Matchday 5 in the Champions League this week. With the group stage of the competition nearing its conclusion, the penultimate set of matches possess a series of interesting sub-plots to keep an eye out for.
- Lisbon Lions…Wembley Warriors? Celtic have been a glorious surprise package this year. They’re no strangers to this sort of company, having reached the group stage eight previous times, but progressing to the knockout phase of Europe’s premier Club competition would be a truly remarkable feat for the Glaswegians. Celtic were the first British team to lift the European Cup in 1967 when they overcame Internazionale 2-1 in a momentous occasion. 45 years on, Celtic boast a dedicated and hard-working team that have something that evades alot of big clubs these days; spirit. Their dogged determination and insatiable enthusiasm has helped them overcome Spartak Moscow and the might Barcelona. Ironically, they return to Lisbon in an attempt to get one step closer to Wembley. With a victory, Celtic will qualify for the last 16 and mark a watershed moment for Neil Lennon’s men. It’s not impossible. They believe.
- Now to see what Manchester City are made of…The blue half of Manchester welcomes back Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho to England this week as Manchester City get ready to entertain Spanish giants Real Madrid in a match they simply can’t afford to lose. City are unbeaten in the Premier League so far this season despite not being at their best but have utterly flopped in the Champions League. Two points from four games leaves them a seemingly insurmountable task of qualifying but if one thing City have proven from last season and so far this, they fight and fight till the bitter end. Tactics, three at the back, four at the back, zonal marking, Balotelli or no Balotelli? Forget all that, whoever they play and in whatevet system Mancini sets up, City simply need to perform. After a somewhat unfortunate 3-2 loss at the Bernabeu, City were outplayed by Borussia Dortmund and lucky to walk away with a point after a contentious penalty decision went their way and it was the same story in Holland as Ajax played their attractive, passing game and swept City aside.Failing to deliver will heap pressure on Mancini as they failed to qualify last year and the forgettable Champions League endeavours of the last twelve months could prove decisive in the potential future dismissal of Roberto Mancini.
- Demise of the Rossoneri? AC Milan have looked a shadow of their former mighty self as of late. Languishing down in 12th in Serie A and having only picked up five points from the four played in the Champions League, Milan have simply failed to emulate the brilliance that saw them triumph in 2007 against Liverpool. Having won it seven times (Real Madrid can only better that with 9), Milan’s pedigree is proven but they are up against it as they travel to Belgium to face Anderlecht who can go above the Italians with a win. Selling top scorer and star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to mega-rich PSG in the summer cannot help but cast a shadow over Milan’s lack of success domestically and in Europe. Massimiliano Allegri’s job is under close scrutiny and not qualifying for the last 16 would surely spell the end to his troubled spell as head coach. Stephan El Shaarawy and Kevin-Prince Boateng are vital to their success with fans hoping that the former can imitate the goalscoring form that has seen him bag ten in Serie A.
- Is Hulk worth the money? The 26-year old moved to financial powerhouse Zenit St.Petersburg at the end of the summer for a reported £40 million and has thus far, more than failed to impress in the Champions League. Reflective of the team, who have only picked up three points from a possible twelve and sit bottom of Group C, behind the already qualified Malaga, AC Milan and Anderlecht. For the Russian outfit, Hulk needs to find his shooting boots against Malaga on Wednesday evening after finding himself the butt of many jokes following a performance of comical ineptitude against Anderlecht in their previous match. Was he really worth all that money and fuss? He boasts an impressive record for Porto with 54 goals in 99 league appearances but has struggled to make an impact against formidable opposition in the Champions League. Another laughable display could have pundits and commentators declaring that his purchase was a ‘flop’, something every expensive player dreads.
- All to play for in Group E. Four matches played. Shakhtar Donetsk sit top with seven points, tied with Chelsea who are only a single point ahead of Juventus. The Ukranian side Shakhtar have dazzled many with their pacy, attacking exhibitions against Chelsea, Willian and Fernandinho portraying two players who could have futures at bigger clubs. Chelsea have leaked goals and Juventus have failed to command the authority that saw them go the entire Serie A season unbeaten last year. Chelsea travel to Turin to face Juventus while Donetsk face Nordsjelland, who have unsurprisingly wilted in the uncharted waters of elite European football. As seems to be a consistent and underlying theme to this week, failure for Chelsea to progress would be deemed unacceptable by Roman Abramovich and the hierarchy at Chelsea, heightening suspicions that Roberto DiMatteo will be relieved of his duties sooner rather than later. An act of such which would seem treasonous and cruel by many as the trigger-happy Russian has witnessed Chelsea lift the European Cup in May under the direction and management of DiMatteo and to dismiss him in the season immediately following that would more than raise a few eyebrows, considering the Italian has achieved what Ranieiri, Mourinho, Grant, Scolari, Ancelotti and Villas-Boas failed to achieve. Juventus’ journey back to the highest echelons of the game will be stalled if they fail to make the knockout phases this year having already re-conquered the domestic side of things.