Match Week Five, and five British teams are now through to the knock-out stages in Europe, with the other two in with a fighting chance in Week Six. But, as Kate Partridge reveals, these pre-Christmas results don’t tell the seasonal story.
Khimki Arena, Moscow. Three minutes’ stoppage time to go between CSKA and Roma,with the visitors leading 1-0. Manchester City’s chances of reaching the knock-out stage of the Champions League look to be plummeting like a lead balloon, ahead of their home match against Group E winners Bayern Munich.
Two minutes and 45 seconds later, a minor miracle occurs. Defender Vasily Berezutsky hoofs a hopeful ball into the box, which nobody gets a touch on…and CSKA equalise. The goal was so surprising, it took a few seconds to process it – and its implications. If City were now to beat undefeated Bayern – having won none of their previous four fixtures – they could live to fight the final day. If.
But a much-changed Bayern went down to ten men, and City took their chance. Well, at least Sergio Aguero did, scoring two late goals in an inspired hat-trick to claw out a victory almost as thrilling for the neutrals as it was for the City fans. Talk about doing it the hard way. But a fairytale result doesn’t override Bayern’s dominance, and City’s new-found defensive frailties in a faltering season.
Roma, CSKA and City are now all on five points so it’s a question of the dreaded permutations, as head-to-head records take precedence over goal difference. Manuel Pellegrini, take note.
The Chilean was lambasted last season for apparently not realising another goal in City’s 3-2 win at Bayern would have put them top of their group, and with an easier Last 16 tie. How he and a plethora of well-paid advisors seemed oblivious to this somewhat crucial fact defies belief. Still, if it helps, here comes the maths:
City will qualify if they win at Roma and CSKA fail to win at Bayern. But City can still progress if they secure a score draw and CSKA lose. However, if both games end in a draw, then Roma go through. And any of the bottom three sides could finish in the Europa League. Clear?
In a nutshell, City need to win in Rome and hope other results go their way. It also means they could reach the Last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition having won only two matches from six, while group winners Bayern will have won five.
Hardly a balanced system, though City’s nail-bitten fans probably won’t care. At least they will have survived the “group of death.” Again. And with 17 goals in 18 appearances, they probably just hope Aguero doesn’t get injured. Look at Liverpool without Luis Suarez.
The Reds were the only English side to drop points in the Champions League in match week five, held to a late 2-2 draw by Ludogorets – currently second in Bulgaria, and having to play their European fixtures 200 miles away in Sofia.
The result leaves Liverpool third in Group B, and having to win at home to Basel to go through. The Swiss champions would qualify with just a draw.
Reds boss Brendan Rodgers was upbeat. “It is all in our hands going into last game,” he said. “I can’t ask any more than that.”
I suspect others will be asking considerably more. Five-time champions Liverpool have won one of their five group matches, while holders Real Madrid have won all five, and wrapped up the group with two games to go.
The Reds are also twelfth in the Premier League, having lost six out of 12. Failing to beat Basel means plenty of questions will have to be answered. Former goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar thinks Rodgers has three weeks to save his job.
More questions have probably also been raised about Arsene Wenger this season than in his 18 years in charge of Arsenal. Yet the Gunners have found solace, and their manager some respite, from a poor domestic season with relative success in Europe – a similar situation to Borussia Dortmund.
Exploiting the absence of injured star Marco Reus, Arsenal joined Juergen Klopp’s magnificently supported team in the Last 16 with a comfortable 2-0 victory over them at the Emirates.
Thankfully, the scenario in Group D is straightforward. If the Gunners win at Galatasaray and Dortmund lose to Anderlecht, Arsenal seal top spot. But Dortmund’s superior goal difference means a point should be enough to clinch the group. What then happens in the knock-out stage could fundamentally affect the course of both Wenger and Klopp’s careers.
The best England had to offer came in Gelsenkirchen, where Chelsea’s 5-0 demolition of Schalke en route to winning Group G was even applauded by the home fans. All the pre-match hype of Jose Mourinho versus Roberto di Matteo, who had led the Blues to their maiden European title, was abruptly forgotten.
A team performance that Mourinho described as “complete” illustrated the gap between Chelsea and an increasing proportion of Europe’s elite. They remain the only unbeaten side in the top divisions in England, Germany, Spain, Italy, France and Holland.
In theory at least, the Blues remain on course for an unprecedented European quadruple. Now, that would trump di Matteo.
Week Five in the Europa League also saw all three British clubs qualify with a game to spare. Everton won Group H with a superb 2-0 win at in-form Wolfsburg. Tottenham overcame three bizarre pitch invasions to beat Partizan, 1-0. And Celtic lost 3-1 at home to group winners Salzburg, but progressed anyway. A little pre-Christmas relief for Messrs Martinez, Pochettino and Deila.
Overall, it’s been a fine week for the home sides. A Great Escape, a late escape, some European escapism – and the prospect of Mourinho rewriting history. Europe is the gift that keeps on giving, for the fans – and now it seems for the ever under-pressure managers. Week Six will reveal if the present was on the wish list.
Read more from Kate Partridge here!