UCL preview: City on brink of KO

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Go big or go home: Manchester City need a win in order to survive their Champions League group.

Manchester City welcome Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Tuesday needing a win to stay in contention for a last-16 place, while in Germany, Chelsea go to Schalke, now managed by ex-Blues midfielder and boss Roberto Di Matteo.

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GROUP E
CSKA Moscow (RUS) v Roma (ITA)

A win for the Russians, behind closed doors as they serve a spectator ban, will put them in pole position to qualify for the knockout round behind group winners Bayern Munich.

CSKA will be buoyed by their 2-1 win at Manchester City last time out and will be desperate to avenge a 5-1 loss to Roma in their tournament opener.

Roma, like CSKA on four points after four games, will secure qualification if they win and City fail to defeat Bayern.

The Italians warmed-up for the trip to Moscow with a come-from-behind 2-1 win against Atalanta while Russian champions CSKA have lost their last two domestic games. Roma are missing on-loan defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa who has a thigh injury.


Man City (ENG) v Bayern Munich (GER)

English Premier League champions City, with just two points from four games, will be eliminated if they lose while a draw will keep their hopes alive only if there is also a draw in Moscow.

Only two teams have taken two points or fewer from their opening four group games and still managed to progress from this stage of the Champions League — Lokomotiv Moscow (2002/03, 1 point) and Porto (2004/05, 2 points).

City lost 1-0 to Bayern in the first meeting between the two sides and go into the match without the suspended Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, both of whom were sent off during the defeat by CSKA Moscow.

Group winners Bayern have a perfect 12 points from four games and are boosted by the return from injury of midfield star Bastian Schweinsteiger.
     
GROUP F
Apoel Nicosia (CYP) v Barcelona (ESP)

Apoel have enjoyed mixing it with the big boys in Group F, even though they have little to show for their efforts beyond a single point and just one goal, along with three 1-0 defeats.

Despite being in the middle of a 13-match unbeaten league run, even home advantage in Cyprus can afford them little hope of overcoming the might of Barcelona, who are already assured of their place in the last 16, while all eyes will be on Lionel Messi as he aims for a record-breaking 72nd Champions League goal.

Barca will take comfort from the fact that the Cypriots have never beaten Spanish opposition, and Messi and Co., fresh from a 5-1 drubbing of Sevilla, can expect a comparative stroll even without the injured Andres Iniesta, but it is unlikely to be enough to see them overhaul group leaders Paris Saint-Germain.

 Enjoy ten magical Messi goals: http://t.co/bWSDhdOXPc Plus the making of Messi: http://t.co/WUv8IcyWwD pic.twitter.com/Ow7zvDPOfj

— Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 21, 2014

 Paris Saint-Germain (FRA) v Ajax (NED)

This is a fixture which has anti-climax written all over it, with Paris Saint-Germain already assured of a place in the last 16 and Ajax eliminated without having won a single match.

PSG are 31 matches unbeaten at home in UEFA competition, dating back to November 2006 and will be expecting to improve on the 1-1 draw in Amsterdam in their opening group match.

Ajax have lost three of their last four matches in France and old boy Zlatan Ibrahimovic, back in action after a two-month injury lay-off, is likely to be in no mood to let them off the hook this time as the French league leaders look to win their eighth game in a row in all competitions, even though Ajax have won five of their last six and scored four times in four of their last five.
     
GROUP G
Schalke (GER) v Chelsea (ENG)

Schalke coach Roberto Di Matteo faces the Chelsea team he guided to their first ever Champions League crown in 2012. 

Since taking over at the Veltins-Arena, the former Italian midfielder has lifted the club up to sixth in the Bundesliga following a 3-2 weekend victory over second-placed Wolfsburg. 

Chelsea are riding high at the top of the Premier League and unbeaten in all competitions as Jose Mourinho looks to guarantee qualification and win the group with one match to play.
     
Sporting Lisbon (POR) v Maribor (SLO)

Slovenian champions Maribor have been the surprise of the pool having lost once in four outings and drawing three as they travel to Lisbon and a make-or-break fixture against Sporting. 

A victory in the Portuguese capital, combined with a Chelsea win over Schalke, would mean the outsiders could reach the knockout phase for the first time with a result in their final match at home to Schalke. 

Sporting, who have failed to build on their 18 domestic titles since their last triumph in 2002 and have just the 1964 Cup Winners’ Cup as their sole European trophy, are just one point behind Schalke and in control of their own destiny if they can win their final two matches. 
     
GROUP H
BATE Borisov (BLR) v Porto (POR)

BATE Borisov need to beat already qualified Porto in Belarus and hope Athletic Bilbao do them a favour against Shakhtar if they are to keep their knock-out round hopes alive.

However, after conceding 18 goals in their three group defeats so far — with only a 2-1 home win over Athletic punctuating their defensive ineptitude — perhaps just keeping the score down would be a more realistic target.
     
Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR) v Athletic Bilbao (ESP)

Shakhtar Donetsk will be hoping Brazilian striker Luiz Adriano is on goal-scoring form as they go in search of the single point needed to secure a place in the knock-out rounds when they host Athletic Bilbao.

Adriano has already plundered nine goals in this competition as his side blasted 12 past BATE Borisov in their last two games.

A point would ensure Shakhtar cannot be overtaken by BATE, while Athletic have already been eliminated after picking up only a single point from their opening four matches.

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Eibar enjoy spotlight vs Real Madrid

Phil Ball 24/11/2014
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Cristiano Ronaldo scored again as Real Madrid beat Eibar on what was a memorable day for the Basque side.

I suspect that there has never really been a game quite like the one on Saturday night at Eibar, at least not in the history of La Liga. Real Madrid were in town, or more accurately they were staying in Bilbao, down the road – and Eibar’s entire populace (27,000, or a third of the Bernabeu’s normal crowd) were out on the streets as if it were an important local fiesta. Real Madrid had actually been before, back in January 2004 for a Copa Del Rey match with a posse of reserve players, and I was at that game too. It ended 1-1, Guti scored, and Iker Casillas was between the sticks. He probably never expected to be returning 10 years later for a league fixture, the only surviving member of that 2004 side to do so.

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This sort of David v Goliath clash has become a concept that we associate with Cup matches, and wonderful though those occasions can be, it’s really quite unusual to have one in a league match. And just in case Eibar’s surreal rise to the top flight of Spanish football eventually becomes a brief footnote in football history, the residents of the town were determined to squeeze the maximum from the day, as if royalty had come to town and conferred something special on the little community, isolated up in the Basque Country – a town clinging to the sides of a small gash in the mountains.

Two hours before kick-off and everyone seems to be out on the streets, the bars are awash with folks, and the narrow streets that surround the ground are lined with a steady stream of hyper-active ants, all of whom seem to know each other. Occasional clumps of Real Madrid fans creep by, looking like people suffering from the early symptoms of culture shock.  

This is, after all, the ultimate ‘compare and contrast’ game, with Eibar’s entire annual budget of 15 million surpassed by the salary of Cristiano Ronaldo. The night’s attendance of 5,859 is a record for the ground, aided and abetted by the rather wonky temporary stand erected along half of the northern stand’s side, overlooked by a tall block of flats which probably affords the game’s best view. Each balcony of the high-rise is packed with spectators, and on the small hill to the south of the ground an impromptu crowd has gathered to watch the game though the gap in the terracing. I take a photo of four smiling Chinese men, each decked out in Eibar’s Barcelona-like colours. Inside, there are no spare seats, and obtaining a press pass has been difficult. My allocated seat is quashed up beneath an improvised iron table, pushed up behind the top row of the eastern stand.

As the players warm up, Basque heavy-metal shrieks out from the stadium’s metallic speakers and the Real Madrid players look uncomfortable and out of place, like the first human visitors contemplating the alien landscape of the planet Zarg. The well-groomed Italian journalist to my right is from Gazzetta dello Sport, and obviously accustomed to his creature comforts has put his laptop away and is shrugging at the absence of an electric socket and some wi-fi signal. He looks completely bemused. “What language is that music in?” he shouts in my ear, stressed out by the din. I reply that it is Basque. “Ah!” he shouts, and scribbles a quick hand-note onto his pad. He points behind us to a small table on which the club has kindly plonked an old coffee machine, out of courtesy to the visiting journalists. “Don’t drink it!” he squeaks in English. “It’s pessimo!”

With the light fading behind the west stand and the inky sky merging with the dark line of the mountains, the game gets under way. Eibar are on a run of three consecutive home draws, and have not won in Ipurua since the opening day of the season, lending a statistical lie to the old cliché that their little ground is a place to fear – especially for their aristocratic visitors who have won their last eight league games on the trot. Luka Modric is out for three months, however, and there is hope that their midfield will thus be weakened. Before the game the local press has insisted that speedy types such as Gareth Bale will find it difficult to play a counter-attacking game, because of the lack of braking space between the pitch’s lines and the stands. Eibar are missing Raul Navas and Lillo from their defence, plus their relatively exotic Italian striker Federico Piovaccari, who is carrying an injury. Madrid decide not to replace Modric with Sami Khedira after all, and James Rodriguez sits back in the centre of midfield alongside Isco, with Toni Kroos behind as the sole defensive pivot.

The game starts at a predictably frenetic pace, and every physical challenge by Real Madrid sends the spectators into a collective frenzy, howling at the referee and generating more decibels than 85,000 at the Bernabéu. Jon Errasti, the only local boy, goes on a run which involves a nutmeg of James, and the crowd leaps to its feet and dances, as if their seats have suddenly been shot through with electricity. Eibar look to have settled when Madrid suddenly score, Ronaldo magically chipping the ball over Ekiza’s challenge, crossing to Karim Benzema – who looks offside – then crossing again from an offside position himself for James to score with a header at the far post.

The crowd are suitably incensed, and a spectator turns to me and shouts “Diles que es un robo! Diles que siempre es así!” (“Tell them it’s robbery. Tell them that it always is”). I give him the thumbs up. The Italian journalist looks as if he would prefer to be somewhere else. But despite the righteous indignation, one thing is very clear. This Madrid is a very different model to last season – happy, quick, and confident, stallions in a field of shire horses. Eibar try to intimidate, bless them, but Madrid can look after themselves. Pepe growls, Kroos struts, Carvajal races up and down the flank like a man possessed, and whereas Eibar have decided to play a pressing game, they are simply overwhelmed by the combination of Real Madrid’s work-rate and quality. Nevertheless, they almost score, Casillas responding to a quick break by foiling Saúl Berjón with his feet, but before half-time the inevitable happens and Ronaldo scores his 19th league goal of the season. Only Bale looks vaguely out of place. Like an overgrown schoolboy who forgot his uniform, he fails to connect with the other players, and wanders around rather aimlessly.

The second half is witness to a display of orchestral magnificence from Kroos, who continually robs the ball, anticipates everything, and distributes with perfect timing and sense. He hardly seems to break sweat. Benzema scores a controversial third, Ronaldo buries a penalty, and the party balloons begin to sag. But even at 0-4, Madrid are pressing higher than Eibar, sliding in, going for more. They have now won 14 consecutive games, one shy of Mourinho’s record, and could equal it in midweek in Basel.

On the way out, the traffic police direct me down to the square, where the road back to San Sebastian is blocked off and a massive crowd has gathered. I feel like a fish in a goldfish bowl. Annoyed, I open the car door and ask a policeman why the crowd is gathered. “To watch the Real Madrid bus go by, of course!” he replies, as if I must be mad.

Strange indeed the passions football unlocks. Way over to the east in Barcelona, Leo Messi is about to surpass Telmo Zarra’s 251 league goals, a record which has stood unmolested since 1955. Messi scores a hat-trick, the 16th of his career, but it is his second goal that breaks the record. He has achieved this in eleven seasons, whereas Zarra took fifteen. All this in a week when the Argentinean hinted that he might be looking for a new challenge in his career. I can confirm that Grimsby Town are interested, and that I’ll happily help to broker the deal. 

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#360debate: Time for Wenger to leave Arsenal?

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Troubled times: Saturday's 2-1 home defeat to Manchester United has once again called into question the future of Arsene Wenger.

November isn't over and Arsenal are well off the pace in the title race, heaping pressure on Arsene Wenger. 

Our #360debate today is: Time for Arsene Wenger to go?

Martyn Thomas, Reporter, thinks YES

It was telling that the boos that greeted Arsenal’s defeat to Manchester United on Saturday night were no longer a surprise.

Jeers could be heard at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium prior to the international break, and were also audible as Anderlecht came back from 3-0 down at the Emirates in the Champions League.

Large sections of the Gunners faithful have become exacerbated by a team that has equal potential to self-destruct as it does to dazzle.

Ultimately Arsene Wenger must carry the can for his side’s deficiencies, and although this is said with something of a heavy heart, the time has come for him to walk away from the club.

That is not to say he should be imm-ediately removed. What he has done for Arsenal, and English football, deserves respect and he should be able to pick his own exit date. But what has become patently obvious is that his view of the game has become increasingly inflexible, and his philosophy is simply no longer successful.

Jose Mourinho infamously referred to Wenger as a “specialist in failure” last season, and while that is grossly unfair it is his own stubbornness that has contributed to Arsenal’s mal-aise. The Frenchman has steadfastly refused to buy an out-and-out defensive midfielder while the back four has also been woefully under sourced.

It is an overused expression in the British game but the Gunners lack leaders, and in key positions their team is often found wanting. The window dressing remains impressive, but Arsenal’s ability to challenge for the Premier League title has diminished every year since they won it unbeaten in 2004.

From the glory days of Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, the Gunners now have a spine of Wojciech Szczesny, Per Metersacker, Mikel Arteta and Danny Welbeck.

It does not take an expert to tell you the latter does not win league championships. Were Wenger to be given another season in charge could he be relied upon to rectify the problems facing his squad? The last decade would suggest not.
 

Alam Khan, Reporter, thinks NO

It may not be easy for Arsenal fans to accept they are a distant third behind Chelsea and Manchester City in the domestic rankings, but it is unfair to blame Arsene Wenger entirely for that.

Since they last won the Premier League title a decade ago, those two teams have spent significant sums on improving their squads to turn them into champions.

Arsenal have, in turn, lost so many of their key players, not only inspired matchwinners like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp or Robin van Persie, but the industrious ones such as Patrick Vieira, Cesc Fabregas and even Gilberto Silva.

They have not had the resources to replace them and compete against Chelsea, City and even Manchester United.

The expensive purchases of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have seen a shift in mindset, but the gap has not been easy to close and it could be another couple of years before Arsenal benefit as Financial Fair Play begins to have a greater effect and restricts the big spenders.

And that is why the Gunners fans need to support Wenger rather than turn against arguably their finest-ever manager. Their expectations should be more realistic and the target should be the top four and a cup, not the title.

With the break-up of his great 2004 side, Wenger has had to regroup and reshape and revive Arsenal. He has done that with a limited budget, and turned to youth.

There is hope that the current contingent, English players such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Callum Chambers, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck, will develop and thrive together. Of course there is room for improvement and areas, notably defensive, which Wenger needs to address in January.

Managerial change is rarely the answer to a club’s problems and 17 successive seasons in the Champions League – essential to surviving among the elite – in his 18 years should serve as a testament to Wenger’s qualities. Wenger has proved he is a fighter and he will relish another scrap and the challenge of proving the doubters wrong. He has to stay.

What is your opinion? Leave your comments below or on Twitter using the hashtag #360debate.

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