3 Big Clubs That Could Face An Early Champions League Exit
Three matches remaining for each club in this season's Champions League Group Stage. Which clubs will advance? Today Alex Hess gives us three big clubs he believes may not make the cut.
Tipping England’s finest team so far this season for an early departure from Europe may seem irrational, especially when a quick glance at UEFA’s tables sees the Gunners sitting atop what is by far the Champions League’s thorniest group. At closer inspection, though, Arsenal currently look the likeliest of Group F’s heavy-hitting trio to be watching the knock-out rounds from the comfort of their living rooms.
For a start, their current stationing at the group’s apex, with Arsene Wenger’s men holding the same points total as Napoli and Borussia Dortmund, is due to the goal difference from meetings between the three clubs – a method which is far less likely to be required (not to mention hugely changeable) once the group fixtures have drawn to a close. More worrying, though, are Arsenal’s remaining fixtures: three matches whose ominousness lies not just in their opposition, but timing and location too. Away trips to both Dortmund and Naples loom large, and the visit of Marseille is likely to necessitate a win from Arsenal simply to keep them on par with their two main rivals, with the French side yet to take a point from any of their fixtures.
As if venturing to each of last season’s Serie A and Bundesliga runners up weren’t tough enough tasks in themselves, Wednesday’s trip to Germany comes handily sandwiched between crucial league fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester United, with undervalued scamperer Mathieu Flamini a doubt for the clash. We are in the midst of a taxing and – given the club’s long-held propensity to hurtle spectacularly off the rails once their momentum is halted – potentially season-defining nine days for the north Londoners.
Oh, and their final group fixture, away to a Napoli side whose manager, Rafa Benitez, is nothing if not a canny Champions League operator, has been scheduled just three days prior to a league visit to Manchester City. Best of luck, Arsene.
Juventus, it’s fair to say, are a pretty handy side. Not only did they waltz gleefully to last season’s Serie A title thanks largely to theirs being the league’s stingiest defence in a division famed for them, but they spent the subsequent summer recruiting two strikers of elite-level pedigree, in Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente, to complement a midfield that boasts an all-time great (Andrea Pirlo) alongside the current and up-and-coming luminaries Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba.
Quite how, then, they find themselves sitting third in Group B and without a win from their opening three matches is perplexing to say the least. Their first game, a disappointing 1-1 away to FC Copenhagen, could be written off as anomalous if it wasn’t immediately followed up by a 2-2 draw at home to Galatasaray – a match in which both the visitors’ goals came courtesy of Godzilla-sized chasms opening up in the home defence. Such mistakes seemed desperately uncharacteristic at the time, but, with last weekend’s 2-0 win over Genoa marking the first clean sheet Juve have managed at home all the season, the aura of impenetrability that once surrounded Buffon, Chiellini, and the rest appears to have been shattered.
Juve could – and indeed should – yet recover their form to finish above the Turkish outfit as group runners up, but have no doubt: they’ve given themselves plenty of recovering to do. A victory over Galatasaray themselves is likely to be vital – a fact that sets up a tasty-looking final fixture between the two sides in Istanbul – but if Juve take nothing from Tuesday’s game with Real Madrid, then qualification will effectively be out of their hands. Should they taste defeat on Tuesday (and discounting any upsets in Denmark), Antonio Conte’s side will need their Spanish counterparts to take all three points from their clash with the Turks at the end of November if they are to have a chance of making it out of the group with a final-day win.
If the above seems a tad complicated, perhaps the following reads rather more simply: Juventus need to get their act together, and quickly.
Having stormed unattested to their domestic league title last term as well as spending their Champions League outings playing with a forward-swarming verve that illuminated the competition, regression suddenly appears to have set in for Shakhtar Donetsk. Their long-held position as Ukraine’s dominant footballing power, having claimed the nation’s last four consecutive league trophies, is now far from secure – Metalist Kharkiv have usurped them at the division’s pinnacle with the domestic season at its midway point – and their deterioration is manifesting itself in Europe as well.
After such a sustained period of supremacy, the recent departures of their more illustrious names, coupled with a failure to properly replace them, is now beginning to show on the pitch. Although Shakhtar’s famed Brazilian contingent may still be strong in quantity (ten first-teamers, to be precise), its quality has depleted in recent months with the exits of Fernandinho and Willian joining that of last season’s creative hub, Henrykh Mkhitaryan, who was wooed by Borussia Dortmund. Although Shakhtar’s shareholders are unlikely to interrupt their prawn sandwich-scoffing to complain about such sales – the club recouped over £80million for the above three – the effect is nonetheless being felt on the field.
This time last year, Shakhtar had taken seven points from a group that included Chelsea and Juventus; this time round they’ve only accumulated four from a weaker one. Their upcoming fixture is against a Bayer Leverkusen side who handed the Ukrainians their own rear ends in the previous group game, a comprehensive 4-0 trouncing on German soil. With Shakhtar needing, at the very least, two wins from their remaining three games, and their concluding group fixture taking place at Old Trafford, the Europa League beckons for the Ukrainians.
Champions League Knockout Stage Qualification Odds - Odds as at 4th November 2013.
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