Chelsea falls, while others giants secure places into next round
Pep Guardiola’s specter is overshadowing every Chelsea performance nowadays
Luiz Adriano scored a very controversial goal for Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday
David Villa may be tired of playing second fiddle to Messi, and he is not the first
Matchday Five produced the usual array of shocks, goals, controversies and drama that we have become used to in this season's competition. The game of the night was Juventus's 3-0 win over Chelsea which leaves the European champion in big trouble. Barcelona, Valencia and Bayern Munich secured its places in the next round while a nervous final round awaits for Benfica, Celtic, CFR Cluj and Galatasaray. Here are some highlights.
1. European champion hanging by a thread. Reigning champion Chelsea's fate is out of its hands after a 3-0 defeat to Juventus in Turin which, coupled with Shakhtar Donetsk's win over FC Nordsjaelland, leaves it three points from the top spot with one game to play. Chelsea was second best to the Italian champion in an enthralling encounter that saw chances at both ends, with the goals coming from Fabio Quagliarella, Arturo Vidal and Sebastian Giovinco.
What is it with Chelsea coaches in Italy? Last season it was Andre Villas-Boas who decided to drop Ashley Cole for the Round of 16 first leg in Napoli; this time, Chelsea's under-pressure coach Roberto di Matteo made the big call to leave out Fernando Torres because, he said before the game "we did not want to give them a point of reference [in attack]."
You could see his thinking and, in the first half, Chelsea did carry a threat going forward, with Oscar and Juan Mata dove-tailing dangerously just behind Eden Hazard. But Juventus was fully deserving of the win, and the score-line: it hit the post in the third minute and had a shot cleared off the line by Ashley Cole soon after going ahead.
While Juventus showed it is a real contender in this seasonıs competition, the focus, inevitably, will be on the champion, and specifically the future of two men: Di Matteo and Torres. The build-up to this game was dominated by talk of Di Matteo's future, harshly, most observers will agree, after a minor slump in form. The specter of Pep Guardiola was always going to haunt any Premier League coach that failed in Europe, and Roberto Mancini may suffer a similar fate on Wednesday.
Tuesday's Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper featured a cartoon of Guardiola, currently on sabbatical in New York, standing at a busy Manhattan junction looking up at all the road-signs: in one direction, Manchester City 20%, in another Milan 20%, and the others, Chelsea 30%, Bayern/Monaco 20% and Manchester United 20%. It could end up being a straight battle between Chelsea and City, in fact, with Guardiola expected to make his decision early in the New Year.
As for Torres, dropped for Chelsea's biggest game of the season, will he even be at the club then? The most obvious solution, at least from Chelsea's point of view, would be to try and sign Atletico Madrid's £42m-rated Radamel Falcao in January and offer its ex-striker Torres back in part-exchange.
Whether a side harbouring hopes of challenging for the Spanish title would be up for swapping the most complete center-forward in the world at the moment for a confidence-sapped misfiring former icon is another matter.
Villas-Boas only survived one more game after his defeat in Italy. Di Matteo deserves to see out this season, at the very least (and if you were Guardiola, wouldn't you be worried about working for someone who has hired eight managers in nine years?). All is not quite lost: if Shakhtar, already qualified, beat Juventus on Matchday Six, a Chelsea win will still see it through. But with Nottingham Forest, in 1980, the last defending European champion to go out in the first round, the pressure on Di Matteo is growing.
2. Sporting gesture in Denmark? Was it deliberate, or not? That was the argument raging in Copenhagen after a moment of madness from Shakhtar Donetsk forward Luiz Adriano, who ran on to a first-half pass from an uncontested drop-ball intended for FC
Nordsjaelland's goalkeeper. The Danish defence stood stock-still as Adriano scored, and angrily confronted him once the ball went in.
At first, it seemed Shakhtar would allow Nordsjaelland an immediate response: Morten Nordstrand ran past five static players before Taras Stepanenko stopped him. More fury. Within three minutes, Nordsjaelland had scored to go 2-1 up.
Danish TV's touchline reporter claimed Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucuescu had ordered his players to concede, but Kasper Lorentzen seemed to have a lot to do when he struck past Andriy Pyatov. Shakhtar recovered and two Willian goals, and another two from Adriano, to complete a controversial hat-trick (he was subbed off straight after his third goal) helped it to a 5-2 win and a position at the top of Group E. The Ukrainian champion is in the next round and, after dominating most of its matches, deservedly so.
3. Will Barcelona's Messi-dependence claim another victim? Lionel Messi scored another two goals in Barcelona's routine 3-0 win at Spartak Moscow so dumping the Russians out of the competition to take his tally for this season to five in as many European games. But it is another Barcelona striker who may dominate the headlines in coming weeks.
David Villa has cut an unhappy figure in recent weeks: despite returning from a broken leg suffered over 11 months ago, he has only played more than 70 minutes once this season. He started this game on the bench, just days after seemingly not celebrating Barcelona's goals in its weekend 3-1 win over Real Zaragoza.
The club line is that it doesn't want to risk another injury by pushing Villa too hard, but this player lives for goals (last season, because of injury, was the first in ten years he scored fewer than 20 goals, an incredible record) and he may be heading towards an exit. He wouldn't be the first player that has become frustrated at playing second-fiddle to Messi - think of Eto'o, Henry and Ibrahimovic before him - and it was reported on
Tuesdayıs Revista de le Liga show that Manchester City had made "discreet inquiries" about his availability.
One other note from this game: it was poignant to see Spartak coach Unai Emery bring on Jano Ananidze as a late substitute: the midfielderıs father passed away last week, and it was his dying wish for Jano to play against Barcelona.
4. Calculators at the ready for Matchday Six. Celtic needed a draw at Benfica to seal its place in the next round, and though Giorgios Samaras equalized Ola Johnıs early opener, the Portuguese side won 2-1 to leave matters delicately poised ahead of Matchday Six.
Celtic needs to achieve a better result at home to eliminated Spartak than Benfica at Barcelona: a home win should be enough for the Scottish champion, which has key midfielder Victor Wanyama suspended.
Itıs a little more complicated in Group H, where Galatasaray, 1-0 winners over Manchester United, are joint-second with CFR Cluj, who beat Braga 3-1 (thanks to a Rui Pedro hat-trick). Galatasaray, away at Braga on Matchday Six, must better Cluj's result at Old Trafford to make it into second place. Braga is out.
Over in Group F, Bayern Munich and Valencia, who played out a 1-1 draw in Spain, are joint-top on ten points. Bayern is favorite to stay top, though, given it is home to BATE Borisov, while Valencia travels to Lille. The French side beat BATE 2-0 in Minsk, but needed one more strike to overhaul the Belarussians on goal difference. BATE are secure in third spot; for its opponents, it was too Lille, too late.
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