The group stages of the Champions League come to a close with three final slots in the knockout rounds up for grabs today. Some of Europe’s biggest names are on the edge with Chelsea, Celtic and Juventus hoping to make the cut.
The Blues are currently in a melodrama that even a TV soap would find a bit too rich. They lost a critical game to Juventus, sacked their popular manager Roberto Di Matteo, replaced him with the very unpopular Rafa Benitez, and haven’t won since. Chelsea deservedly got thumped by lowly West Ham on Saturday and have a chance to make history on Wednesday by becoming the first defending Champions League winners to go out in the group stage. (The sound you hear is glee, and it’s coming from Munich’s Allianz Arena.)
Chelsea have just one win in their last eight games and are only hanging around the top of English soccer because of their blazing-hot start. But two big back-to-back losses in October derailed the club and, despite owner Roman Abramovich’s attempts to ‘fix’ the damage, things have only gotten worse.
The problems started with a 2-1 Champions League loss at Shakhtar Donetsk in late October, a fabulous match that saw the Ukrainians dominate the champs from the start. That was hardly fatal – but it was followed by an ugly 3-2 loss to Manchester United at Stamford Bridge that saw both Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic sent off.
The kindling was further stoked by the club’s allegations of racist language against referee Mark Clattenburg, who was subsequently fully cleared. The Blues have only just issued a grudging apology for their part in the matter — but the damage was done. Something seemed to expire and not even the Blues’ storming League Cup win over United three days later in extra time could mitigate that.
Chelsea have since been held by Swansea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Fulham, and have lost to West Brom, West Ham and Juventus. In fact, had the Blues not pulled out a last-minute win over Shakhtar in the return leg, this game would already be meaningless.
Benitez is in real trouble, with no wins and only two points in his first three games. His arrival at the Bridge was greeted with open hostility by the fans in one of the most remarkable displays ever seen in the sport. He is, to put not to fine a point on it, despised.
Juventus hold all the cards: an away win at Shakhtar takes both those teams through. A draw can be also enough for the Italians if Chelsea flop against the minnows. But the air is already going out of the big Blue balloon, and it would not be a shock if the mercurial madman that runs Chelsea decides to sack another manager this year, right after this game.
Elsewhere, Cleltic and Benfica are vying for the final slot in Group G. Benfica are guaranteed a place with a win at Barcelona which is a tall order. Celtic must collect more points than Benfica when they host eliminated Spartak Moscow at Parkhead to progress. The path is tougher for Celtic as Benfica holds the head-to-head tie-breaker, but the fact that the Portuguese must end their run at Camp Nou will give the Bhoys hope.
Barcelona maestro Lionel Messi is one goal away from tying Gerd Muller’s calendar year-scoring record of 85 goals, and it would not be a surprise if the Catalans try to run it up in this match. Celtic are coming in off a shock draw to lowly Arbroath in the Scottish Cup, a result best explained by manager Neil Lennon’s decision to rest nine players.
The other key matchups involve the Railwaymen of CFR Cluj and Turkey’s Galatasaray. Cluj travel to Old Trafford and a tough date with already qualified Manchester United (live, FOX Soccer Plus, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET). Galatasaray travel to Portugal to play the already eliminated Braga.
The road is arguably easier for Galatasaray as Braga have been awful at home, losing both matches. But Cluj will be boosted by the fact that United are likely to play a second-string side as the Red Devils face a season-defining tilt against Manchester City on Sunday. It’s a straight shot: whomever comes away with the most points from the games will take the final slot.