With the days getting shorter, the evenings colder and the clocks set to go forward next weekend – the Champions League group stages are reaching the final stretch. With the already history-making five Premier League teams in Europe battling it out for a place in the last 16, Fabian Wood examines what more is left for them to do at the half-way stage.
Most expected Manchester City to make light work of Group F (much like they have the Premier League thus far); and a Guardiola-approved “Perfect” performance on Tuesday night against major group rivals Napoli has put them three points clear in pole position. However, despite Napoli being rated by Pep as “one of the best sides he’s ever faced”, the main challenge to top spot comes from surprise package Shakhtar Donetsk who also overcame Napoli at home and sit in 2nd on six points, three clear of Napoli in 3rd.
Oncemore, City still have the trickier fixtures left to come – and whether they can repeat their comfortable 2-0 win after a long trip to the Ukraine and likewise in a hostile atmosphere in Naples will prove another test of their European calibre. Factor in a home league tie against Arsenal following the Napoli game and the small matter of a Manchester derby just 3 days after their trip to Kharkiv (Donetsk and the Donbass area still currently deemed to be a warzone) and it seems this will be an even greater test of their squad depth.
Still, most would back City to still top the group, especially with players such as Gundogan and Kompany returning to the fold while the rest of the squad remain fit leaving Guardiola with plenty of options to rotate the squad to fight on two fronts. They will hope to have top spot wrapped up before their trip to the Ukraine, with two positive results against Napoli and at home to group whipping boys Feyernoord being enough to seal it. Few City fans or players alike would relish a 4,000 mile round trip with any added pressure.
Liverpool’s inconsistencies in the league, in particular an inability to defend, have further blighted their European campaign thus far. Notwithstanding a club record 7-0 win against minnows Maribor, their record sits at 3 goals scored and 3 conceded with two draws at home to Sevilla and, crucially, away at a resurgent Spartak Moscow. While they may sit top of the group on goal difference, progression to the last 16 can go between any of the 3 teams (and theoretically Maribor).Embed from Getty Images
Like Manchester City – Liverpool face a significant challenge with squad rotation as their crunch games at home to Spartak and away at Sevilla are bookended with home games against Chelsea and cross-town rivals Everton which are equally vital to their diminishing top 4 hopes. Unlike City however, Liverpool are yet to hit top gear and lack the same quality of squad depth, particularly in defence and up front. Throw in a potential injury to star players Firmino or Coutinho and suddenly the odds of Liverpool qualifying for the last 16, let alone topping the precarious group, start to elongate. Worst of all, 3rd place (most likely for the loser of the Spartak-Sevilla-Liverpool duel) could leave them lumped with the albatross of a, half hearted until the quarter finals, Europa League campaign.
Klopp may be excused an element of uncharacteristic pragmatism by prioritising one of last-16 european football or a top 4 finish in order to preserve his squad. However the lure of knock out Champions League nights against an elite club at Anfield will undoubtedly prove too strong for manager and fans alike. Though the more pessimistic Liverpool fans will fear that overstretching at this stage could cost them both, leaving an already naive looking Klopp with many questions to answer.
Tottenham’s appearance in the Champions League football for just the second time under Mauricio Pochettino looked to have been ended prematurely by a cruel draw throwing up Real Madrid, Dortmund and peculiar banana skin (as Dortmund have discovered) APOEL Nicosia as group mates. Once more, poor European form last season at Wembley in a compartively easy group, led many critics (this writer included) to believe it would all be over come christmas, with a place in the Europa League all but guaranteed Pochettino, however, clearly did not agree.Embed from Getty Images
Opening their campaign at Wembley, their not-so home away from home, against Dortmund, the Tottenham players put in a performance suggesting they relished the occasion and the step up in class and running out as 3-1 winners. Only their second win at Wembley, they followed it up with a comfortable dispatching of Nicosia 3-0 with Harry Kane’s hat trick making it 5 European goals in 2 games and putting him in contention with the oh-so dominant Messi-Ronaldo axis. Tuesday nights 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu, with a nearly-famous Harry Kane goal ruled out as an own goal and heroics from Hugo Lloris, providing the icing on the cake for Spurs. Oncemore, Dortmund’s single point at APOEL leaves Spurs on the cusp of a last 16 place.
Tottenham will be relishing the return leg against Madrid at Wembley which will surely draw the largest crowd ever to watch Spurs. Oncemore a once intimidating trip to the Westfalenstadion with it’s yellow wall is made easier knowing that only a point there, or 3 points at home to APOEL will guarantee them a top 16 spot. What more could Spurs fans possibly want!?
3 wins, 8 goals, top of the group – there is very little else noteworthy to say other than that, but here goes anyway.
Handed the easiest qualifying group of all 5 English teams, all Manchester United had to do to qualify was turn up and not repeat their disastrous 2005 Champions League campaign. Mourinho has approached the task as only he could, putting out solid, no thrills line ups designed to pick up a result with as little expense as possible. So against any form of panache, he accused his players of playing “Playstation Football” during their routine 3-0 win against Basel, likely 2nd placers, god forbid anyone might tune in to watch. Oncemore, had it not been for some poor keeping from Benfica’s 18 year old debutant keeper off Rashford’s free kick sparing United’s blushes Wednesday night, the group would look much more precarious than it does now.Embed from Getty Images
Grumbles about performances aside, United simply have to avoid defeat in their next two fixtures against Benfica and Basel to ensure top spot and avoid a potentially tricky last 16 tie. The implications of this will not be lost on Mourinho, allowing him to prioritise his chase for a first United title since Fergie left and leaving any tricky European fixtures to March.
2-0 up after 37 minutes at home to Roma on match day three suggested that Chelsea had made light work so far of a potentially tricky group and would be only a win away from topping the group. However, an exciting performance from dark horses Roma and heroics from ex-city striker Eden Dzeko found Chelsea settling for a 3-3 draw that could be argued they scarcely deserved – and leaving the dynamics of Group C in play for at least another round.
Up until Alexander Kolarov’s stunning goal, everything was going to plan for Chelsea. A routine 4-0 home win over Qarabag and a disciplined last gasp win away at Atletico Madrid had set them well on their way to the knock outs. Wednesday nights result muddys things slightly. While they remain in the driving seat for now, they will travel to Rome knowing a defeat will relegate them to second and (depending whether Atletico can bounce back quickly from their 0-0 draw away at Qarabag) could find themselves in a make or break tie at home to Atletico in the next fixture.Embed from Getty Images
While some of Chelsea’s frailties have been on display in the league – with defeats against Burnley and then winless Crystal Palace – Chelsea have looked every much the side that stormed to the league title last season. In particular their organised approach in Madrid suggests a side that, should they get there, will be able to hold their own against the big sides come the crunch next spring. Once more, Conte has utilised his new found squad depth to rotate his defensive midfielders from game to game in requirements to the task ahead, although the poor league form suggests he may be more interested in European glory with Chelsea then back to back league wins.
Written by Fabian Wood.