Where They Stand: Groups A through D after two rounds of UEFA Champions League

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The way UEFA Champions League schedules its group stage, the competition takes a drastic turn after two game. That’s because the third and fourth matches are a home-and-home series, allowing teams to zero-in on an opponent in a way normally reserved for the knockout round.

If you’re gotten off to a slow start, it’s probably because of a difficult schedule, one that will give you an easier opponent in the middle rounds. If you’re off to a fast start, you might be brought down to earth, and if you’ve missed opportunities to pick up points, the home-and-home can leave you regretting your start.

Take, for example, Schalke, who sit first in Group E after yesterday’s action. They’re 2-0-0, lead by three points, but they’ve also yet to face Chelsea. Over the next two rounds, they get the José Mourinho’s team twice, facing the prospect of regressing from their hot start.

[MORE: Where They Stand: Groups E through H after two rounds.]

But the home-and-homes become most interesting when they pair teams fighting for the same spot, and after Wednesday’s action in Groups A through D, each quartet is left with one showdown matchup over the competition’s next two rounds:

  • Group A: Shakhtar Donetsk, tied on points with group-leading Manchester United, are paired with Bayer Leverkusen, one point back but having got their trip to Old Trafford out-of-the-way. These teams were expected to compete for second behind the Red Devils, but if either team sweeps this series, they’ll have a chance of stealing first place from the favorites.
  • Group B: Copenhagen and Galatasaray sit third and fourth, but if one team can claim four or six points, they’ll volunteer to challenge Juventus for the spot behind Real Madrid. Juve, having only claimed two points thus far, will mull their regrets while matched with los Blancos.
  • Group C: Olympiacos and Benfica have each beaten Anderlecht and lost the Paris Saint-Germain, and while form has distinguished their performances, that’s all style points. Over rounds three and four, we’ll see if one of them can take control of the race for the group’s other knockout round spot.
  • Group D: Manchester City are heavily favored with advance with group-leading Bayern Munich, but two years ago, it was CSKA Moscow that found a way into the knockout round. Manchester City has never advanced beyond group stage.

[MORE: Wednesday roundup: Winners and highlights from Wednesday’s action.]

[MORE: Full-time snapshot: The numbers after Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League matches.]

Here’s where Groups A through D stand after Wednesday’s Champions League action:

* – To each of these standings we’ve added a column labeled +/-: a crude attempt to track how many points a team has dropped at home (minus) or picked up on the road (plus). It’s a very crude attempt to gauge the extent to which teams are holding serve.

Group A
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Manchester United 2 1 1 0 5 3 2 1-0-0 0-1-0 4 +1
Shakhtar Donetsk 2 1 1 0 3 1 2 0-0-1 1-0-0 4 +1
Bayer Leverkusen 2 1 0 1 4 5 -1 1-0-0 0-1-0 3 +0
Real Sociedad 2 0 0 2 1 4 -3 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

WIth a home-and-home with Real Sociedad up next, Manchester United are in good position. They’ve held serve at home, and they’ve taken a point in Donetsk that the rest of the group’s unlikely to replicable. David Moyes is off to a strong start to his first Champions League.

Look over at the +/- column and you can see why Shakhtar can afford to split their upcoming games with Bayer. The Ukrainian champions have already won on the road, and although they technically dropped points today against United, Bayer’s likely to do the same. If Shakhtar and Leverkusen split their teams’ upcoming series, Mircea Lucescu will have preserved his team’s advantage.

[MORE: Manchester United makes Danny Welbeck’s early opener hold up.]

Group B
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Real Madrid 2 2 0 0 10 1 9 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Juventus 2 0 2 0 3 3 0 0-1-0 0-1-0 2 -1
Copenhagen 2 0 1 1 1 5 -4 0-1-0 0-0-1 1 -2
Galatasaray 2 0 0 2 1 5 -4 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -2

Two ties in the group’s four games have helped Real Madrid extend their lead. Even they only take one point from Juventus in the next two round, they’ll still be first come round five. If, on the other hand, they claim four points, they’ll be able to click it into cruise.

At the other end of the group, Copenhagen and Galatasaray will either cancel each other out or identify a contender. Given Real will likely do some damage to Juve, four points for either team could see them pull even with (or, leapfrog) the Italian champions. And as we discussed in today’s reaction, if it’s Galatasaray that takes advantage Copenhagen, Juventus may be destined for a must-win in Istanbul to close out group stage.

[MORE: Home draw should raise concerns for Juventus.]

Group C
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Paris Saint-Germain 2 2 0 0 7 1 6 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Olympiacos 2 1 0 1 4 4 0 0-0-1 1-0-0 3 +0
Benfica 2 1 0 1 2 3 -1 1-0-0 0-0-1 3 +0
Anderlecht 2 0 0 2 0 5 -5 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

PSG’s not only three points up on the pack. They’ve put up huge results against their closest competition, and their upcoming home-and-home will be against the quartet’s cellar dwellers. Even if they’re not on 12 points at this time next month, they’ve accumulated some serious tiebreaker mojo. They may be in a better position than Real Madrid, despite a smaller lead.

As for the chasers, Olympiacos and Benfica will have a chance to step forward as the group’s number two. The Greek champions have looked the more impressive side, but at the far right, you see that both teams are treading water.

Group D
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Bayern Munich 2 2 0 0 6 1 5 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Manchester City 2 1 0 1 4 3 1 0-0-1 1-0-0 3 +0
CSKA Moscow 2 1 0 1 3 5 -2 1-0-0 0-0-1 3 +0
Viktoria Plzen 2 0 0 2 2 6 -4 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

Is it really so far-fetched that Manchester City loses in Russia in three weeks? Long, unfamiliar trip. Team with a recent history of Champions League failures. An inconsistency born of their coaching change. Despite a convincing win in Plzen two weeks ago, City may yet become their former selves.

After Bayern takes care of business against Viktoria, City and CSKA be left to fight for second place, and while the Sky Blues will be favored to claim it, they’ve already dropped points at home. CSKA has not. The main reason for that is schedule (Bayern doesn’t visit Russia until round five), but as of now, there’s nothing that separates the English giants from Russia’s champions.

[MORE: Bayern brilliance, Joe Hart follies see Manchester City fall, 3-1.]

Agent: “There’s no hatred” between Bale, Ronaldo

Gareth Bale & Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid CF
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Gareth Bale doesn’t at all dislike Cristiano Ronaldo — or vice versa — despite what may seem a lukewarm on-field relationship between the two Real Madrid superstars, insists Jonathan Barnett, agent of Bale.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Instead, Barnett insists that the two men with very different personalities have a healthy relationship, and competition, that pushes each Galactico to be the best player he can be.

Barnett, on Bale’s relationship with Ronaldo — quotes from the Guardian:

“They don’t go out eating every night together, but it’s fine. There’s no hatred there. Gareth is a quiet guy. They’re complete opposites. But I think Gareth can learn a little bit from Ronaldo as well, interacting maybe a little bit. But he wants his own life and he lives it. Gareth is a great footballer, he doesn’t want anything more. He has some very good endorsements but his whole life is to be the best footballer in the world. I don’t think he wants to be the best model in the world or the best underwear seller. That’s not him.”

That’s a hilarious closing quote from Barnett, but he knows exactly how some folks are going to interpret it: “Bale thinks Ronaldo loves himself too much.”

[ MORE: Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott ]

There’s nothing better for the ultimate success of a team than healthy, friendly competition between teammates who are spectacularly talented as Ronaldo and Bale. The former will only be around to perform at his current level for so much longer, but at what point does the latter officially take the torch and supplant Madrid’s biggest star, and how accepting will he be of passing that proverbial torch?

Olivier Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott

Olivier Giroud, France
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Is it just me, or does the press really only ever get noteworthy quotes from players during international breaks?

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

I suppose it’s not surprising, given Premier League players get away from the mean ole British press, go back to their respective homelands and speak with journalists they’ve likely known since their early playing days, thus feel more comfortable opening up about key issues.

Anyway, today we have Olivier Giroud essentially calling himself out for having lost the starting striker’s job at Arsenal because he’s been outplayed of late by Theo Walcott. As discussed before, this is bad news for Giroud because he’s now falling down the depth chart for France with next summer’s European Championship on the horizon.

[ MORE: Aguero admits he wants Guardiola link-up ]

Giroud, on losing his place at Arsenal — quotes from the Guardian:

“At Arsenal, I am in competition with Theo for the striker position. But he is doing well at the moment, so there is no reason to change.

“Whether it was at Tours, Montpellier or Arsenal, I have never experienced a situation like this, I have often played from the start. I need to take positives and to harden myself mentally. It is something new for me.

“I was in [Walcott’s] place in previous seasons at Arsenal. I imagine what he must have been thinking. But I feel that the coach believes in me.”

Giroud goes on to cast into doubt his own confidence, stating in very certain terms he needs “to believe more in [his] abilities.” Giroud’s always come across as a bit of an existentialist, but it’s always strange to hear players publicly call themselves out — particularly their confidence — as if that’s not going to increase the pressure currently weighing down on them.

[ MORE: Rodgers reportedly chosen to take over at Aston Villa ]

The next eight months are going to be monumentally important in Giroud’s career, as the 29-year-old attempts to prove he’s worth keeping around at Arsenal and deserving of a place in the national team squad for next summer’s EUROs, which are to be played in France.