It's the last day of UEFA Champions League group stage, and no, it doesn't seem like it just started. That's the common refrain, right? It went so fast. No, this group stage did not. The monotonous predictability of the big clubs combined with no dark horse coming true made this phase eye roll-worthy.
Yesterday we were left to marvel at the wrapping on Benfica-Schalke and Copenhagen's history making qualification (Tottenham's shootout in Enschede was a welcome reprieve). Today the hallow packages are in Ukraine and, if you're really desperate for drama, Munich, Cluj, Milan and Madrid.
Second place in Group E is up for grabs, though Basel needs a win at Bayern coupled with a Roma loss in Cluj. Group G's Europa League spot is still in doubt, but Auxerre would have need a result at the Bernabeu to make it interesting. At least Group H - the savior that is Group H - gives us legitimate drama.
But these are all relative concerns. Hold this tournament enough times and results will eventually fall such that the sixth round will be terrible. We're not quite there, but we're close enough to consider silver linings. Today's day of soccer is still going to be better than your run of the mill weekend league action. Marseille-Chelsea doesn't mean anything ... except for the fact that it's Marseille and freakin' Chelsea! Ajax at Milan? How many times do you see that? (Answer: Twice, Richard. It's group play. Round-robin. Duh.)
I confess, I'm spoiled. I feel like each Champions League day should be magic. If I'm let down, it's because today is more David Copperfield than Harry Houdini.
And yes, that was intended as a selling point. Let's move on:
All matches start a 2:45 p.m. Eastern time. Thank the WIkipedia community for the tables.
|Group E ||Pld||W||D||L||GF||GA||GD||Pts|
Matches: Bayern Munich versus Basel; CFR Cluj versus Roma
The last (and only time) Roma was at Cluj, the rare Matteo Brighi brace guided the Giallorossi to a 3-1 win, reversing a shock home loss earlier in group phase. Today, Roma need only a point to advance to the knockout round, and with this Cluj team having nothing to play for and arguably (if slightly and relatively) weaker than their team two years ago, Basel has little reason for hope.
Which is not to say Basel won't get a win at the Allianz. Bayern has been so inconsistent that a poor performance in a meaningless match is well within the realm of possibility. Basel has been consistently decent throughout the tournament and almost got a result against Bayern in the reverse fixture.
Bayern will be without Holger Badstuber, Arjen Robben and Ivica Olic, none of whom will feature before the calendar turns, while Benjamin Huggel and Scott Chipperfield are misses for Basel. Tomsa Coasta and Gabriel Muresan are out for Cluj, and Roma will be without David Pizzarro, Simone Perotta and John Arne Riise.
|Group F ||Pld||W||D||L||GF||GA||GD||Pts|
Matches: Marseille versus Chelsea, Zilina versus Spartak Moscow
The only thing left to play for is Zilina's pride. With Bursaspor getting a point against Rangers yesterday, the Slovakian champions join Group H's Partizan as the only clubs that could finish group stage without a result. Partizan's finishing on zero, no doubt. They're at Arsenal, and Arsenal can still win their group. Zilina, however, is hosting a Spartak side who just finished their regular season and is locked into Europa League.
The story behind Chelsea's visit to Marseille is the return of Didier Drogba, though we'll have to see how much he'll play. Even considering sundry knocks, it's unfathomable that he won't get a run-out, as both he and Marseille's fans have been looking forward to this fixture ever since the groups were drawn. The Ivorian spent one year at l'OM (2003-04), scoring 32 goals in all-competitions and leaving such a deep impression that two summers ago, when it looked like Drogba might leave Chelsea, Marseille's supporters started a collection hoping to raise enough money to bring Drogba back.
Unconfirmed reports had Manchester United and Arsenal contributing to the cause. United's check bounced.
Side but important note: With a win, Chelsea will become the first club to go through group stage with a perfect record. As Vanessa Bayer's Miley Cyrus would say, "That's ... pretty cool."
|Group G ||Pld||W||D||L||GF||GA||GD||Pts|
Matches: Real Madrid versus Auxerre, Milan versus Ajax
José Mourinho is suspended, as are Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos. I don't know if you heard, but there was a small incident last round in Amsterdam. Between those absences and Real Madrid having affirmed their place at the top of the group, an Auxerre team that gave Los Blancos trouble in France could take a result out of the Bernabeu. With the Merengues needing every point they can get in La Liga, you can understand if they're looking toward this weekend's trip to Zaragoza.
Ajax may have a harder time of it, particularly if facing former Amsterdammer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, though Milan boss Massimiliano Allegri has already said he intends to make changes. Given some of the talents that have been on Milan's bench (Ronaldinho, for example), Milan would still have too much for an Ajax team who, having said goodbye to coach Martin Jol earlier this week, are in a mrisis (that's a mild crisis, so you know). Ajax has only won one of their last five.
|Group H ||Pld||W||D||L||GF||GA||GD||Pts|
Matches: Arsenal versus Partizan, Shakhtar Donetsk versus Braga
Arsenal has the typical injury list - Abou Diaby, Cesc Fàbregas, Thomas Vermaelen - but may give Robin van Persie more time than the nominal starter, more often sub (of late) has been seeing. Regardless, Arsenal should walk in this match, giving themselves a chance to reclaim first place.
For Gooners with hopes of doing so, keep in mind that Shakhtar has already beaten Braga in Portugal, and while Domingos Paceinca's team seems to have put early stage troubles behind them, Sporting is still a side that's lost to Baira-Mar, Vitória Guimaraes and Unirea de Leiria in their last five matches. Even without Fernandinho, still recovering from a broken leg, Shakhtar looks highly likely to get at least one point.
If they get it, they go through in first place. Arsenal can only take first if they win and Shakhtar loses, That would force a three-way tie which likely gives them first, Shaktar second while sending Braga to Europa League. Because Braga's goal difference took a beating with their 6-0 loss at the Emirates, the three-way tie scenario forces them to win big in Donetsk if they're to have a chance to move on.
|CFR Cluj||Roma||2-1, Roma|
|Zilina||Spartak Moscow||2-0, Zilina|