The Champions League has reached the half-way point, and the group picture is becoming clear. One of the major criticisms of UEFA’s top competition is the closed shop nature of the group stage, which often seem predictable. However, this season we seem set to have some dramatic finales on the horizon, with more than one “group of death” set to see a top club heading for an early exit.
Unfortunately for Tottenham fans, they may not even be involved when it comes down to the final day. A 2-2 draw away at PSV Eindhoven has dented their hopes, with a red card for Hugo Lloris and a late leveller from Luuk De Jong costing Spurs three vital points in the Netherlands. That’s put them at risk of dropping out of the competition, and their big White Hart Lane homecoming in Europe could be a Europa League game at this rate.
Inter Milan may have lost at Barcelona, but that hasn’t eased Tottenham’s troubles. They are five points short of Inter, with just nine to play for. The Nerazzurri should expect something in their home meeting with PSV, while their home match against a Messi-less Barca could be a boost. At this rate, Spurs may need wins at home to Inter and away to Barcelona to qualify, which is a tall order for a club who are synonymous with bottling big occasions.
Mixed Manchester Fortunes
Speaking of bottling big occasions, Manchester United were beaten 1-0 by a Juventus side who were on cruise control. The Italian champions were so comfortably in front that they came close to losing concentration and giving away the result. United were a shambles before and after kick-off, arriving late, then apparently not showing up for the match at all. Jose Mourinho walked to the ground with the coach stuck in traffic, but the manager didn’t bother to make a substitution. That’s being portrayed as a protest from Mourinho, who is P45 levels of erratic at the moment.
Meanwhile, Mourinho was surely delighted to see Pep Guardiola and Man City pick up an even more comfortable win in Ukraine, as they beat Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0. The Premier League champions blew away their opponents, with David Silva and Aymeric Laporte all but earning the points before half-time. Bernardo Silva added another, while City were boosted by the news that Hoffenheim and Lyon played out a six-goal thriller in Germany, with the pair settling for a point apiece.
It’s hard to see either of the Manchester sides missing out on the knockout phase at this point, despite them both suffering scares. City are back on top, and they should see off their opponents in the coming months. Meanwhile, United have lucked out with the draw, and Valencia are proving to be too off the pace to make a real push for a last 16 spot. They drew 1-1 with Young Boys, which has helped Mourinho’s men move towards the next round.
Four Star Versus Red Star
Mo Salah hit a brace as Liverpool blew away Red Star on Wednesday night. The Egyptian found the net in between Roberto Firmino’s opener and Sadio Mane’s strike, which wrapped up a comfortable victory to put Jurgen Klopp’s side top. After their recent tough time in front of goal, the Reds opened up and tore apart the minnows, who were lucky it was only four.
Elsewhere in that pool, we got one of the most thrilling games in this season’s competition. Napoli went to PSG with no fear, and they played the French giants off the park for large chunks of the game. They led twice in Paris, before Angel Di Maria levelled late on. Their 2-2 draw allowed Liverpool to move top, with PSG sitting in third. They face a daunting visit to Naples next, and Thomas Tuchel’s side could be in danger of a group stage exit. They may have the world’s best forward line, but their defence is non-existent.
It’s been a great campaign for the Italian sides, and Roma continued that with a crushing 3-0 win over CSKA. Edin Dzeko scored twice and set up the other, to boost their standing in the group. They sit level with Real Madrid, as the defending champions limped to a 2-1 win over Viktoria Plzen. Julen Lopetegui is seen largely as a dead man walking, and his team appear to see him that way too based on this display.
Lofty Lead for Blues
Ruben Loftus-Cheek levelled Alvaro Morata’s season-long goal tally in less than an hour on Thursday night, as he hit a hat-trick against BATE. The England midfielder took his chance and he punished the Belarusian side for leaving too many gaps, as he made a claim for a starting spot. Loftus-Cheek earned them a 3-1 win which has put the Blues six points clear at the top of their Europa League group, but Sarri still wants more. He was non-committal after the game, and he criticised weaknesses across their midfield options, rather than praising Loftus-Cheek in a bizarre interview.
Arsenal were held at bay for long stages of their clash with Sporting Lisbon, but Danny Welbeck came off the bench to score a 77th minute winner to extend their run to 11 straight victories. Their fantastic form has put them in a commanding position in their group, with Sporting struggling to keep the pace. The Gunners face Crystal Palace and Blackpool in the next week, a great chance to stretch the run to 13.
Celtic are walking a tightrope in the Europa League, after another defeat on Thursday. They lost 2-0 away in Leipzig, a defeat which has them three points off the top two. They only had themselves to blame, after defensive mistakes cost them in Germany.
Meanwhile, Rangers passed up a huge opportunity, as a weakened Spartak Moscow side claimed a point in Glasgow. The Russians switched their focus away from this clash and still grabbed a point, while Steven Gerrard’s side slipped up.