City needs help to keep CL hopes alive

BY Jamie Trecker • November 22, 2011

Manchester City will need help from their conquerors in round six, Napoli having put the Citizens on the edge of elimination. (Photo: Franco Castanò/AP Photos)

Manchester City are on the brink of UEFA Champions League elimination after a big loss in Naples while Manchester United must wait until the final day after a storming Benfica held them to a draw at Old Trafford to clinch a spot in the knockout round.

Inter Milan qualified for the round of 16 today before they had even touched a ball thanks to Lille’s tournament-saving win in Moscow while Bayern Munich joined them in the knockout stage with an efficient 3-1 dispatching of Villarreal at the Allianz. And Ajax must wait but Lyon’s hopes are almost over after a 0-0 draw in France as an action-packed fifth match day exploded with an astonishing 28 goals.

Napoli puts City on edge of Europa League

Let’s start in Naples and Group A, where two goals from Edinson Cavani have likely put Manchester City’s Champions league hopes to the sword. After a gritty game marked by defensive failings and some spectacular goalkeeping, Napoli sit in pole position for the group's second knockout round spot and fully deserved their points tonight. They were sharper on the counter-attack, smarter in the back, and lucky when they needed to be.

Roberto Mancini admitted as much, calling both goals “stupid” in his post-game conference, but the fact remains that the form City had rode to the top of the Premiership table seemed to desert them in the howling Stadio Sao Paolo. David Silva was unable to dominate events, Edin Dzeko suffered an off night, and at the back, poor marking from Pablo Zabaleta and Alexandr Kolarov condemned City twice against one of the stingiest defensive sides in the tournament.

Cavani’s first goal was a howler, a squib of a header that eluded two defenders and Joe Hart at the near post. Freakish, surely, but eminently preventable. It might have been just when Mario Balotelli took them level off a similar gaffe, when Morgan De Sanctis sloppily parried right to him for the tap in, but Cavani’s winner was no joke. He recovered a very hopeful cross from Andrea Dossena with a drag-back of his foot to volley it expertly past Hart.

Fans will second-guess Mancini, as they always do. There surely are some questions to be answered. Why didn’t Kun Aguero start? Where was Micah Richards, not even on the game day sheet? But the truth is, this is a team that still lacks experience. Mancini can bray all he likes about matching Barcelona, but on the evidence, City aren’t close to that level of character.

Bayern went through with ease in the other Group A match, a result that rarely seemed in doubt. Franck Ribery took the Bavarians ahead for good in only the third minute, and his interplay with Toni Kroos all night long was too much for the Submarine to handle. Mario Gomez added one in between Ribery’s brace, and while Jonathan de Guzman pulled one back with a fine, cross-goal volley, Villarreal were never a serious threat.

That must pain City, who need Napoli to trip in two weeks to have a shot of making the Round of 16. Napoli gets the softer game against an eliminated Spanish side while City have to beat Bayern and also get some help from the Spanish side.

Benfica takes point in Manchester

In Group C, Benfica took over the top of the table with a fantastic and creative performance against a United side that is showing more than one fissure. Absent Wayne Rooney, the Red Devils never looked like they had the ideas or the control in midfield, despite another fine outing from Nani.

Phil Jones put United behind early when he kneed Nicolas Gaitan’s cross past a stunned David de Gea in only the fourth minute. That was merely where the trouble started. Aimar and Gaitain bedeviled United all night long, with Bruno Cesar so often the lynchpin of their counter-attacking strategy.

Dimitar Berbatov rescued United with a fine header from Nani’s cross at the half hour mark, but United never looked like a side that could truly come to grips with the threat the Portuguese presented. It wasn’t until after the break and a sustained flow of United pressure sparked by Nani and Patrice Evra that you had the sense the home side could get back into it.

Darren Fletcher surely thought he must have given his team the advantage when he finally got round Artur on the second attempt, putting United up 2-1 in the second half, but a bad gaffe from de Gea, clearing right to Bruno Cesar just minutes later, allowed Aimar in to tie matters up.

With Basel winning 3-2 on the road at eliminated Otelul, three teams are now in the mix for those final two Group C slots. But it is Benfica who have the easier job: They host Otelul on the final day while United must go to Switzerland and take a result. Should we remind nervous fans that the two played to a thrilling 3-3 draw at Old Trafford on Match Day Two?

Lille back in knockout round picture

Earlier in the day, Lille saved its bacon in Group B with a fine 2-0 win in Russia over a depleted CSKA, allowing Inter Milan to qualify before the Italians had even touched a ball.

The visitors never looked in trouble at the Luznikhi Stadium as, CSKA, playing without suspended goal fountain Seydou Doumbia, looked nothing like an attacking force. Their tentative defensive posture, with a flat back four exposed far too often, contributed to a disappointing performance.

The French should have scored at least once in the first half, David Rozehnal, Mathieu Debuchy and Marko Beria all failing to take very good chances, but unlike previous matches when such profligacy in front of goal cost Lille points, this time they got the deserved reward.

The opening goal was off the foot of CSKA defender Vasili Berezutski, who clipped a lob over goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov while trying to beat Moussa Sow to a 49th minute through ball in the center of the area. Sow, himself, slid the second home after Eden Hazard - the man of the match - sprung Joe Cole behind an offside trap. The former Liverpool man's acrobatic shot hit the far post but rebounded directly for Sow to finish the play.

With the win, Lille joined CSKA on five points and has its final match at home against Trabzonspor. The Russians must play their finale in Milan against already-qualified Inter.

When the opening whistle blew in Turkey, the Nerazzurri knew a draw would be enough to clinch first in the group. They got it, but not without having to play some good football.

Ricardo Alvarez put the Italians on top in the 18th minute after working a neat give-and-go with Diego Milito on the right side of the box. Halil Altintop struck from medium range five minutes later to level the match that finished 1-1.

Trabzonspor moved one ahead of CSKA and Lille with the draw and will carry that tiny advantage into France for their final group test. The Turks will also have to hope that Inter takes its finale against CSKA seriously.

Record set in Real rout

In Group D, it was no contest in Spain, even with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo sitting idle. Jose Mourinho's team had already clinched the group top spot, so it was no surprise when The Special One fielded a side filled with realtively unfamiliar names.

No CR7, no problem: Real Madrid forward Gonzalo Higuain was just one of many Madrid players to score against Dinamo Zagreb's bashful defense. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)  

There was plenty of pretty football to admire as long as you weren't Ivan Kelava, the overwhelmed Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper. Real Madrid was three ahead after 10 minutes, setting a record, and exchanged so many 1-2 passes they might have doubled their final account. As it was, Karim Benzema and Jose Callejon both scored twice, Gonzalo Higuain scored once and set up two others, and Ozil scored as well as creating two more.

It was 4-0 at the interval when Mourinho took Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos off the field and it was 6-0 when the Galacticos finally decided they had done enough. The consolation goals for the Croatians, both in the final 10 minutes, came from Fatos Beqiraj and Ivan Tomecak and rewarded Dinamo for sticking with it.

Lyon now needs Real's help

In Lyon, the whistles rained down when the home team left the field. Their 0-0 draw with Ajax that kept the French barely alive for second place, but it was hardly was the kind of result the supporters wanted.

As in the first meeting in Amsterdam, neither team was willing to take enough chances and the contest really only came to life in the final 15 minutes. There were flashes of opportunity, but not many real chances.

Lyon must now hope that Real Madrid is interested in completing a perfect group stage and will go to Amsterdam in that frame of mind next month. But even should Ajax lose, there is a little matter of goal difference: Lyon must make up 8 goals somehow. The French head for Zagreb where the home team will be trying avoid finishing without a point.