Race for qualification reaches boiling point
A whole array of clubs will be hoping to reach the promised land when the UEFA Champions League resumes this week, with as many as 15 spots in the last 16 ready to be filled following Tuesday and Wednesday's games.
Porto, Malaga and Manchester United sealed their progress on Matchday 4, while the one place that cannot be occupied until Matchday 6 lies in Group H, where Galatasaray, Cluj and Braga will take their tussle to join United right down to the wire.
Pitted together in a tight section featuring three teams separated by a single point, one of these two European powerhouses looks destined to miss out on the knockout phase. Juventus are the side with the most work to do and can afford nothing short of victory in their 125th outing at this level. Having picked up a 2-2 draw in London, a win would allow them to visit Shakhtar Donetsk needing a draw in their final fixture, but La Vecchia Signora have struggled for goals of late. The Serie A leaders share with Fiorentina the distinction of playing the most attractive football in Italy, yet they lack a thoroughbred goalscorer as was painfully clear in their 0-0 draw with Lazio at the weekend. As for Chelsea, their early-season form has deserted them and they boast just two points from their last four Premier League games, succumbing 2-1 to West Bromwich Albion last time out. Roberto Di Matteo's side will nonetheless be boosted by the return of Juan Mata and Oscar – both rested on Saturday – while Belgian livewire Eden Hazard continues to grow in influence following his goal against West Brom.
The other games
Tuesday 20 November 2012
Despite suffering their first defeat in this season's Ukrainian championship after 15 consecutive wins, Shakhtar will be confident of securing victory away against a Nordsjælland side still chasing their first Champions League success. A win would send the the Danes through if Chelsea manage to beat Juventus in Turin.
Valencia can guarantee their progress with victory against Bayern, and even a draw would suffice if BATE fail to overcome Lille. The German giants need to prevail in Spain, meanwhile, but would also be boosted by a slip from BATE, who became Belarus' champions for the seventh straight season on 11 November. The mission for Jupp Heynckes' Bayern is to bounce back from their 1-1 draw away against Bavarian neighbours Nuremberg on Saturday, a result which ended their run of eight successive away wins.
Barcelona travel to face a weakened Spartak team knowing that a win or draw will take them through – and perhaps even a loss, depending on events elsewhere. Celtic can also advance with a stalemate, providing the scoreline does not end 0-0 and Barcelona avoid defeat. As for Benfica, they trail the Scottish side by three points and will be desperate for victory before ending their campaign away against Barcelona.
Although United have already qualified, so much could still happen in one of the competition's tightest groups for years, with the slightest mistake likely to prove costly. Cluj will take confidence from their 2-0 success away against Braga, but the Portuguese outfit will be conscious of having claimed a 2-0 victory at Galatasaray, who themselves posted a 3-1 win in Cluj.
Wednesday 21 November
Dynamo Kiev-Paris Saint-Germain
Delighted to have Zlatan Ibrahimovic back in their ranks, PSG head east to tackle Dynamo Kiev conscious that a win or a draw will ensure their presence in the knockout phase alongside Porto. The French club have not had everything their own way recently, however, suffering a surprise 2-1 home loss to nine-man Rennes on Saturday.
The two favourites face home contests and it is Schalke who enjoy the most promising outlook, with a win certain to clinch their graduation and a draw sufficient providing that Arsenal do not beat the French champions. As for the Gunners, buoyed by their 5-2 success against Tottenham Hotspur in the north London derby, they will book their ticket if they prevail and Schalke also overcome Olympiakos.
Zenit Saint-Petersburg-Malaga (18.00)
Already through and virtually guaranteed to finish top, Malaga will be able to play without pressure when they touch down in Russia, where home side Zenit hope to salvage something from a campaign that has not met their own expectations. Meanwhile, Anderlecht sense that they can spring a surprise against second-placed Milan, not least since they claimed a precious 0-0 draw in their trip to the San Siro. Indeed, Massimiliano Allegri's side are still in transition and look heavily reliant on Serie A top scorer Stephan El Shaarawy as they aim to reach the last 16 for the ninth consecutive season.
On paper at least, the situation is straightforward. Leaders Dortmund will go through if they record either a win or draw in Amsterdam, while Madrid will advance if they beat City and Ajax don't win. What transpires is a whole different matter, given that City are unbeaten in their last three home meetings with Spanish opponents. Ajax appear equally capable of denting ambitions, though their home record in Champions League matches is a mixed bag, their 22 victories combining with ten draws and 12 defeats.
Player to watch
Schalke's Dutch forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar became only the third player to find the net in the opening four games of a Champions League group stage when he registered against Arsenal last time out. In doing so, the 29-year-old matched the feats of Alessandro Del Piero for Juventus in 1995/96 and Sergei Rebrov for Dynamo Kiev two seasons after that. In the midst of another prolific campaign, Huntelaar has struck 12 of Schalke's last 20 goals in European encounters and 71 efforts in 86 appearances since joining the Bundesliga side in 2010.
99 – The number of matches Jose Mourinho has overseen as a coach in the Champions League. He will become only the fourth tactician to rack up his century on Wednesday, joining an elite club of illustrious names. Sir Alex Ferguson leads the way on 186 matches, followed by Arsene Wenger on 148 and Carlo Ancelotti with 111. Mourinho's record in the competition so far reads 54 victories, 25 draws and 20 defeats.
What they said
"I'm not revealing anything new if I say Lionel Messi is decisive. But Leo can't win games on his own. We need to create chances and know how to defend. It's too easy to say that it all comes down to Messi," Tito Vilanova, Barcelona coach.
Have your say
Can reigning champions Chelsea and seven-time winners Milan seal their progress?