UEFA Champions League preview: Manchester United ailing; Juventus almost out of time

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage continues on Wednesday, with Groups A through D continuing the tournament’s fifth match day. With special focus on the day’s big matches in Leverkusen and Turin, here’s a preview of the week’s first eight games:

NO REASON TO BE SCARED
Bayer Leverkusen (Germany, 7 pts., second place in Group A) vs. Manchester United (England, 8 pts., first place)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, BayArena, Leverkusen

Bayer Leverkusen made me feel like an idiot on match day one. On the eve of David Moyes’s Champions League debut, I spent paragraphs and paragraphs describing all the reasons why Premier League fans may be overlooking Leverkusen’s threat, all of which reads like some kind of passive aggressive Bundesliga fanboy-ing after Manchester United posted its 4-2 win on Leverkusen. So, thanks for that, Sami Hyypiä.

In hindsight – with Bayer now sitting second in Germany; going undefeated in their last three Champions League games; getting a combined 22 goals from their attacking triad of Stefan Kießling, Sidney Sam, and Son Heung-Min – Leverkusen just seemed a little over awed by the occasion. Between a new coach and a squad that’s lost a number of key players since qualifying for Champions League in 2011-12 (with the likes of Michael Ballack, Eren Derdiyok, Andre Schurrle, and Michal Kadlec), Bayer may have needed an obligatory thumping to realize the competition’s level.

“In Manchester we were a bit frightened to play our game,” Hyypiä now concedes. Like Moyes, he was making his Champions League coaching debut when the teams met in September.

“[W]e want to show our qualities and play in a more uninhibited way,” Hyypiä continued, speaking a Tuesday’s pre-match press conference. “Of course, United have a very good team with a lot of individual quality. We have to work as a team, then we’ll be able to beat them.”

One part of that teamwork will be replacing Sam, who will miss the game with a thigh injury. Another will be trying to contain a United attack that exploded on them in September’s second half. Fortunately for Bayer, Robin van Persie has been ruled out (groin injury), as has Nemanja Vidic (concussion), Phil Jones (groin), Michael Carrick (ankle) and Rafael (ankle). Marouane Fellaini is also suspended, leaving Manchester United with only Anderson, Ryan Giggs, and Tom Cleverley as options in central midfield.

At the risk of cursing them again, this is a game that Bayer Leverkusen should win. They’ve taken 31 points from 13 games in the Bundesliga, and are 9-2-1 with a +16 goal difference since leaving Old Trafford. If it wasn’t for September’s result, we’d have no reason to believe Manchester United’s a better team than Bayer, and with so many United players out, it’s unclear how much the result tells us about Wednesday’s game.

Between talent, form, venue, and opponent’s fitness, Bayer has everything going for them ahead of this match, and while the healthy talents United possesses are still capable of winning this match, they shouldn’t. If Bayer can avoid being frightened out of their game, they should go top of Group A.

Group dynamics: United enter Wednesday’s games on eight points, one ahead of Bayer. With a win, they clinch first place in the group. Without it, they need Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine, 5 pts., third) to stumble against Real Sociedad (Spain, 1 pt., fourth) to clinch a knockout round spot.

Bayer go top and clinch a Round of 16 spot with a win.

source: AP
Juventus is back in first in Italy, but having yet to claim victory in this year’s Champions League, the bianconeri sit fourth in their Champions League group. (Photo: AP Photo.)

FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE PILE
Juventus (Italy, 3 pts., fourth place in Group B) vs. FC Copenhagen (Denmark, 4 pts., third place)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Juventus Stadium, Turin

Here’s how crazy lenient Juventus’s Champions League group has been:

They haven’t won a game yet this tournament. They’re in last place in their group with only three points, yet they don’t have to win on Wednesday. If they draw at home with FC Copenhagen, a team they’ve already shared points with once this tournament, they’ll still go into Dec. 10’s game in Istanbul with a chance to advance. Even if Galatasaray (Turkey, 4 pts., second) pull off a huge upset at Real Madrid (Spain, 10 pts., first), the Old Lady will go to the Turk Telekom Arena with a chance to move on.

In fairness to Juve, it’s not like they’ve been bad. They haven’t. They’ve been the group’s second best team,with the unfairness of the three-point win the only reason why, at 0-1-3, they aren’t ranked above Galatasaray and Copenhagen. Despite having already played Real Madrid twice, they’ve only allowed one more goal than they’ve scored. Gala (-4) and FCK (-5) have put up much worse numbers, and they still have a game with the Spanish titans. They don’t deserve to be ahead of Juventus, but they are.

All those data points tell us Juve, despite sitting in fourth, is still likely to go through. They’re big favorites to win on Wednesday, jump to six points and, in all likelihood, second place. Unbeaten in six overall and having recently routed Napoli 3-0, there’s every reason to think Juventus will regres back to their early group stage selves. This is where the Old Lady turns it around, sprints to the tape, and closes Group B with nine points.

“We have to win if we are to continue in this competition,” head coach Antonio Conte said, which actually isn’t true. “[W]e know we have to win, otherwise we will not have a tomorrow in the UEFA Champions League. I don’t need to explain anything to my players.”

He might need to explain the actual scenarios to them, though. Even if they do stumble again (again!), Group B may be ready to forgive. Draw their next two matches while Galatasaray and Copenhagen each lose to Real Madrid, and Juventus goes through with five points. That goal difference edge – their ability to stay closer to Real Madrid than the group’s other two teams – would give them the tiebreaker if three teams finish with five points.

In short, Juventus could go an entire group stage without winning a game and still qualify for the knockout round. And now, after stumbling through all these cumbersome conditionals and scenarios, I kind of want it to happen.

More Group B dynamics: Real Madrid have already locked up this group, and with the remaining teams within one point of each other, nobody can clinch second on Wednesday. The only team that can be eliminated is Juventus, who can finish no higher than third if they lose to Copenhagen.

source: AP
Sitting atop Group C with 10 points through four games, Paris Saint-Germain can clinch first place with a Wednesday win over visiting Olympiacos. (Photo: AP Photo.)

Other games
All matches kickoff at 2:45 p.m. Eastern with the exception of CSKA vs. Bayern Munich. Played in Moscow, the holder’s trip to Russia will start at 12:00 p.m. Eastern.

  • Group C
    • Paris Saint-Germain (France, 10 pts., first place) vs. Olympiacos (Greece, 7 pts., second), Parc de Princes, Paris -PSG looked unstoppable after their 5-0 win in Belgium on match day three, yet Laurent Blanc’s team gave Anderlecht their first point of the tournament in the return match, preventing the Parisians from clinching a spot in the knockout round. A similar result on Wednesday would put them through, with a win clinching first in Group C. Unless Olympiacos wins, the visitors can’t clinch anything without help from Anderlecht, but against a PSG side that’s as healthy as they’ve been since losing (the now returned) Thiago Silva early in the season, the Greek champions will be fortunate to get the single point that would ensure they stay alone in second place.
    • Anderlecht (Belgium, 1 pt., fourth place) vs. Benfica (Portugal, 4 pts., third), Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Anderlecht – Benfica’s in trouble. Olympiacos hold the tiebreaker over them, meaning they need to pass the Greeks to make the Round of 16. But with a game against PSG still on the schedule, the odds look long. A more realistic goal: Strengthening their claim to third place. A win on Wednesday would clinch that spot, which would see them into Europa League come February.
  • Group D
    • CSKA Moscow (Russia, 3 pts., third place) vs. Bayern Munich (Germany, 12 pts, first place), Khimki Arena, Moscow – FCB is the last perfect team in the tournament, but with previously pristine Atlético drawn in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, perhaps Russia is the place where Champions League perfection goes to die? Without Franck Ribery, Mario Mandzukic, and Bastian Schweisteiger, Bayern may fall into the same trap, but given Bayern’s quick assimilation of Pep Guardiola’s approach, there’s always the danger that they’ll simply pass their opponents off the park.
    • Manchester City (England, 9 pts., second place) vs. Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic, 0 pts., fourth) – City flung the Champions League monkey off their back last match day, clinching their first spot in the knockout round. Now it’s just a question of whether they want to settle for second. A final group match at Bayern could give them a chance to pass the holders and go through as group winners, and while that upset’s unlikely, Manuel Pellegrini won’t need to play on Wednesday his full team to keep the possibility alive. City should be able to rotate their squad and still get full points from the Czechs, keeping their hopes of dislodging Bayern alive ahead of their Dec. 10 trip to Germany.