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Will Man City tank to narrow focus?
The group stages of the Champions League wrap up Tuesday and Wednesday with simultaneous kickoffs across Europe to decide the final three qualifiers in Europe’s grandest competition.
Tuesday’s games are effectively dead: only group ranking and consolation places in the Europa League are up for grabs; Wednesday’s matches are far more compelling with several big teams, including Chelsea and Celtic, fighting for their Champions League lives.
The marquee game of the day is Borussia Dortmund – Manchester City (FOX Soccer, 2 PM ET) where Roberto Mancini’s men have a difficult decision to make. A win in Germany would give the English champs a chance to compete in the Europa League. That isn’t necessarily in the Citizens’ best interests. In fact, dropping entirely out of Europe would allow them to focus on domestic competitions instead, and given the death struggle they are currently in with Manchester United, that would be the more prudent course of action.
Expect both Mancini and his counterpart Jurgen Klopp to rest their starters. Klopp’s Dortmund is coming off a taxing draw against Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich; City enter after a draw with Everton but have a big game Sunday against the Red Devils that they now must win to draw level atop the Premiership.
But the game in the group that really matters is Real Madrid v Ajax (FOX Deportes, 2 PM ET). The Spanish giants are safely through for the 16th year straight and are likely to take it easy. Ajax, however, want to take all three points to assure themselves of a place in the Europa League for two reasons. The first is that they need the money; the second is that they are hosting this year’s Europa League final. Of the teams in this group of death, it’s hard to argue that plucky Ajax deserve no less.
Elsewhere, slumping Arsenal would like a win against Olympiakos (FOX Sports Net, 2 PM ET), a side they have faced often and prospered against in recent seasons. But last year, in this exact same final-day fixture, the Gunners fielded a second-string side in Greece and got whumped, 3-1. Arsene Wenger could use a morale boost after his side stumbled against Swansea Saturday, losing 2-0 and falling to 10th place to continue their worst start to the season under the long-serving manager.
The game is otherwise meaningless to both sides: Arsenal is already qualified and would only gain top seeding in the group with a win and a Schalke tie or loss against eliminated Montpellier; Olympiakos is already consigned to the Europa League. Wenger is under increasing pressure due to Arsenal’s lousy league form, but it’s hard to make the case that his job is imminent danger.
Zenit St. Petersburg and Sacha Kljestan’s Anderlecht are fighting for a Europa League slot against the already qualified Malaga and AC Milan. Anderlecht must win and hope they can erode Zenit’s superior goal difference; if both games end drawn, Zenit will gain the Europa League berth.
Group A is settled as newly-wealthy French giants Paris Saint-Germain have already sealed their berth alongside group leaders Porto. A win or a draw for the Portuguese at Parc des Princes gives them the top spot in the group, and they will likely play for the point. Dinamo Zagreb are out of Europe entirely and their home match against Europa League-bound Dynamo Kiev is purely for pride. The Croatians have yet to collect a single point, making them the worst team in the Champions League this season.
On Wednesday, Chelsea and under-fire Rafa Benitez must get a win against Michael Parkhurst’s Nordsjaelland and hope that Juventus are held by Shakhtar Dontesk in the Ukraine. The already eliminated Danes have a rare chance to play spoiler against the reigning European Champions, and should the Londoners crash out, they would make ignominious history, becoming first defensing title holders to fail to escape the group stages.
Celtic must beat eliminated Spartak at Parkhead and hope that Benfica is trimmed by Barcelona at Camp Nou. And the Railwaymen of CFR Cluj need to collect more points against Manchester United than Turkey’s Galatasaray do against eliminated Braga to stick around.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.
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