Champions League: Chelsea faces decisive match, City needs 'miracle'
Chelsea, second in Group B, can't drop points at home against Shakhtar Donetsk
Paris Saint-Germain headlines Group A, but leader Porto is the stronger contender
Attention is on Group B benches with City (coach) and Madrid (young reserves)
We're at the halfway stage of the Champions League group phase, and while some familiar names are on top (Barcelona, Manchester United) there are also surprise group leaders (among them, Malaga and BATE Borisov). If the groups stay as they are, teams from 10 countries will make up the last 16, the highest number since the Round of 16 was introduced in 2004.
Only 10 clubs cannot finish atop their groups, so it's all to play for as the fixtures from Matchday Three, a dramatic round in itself, are reversed.
1. A decisive match for the reigning champion. Chelsea lost the first game of its season at Shakhtar Donetsk on Matchday Three, even though Oscar's late goal gave the scoreline (2-1) a veneer of respectability that flattered the European champion. Since then, Chelsea has lost at home to Manchester United (2-1) and drawn at Swansea (1-1). While Chelsea's Brazilian contingent -- David Luiz, Ramires and Oscar -- has all excelled at times, Shakhtar has long built its success on Brazilians to top-load its attack (Alex Teixeira and Fernandinho scored against Chelsea). This is a potential banana-skin for the champion, which can ill-afford to drop points at home for the second straight game.
"We need to win our two Champions League home games," coach Roberto di Matteo said. Shakhtar may have lost on all five of its previous trips to London, but its last away defeat in any competition was in St. Petersburg, at this stage of the Champions League 12 months ago. Juventus ended its 49-game unbeaten run of league games with a home loss to Inter Milan but is expected to beat FC Nordsjaelland at home, which means that whoever wins at Stamford Bridge will be able to take control of Group E.
2. Porto trio overshadows Zlatan in Group A. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the only player from Ligue 1 named in last week's 23-man short list for the FIFA Ballon D'Or prize for the world's best player. His outspoken agent has claimed the competition is "corrupt" if his man does not win it, but behind the bluster lies a serious point. Ibra has never reached a Champions League final (his one season at Barcelona was when it lost the 2010 semifinal to Inter) and won't be considered for any top awards unless that changes (and maybe if half the Barcelona and Real Madrid sides decide to retire tomorrow). Ibra is just one goal away from 200 in his career, a milestone he failed to reach last weekend as he was sent off for a kung-fu kick on Saint-Etienne goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier. The Swede has opened the scoring for PSG in its two wins so far. Porto prefers to share the goals around this season: it has a 100 percent record in Group A so far, is unbeaten for 20 matches going back to March, and in its front three of Silvestre Varela and Colombians Jackson Martinez and James Rodriguez, has as fearsome a strike force as in the days Radamel Falcao lined up next to Hulk. PSG may hog the headlines in this group, but Porto appears a more likely contender.
3. Attention on the benches in Group B. The revelation that Manchester City coach Roberto Mancini had talks with French second division side Monaco -- the Italian admitted as such last week -- came at an interesting time. The English champion now need "a miracle," in Mancini's words, to qualify from its group. It faces early elimination for a second straight season (thus ensuring another low seeding -- and tough draw for next year), while its form in the Premier League is far from impressive. It also coincided with City appointing Txiki Begiristain as sporting director. Perhaps it helps Mancini that his City bosses know that Monaco, newly acquired by a Russian oligarch, was one of "seven, eight" clubs in talks with Mancini before he signed a five-year contract in the summer. Even if he does leave the Etihad next summer, he will still be in demand.
In Madrid, the focus has been on the future, and specifically the role of B team RM Castilla. Is it a team in its own right, which has to do as well as it can in the Spanish second division, or should it exist only to train and provide players for the first team? After Michael Essien played at left back in Matchday Three against Dortmund -- because Mourinho felt that the different system Castilla plays would confuse any call-up from that side -- and some top-level in-house meetings, the answer came back: the latter. This is not Mourinho's fault, even though he has been criticized in the past for "lack of legacy." It's a running theme for Real Madrid, which has supplied more cantaneros (academy graduates) to the rest of La Liga then any other club. In 2005-06, its B team contained Javi García, Borja Valero, Jurado, Juanfran, Roberto Soldado and Alvaro Negredo; the following season, Ruben de la Red, Jose Maria Callejon (sold and then bought back again) and Juan Mata were on its books. But keep an eye on the Madrid bench in its home game against Dortmund: will the likes of Fabinho, 19, Alex Fernandez, 20, and Jose Rodriguez, 17, all highly thought of, be there?
4. Lille: last in, among the first out? French side Lille was the last team to qualify for this season's group stage, needing extra time to beat FC Copenhagen in the final qualifying round. Three successive defeats left it at the bottom of Group F and elimination could be 90 minutes away with a Matchday Four trip to last year's runner-up Bayern Munich next up. Lille has struggled for goals since selling Eden Hazard to Chelsea in the summer. It has only kept one clean sheet in its opening 15 matches and has missed captain Rio Mavuba, injured for its last two European ties. (Dinamo Zagreb is the only other pointless side at this stage.) With two games still to come after this week, both sides could yet finish third and reach the Europa League; but on current form, bottom will be where they end up.
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