The Champions League group stage is approaching its most crucial fortnight – the double-header fixtures – and for the English clubs with an interest in European football’s premier tournament, this week and next will largely determine whether they qualify for the last 16 stage or face an early exit.
A pair of positive results can turn around a previously poor campaign in the blink of an eye, whilst anything less than that can earn a side a ticket to European Purgatory: the Europa League.
So how sunny is the outlook for England’s representatives in the Champions League?
Tuesday October 20 (reverse fixtures Wednesday November 4)
Group F – Arsenal vs Bayern Munich
For Arsenal, the daunting prospect of defeating Bayern on home soil – and picking up at least a point at the Allianz Arena in a fortnight’s time – is the task that faces them.
After surprising defeats against Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos in their opening Champions League exchanges, Arsene Wenger’s men need to capture at least four points from the Bundesliga champions in order to have any hope of usurping the other two teams in the group.
Assuming that Zagreb and Olympiakos don’t draw their own double-header clashes, then one of them will become the hot favourite to qualify as runners up from Group F. For the Gunners, overhauling them looks a challenge too far.
Tonight they face a Bayern side that has won all 11 of their matches this season, scoring 37 goals and conceding just 4. Knowing that Arsenal were turned over by Olympiakos in their last Champions League tie on home soil, the Germans’ price of Evens looks unmissable.
Group G – Dynamo Kiev vs Chelsea
Despite their bumbling start to the 2015/16 campaign, Chelsea’s Champions League fortunes remain largely in their own hands; although they will need to pick up a couple of decent results against a tricky Dynamo Kiev side.
This first fixture in the double-header will be played at the Ukrainian club’s 70,000 capacity Olympic Stadium, which is a daunting prospect in itself, although they did lose in a top of the table clash with Shakhtar Donetsk there on Friday.
Chelsea will improve now that Diego Costa has returned to the fold – their attack looked limp and lifeless with Loic Remy or Falcao leading the line, and if Jose Mourinho can cajole winning performances from the likes of Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic then the Blues can overcome a solid Kiev side lacking in star quality.
And that could be the key with FC Porto expected to top the group following their own double-header against bottom side Maccabi Tel Aviv. Backing Chelsea from 13/8 to finish second in Group G isn’t as counter-intuitive as it might sound.
Wednesday October 21 (reverse fixtures Tuesday November 3)
Group B – CSKA Moscow vs Man Utd
Group B is finely poised with all four teams sat on three points, although for Manchester United their task is made somewhat harder by a tricky tie in Moscow tomorrow night.
CSKA are unbeaten in 12 games in Russia’s Premier League, and have not been beaten at home in any competition at all during this campaign. Louis Van Gaal’s men will be full of beans after demolishing Everton on Saturday however, although they may have to settle for a point tomorrow night before taking advantage of home soil in the reverse fixture.
Whichever way you shape it, ultimately they look a decent enough price at 6/5 to top the group.
Group D – Man City vs Sevilla
For Man City it really is do or die in their pair of fixtures against Sevilla. You would fancy that whoever comes out on top in these two games will qualify as runners up from Group D, with current leaders Juventus enjoying a fairly trouble-free set of games against Borussia Monchengladbach in the next fortnight.
For City, losing Sergio Aguero to injury is a hammer blow, although the fact that they have scored 11 goals in their last two games on home soil will be of comfort. And knowing that Sevilla, with just nine points from eight La Liga matches this season, have yet to win on their travels in 2015/16 will be a great help.
A victory at the Etihad will set up Manuel Pellegrini’s side nicely in Group D, and so backing them from 4/6 to get the job done tomorrow night sounds promising.