UEFA Champions League’s group stage is back on Tuesday, with Groups E through H kicking off the tournament’s fifth match day. With special focus on the day’s big match in Dortmund, here’s a preview of the week’s first eight games:
NOW OR NEVER FOR LAST YEAR’S FINALISTS
Borussia Dortmund (6 pts., Germany) vs. Napoli (9 pts., Italy)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Westfalenstadion, Dortmund
In 24 hours, it could all be over. Borussia Dortmund, runners up in last year’s tournament, might be out. If Arsenal wins at home to Marseille and BVB fails to beat visiting Napoli, they’re done. They’re headed toward Europa league.
It all seems so fickle. Dortmund is supposed to be one of the best teams on the globe, yet their in danger of missing Champions League’s Round of 16? If Champions League is about identifying the best of the best, separating the wheat from the chaff, then how is BVB, a team that blew through Arsenal in London, so close to being on the outside looking in?
This isn’t Manchester United two years ago, when the Red Devils couldn’t get out of their group. Even though that team would compete for a title in England, they just weren’t that good (relative to Europe, of course). And this isn’t last year, when Chelsea dropped into Europa League as defending champions. That was far from one of the best teams in Europe.
Borussia Dortmund’s plight is different. They’re just at the confluence of bad luck and bad timing. The luck part involves their group, where the presence of Arsenal and Napoli means one titan is going to go. The timing is in their recent downturn, one that involved a loss at home to Arsenal. It’s the only bad game they’ve played in Europe, but thanks to that failure and a red card in Naples (that led to a 2-1 defeat), Dortmund’s in a win-or-else situation. Europa League is within sight.
The good news: Napoli’s not exactly hitting on all cylinders. They struggled last match day at home to Marseille before losing back-to-back games in league: at Juventus (3-0) and at home to Parma (1-0). November’s brought the partenopei’s first swoon under Rafa Benítez, with last year’s Serie A runners up now forced to visit Dortmund without star attacker Marek Hamsik (foot injury).
Now the bad news: Dortmund haven’t won a game since Nov. 1, outscored 6-1 over the span of three losses. Napoli has already beaten BVB once this tournament, and Dortmund could also play an entirely second choice defense. Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels, and Marcel Schmelzer are out, while Lukasz Piszczek is just returning from multiple hip operations.
With this in mind, how does Napoli approach this match? Knowing Dortmund need a win, they can be reversed and play on the counter, with their willingness to play without the ball helping them in the teams’ initial meeting. But if BVB are patient against that approach, they can limit the exposure of their suspect defense while betting on the quality of Robert Lewandowski, Marco Reus, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to produce the goal they need.
“Everyone has to be there tomorrow, every position,” Rafa Benítez said at Monday’s press conference. It wasn’t the most inspiring of observations, but it did betray the Napoli boss’s stay of mind. “I expect the midfielders to help out the defense and when we are in possession our defense has to support our attacks. I expect a cohesive team effort.”
Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp’s views were less technical.
“We are highly focused and cannot be knocked off course so easily,” the BVB boss said, addressing questions about his team’s form.
“Maybe two ‘crisis-stricken’ clubs will meet now. In the end hopefully nobody will notice that on the pitch.”
Elsewhere in Group F, Arsenal (even with Napoli on top of the group with nine points) have their easiest match of the phase, hosting a Olympique Marseille side they beat in France to open the competition. Needing to out-point Dortmund on Tuesday to clinch a spot in the knockout round, the Gunners kick off at 2:45 p.m. Eastern at the Emirates Stadium in London.
MUCH DRAMA, LITTLE CHANGE
Basel (5 pts., Switzerland) vs. Chelsea (9 pts. England)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Camp Nou, Barcelona
Chelsea’s opening loss at home to Basel had the potential to shake up Group E’s dynamics, but two matches from the end of the phase, we could see the group’s top two spots locked down. If Chelsea win in Switzerland, they’ll claim first in their group. If second place Schalke do the same at Steaua Bucharest (2:45 p.m. Eastern, National Arena, Romania), the Germans will be locked into their spot, too. With six points, the German club holds a slight edge on Basel, who they host to close group stage.
Basel’s post-Stamford Bridge swoon for the potential lack of drama. Whereas points won in London could have helped vault them send Schalke to Europa League, the Swiss champions followed their upset with a loss and two draws, only taking two points from their home-and-home with Steaua. Their inability to do more against the group’s bottom dwellers will likely cost them a chance to make the knockout round.
“The pressure is on Basel, not us,” José Mourinho said, his Monday press conference giving the Chelsea manager a chance to give his assessment of Group E’s landscape. “[W]e can qualify tomorrow and Basel, even if they win, still have to play a final match in Gelsenkirchen. So for them the situation is difficult, which shows clearly that after the first match we did our job and they didn’t.”
All of which leads to a likely anti-climax. Whereas it once seemed Basel’s win in London could increase the heat on Schalke, now the Swiss champions carry the strange distinction of having taken more points from Chelsea than Steaua. And as a result, their hopes for knockout round soccer could end on Tuesday.
All matches kickoff at 2:45 p.m. Eastern with the exception of Zenit vs. Atlético. Played in St. Petersburg, that match will start at 12:00 p.m. Eastern.
- Group G
- Zenit St. Petersburg (5 pts., Russia) vs. Atlético Madrid (12 pts., Spain), Petrovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg – One of two perfect teams in the competition, Atlético have already sewn up first in this group. Whether Diego Simeone sees that as a reason to let up remains to be seen. In Monday’s press conference, the Argentine emphasized “the hunger to win and the desire to play classy football” are the most important aspects of this game. If that means some of his second string will get the calls, a Zenit club trying to beat Porto to second place will be thankful.
- Porto (4 pts., Portugal) vs. Austria Wien (1 pt., Denmark), Estadio do Dragão, Porto – An almost fully healthy Porto should be able to improve on the 1-0 win they earned in Austria, though they go into Tuesday’s game after a rare instance of dropping points at home in league (1-1, Nacional). Austria Wien, conversely, posted their biggest league road win in nine years with a 5-0 victory at Admira, though their form will likely be less important than Porto’s readiness. The Dragons struggled in the first half in Vienna before eventually claiming full points. If they can build on that experience, they’ll stay alive ahead of their pivotal final day match in Madrid.
- Group H
- Ajax (4 pts., Netherlands) vs. Barcelona (10 pts. Spain), Amsterdam ArenA – Lionel Messi recorded a hat trick in the teams’ first meeting, though the Argentine international will miss the trip to Amsterdam, out until 2014 with a hamstring injury. Still, Gerard Martino’s team is heavily favored to get the point they need to clinch the group. If Ajax can hold them to a draw, they’ll stay alive into their final group stage match at the San Siro. Without that point, the Dutch champions league their fate in Milan’s hands.
- Celtic (3 pts., Scotland) vs. Milan (5 pts., Italy) – Closing group play against Barcelona, this is practically a must-win for Celtic, who are only two points from out of second despite sitting last in Group G. Win and they’ll likely sit second ahead of a stage-closing visit to Barcelona. Milan, winless in seven and floundering in Serie A (13th place) can actually clinch a knockout round spot with a win and a loss from Ajax, but given their slump and the hostile environment, the Rossoneri may be happy with a point and a chance to clinch second place two weeks from now in Italy.