After three rounds of UEFA Champions League, every team has faced their group opponents once, giving us a good idea of the teams’ relative quality. We can see Atlético’s the best in their group. Chelsea’s overcome their early misstep. Barcelona’s going to take top spot in Group H. These things are pretty clear.
Other, closer races force you to remember: Teams have yet to face each other home-and-road, and no team has played an equal number of games away as they have in front of their own fans. If you’ve played two of your three on the road, you may have had a more difficult start than a team above you in the standings, something that needs to be remembered when you’re assessing your (and other teams’) chances of moving on.
Take Arsenal, for example. They’re at the top of their group, albeit in a three-way tie with Borussia Dortmund and Napoli. But they’ve also had two home games, whereas both their competitors have played twice on the road. The Gunners’ road trip was also their easiest one. Things are about to get much more difficult for Arsène Wenger’s troop, while their opponents’ slates get easier.
Then think about Atlético Madrid. They’re perfect through three rounds, but they’ve also played two games on the road, having won at the Estadio do Dragão – what was supposed to be their toughest game. They’re not only off to a flying start. They’ve done so without the help of their schedule.
Here’s where Groups E through H stand after Tuesday’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.
In Groups E, F, and G, one team has been picked out as the weakest link, giving us something else to keep in mind beyond that +/- column. Dropping points to that last place team could be decisive. If the group’s other teams claim six from the also ran, you need to do that same; else, the points you drop could be the difference between moving on and going to Europa League.
Today, Basel essentially dropped points. Both Chelsea and Schalke had already defeated Steaua, but Basel couldn’t do the same, and while it’s perfectly understandable why Murat Yakin’s team would “stumble” in Bucharest, they need to make up those points. Schalke’s trip to Romania now becomes more important to Basel’s knockout round hopes, because although the Swiss champions will likely pass the Miners next round (Schalke visiting Chelsea while Basel host Steaua), they still have to make a trip to Gelsenkirchen.
Three teams with six points, and only one’s truly ahead of the game, though you wouldn’t know if from the right column. With their win in Marseille, Napoli have picked up points on the road, but they’re points Arsenal have also claimed. Winning at the Velodrome has become obligatory, not progressing.
Dortmund, on the other hand, picked up three points at Arsenal, a place where Napoli’s already lost. They also have yet to visit France while still having home games against their two co-leaders. They’re in good shape.
Arsenal, though, may have created trouble for themselves with today’s loss. They still have to go to Germany, which they’ll do next round, and they still have to visit Naples. The only reprieve in their group stage run-in is a visit from Marseille, but again: Beating l’OM has become obligatory, in this group.
If everybody wins at home and losses on the road (with the exception of games at Marseille), Dortmund and Napoli are through. Arsenal’s in Europa League.
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A five-point lead after three of six rounds is huge, but it looks even bigger when you see Atlético’s played two games on the road. They’ve also already hosted and beaten the group’s second place team and have taken three points from what was supposed to have been their most difficult road opponent (Porto). A win next round clinches a knockout round spot, while a draw in St. Petersburg between Zenit and Porto allows that same win to give Atlético the group’s top seed. They’re winning this group.
Zenit’s got the inside track on the second seed considering the back half of their schedule gives them both tough games at home. That increases the importance of Porto’s trip to Zenit – the teams’ next match. Zenit can take a commanding lead with a win, but even a draw will keep the Russians in control. Whereas Porto still has to go to the Vicente Calderon, Zenit gets Atlético at home.
This group’s sorting itself out as expected, with Barcelona and Milan drifting toward the group’s top seeds. The big danger for Milan will be a Celtic win over Ajax next round. If that happens, Milan may need a result in Glasgow to go through.
That sounds more ominous that it is. The scenario would require Celtic to win in Amsterdam before defeating Milan, and while each result in isolation is certainly possible, both results together becomes much more unlikely. Not to get all high school math on you, but if Celtic have a 60 percent change of winning their home game and a 40 percent chance of winning on the road (numbers I’ve made up out of thin air), they’re going to do both fewer than one time in four. Milan’s still in good shape.