In-depth: The Champions League reaches the conclusion of the group stages this week, with all four English sides still with so much to play for. After last season’s knockout farrago, could it all go wrong again for the Premier League sides?
This week sees the final round of group games in the Champions League, with three English clubs among those European contenders still desperately trying to secure their place in the knockout stages of football’s biggest club competition.
After the disappointment of last season – where no Premier League contender made it beyond the last-16 – it had been hoped that this season would see an improvement, not least to ensure England maintained its UEFA co-efficient advantage over Italy and continued to ensure four qualification spots for the event in seasons to come.
However, poor form and inconsistent results have left Arsenal, Chelsea andManchester United still fighting for their survival in the competition – whileManchester City still have much work to do if they want to clinch top spot in their group (and, potentially, an easier route to the quarter-finals).
It promises to be a stressful few days for fans of the English clubs involved – so we take a look at what they all need to do to reach the last-16, and what exactly their chances are of managing it.
As it stands: The shining light in a sea of English mediocrity, City are actually already qualified for the knockout stages – huzzah! But there is still the small matter of top spot to be played for…
What they need to do: Second in Group D at the moment, two points behindJuventus, they need to beat Borussia Monchengladbach at home and hope Sevilla can pull off a similar trick against the Old Lady in order to go through as group winners.
How it could all go wrong: City win against the Germans, but a late Paul Pogba strike gives Juventus an equaliser at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan – and with it top spot on head-to-head record. City then draw Barcelona in the last-16 all over again, as Messi, Suarez et al send them packing from the competition along with a big ole’ serving of deja vu.
Prognosis: Decent. Inconsistent as City have been this season, they beat Gladbach away and should do so again at the Etihad. That then asks Sevilla to beat Juve in front of their home fans – winning will get the Spaniards back in the Europa League (a competition they have won the last two seasons), so they certainly have the incentive, and they are never an easy side to visit.
As it stands: Second in Group B, United squandered a glorious chance to book their place in the knockout rounds with a 0-0 draw at home to PSVEindhoven on Matchday 5.
What they need to do: Louis van Gaal’s side simply need to match PSV’s result to progress – the Dutch side are at home to CSKA, however, so it should be anticipated they will get at least something from the match. If United beatWolfsburg in Germany they are through whatever happens, but a draw then relies on PSV not beating CSKA.
How it could all go wrong: Wolfsburg lost at home for the first time in 29 matches at the weekend, so will be looking to bounce back and re-establish their fortress. Winning against an another abject United display puts them through as group winners, while a draw for PSV would see them safely past United on head-to-head record (they won 2-1 in Holland before the stalemate at Old Trafford). United would fall into the Europa League and rival fans would laugh at them for months.
Prognosis: Not great, you would have to say. Considering United have struggled so badly to score a goal recently you would have to assume they won’t win at Wolfsburg without some sort of good fortune in front of goal – so they may be relying on CSKA. The Russians have a Europa League spot to play for, but have been poor in Europe this season and seem unlikely to bail Van Gaal out.
As it stands: Third in Group F, the Gunners are three points behindOlympiacos – their opponents on the final matchday.
What they need to do: For Arsene Wenger’s side it is simple – they need to beat Olympiacos, and by a two-goal margin, to guarantee their progression. If they win by the same one-goal margin that Olympiacos enjoyed at the Emirates, then the tiebreaker will be away goals – on that occasion the Greek side won 3-2, so a 2-1 or 1-0 win will not be good enough for the Gunners, but a 4-3 or bigger result will do the trick. If it is 3-2 again between the two sides then the tiebreaker goes to goal difference from the entire group stage – which Arsenal will win.
How it could all go wrong: Let me count the ways. Arsenal could be winning 2-0, but a late consolation goal from an Olympiacos forward could send them out in the most frustrating manner of all. To the Europa League it would be, and the same jibes from opposing Premier League fans that United will be putting up with. Sorry, may be putting up with.
Prognosis: This one is a complete toss-up. On the face of it a 2-0 win should be comfortably within Arsenal’s grasp, but the spate of injuries that has decimated Wenger’s squad makes it difficult to see where their attacking inspiration is going to come from.
As it stands: Top of Group G (on head-to-head from Porto), Jose Mourinho’s side are two points clear of Dynamo Kiev in one of the competition’s tighter races.
What they need to do: A win over Porto at Stamford Bridge will get the job done. A draw against Porto will also get the job done (just). A defeat, however, opens up the possibility of Kiev overhauling the Blues – assuming they beat Maccabi Tel-Aviv at home. For what it’s worth, Maccabi have yet to pick up a point in the group stage.
How it could all go wrong: Kiev are guaranteed to progress as long as they win their game … and, while stranger things have happened, it is probably safe to assume they will. That leaves the Chelsea-Porto match as a straight shootout, although only a Chelsea defeat will send the Blues out. But if that happens it’s another English side into the Europa League … and possibly a P45 for Jose Mourinho?
Prognosis: Reasonable. Porto may not have lost in the league this season, but Chelsea have a 100 per cent record at home in the Champions League and have been less prone to utter collapse than they have domestically. With this Chelsea side at the moment, though, who knows?