Premier League clubs have some work to do to stay in Champions League

BY foxsports • November 24, 2014

The UEFA Champions League returns on Tuesday with the all-important fifth round of group stage games, when fates are typically sealed. Several English Premier League clubs in particular have a big fight on their hands.

Manchester City find themselves in dire straits, needing to beat Bayern Munich at home (Live, FOX Sports 1, 2 p.m. ET) to stand any sort of chance of advancing to the knockout rounds. City's failings on the continent are well worn by now. In their first two campaigns -- after qualifying for the first time, thanks to all that cash flowing over from their Abu Dhabi ownership -- they didn't survive the group stage. In their third, last year, they were stranded on the Barcelona beachhead in the round of 16.

This time around, they threaten to regress back to the unfortunate mean they have set. With four games played, City are dead last in Group E with just two points. Bayern, who are perfect, have a dozen and are through. AS Roma and CSKA Moscow each have four.

To a certain degree, the Citizens have been unlucky. In their first game in Munich, they didn't capitalize until the 90th minute, when Jerome Boateng scored the winner for Bayern. They tied Roma at home and then gave away a two-goal lead in Moscow, having to settle for a second draw. At home against CSKA three weeks ago, paranoia set in and they looked stiff in a 2-1 loss.

That means City face an absolute must-win, against Europe's most daunting team, no less. They will hope that Bayern's having clinched first place in the group -- meaning they will be seeded for the round of 16 draw -- might soften up and run out some reserves. 

When manager Manuel Pellegrini was appointed before last season, he was told in no uncertain terms that he was to win five major trophies in five years -- the Premier League, the FA Cup or the Champions League. They won the league last year -- though they are struggling to replicate their form this year -- but there is simply too much talent and experience on that team not to do better in Europe.

The English papers, ever eager for a head to roll, are already speculating whether Pellegrini will hold onto his job if City fail to advance from the group stage -- and if he does, for how much longer.

In the other game in that group, CSKA-Roma (Live, FOX Sports 2, noon ET), the winners would position themselves very well to advance. That would be something of a surprise. Nobody much fancied CSKA before the tournament started. And Roma would somehow sneak through in spite of having been beaten by Bayern 7-1 at home.

Things are even tighter in Group G, where every team can still advance. Chelsea are in command with eight points from two wins and two draws. Schalke 04 are next with five points; Sporting Lisbon have four; Maribor three. In what probably amounts to the toughest game on their European calendar, Chelsea travel to Gelsenkirchen to play Schalke away (Live, FOX Sports 2, 2 p.m. ET). Should they win, they will clinch first place in the group. Lose, however, and Schalke and a potential winner of Sporting-Maribor could imperil their place in the knockout stages on the final day.

In their first game against Schalke, at home, a Klaas-Jan Huntelaar goal canceled out Cesc Fabregas's go-ahead score. Since then, Roberto Di Matteo, who was harshly shunted as Chelsea's manager in November 2012 in spite of just having won the club's first Champions League title, has been appointed Schalke manager and turned their season around. The reunification of the club legend (from his playing days) with his old side will be interesting.

Also interesting will be Paris Saint-Germain hosting Ajax (Live, FOX Soccer 2 GO, 2.45 p.m. ET). Certainly, Group F has already been decided, with PSG's 10 points and Barcelona's nine putting them out of the reach of Ajax -- 2 points -- and APOEL -- 1. Ajax, though, would like to reach the UEFA Europa League by nabbing third place. And most of all, they seek to grow and improve.

As so depressingly often, for Ajax fans anyway, they lost several key players over the summer -- Siem de Jong to Newcastle and Daley Blind to Manchester United -- after Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld left the year before. So now they are building yet again. They have showed promise, with a particularly scintillating band of young attackers -- pay attention to Davy Klaassen, Anwar El Ghazi and Ricardo Kishna in particular -- suggesting that happy days could be in the offing once more.

PSG, for their part, would like to clinch the group ahead of Barca to better their chances in the knockout stages. Like City, they are the recipients of immense investment from abroad -- Qatar, in their case -- and are supposed to be winning this tournament at some point. With all the attacking talent under their control, this game pitting exciting and adventurous teams seeking to position themselves for the short- and long-term, could be the best of all.