CL preview: Day's best game not in Milan
Arsenal hopes to complete a stunning turnaround on Wednesday and qualify for the round of 16 with a win over Germans Borussia Dortmund as match day five of the Champions League concludes.
Barcelona and Milan are on the marquee, but the day's more interesting match will take place on an island to the southeast. (Photo credit: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Play starts early Wednesday with Zenit hosting tournament darlings APOEL at noon ET (FOXSoccer.tv/2GO); BATE hosting Plzen an hour later at 1 p.m. ET (FOXSoccer.tv/2GO); and then the normal 2 p.m. ET slate as AC Milan face Barcelona on FOX Soccer, Arsenal taking on Dortmund on FOX Soccer Plus.
Of course, every Champions League game is brought to you live in HD this season across the FOX family of networks and DirecTV, with real-time in-game coverage on Twitter (@FOXSoccerTrax and @FOXSoccerTrax2) and on-line at FOXSoccer.com. The final round of Champions League group stage concludes December 6-7.
The most magnetic game of the day is not in Milan, where the only thing to be decided is which side will win the group. Barcelona and AC Milan have already assured their places in the knockout round, and while this is expected to be a high quality clash — given credence by the fact that the Catalans rested most of their best players on the weekend — romantics will be casting their eyes to the East.
History within reach for APOEL
There, in what are expected to be sub-zero temperatures, APOEL will try to make history against Zenit St. Petersburg. The unbeaten Cypriots need only a draw to go through and have proven to be far tougher than anyone had given them credit for. APOEL beat the Russians in the tournament’s shock opener and took Porto’s scalp as well. Helio Pinto and Nuno Morais have proven themselves to be vital link-men in the middle, and while shots have been scarce for the Cyrpiots, they have scored in every match this far. Ailton and Gustavo Manduca have not shown flash but have shown incision.
Zenit are no pushovers. Danny is making a case to be the playmaker of the tournament, single-handedly carrying his team to a 1-0 win over Shakhtar last round out while playing with a strapped leg. But where the Russians fall down is in front of goal. Defender Nicolas Lombaerts snatched the winner but the story was the misses, so many of them. Roman Shirokov seems determined to impose a new height standard on goal mouths while Viktor Fayzulin and Tomas Hubocan continue to flub set-piece chances.
Porto is fighting for its life in the other group game against a Shakhtar side that cannot be counted out. Injuries have taken their toll on the Ukranians ,with Fernandindo and Willian facing late fitness tests while Darijo Srna, Jadson and Dmytri Chyrgynskiy are all out. Those absences were keenly felt three weeks ago.
Porto have a full squad to call upon with the irrepressible Hulk, James and Jorge Fucile all expected to run out from the whistle. But both sides are wrestling with slumps: Porto, once so dominant, have lost both road games in Europe; Shakhtar’s Donbass is not the fortress is was just three months ago.
Gunners look to advance vs. Dortmund
In England, Arsenal can qualify with a win over Borussia Dortmund and get a boost with the inclusion of Abou Diaby into their squad after a long injury spell. Injuries are still taking their toll on a Gunners side that is enjoying a revival: Carl Jenkinson, Tomas Rosicky and long-term absentees Jack Wilshere and Bacary Sagna are all unavailable.
But buoyed by the remarkable form of Robin van Persie and the return of Thomas Vermaelen, Arsenal have shaken off their disastrous start to become a team that is now winning games with elan. They still struggle on set pieces and look maddeningly slow with Andre Santos and Per Mertesacker in the back four, but the Gunners are showing some of the old cut and thrust that was lost with the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.
Dortmund, once-high-fliers, have also struggled this season in the Bundesliga but got a massive win over rival Bayern on the weekend thanks to the invention of an Arsenal target: 19-year-old Mario Goetze. Goetze was brilliant in the game, and if he can summon the same invention on Wednesday, Kevin Grosskreutz and Robert Lewandowski will be a handful.
One major absence, however, is former American international Neven Subotic. He is out with a fractured cheekbone suffered three weeks ago.
In the other game of the group, Olympiakos need a win in Marseille to stay alive. The French team cannot afford to lose the game, either, coming off back-to-back tepid shows against Arsenal that exposed a lack of creativity. Marseille do get a number of players back from injury and are expected to run out Mathieu Valbuena and Stephane Mbia, but Rod Fanni remains sidelined.
Olympiakos have a number of absentees of their own, with Jean Makoun not even making the trip. Daniel Fuster is expected to be fit to start.
Chelsea looking to right course
Both Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen can advance with a win in Germany, but the pressure is squarely on Andre Villas-Boas to deliver for the Blues after they dropped their third league game in four outings this weekend, a 2-1 loss to Liverpool.
Chelsea have all kinds of problems, and Leverkusen is expected to focus on them. If John Obi Mikel and John Terry get the starts, expect Sidney Sam and Stefan Kiessling to run right at them.
One plus for the beleaguered Chelsea back four is the return of Alex. If he is fit, one would think he has to start. Up top, Fernando Torres is expected to team with Juan Mata despite the $80m man’s wretched form. Why no Daniel Sturridge? Good question: when he was fielded in the second half in a 4-2-3-1 formation, he was brilliant with Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda.
Chelsea can also advance with a draw if Valencia lose to Belgium’s Genk in the group's other game. Laughable? Not this year. Both teams have been tepid and Genk held Valencia scoreless at home in their last meeting. But Valencia seem to have recovered, and the fact is, they made Leverkusen look silly three weeks ago, with Jonas scoring the second-fastest goal ever in European Cup history just 12 seconds in. Later, Jeremy Mathieu and Roberto Soldado did enough to snuff out Leverkusen’s recovery.
Finally, it may be a marquee game, but it is largely a meaningless one: AC Milan and Barcelona will clash in what is little more than a glittering array of names. With only top place to play for — and little doubt about the quality of either of these teams — expect a solid hour of football from Messi and Co. then a retreat to avoid injuries.
BATE and Plzen meet in the other game, and if you have health concerns, including, but (not limited to) low tolerance for boredom, you may wish to avoid it. At stake? A place in the Europa League. You might wish both fail to make it.