We’re now into the home stretch of the Champions League group stages, and while some teams can begin to think of resting key players after all but guaranteeing their places in the last 16 stage, for most other sides – including the champions and the runners-up of last season’s Premier League – qualification remains precariously in the balance.
At the end of Matchday 4, we should have a clearer idea of the teams advancing to the next round of the competition, which makes this week’s fixtures of vital importance. Here are five things to look out for in Tuesday and Wednesday’s all-important matches:
Things have not been easy for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool on their return to the Champions League after a five year absence. Their only points so far came in the fortuitous victory over Ludogorets Razgrad on the opening matchday, and subsequent defeats to Basle and Real Madrid – conceding a total of four goals while scoring none – has seen them carrying their lethargic, defensively suspect domestic performances through into Europe. Confidence is evidently at rock-bottom for the Reds, and Tuesday night’s game against Real – who have scored an incredible 54 goals in their opening 17 games of the season – is unlikely to improve matters for the Anfield outfit. However, there may be a silver lining to the dark cloud looming over Liverpool, as Daniel Sturridge appears to be close to a return to first-team action. Although Rodgers has stated that it is “highly unlikely” that the England international will feature against the current European champions, he has travelled to Spain, which will give the whole team a boost. Favourable earlier results elsewhere mean that even a defeat at the Bernabeu gives the Reds a plausible chance of still qualifying; with Sturridge back in the team for the last two games of the group stages, Liverpool may hit their stride at just the right time.
Terms such as ‘must-win’ or ‘make or break’ are bandied around willy-nilly in football, yet for Manchester City it really is a case of win-at-all-costs. They may have been thrown into the toughest group of the competition, but this does not disguise the fact that the two points they have accrued from their opening three games is simply unacceptable for a team with unlimited wealth and a whole host of world-class footballers. An agonising last-minute defeat away to Bayern Munich on matchday 1 was unfortunate, but their failure to see off Roma at Eastlands and their 2-2 draw with CKSA Moscow in front of a (largely) empty stadium having been two goals to the good leaves them with a formidable task to qualify from the group. The Russian side visit Manchester on Wednesday evening, after which Manuel Pellegrini have tough fixtures against Roma in Italy and Bayern at home, from which they are unlikely to take maximum points. They simply must beat CSKA on Wednesday – and hope Bayern do them a favour by repeating their 7-1 trouncing of Roma – otherwise they can forget about the knockout stages. With the Citizens in poor form of late, do not expect a victory to be a foregone conclusion.
If you thought the Premier League champions were having a tough time of the Champions League, spare a thought for the champions of Italy. After breezing to the Serie A title with 102 points – 17 ahead of runners-up Roma – Juventus were expected to be a major force in this season’s Champions League, and with a relatively straightforward group containing Atletico Madrid, Olympiakos and Malmo, qualification for the last-16 was thought to be a given. Nevertheless, the Old Lady has struggled badly so far – losing their last two games against Atletico and Olympiakos to a 1-0 scoreline – and currently lie in third in the table. They welcome Olympiakos back to the Juventus Stadium on Tuesday night, and anything but a win will leave their hopes of qualification hanging by a thread. With the likes of Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente and Paul Pogba – not to mention the fact that they are playing at home – one would expect Juve to take the three points to keep their dreams alive. More than anything, however, Juve’s torrid time in Europe highlights just how far Italian football has regressed.
Borussia Dortmund can be defined as European football’s bipolar side. As if the jarring clash between the bright, vibrant yellow and the jet black of their jerseys wasn’t enough of a hint, the violent swings of fortune the club has experienced domestically and on the continent surely gives it away. The periods of gloom and despondency in the Bundesliga – which has seen them lose five matches in a row and sink to the relegation zone – has been strikingly counterbalanced by euphoric success in the Champions League. The German side have maximum points from their opening three group stage matches, having scored nine goals without reply, and are favourites to take a further three points on Tuesday at home to Galatasaray, whom they thrashed 4-0 in Turkey a fortnight ago. The competition is proving to be a welcome respite for the embattled manager Jurgen Klopp, who can at least be safe in the knowledge that his side have more or less secured their place in the next round already. His most pressing task is to now put an end to his team’s bipolar episodes so that their continental triumphs do not dissipate in the domestic league.
The supposed whipping boys of the Champions League are proving to be a tough nut to crack. After qualifying for the tournament proper in heroic fashion via the play-off stages, Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets Razgrad were not expected to cause any shockwaves against the big European sides, and when the group stage draw was made Liverpool, Real Madrid and Basle must have seen the side as fair game. Three games in, and Ludogorets are in second place, having beaten Basle and given both Liverpool and Real an almighty scare. The Bulgarians head to Switzerland for the return leg against Basle on Tuesday – if they can get something out of that game, then the next fixture against Liverpool in Bulgaria could very well prove to be a decisive one in determining who joins Real Madrid in the knockout stages. Ludogorets have taught the established European clubs a lesson in how to never underestimate one’s opponents. How incredible would it be if a side that had never previously qualified for the competition manages to advance at the expense of the five-time winners.