There are only three places of the remaining 16 available to teams as we approach Matchday Six, but with the top spot in another four groups still to play for, it promises to be a tense two nights of action. Essentially there will be six teams playing for three places, but to make things more complicated, none face each other: those under threat are Chelsea or Juventus (Group E), Benfica or Celtic (Group G) and Galatasaray or Cluj (Group H). Given that top-spot teams already include Barcelona, Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, those competing for the top two (Arsenal-Schalke, and Porto-Paris Saint-Germain) will be keen to finish first to avoid those giants. Here are some other talking-points:
But Guardiola is not a wanted man only in England. Last weekend, as Paris Saint-Germain lost its third game in five, and its first with Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the pitch throughout, Guardiola was reported to be in Doha in Qatar. His presence there coincides with growing pressure on Carlo Ancelotti, whose side, owned by Qatari Sports Investments, slipped to five points behind leaders Lyon after a toothless 2-1 loss at Nice. "This malaise is deep, but staggering when you see that they have some of the best men in Europe there," wrote
The normally mild-mannered Ancelotti has publicly criticized his players but without the desired effect. By telling them to take responsibility, he appears to be absolving himself, but he has been blamed for over-playing Blaise Matuidi, "exhausted mentally and physically" (
The fact that sports director Leonardo did not go into the dressing room after the Nice game, or join the players on the plane home, has been interpreted as the Brazilian distancing himself from Ancelotti.
Chelsea's fate is out of its hands it needs to beat Nordsjaelland at home, which might not be the given it seemed recently, and hope Shakhtar Donetsk beats Juventus in Ukraine -- and Benitez does not even have the luxury Di Matteo had last season: when he took over, Chelsea was 3-1 down midway through a round of 16 tie against Napoli. But he was not relying on other teams for a favor.
Chelsea fans can cling to Benitez's European record. He has won the UEFA Cup (Valencia, 2004), the Champions League (2005) and beaten a better Chelsea side in two European semifinals. Most significantly, there were the events of Dec. 8, 2004: it was just before 9:30 p.m. when his captain at Liverpool, Steven Gerrard, scored the goal that changed the course of Liverpool's modern history, helping it beat Olympiakos 3-1 in its final Champions League group game, to reach the last 16 (and keep Gerrard at the club).
"It would be similar emotions to that, but then we were relying only on ourselves," Benitez said.
Then there is current form: Chelsea is now winless in seven in the league, has lost five of its last 11 games and is on its worst run of league form since 1995. It has one more game next weekend before heading to Japan to play the Club World Cup, and by the time it comes back, it will be even more adrift in the Premier League. "Roman Abramovich, is this what you want?" sang Chelsea fans at West Ham. No one knows what he wants, but his concern about missing the Champions League next season makes you wonder if, rightly or wrongly, Benitez will see out the season. The only problem is, who is left to replace the Spaniard?
Credit has to go to coach Manuel Pellegrini, who has handled the uncertainty with dignity and aplomb and produced an exciting and successful side that is only three points off fourth in La Liga. Pellegrini, who was harshly only given one year as Real Madrid boss in 2009-10 (it was second in La Liga despite a record total of 96 points but flopped in Europe) is crucial to Malaga's future success. If he continues like this, he may even get a call from Abramovich (not that he would take it).
The Galatasaray hero has been new signing Burak Yilmaz, only the second player to have played for all four of Turkey's biggest clubs. Yilmaz, playing behind an attacking trident of Selcuk Inan, Hamit Alt~�ntop and Nordin Amrabat, has scored all five of Galatasaray's Group H goals, including a hat trick in the 3-1 win at Cluj. And while coach Fatih Terim is best known for guiding the team to UEFA Cup and the UEFA Super Cup success in 2000, the achievement of reaching the last 16, for the first time in 11 years, would be among his best.