Manchester clubs face arduous fixtures

BY Jamie Trecker • November 21, 2011

It’s all in the balance for the likes of Manchester United, Benfica and Manchester City as matchday five kicks off in the Champions League Tuesday.

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Three teams — AC Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid — have already booked their slots and several more can join them over the next two days, depending on what’s a confusing tangle of scenarios. The bottom line for most teams is simple: these are must-win games.

The biggest test awaits Manchester City in Naples, where they can go through with a win over Napoli — but could also drop out of the tournament with a loss. City roar into the match as the only unbeaten team remaining in the Premiership, and hold a commanding five point lead atop the table. Whether that translates to European success remains to be seen.

Led by the brilliance of David Silva and the guile of Samir Nasri, City currently looks unstoppable. It could be argued that City has deliberately unbalanced global football — they recorded a staggering $300 million loss last season — but the results on the field show that their money was well spent. Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero took a knock Saturday against Newcastle United, but is expected to be fit. In any case, forward Mario Balotelli has found his form, while Bosnian striker, Edin Dzeko, waits in the wings. This is a side that seems to score whenever it wants to, and is now playing with the sort of abandon we normally associate with the likes of Barcelona.

Still, City faces possible elimination to a dangerous Napoli side that rarely loses European games at home — being that it’s been 15 years since they failed to collect at least a point at the Stadio San Paolo. While goals have not been in high supply for the Italians as of late, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi have proved that they can conjure something special. They’re going to have to against a team with a stout defense of its own, anchored by skipper Vincent Kompany and goalkeeper Joe Hart.

In the other game in the group, leaders Bayern Munich only need a point to lock up their berth, and are expected to get it against struggling Villarreal. Arjen Robben will return for the match to spearhead a Bayern side that dropped a tough game to their Bundesliga chasers Dortmund over the weekend.

It’s more complex in Group C, where Manchester United welcomes Portugal’s Benfica. Benifca can clinch the group lead with a win at Old Trafford, but the Red Devils would have to wait for the result of Basel’s match at Otelul. Bizarre as it sounds, United could win and still need a result in their final game to clinch a spot. Injuries are mounting for a somewhat grim-looking United with Tom Cleverly, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling, and Ashley Young in various stages of disrepair. With Nemaja Vidic serving his second game of a two-match suspension, Wayne Rooney will be called to lead Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to battle Tuesday night.

Benfica, who will be missing Javier Saviola (knee), are riding a 20-game unbeaten streak and have to like their odds against a banged-up United side. They certainly have no reason to be intimidated by the occasion after holding United to a 1-1 draw in their first meeting, but they were shocked by Basel in Lisbon on matchday four. Oscar Cardozo and Nolito can score goals, but will have to breach history at Old Trafford; as the Red Devils have not lost at home to Portuguese opposition in ten games.

At Stadionul Otelul, Basel has to win and then hope for a result. The Swiss actually hold the key to the group, for should they lose and Benfica and United draw, Basel will be knocked out of the Champions League tournament.

Group B leader Inter have their sights on the final 16, but will have to do it without Wesley Sneijder, who pulled a leg injury during warmups before the Nerazurri’s victory versus Cagliari over the weekend. Inter remain stranded in the depths of the Serie A table, after a miserable start to the season. But, a win in Turkey over unlikely Trabzonspor could be just the tonic they need to turn things around. Coutinho, who is being tracked by Liverpool and scored in Saturday’s Serie A tilt, is expected to spell Sneijder tomorrow night.

Romantics might be pulling for Trabzonspor, a team that is only here because Fenerbache was tossed out amid match fixing allegations. They also downed Inter on opening day at the San Siro, thanks to a late goal. Nonetheless, the Turks have cooled since then, losing badly in Moscow to CSKA last month

CSKA on the other hand, will look to bounce back in Champions League play at home against Lille. The Russians had their best player, Seydou Doumbia, sent off three weeks ago, and as a result could struggle against a Lille side that must win its final two matches. The Moscow giants are in a bad scoring slump with former star Vagner Love hitting the skids amid reports that he’s on his way to England in January. Lille isn’t in much better situation either. Key man, Moussa Sow, is missing more than scoring, after flubbing a penalty on the weekend in a dire 0-0 draw with Tolouse.

Finally, in Group D, Real Madrid looks like a side going from strength to strength, as they await eliminated Dinamo Zagreb. The key game here is Lyon versus Ajax, a match which the French side must win. Lyon has the advantage of playing the Croats in their final game, albeit on the road. Nevertheless, with Ajax hosting the already qualified Madrid, they have to like their chances heading towards the stretch.

The Dutch routed Dinamo last time around in a game so lopsided, that the Croats made the faded greats look like Brazil. While Ajax have the talent in Siem de Jong and Arsenal target Jan Vertonghen, make no mistake, Lyon should win out. Even with the likes of Jimmy Briand, Ederson and Anthony Reveillere on their side, Lyon have underperformed in Europe this season might mean that bets all are off.


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