The UEFA Champions League resumes on Wednesday with a slate of games to whet your appetite on the eve of Thanksgiving. As on Tuesday, a pair of English teams face crucial games that are rife with interesting storylines.
Arsenal, in the latest installment of the Hipster Derby, host Borussia Dortmund in a game that could secure the Gunners’ spot in the Round of 16 for a fifteenth year running (live, FOX Sports 1, 2 p.m. ET). That’s a remarkable achievement. And all they probably need is a draw, because Dortmund are a perfect 4-0-0 and have 12 points and Arsenal have seven, both are far ahead of Anderlecht’s two and Galatasaray’s one.
But in a lot of ways, this game is about more than the game itself. For all their success on the continent, both sides are having an utterly disastrous domestic campaign. Last season, Dortmund overcame a litany of serious injuries and crucial players to come second in the German Bundesliga. They were the only challengers to Bayern Munich’s dominance with any credibility — Bayern had the league locked up by March anyway. This season, they started with two wins from three but then went seven games without winning, six of them losses. Painfully, the teams that beat them weren’t even at the top of the table, save for Bayern. Their problems are many, as they’ve conceded the 5th-most goals and only four teams have scored fewer.
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It’s been a rather inexplicable fall from grace for Die Borussen, considering that they did good business during the summer transfer window, more than compensating for the loss of Robert Lewandowski to their hateful and poach-happy rivals Bayern. Nevertheless, they new languish in 16th place, meaning that as things stand, Dortmund would have to survive a playoff just to avoid relegation to Germany’s second tier at the end of the season.
That all seems unlikely, and they did take four points from their last two games. But an opportunity to further rehabilitate their form against a quality side such as Arsenal is most welcome to manager Jurgen Klopp and his men.
Arsenal, for their part, have problems of their own. The 2-1 loss at home to Manchester United last weekend — while totally undeserved — cemented their worst season start since 1982. That’s a tad odd, because Arsenal lost only one of their first 10 Premier League games. It’s just that they also tied five of those, and have lost two in a row since.
The Gunners have been beset by injuries and defensive issues. And had it not been for mega-signing Alexis Sanchez’s sizzling form — six goals in four league games before the United contest — things might have been a sight worse.
As stated, a draw will probably do but a win guarantees passage, even if they’re all but secure in it as it is. A victory would be cathartic, as their latest slide was induced in their last European game, when they let Anderlecht overturn a 3-goal deficit in the final half hour for a 3-3 tie.
Another English team in need of salvation are Liverpool. This is their first season back at Europe’s highest level since 2009-10 but they have made a bit of a hash of things. In spite of finding themselves drawn into a soft group, the Reds trail the perfect defending champions Real Madrid by nine and FC Basel by three while even overmatched Ludogorets Razgrad are tied with them.
They travel to Bulgaria on Wednesday (live, FOX Sports 2, 2 p.m. ET) for a rematch of the only game they have taken any points from. After beating Ludogorets — who qualified for this tournament through something of a miracle, when defender Cosmin Moti saved several penalties in a shootout during the playoffs — in their European opener, they have lost the rest of their games.
Still, if Liverpool win and Real Madrid beat Basel in Switzerland, as they should, the Reds would be tied for second on points — although perhaps behind on goal difference. All is not lost then, as their final game is a head-to-head contest with Basel at home. But their chances of survival hinge on winning this game against Ludogorets first. That means that they’ll have to overcome their own early-season woes, which have sunk last year’s Premier League title contenders to 11th place currently. Most of all, that means finding someone who can score a goal — something no Liverpool player has done more than three times this year.
For the last few years, many have questioned whether the Premier League is still entitled to its reputation as Europe’s top league — if it ever was. While three of four Champions League semifinalists were English in the 2008-09 season, the Premier League has produced just three more semifinalists in the five years since.
On Wednesday, the English get a chance to redeem themselves.