In years gone by, Premier League teams wouldn’t really fret over the Champions League until after Christmas, when the knock-out rounds begin. Progress through the group stage is usually smooth, however this season hasn’t followed the script.
Manchester City, who arguably had the toughest of draws with Sevilla, Juventus and Bundesliga high-flyers Borussia Mönchengladbach, are already through with a game to spare. On the contrary, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United all go into the final round of games with everything to play for.
The Gunners never do things the easy way and so, after managing to lose at home to Olympiacos and away to Dinamo Zagreb in their first two matches, must now beat the Greek Champions by two goals to have a chance of making it through to the next round. That, however, will be easier said than done. Olympiacos have been in sparkling form this season, losing only to Bayern Munich whilst winning all 13 of their league games.
In recent years Arsenal have loved nothing more than a glorious defeat in Europe, but it’s usually a little later than the group stages. The task this time around will be harder given that they’ll have to beat Olympiacos without key men Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez.
Despite a dismal season so far in the Premier League, Chelsea sit top of their group in Europe and need only a draw at home to Porto to guarantee safe passage to the next round. A draw could put Porto out, so a Chelsea defence which has been so uncharacteristically poor this season is likely to come under pressure.
Manager Jose Mourinho is, if reports are to be believed, within two losses of losing his job. He will need a big performance from his players on Wednesday, as well as a win when Chelsea face Premier League leaders Leicester City on Monday. If not, Roman Abramovic may finally run out of patience.
The tables are beginning to turn at Old Trafford. At the start of the season, the club was buoyed by several new signings and chants of “Louis van Gaal’s Red Army” were heard in the stands. How things have changed. Whilst United still sit just three points from the top of the league, their uninspiring performances have seen them struggle to entertain in the way fans expect, while the struggle for wins in Europe has proved even more difficult.
United must win away at Wolfsburg to progress to the next round, while a draw could see them slipping into the painful, slightly embarrassing routine of the Europa League. A loss in Germany will be the first tangible failure of Louis van Gaal’s reign, and although he has support from the hierarchy at the club, increasingly vociferous criticism from the stands could make them reassess their options in the second half of the season.