With the Champions League group stage rapidly drawing to a close, the tables are beginning to look clearer. With one game left to go for groups E-H, here’s how the tables look after the events of today. (Plus commentary, of course.)
Before I talk about what happens next, I want to touch on the Juventus/Chelsea match, especially since that was the one I chose to watch in real time.
Fernando Torres was left out of the lineup, and Chelsea played without a true striker. Di Matteo explained this decision by saying that they wanted to avoid giving Juventus “a point of reference.” Does that sound familiar?
It should. After Spain’s group game with Italy in the Euros this summer, Vicente del Bosque left both Torres and Negredo out of the line up, opting instead for Cesc Fabregas in a 6-man-midfield strategy. He said that the strategy gave “no reference points to the opposition.”
And here’s the thing: it worked. It worked really well. They won the Euros, and along the way, opposing players and coaches said that not having a striker to focus in on made defending difficult.
But that’s because it’s Spain. Spain have the technical ability and the raw talent to pull it off. Chelsea do not. That’s nothing against Chelsea – most teams in the world wouldn’t be able to manage it, and it’s not really consistent with the style English teams as a whole play in.
To put it flippantly, Di Matteo was a Fabregas and an Iniesta short of having a front line that could really do that. (I’m not forgetting Silva – I just don’t think that he was as impressive in the Euros as he usually is.) To put it more seriously, Di Matteo just didn’t have the squad. Leaving Torres out and using him as a supersub worked well for Spain, but Chelsea aren’t Spain, and it was a bad strategy.
Would Juventus have won anyway? Likely, yes – Torres has not been in great form, and Juve just outclassed Chelsea as a whole. However, I do think that the scoreline might have been closer had Di Matteo not tried to pretend that Chelsea could pull off the same tactics that Spain use.
That’s not to take anything away from Juventus, of course – they were terrific, and deserved the victory.
At any rate…
What does this mean for the group?
Well, Juve go to Shakhtar for the last game of the group, while Chelsea host Nordsjaelland. Chelsea must beat Nordsjaelland to have a chance of moving on, and they’re also dependent on Juventus losing to Shakhtar – even a win for Chelsea and a draw for Juve would put them level on points, and Juve have the superior head-to-head.
Shakhtar have already qualified, but will undoubtedly want to seal up first place, and a loss to Juve would place them as runners up in the group. They’ll fight for it, but a draw would be advantageous for both groups and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the game end in one.
I’m not talking conspiracies here – I’m just saying that when the scoreline is favorable, teams often focus on preserving it rather than risking a loss by going for more. Chelsea can’t complain if that happens – it’s what they do all the time.
Don’t count Chelsea out, but they’ll need to get lucky to pull through, and with their current form, I’m not convinced that a win is a foregone conclusion in the first place.
This is now officially the most boring group in the competition.
BATE Borisov lost 0-2 at home to Lille, which eliminated any chance of their making it into the knockout rounds. However, because BATE beat Lille 3-1 away earlier in the campaign, they would beat Lille head-to-head on away goals even if Lille beat Valencia and BATE lose to Bayern, putting them both at 6 points.
Once BATE lost (which was before kickoff at the Mestalla), Valencia qualified for the knockouts no matter what, because the best BATE in the last game could do was equal their nine points. Valencia have a 7-2 head-to-head aggregate against BATE in their favor.
I was expecting Valencia to lose. They’re unbeaten at home this season, and I expected that to end, especially once they had a man sent off. Shockingly, it didn’t, and the game ended 1-1. Both Bayern and Valencia got a point from the encounter, and now BATE can’t even theoretically catch Bayern, either.
So Bayern and Valencia are through, BATE are down to Europa, and Lille are out. The only thing left to decide is who wins the group and who comes in second. Bayern have the better head-to-head, so to win the group, Valencia must either get a win if Bayern draw or a result if Bayern lose.
They’ll probably both win their last games, and end up level on 13 points. Bayern will win the group. Valencia will come in second. Like I said, officially the most boring group.
Barcelona’s win over Shakhtar and Benfica’s win over Celtic today wrapped up first for Barcelona, but second is still up for grabs.
Celtic’s win over Barcelona had everyone singing their praises, and deservedly so – I don’t like bus parking, but they played a clean game, and I respect that. And, honestly, seeing the faces of those Celtic players and fans when the whistle blew and they had beaten Barcelona… it was unlikely to hurt Barca’s chances of qualifying, so how could I resent them for it?
However – and this is a big however – in the mix of that, people seemed to have forgotten Benfica, and as a rule, one wants to avoid forgetting Benfica. You know what Benfica were doing at this time last year? Winning their group and knocking United down to Europa. Portuguese teams are stealthy and people often forget about them, especially if they’re not Porto, but they’re also kind of scary when they get going.
Which was why Benfica beating Celtic today was not shocking, and why their having a superior head-to-head right now is not shocking.
What does this mean for the group?
That qualification for the knockouts is theoretically in Benfica’s control. A win would see them through no matter what Celtic do against Spartak.
Which is the sticking point. Celtic host Spartak Moscow, who are out no matter what. They should win that. Benfica, on the other hand, travel to Barcelona, which is likely to prove more difficult. Barcelona have already won the group, so they’ll probably field a lot of Barca B players, but ask BATE how that turned out last year. (Spoiler alert: not well, as far as BATE were concerned.)
If both Celtic and Benfica get the same result, Benfica will move on. If Celtic get a better result – which is likely – Benfica will be down to Europa, where they will likely make a nuisance of themselves in true Iberian fashion. (The last 8 semi-finalists in Europa were either Spanish or Portuguese. They’ve got a stranglehold on it for the moment.)
United lost to Galatasaray, but I really doubt they cared. They’ve won the group and fielded a weaker side. CFR Cluj beat Braga, who are now out.
What does this mean for the group?
It’s the same as in group G: Cluj play United, and Galatasaray play Braga. Galatasaray must equal or better Cluj’s result to move on.