5 Champions League questions to be answered

by Ger McCarthy

Back Page Football’s Ger McCarthy looks ahead to another week of Champions League action and has five questions to be answered as the race to qualify for the knockout stage intensifies

Question: Are Chelsea capable of emulating their domestic form in Europe?

Saturday’s 4-2 dissection of Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane showcased Chelsea at their brilliant attacking best under Roberto Di Matteo. Two of the club’s most famous stalwarts, Frank Lampard and John Terry, could only watch in admiration as Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard carved Spurs defence apart with some mesmerising inter-play and movement. Di Matteo deserves credit for effectively integrating so many attack-minded players that has seen the Pensioners emerge as one of Manchester City’s main Premier League title threats but also on the back of having lost influential striker Didier Drogba and overcoming the erratic form of Fernando Torres.

A 2-2 draw with Juventus followed by a straightforward 4-0 defeat of Nordsjaelland has the London club currently sitting pretty at the top of Group E but Tuesday night’s opponents FC Shakhtar Donetsk should still prove stiff opposition having won three of their last four home fixtures against English sides. The Ukrainian club’s Coach, Mircea Lucescu, possesses vast European experience and has guided Donetsk to the top of the group standings including an eye-catching 1-1 draw in Turin against Juventus. Tuesday evening’s clash at the Donbass Arena should see Chelsea continue their impressive domestic and European start to the campaign ahead of next Sunday’s showdown with Manchester United. Expect Juan Mata to inspire his side to a second consecutive Champions League victory.

Question: Are BATE Borisov this year’s Apoel Nicosia?

A 3-1 win at home to Champions League aristocrats Bayern Munich on October 2nd made the rest of Europe sit up and take notice of Belarusian side BATE Borisov. Little was expected of BATE despite being eight points clear in their domestic league but having made little headway in Europe’s top football competition over the past three seasons. Instead, the influence of former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Alexander Hleb and goal scoring exploits of Vitali Rodionov has sent the Zholto-Sinie (yellow-blues) top of Group F with every chance of edging out Valencia and Lille for the runners-up spot.

Mauricio Pellegrino’s Valencia visit the Dinamo Stadion in Minsk on Tuesday night hoping to end a dismal run of seven Champions League ties without a victory. A gutsy 3-2 weekend defeat of Athletic Bilbao propelled the  La Liga side back into the top half of the table and suggests BATE are in for a busy night yet the Ukrainians are currently eight points clear at the top of their domestic league and on maximum points following their two Champions League Group F fixtures. A third consecutive win would give Viktor Goncharenko’s side every chance of making the last sixteen. So it’s BATE to win a tight contest and continue their fairytale European odyssey.

Question: Can Manchester United maintain their perfect start after a difficult week off the pitch?

Most of the Premier League weekend headlines centred on a difference of opinion between Sir Alex Ferguson and his central defender Rio Ferdinand. The former Leeds and West Ham player’s decision to refrain from wearing a t-shirt in support of the Kick it Out anti-racism campaign disobeyed a direct order from his manager following an earlier press conference. The matter appears sorted and the subsequent defeat of Stoke City has helped re-focus United’s minds on obtaining a third consecutive Champions League victory at home to Braga on Tuesday evening.

Whilst Rio Ferdinand has garnered plenty of headlines for his anti-racism views, his lack of pace since returning from injury should be a cause for concern. Tottenham exposed Ferdinand on a recent trip to Old Trafford by scoring two goals having run at the heart of the Premier League side’s defence. Braga are a quick, counter-attacking side and will no doubt have taken note as the Portuguese side are more than capable of exposing United’s sometimes erratic European defending. A disappointing Matchday 1 loss at home to Cluj was quickly forgotten following a terrific 2-0 win away to Galatasaray with Rúben Micael and Alan on target. Manchester United and Rio Ferdinand will need to be at their best to see off a plucky Braga side.

Question: Can Malaga continue their fairytale start?

La Rosaleda plays host to one of the big surprise packages of the 2012-‘13 Champions League, Malaga, on Wednesday night with AC Milan visiting Spain for a crucial Group C encounter. A turbulent summer that saw Malaga’s Qatari owners sell most of their top stars to balance the books following an unsuccessful and sometimes crazy transfer splurge resulted in the arrival of a new manager Manuel Pelligrini. Since taking the helm, the former Real Madrid Coach has lost most of Malaga’s top talent including crowd favourite Santi Cazorla to Arsenal. Yet Pelligrini has impressively managed to steady the ship and guide his side to third place in the La Liga table as well as the summit of Champions League Group C.

Back-to-back 3-0 wins over Zenit St. Petersburg and Anderlecht has propelled Malaga to within touching distance of a place in the lucrative knockout stages with the goals evenly spread amongst Isco, Eliseu, Javier Saviola and Joaquín. The upcoming home and away ties with Milan will make or break Malaga’s European ambitions and much of Pelligrini side’s hopes rest on the shoulders of 20-year old star Isco who has been in scintillating form of late. Milan have never been more vulnerable following an torrid start to their Serie A campaign so Malaga appear poised to pounce and book their place in the last sixteen over the coming fortnight.

Question: Can Roberto Mancini inspire Manchester City to a crucial win at Ajax?

Manchester City’s Italian manager been tasked with negotiating a Champions League ‘Group of Death’ for the second consecutive season and faces one of his most important fixtures since taking charge in Amsterdam on Wednesday night. A narrow defeat at the Santiago Bernabeau was followed by an uninspiring 1-1 draw at home to Borussia Dortmund making the upcoming home and away Group D fixtures against Ajax must-win games for Roberto Mancini. The opening months of Manchester City’s Premier League title defence has been less than convincing but a late win away to West Brom this past weekend has kept the Citizens’ in touch with runaway leaders Chelsea.

Mancini is well aware that failure to make the knockout stages for a second consecutive year will not go down well with the club’s owners considering the vast transfer fees and huge wages paid to the current playing roster. Frank De Boer’s Ajax will be no pushover despite currently trailing FC Twente by five points in the Dutch Eredivisie and two consecutive Group D losses. All the pressure is on Mancini and City to deliver a victory away from home on Wednesday night so expect Ajax to sit deep and hit their Premier League opponents on the counter-attack before eventually succumbing to a narrow defeat.

Follow Ger on Twitter and listen to him weekly on the Hold the BackPage podcast.

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