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Watching their respective seasons unfold, it seems unlikely that either Chelsea or Manchester United will be celebrating at Wembley come 28 May 2011. It’s not to say that they’re not capable of winning the Champions League – only Arsenal, Barcelona, Real Madrid and…ahem…Tottenham stand as genuine contenders alongside them – but all signs so far point to an almighty struggle to reach their league objectives and no luck on the European front.
Having said that, if you had to bet on the two Premier League teams most likely to win the Champions League at the start of the season, it would have been Manchester United and Chelsea, and if they can turn their average form around and their players start earning their hefty paycheques, a last-eight / last-four berth awaits at least one of these two sides.
Hey, at least they’ve got it easier than Arsenal, right?
Copenhagen v Chelsea
Tuesday, 22nd February
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At the time of the second-round draw, Chelsea were easily the luckiest of all the teams – Copenhagen are newcomers to the Champions League knockout stages, having spent the last two years being beaten in the Europa League, and while they top their domestic league, they haven’t played a competitive game since December – a fact not lost on their manager who has emphasised the need for physically coping with Chelsea in the build-up to the game.
And in many aspects, this is still Chelsea’s game to lose. The more time Torres gets on the pitch playing with his teammates, the better he’ll get, and Copenhagen, more than Liverpool, are his first real test in Chelsea’s colours. With the league title out of the picture, Chelsea need Torres to start firing in Europe.
“We have the possibility to win against Copenhagen. The Champions League is not easy, but it will bring a lot of motivation for everyone, especially because we are not doing well in the Premier League and are out of the FA Cup.
At this moment there is [Branislav] Ivanovic and [John] Terry, and [Frank] Lampard played well. We have a problem at this moment with Mikel and Essien. They’re not 100 per cent fit. I said a lot of times that we lost confidence in our play and it’s difficult to move on. The results are not good.”
Copenhagen manager Stale Solbakken is aware of Chelsea’s troubles and hopes his side can exploit them, despite his side’s lack of competitive action since December (although they have played a number of friendlies against Scandinavian clubs in the build up to this match):
“[Chelsea] play at a high tempo every fourth day and that is a deciding factor. We have known this since the draw and had hoped for a couple of better opponents but we couldn’t get that. The players will be slightly worried about the pace but that will always be the case for Scandinavian teams this time of year. But if we come out of the first game all right, then we have got three weeks until the next, when we will be much further ahead and everything can happen – there we will also be able to beat Chelsea.”
Chelsea might not be able to win the league title this year but a Champions League spot and a strong say in the title run-in is still in their hands – they host Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United in the final three months, plus they’ll have a week’s worth of rest before they play United at Stamford Bridge next week. With Lampard and Terry getting back to form, this is Chelsea’s time to kick on, secure a spot in the last eight of the Champions League and plot United’s fall.
Marseille v Manchester United
Wednesday, 23rd February
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For a team that hasn’t won many games away from Old Trafford this season, Manchester United’s next three weeks are a formidable test of their title credentials. Marseille, Wigan, Chelsea and Liverpool all away, followed by the small matter of an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal or Leyton Orient just a few days before the home leg against Marseille. Six matches that will surely define Manchester United’s season.
Marseille is a kinder draw to United than teams like Bayern or Inter, but it’ll be a tough game nevertheless. Didier Deschamps has put together an excellent squad and led them last season to their first French title for 17 years. Marseille have beaten Chelsea this season and haven’t lost at home since September. A score draw would be a good result for United and with their form on the road, probably the most likely outcome.
Given Manchester United’s propensity to spring surprises this season though, a win at Stade Velodrome is not out of the question. It will depend a lot on who United will play upfront, and whether Berbatov will finally get a chance to start an important Champions League game.
United’s title run-in starts here, the first of six games in three weeks. If United want to win their 19th league title, they need to start winning away from home (especially with all the away games to Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool to come later this season), and Marseille could be the starting point.
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