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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.