Nine of the 16 spots are firmly secured in the knockout stage of the 2015-2016 UEFA Champions League after the fifth series of matchdays for each team. There now remains only 90 more minutes to determine which among the 13 teams still harboring a mathematical shot at one of the seven remaining knockout spots will actually step up and claim those berths.
Only three teams remain unbeaten, and just one of those three is perfect through the first five matches. Some of the biggest clubs in the world have taken knocks throughout the competition, proving both the depth of the field as well as the fallibility of any team on a given matchday. With this edition of our quasi-regular column about the Champions League, we will look at all eight groups and what is left at stake in the final matches to be played on December 8 and 9.
There was really nothing left to play for entering the week, and that is as true after both Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain both walked away with victories on their respective road trips to Ukraine and Sweden. PSG’s ageless dynamo Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a homecoming to the club where he got his professional start, scoring once and playing an instrumental part in the visitor’s 5-0 victory. Shakhtar Donetsk made a concerted late push, scoring thrice in the final 15 minutes, but a Cristiano Ronaldo brace fueled the 4-3 victory for Real.
WHAT’S LEFT? — Ultimately, both Real and PSG have secured their position in the next stage. The Spaniards will host Malmo at Estadio Bernabeu, while Shakhtar will come to the Parc des Princes. As long as Real claims at least a draw, they will finish top of the group. The Europa League spot is still up for grabs; if either Malmo or Shakhtar can secure a point on the road, it would secure position in UEFA’s other competition. If things remain as is, it will come down to goal differential — currently leaning far in favor of the Ukrainians, -5 to -12.
In Group B, the picture is just as muddled exiting the fifth matchday as it was entering the week. VfL Wolfsburg’s 2-0 win at CSKA Moscow put them at nine points through five matchdays and at the top of the group table, and the draw between Manchester United and PSV Eindhoven later in the day at Old Trafford ensured that none of the three squads would secure passage until the very end. Only CSKA, sitting on four points after its home loss and three goals behind on differential, is effectively playing a spoiler role at the end.
WHAT’S LEFT? — Everything is left for the three teams at the top. Wolfsburg hosts Manchester United, and both teams will have to play to win; a draw opens the door for PSV to pass both teams for the top spot in the standings, as they host CSKA in Eindhoven. If CSKA was able to muster a two-goal victory on the road, they would claim the Europa League spot. Otherwise, a victory by either Wolfsburg or United will secure passage for one of the two teams, PSV is in with a win, a draw in Germany would secure a spot for Wolfsburg, and a draw in the Netherlands would force a decision based on the result in Germany. See, just as convoluted as before. Stay tuned as it plays out on the field.
Traveling to Kazakhstan has not been kind to any team in Group C. While FC Astana sits bottom of the table, they mustered three draws in three home matches against Galatasaray, Atletico Madrid, and now Benfica after a wild comeback by the Portuguese side prevented the Kazakh club from securing its first-ever victory in the competition. The draw by Benfica prevented them from remaining atop the group after Atletico’s 2-0 home victory over the Turks drew the Spaniards level with their Iberian neighbors at 10 points apiece. It sets up the final matchday as a pretty cut-and-dry storyline.
WHAT’S LEFT? — The last two matches in Group C effectively serve as a championship game and a consolation game respectively. Benfica will host Atletico, needing a win to win the group; an Atletico win or a draw will secure that honor for the visitors. Both teams have already guaranteed that they will be in the Round of 16, making the entire exercise about gaining a more favorable draw for that octofinal encounter. Likewise, Galatasaray needs only a draw to ensure it passes on to the Europa League; only by pulling off the improbable and winning in Istanbul will the Kazakhs be guaranteed more European competition in 2016.
Unlike Group B, the results on the fifth matchday in Group D made things a lot clearer. The 1-0 home victory by Juventus over Manchester City sealed a return trip to the Round of 16 for last season’s losing finalists, while City was guaranteed passage when Sevilla lost 4-2 at Borussia Monchengladbach. Two distinct tiers of teams have clearly emerged within the group, and hierarchy is all that remains to de determined on the final matchday.
WHAT’S LEFT? — Essentially Juventus and Manchester City are playing to try to secure the top spot in the group. The Italians visit desperate Sevilla, where even a draw would put them in solid position to emerge atop the table. Should Juventus secure only a point in Spain, Manchester City would still need to win by three goals or more at home to Borussia Monchengladbach. Given that the Germans are also playing to hold on to the Europa League spot from the group, both will have the incentive to play for victory. Sevilla still technically could play to continue on in the Europa League as well, but their advancement would require both a Manchester City win over Borussia (a fair enough proposition) and a home win over Juventus (far less likely).
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi returned for his first game at Camp Nou since going down in September with a knee injury, and the Argentine forward notched two goals in the 6-1 drubbing of Roma. His Uruguayan partner Luis Suarez added a brace of his own, and the Italians had absolutely no answer for Luis Enrique’s multifaceted attack. The loss by Roma means that Bayer Leverkusen still has a shot at advancement, as Admir Mehmedi’s second-half equalizer allowed the Germans to claim a point in Belarus and draw level in the table with the Italians.
WHAT’S LEFT? — The defending champions have nothing really to play for in the final match against Bayer Leverkusen, and could reasonably sit several starters in favor of testing out its depth in European competition. Roma hosts BATE Borisov, and would manage to still eke through with a win. Technically the Belorussians can still go on to the Round of 16 as well, needing to win in the Stadio Olimpico and see Leverkusen either draw or lose to the Catalans for that to happen. Everyone but the blaugrana have a logical reason to play for victory in the final matchday — which probably bodes best for Bayer in the end.
Alexis Sanchez scored twice as Arsenal knocked off Dinamo Zagreb 3-0 at Emirates Stadium, after Mesut Ozil had opened the scoring for the Gunners. In Germany, four different players found the back of the net for Bayern Munich as the Bavarians romped to a 4-0 home win over Olympiakos. The Germans guaranteed themselves one of the two spots in the Round of 16 with their victory, while the English side merely guaranteed itself a chance in the final matchday. The two giants of the group, despite similar scorelines in their respective fifth matches, remain on divergent trajectories.
WHAT’S LEFT? — Arsenal’s win against Dinamo set up the trip to Greece as a winner-takes-all affair against Olympiakos. If the home side wins, they will end the group stage with 12 points and be no further than three points behind perennial semifinalist Bayern. Munich needs merely a draw from their Croatian sojourn to secure the top position in the group, and even with a loss would still have a better head-to-head and overall goal differential against Olympiakos if it came down to both teams ending on 12 points. Arsenal would go through on total goal differential with a 1-0 victory on the road; any other result seals their Europa League fate.
Things got a whole lot more interesting in Group G on Tuesday. Dynamo Kyiv went to Portugal and shocked Porto in the Estadio do Dragao 2-0 on goals by Andriy Yarmolenko and Derlis Gonzalez, providing hope to the Ukrainians heading into the final matchday. Tal Ben Haim earned a red card in the 40th minute, and undermanned Maccabi Tel Aviv was overwhelmed by Chelsea in a runaway 4-0 victory that caused the English side to leapfrog Porto into the top spot in the table. The fixtures for the final matchday set up several intriguing possibilities.
WHAT’S NEXT? — Porto, Dynamo, and Chelsea are all guaranteed to play in one of the two European competitions into the new year. None are guaranteed which one will be relegated to the Europa League. Porto has to travel to Stamford Bridge after forfeiting pole position in the group. A draw would open the door for a three-way tie atop the standings, as Dynamo is highly unlikely to give up any points at home against winless, drawless Maccabi. The match between the two teams that looked likeliest to advance thus becomes a winner-take-all, loser-takes-the-fall scenario. (Should the expected three-way deadlock on 11 points occur, Porto would be the odd team out on goal differential in matches against the other two teams.)
Perhaps this is the year a Belgian side goes deep into the Champions League competition? Gent is increasingly looking like a dark horse to be a challenging Round of 16 opponent after knocking off Lyon 2-1 in France on Tuesday. As a result Lyon, which has looked disjointed throughout its group campaign, has officially been eliminated from any shot at even playing on in the Europa League. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Zenit St. Petersburg remained the only perfect team in the Champions League this season after cruising to a 2-0 home win over Valencia. The loss by the Spaniards opened the door for Gent to jump ahead of them in the table.
WHAT’S LEFT? — Zenit has long been guaranteed of landing the top spot in the group, and travels west to Belgium needing to do nothing more than get through the 90 minutes injury-free. A Gent win would guarantee their advancement. A Gent draw allows the Spaniards to advance with a win over Lyon; if the Belgians lose to Zenit, Valencia would still have to win; a draw would allow Gent to go through on away goals in their head-to-head aggregate under the fourth tiebreaker. Whether the Russians even bother to break a first-team squad will be interesting to watch for, as Gent will be playing to win and there is absolutely no reason to risk player health unnecessarily. As we’ve seen in the past, a perfect record means little once the slate wipes clean in the knockout stage.