After a short hiatus, the UEFA Champions League is back in action this week.
Thirty-two teams continue the long journey, all with an eye towards working their way towards next May’s final at London’s Wembley Stadium.
Sportsnet’s soccer panel (Gerry Dobson, Brendan Dunlop, Thomas Dobby and Thomas Michalakos) offer their picks, predictions and analysis of Wednesday’s group stage matches.
Gerry Dobson: These two teams figure to fight for second spot in what has turned out to be a very difficult group. In fact if this match ends in a draw, it will be very difficult for either team to win the group since first place Shakhtar Donetsk has an easy touch against Danish side Nordsjaelland. But it’s all about qualifying, and it’s quite possible one of these teams will not make it. They played an entertaining affair on matchday one and a thriller could be in the cards again. In anticipation of the importance of this match, Chelsea rested several key players including influential midfielder Juan Mata in the league on the weekend and it backfired in a loss to West Bromwich Albion. Bad news. The good news is they also rested Oscar who scored twice for the Blues in that first match against Juventus, so they’ll be ready for this affair, although they’re still missing defender John Terry with a leg injury. For their part, Juventus were held to a disappointing 0-0 draw with Lazio on the weekend. Yes, it took a marvellous goalkeeping display to prevent Juventus from picking up all three points. But the Serie A leaders will be feeling ornery after having won just one of their last three league matches. As Chelsea have been inconsistent this season and Juventus have the pleasure of playing at home, I call for a Juventus win that will seriously dent Chelsea’s chances of advancing.
Prediction: Juventus wins 2-0.
Dobson: Even though Nordsjaelland squeaked out a point against Juventus earlier, and in fact very nearly won that game, we’ll dismiss the events of that evening as an aberration. The Danish club is simply in way too deep. When the teams met in September, Shakhtar came out 2-0 winners in a game that would have been even more lopsided. And now the Ukrainians poised to put themselves in position to not only inch closer to qualifying, but to put themselves in the driver’s seat to grab first place in the group, although that will likely have to wait until the final matchday. Nordsjaelland are playing at home, and are much better there. But Shakhtar Donetsk will win this game and put enormous pressure on both Juventus and Chelsea, who could very well end up fighting for second spot.
Prediction: Shakhtar Donetsk wins 2-1.
Thomas Michalakos: Both teams sit tied for the group lead with nine points (and tied in goals scored with 10), but Valencia hold the slight advantage with one less goal conceded which place them above the German giants. The reverse fixture ended 2-1 for Bayern at the Allianz Arena, a much deserved victory for the hosts, as Valencia did not put up much of the fight until the dying moments. Despite one blip on the radar in Belarus at the beginning of October, Bayern have been dominant this season, both domestically and in Europe. The Mestalla provides a tremendous atmosphere and is one of the most difficult venues in all of Spain to earn a result. Los Che own a perfect record in the Champions League on their home ground, having only surrendered a single point in six domestic matches on their turf. Brazilian forward Jonas has scored three of the team’s six goals at home in the competition, and Roberto Soldado is also a tremendous threat in the 18 yard box. However, attempting to out-score Bayern has proven to be troublesome, and Valencia are not secure enough on the defensive part of the field to keep the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Thomas Muller or Claudio Pizzaro off the scoresheet, especially with the likes of Franck Ribery, Toni Kroos and/or Arjen Robben pulling the strings.
Prediction: Bayern Munich wins 3-1.
Michalakos: The campaign started off extremely positive for the Belarusian hosts, with a resounding 3-1 victory at the Metropole in Lille on matchday one. That was followed with a more impressive home win against Bayern Munich, setting the tone for a surprising run in the competition. How quickly things have changed for BATE manager Viktor Goncharenko’s men, losing two straight to Valencia by a wide margin and relinquishing top spot in the group. A victory on Tuesday is almost mandatory at this point to keep pace, though, a draw wouldn’t be a terrible result — it would however leave them in a much tougher position to make the next round by needing to win in Munich on the final matchday. At this point, Lille is playing for pride and the outside chance of a Europa League place. Nothing has gone right for manager Rudi Garcia in this competition, but their away form has been the most disturbing, conceding eight, and six of those goals came two weeks ago in Munich. A repeat lopsided result would be a surprise, but judging by the way Lille have performed in Europe this season, anything is possible.
Prediction: 1-1 draw.
Brendan Dunlop: What’s worse than being the team that gets upset in a match no one expected them to lose? Being the next team they face. Spartak should fully expect Barcelona to take out all of their frustrations in Moscow on Tuesday. No man is less looking forward to this than manager Unai Emery. The former Valencia bench boss has faced Barca four times this calendar year. The results? Not a good sign for Spartak. A draw at home followed by a loss at the Camp Nou to get bounced out of the Copa del Rey in the semifinals. A 5-1 loss in the league. And then an away loss with Spartak in September. There’s a trend here, and my gut says a venue change won’t do anything to curb it.
Prediction: Barceloan wins 3-1.
Dunlop: While every neutral and Barcelona hater alike were united in celebration alongside the throngs of Celtic supporters who could not believe what the Scots pulled off, there was one group very uncomfortable with the victory: anyone affiliated with Benfica. The Portuguese side’s task of reaching the knock-out round got a lot harder last matchday. But the Eagles will overtake Celtic with a win, and will be hoping history repeats itself on Tuesday. The Hoops have lost their last three trips to the Estadio da Luz and Benfica will be happy to turn the lights off on their Champions League party this time around.
Prediction: Benfica wins 2-0.
Thomas Dobby: Sir Alex Ferguson has the luxury of resting many key players after the Red Devils secured a spot in the next round last matchday. They haven’t been overly impressive in Champions League play, but a maximum 12 points from four matches means we’ll see plenty of youth in their next two fixtures. Thus, this one is all about Galatasaray, fighting with Cluj and Braga for that second spot. They finally kick-started their campaign with a 3-1 win away at Cluj last time out, but will need to find their home form and collect points on Tuesday. Surprisingly, they have taken just one point from home matches with Braga and Cluj, so three here is a must. Domestically they are top of the Turkish division, but lost at home on Friday. There’s no excuse against what will be a weakened and unmotivated United side.
Dobby: It’s a battle for second place in Group H, with three teams still very much alive in the quest for the knockout stage. Manchester United has already won the group, but just one point separates the remaining three teams. After starting their Champions League campaign with an impressive 2-0 win away at Braga, Cluj have been disappointing, losing both home matches, and earning a 1-1 draw at Galatasaray. With a trip to Old Trafford looming (granted against what will be a weakened United side), Cluj must get three points on Tuesday if they hope to progress. Their league form has also been very poor, as the Romanian Champions are a whopping 16 points off the pace and sitting in sixth. Braga, strong favourites to progress out of this group when play began, now faces a dogfight. They came away with no points in their two matches with Manchester United despite leading 2-0 at Old Trafford, and carrying a lead in to the 80th minute in the home leg. There is no more room for error.
Prediction: Braga wins 3-1.
Which domestic league champion has been most disappointing in the Champions League this season?