber meets the road. After a January loaded with (often delightful) cup ties, endless transfer rumors (most of which went nowhere), and lots of cold rain, February raises the stakes pretty significantly in Europe.
The UEFA competitions return — the respective first legs of the Champions League round of 16 come in the middle of the month — and from England (first-place Liverpool at third-place Arsenal) to Germany (second-place Bayern Munich at first-place Bayer Leverkusen) to Spain (first-place Girona at second-place Real Madrid) to Italy (second-place Juventus at first-place Inter), we’ve got a lot of enormous league matches popping up in a short amount of time. And if that’s not enough, the chaotic-as-ever Africa Cup of Nations is reaching the final rounds as well.
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It’s a lot, so let’s walk through five(ish) matches to track in each major country/competition.
The Champions League indeed returns, and the round of 24 for the Europa League and the Europa Conference League get underway on Feb. 15 as well. Obviously, you should pay attention to all eight UCL round-of-16 matches, but some might be more interesting than others.
Manchester City are the overall tournament favorites and should handle Copenhagen with relative ease, but two secondary favorites — Real Madrid and Bayern — could find things awkward with road tests. RB Leipzig have been all over the map in 2023-24 and need to recover from some dismal recent form but boast plenty of upside; Lazio, meanwhile, have taken 13 points from their past five league matches to rise to within two points of a top-four spot. Bayern haven’t really seen fifth gear in a while either.
The second set of Champions League matches, on Feb. 20 and 21, features maybe the most fascinating R16 ties — Atletico-Inter and Barca-Napoli — plus, in Porto, another chance for an underdog to make an early home statement. There’s plenty to track here, but you probably didn’t need me to tell you that.
This coming Sunday comes one of the biggest remaining matches of the Premier League campaign. The computers and oddsmakers consider the EPL title race a two-teamer between Manchester City and Liverpool — Opta’s power ratings give the former a 59% chance at the title, the latter a 37% chance, and the other 18 teams in the league a combined 5% chance. Arsenal’s odds took a major nosedive with the Gunners’ back-to-back December losses to West Ham and Fulham, but they still trail Liverpool by only five points and have time to either insert themselves back into the race or, with matches against Liverpool and City (Mar. 30) remaining, decide who gets to win.
Liverpool enter February with a shot at lifting four trophies in Jürgen Klopp’s final four months as manager, but the picture could change significantly by March. The Feb. 4 trip to the Emirates Stadium will have a huge impact on the Reds’ EPL title odds, and in four days late in the month they’ll play in the EFL Cup final against Chelsea and in the FA Cup fifth round against Watford or Southampton. They’ll be favored in both matches, but this will be a pretty defining month in the final chapter of the Klopp-Liverpool story.
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And of course, let’s not forget everyone’s new favorite club, Maidstone United. The Stones took down second-division Ipswich Town last weekend to become the first sixth-division club to reach the fifth round since the 1970s, and they’ll face another second-division side, either Wednesday or Coventry, at the end of the month.
The first 10 days of the month are enormous in Deutschland. First, we’ve got the last two quarterfinals of what has been a truly chaotic DFB-Pokal. Two second-division teams – Fortuna Dusseldorf (which defeated St. Pauli via penalties on Tuesday) and either Kaiserslautern or Hertha Berlin (they play Wednesday, live on ESPN+) — are already guaranteed semifinal bids, and the only two top-of-the-first-division teams left in the field, first-place Leverkusen and third-place Stuttgart, play each other next week.
Meanwhile, third-division Saarbrucken, who have already taken down Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt, try to keep their miraculous run going against a Gladbach team that is worse than Bayern and Eintracht. Major “magic of the cup” vibes in Germany.
Just four days after hosting Stuttgart, Bayer Leverkusen will play an even bigger match, and it honestly might be the biggest remaining match of the Bundesliga campaign. Bayern come to town currently trailing the Werkself by just two points, and although the German giants do have to face bogey team Gladbach this coming weekend, it’s fair to say that if Leverkusen want to remain on the front foot in the title race, they need a result in this one pretty badly.
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That means they’ll have to play better than they have since the league’s restart — they needed late magic to secure tight wins over Augsburg and RB Leipzig, and they came up empty in the magic department in a 0-0 draw with Gladbach last weekend. They’ve been just scraping by with several key players participating in the Africa Cup of Nations, and although that’s wrapping up, star scorer Victor Boniface is out for a few more weeks with injury. They missed him greatly last weekend.
Granted, Barcelona and Real Madrid are always the primary focuses of attention in Spain, but February belongs to Girona and Atletico Madrid. Including a Feb. 3 match against Real Sociedad, Girona will face three of the top six teams in the LaLiga table this month. They are currently in first, a point ahead of Real Madrid (who have a game in hand), but Opta’s power ratings aren’t yet buying what the Gironistes are selling. They give Real Madrid a 93% chance of taking the title. But if Girona come up big this month, the odds will have no choice but to shift a decent amount toward the underdogs.
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Atleti, meanwhile, are in an interesting spot. They have lost to Barcelona, Athletic Club and Girona over the past two months, which has left them in a precarious position, clinging to a top-four position by just two points over Athletic (and tied with a flailing Barca). But a Copa del Rey win over Real Madrid has positioned them as the favorites in that competition — they have lifted that trophy just once since 1996, taking down Real Madrid in extra time in the 2013 final — and while they’re the underdogs in the Champions League round of 16 against Inter, it’s not the least manageable draw imaginable.
By the end of February, this season could be putting off either precarious or triumphant vibes.
Liverpool vs. Arsenal is huge, but it might not even be the biggest match this coming Sunday. Juventus, unbeaten since September and unburdened by European play, have climbed to within one point of Inter in the Serie A race, even though Inter also haven’t lost in league play since September. The Nerazzurri do have a game in hand, but a loss on Sunday could significantly change the calculus.
Meanwhile, the race for fourth place is almost equally gripping. Granted, Italy has solid odds of claiming a fifth bid in next year’s Champions League, but it’s still only four for now, and the gap between fourth-place Atalanta and 10th-place Torino is just five points. Lazio and Roma are both rebounding from poor starts; Fiorentina and Bologna still have time to bounce back after a poor January for both; and somehow Napoli, stuck in hangover mode for months, remain only five points outside the top four.
Look at it this way: Serie A might have more plot twists remaining than any other major European league.
Elsewhere in Europe
We’re lacking for gripping title races outside of Europe’s four biggest leagues. PSG lead Nice by six points in France; PSV lead Feyenoord by 12 in the Netherlands; and, although they’ve failed to seal the deal before, Union Saint-Gilloise currently boast an eight-point lead over Anderlecht in Belgium.
Granted, PSG’s form remains an interesting topic because of how it might translate to Champions League play — a test against fifth-place Lille could be telling ahead of the round of 16 — but the most interesting February match in France might be between seventh-place Marseille and 16th-place Lyon. It’s one of the most heated derbies in Europe (too heated, actually), and it means even more than usual for both teams. Lyon are still struggling to get their head above water in their relegation scrap; after winning three straight in league play, they allowed three goals in losses to Le Havre and to Rennes. Marseille, meanwhile, sit five points outside of the top four after three consecutive league draws.
PSV play their own always-heated rivalry match this Saturday, visiting the Johan Cruyff Arena to face an Ajax team that finally has its act together. After a dreadful start, they’ve taken 29 points from their past 11 league matches to rise back to fifth in the Eredivisie, just four points behind third-place Twente. PSV’s league lead is safe, but they could hand Ajax a huge setback on Saturday.
We do have a couple of interesting league races to follow. Sporting CP lead Benfica by just one point in Portugal (and Porto by four), although none of the top three play each other in February. And in Austria, three-time defending champion RB Salzburg lead Sturm Graz by only two points. A loss on Feb. 9 would make things awfully interesting.
Women’s club soccer
February doesn’t offer the same Champions League stakes on the women’s side — the group stage wraps up this week, and the quarterfinals don’t start until mid-March — but that’s fine. There’s plenty to track in the domestic races.
PSG desperately need a win in Lyon to have any hope of a title race in France, as Lyon have won all 13 of their league matches by a combined 51-6 to hold what feels like a commanding lead (even though PSG have dropped only five points). In Germany, Wolfsburg lead Bayern by one point and Eintracht Frankfurt by five at the midway point, while in England, one match past the midway point, Chelsea hold a three-point advantage over Manchester City and Arsenal.
In Spain, we never get an actual title race — Barcelona have won their 14 league matches by a combined 65-3 — but Real Madrid (33 points), Madrid CFF (31), Levante (31), and Atletico Madrid (30) are in a heated battle for second, at least. That makes Levante vs. Madrid pretty big.
Feb. 2-3: AFCON and Asian Cup quarterfinals
Feb. 6: Asian Cup semifinals
Feb. 7: AFCON semifinals
Feb. 10: Asian Cup final
Feb. 11: AFCON final
January’s two out-of-window international tournaments are reaching their closing stages, and they’ve been highly enjoyable if you like mess.
Heading into the Africa Cup of Nations, the betting favorites were Morocco, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Nigeria and Egypt. Of those six, only Morocco and Senegal won their groups. Algeria finished last and failed to advance, and Ivory Coast, the tournament hosts, finished third in their group after a dreadful 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea. They fired their coach thereafter and qualified for the round of 16 only when Ghana blew a two-goal lead to Mozambique in stoppage time in their final group stage game. Of course, they then proceeded to beat defending champions Senegal in penalties, making it the seventh straight AFCON that the reigning champs failed to reach even the quarterfinals.
With Egypt falling to DR Congo in penalties, we’re looking at these quarterfinal pairings, and incredibly, none of these teams reached the quarterfinals in the last AFCON back in 2021:
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
It’s been a bit more orderly in Qatar, where the betting favorites all advanced to the knockouts in the Asian Cup. A second-place finish in their group, however, meant South Korea had to face Saudi Arabia in the round of 16; although they prevailed on penalties, they opened the door for some interesting quarterfinal matchups. They’ll face another relative favorite, Australia, in one quarterfinal while underdogs Jordan and Tajikistan meet in another.
A favorable quarterfinal draw might make Qatar the favorite at this point?
Out of pure curiosity, I wanted to lay out the matches above in chronological order, just to get a feel for the month ahead. Twenty of February’s 29 days are accounted for with at least one match, and that doesn’t even include the two Thursdays with Europa and Conference League action. Buckle up.
Feb. 2: Asian Cup and AFCON quarterfinals
Feb. 3: PSV Eindhoven at Ajax, Asian Cup and AFCON quarterfinals
Feb. 4: Liverpool at Arsenal, Atletico Madrid at Real Madrid, Juventus at Inter Milan, Lazio at Atalanta, Marseille at Lyon, Gent at Anderlecht
Feb. 6: VfB Stuttgart at Bayer Leverkusen (DFB Pokal), Real Sociedad at Mallorca (Copa del Rey), Asian Cup semifinals
Feb. 7: Borussia Monchengladbach at Saarbrucken (DFB Pokal), Athletic Club at Atletico Madrid (Copa del Rey), AFCON semifinals
Feb. 9: Freiburg at Borussia Dortmund, Sturm Graz at Salzburg
Feb. 10: Bayern Munich at Bayer Leverkusen, Girona at Real Madrid, Inter Milan at Roma, PSG (W) at Lyon (W), Asian Cup finals
Feb. 11: Manchester United at Aston Villa, Napoli at AC Milan, Lille at PSG, Eintracht Frankfurt (W) at Wolfsburg (W), AFCON finals
Feb. 13: Real Madrid at RB Leipzig (Champions League)
Feb. 14: Bayern Munich at Lazio (Champions League)
Feb. 16: Manchester City (W) at Chelsea (W)
Feb. 17: Manchester United (W) at Arsenal (W)
Feb. 18: Girona at Athletic Club, Levante (W) at Madrid CFF (W)
Feb. 20: Atletico Madrid at Inter Milan (Champions League)
Feb. 21: Arsenal at Porto (Champions League), Barcelona at Napoli (Champions League)
Feb. 24: Newcastle United at Arsenal, RB Leipzig at Bayern Munich
Feb. 25: Liverpool vs. Chelsea (EFL Cup final)
Feb. 27: Mallorca at Real Sociedad (Copa del Rey)
Feb. 28: Atalanta at Inter Milan, Maidstone United at Sheffield Wednesday/Coventry City (FA Cup)
Feb. 29: Atletico Madrid at Athletic Club (Copa del Rey)