While many of the Champions League participants have another week to wait until they hit the pitch for Matchday 6, Group D will conclude tonight with AC Milan hosting Celtic and Shakhtar hosting Benfica.
With that in mind, it’s time for an early – or on time – preview of all of the Matchday 6 action, starting with Groups A-D.
Current table: Porto 8, Marseille 7, Liverpool 7, Besiktas 6
Tiebreakers: Marseille currently holds an edge over Liverpool based on their win at Anfield.
Group A is wide open heading into the final round of action, with all four teams still in with a chance of qualifying for the round of 16.
In France, Marseille will host Liverpool needing only a draw to advance, while Liverpool will need to play for the win as they have in their last two matches. And, if the result is half as emphatic as their victories over Besiktas and Porto, Rafa Benitez’s side will be moving on.
In the other match, Porto will host Besiktas, with the same objective in mind – a point sends the home side through.
Marseille vs. Liverpool: Marseille went into Anfield on Matchday 2 and came away with a surprising 1-0 win, with Mathieu Valbuena’s 77th minute strike giving the Ligue 1 side the three points.
But, a lot can change in two months. Marseille won their first two group matches, but since then, have picked up only one point in their last three. On the other hand, Liverpool will go into the tie with tremendous momentum. After being bottom of Group A after a loss to Besiktas in Matchday 3, 8-0 and 4-1 wins over Besiktas and Porto.
However, it’s difficult to say which Liverpool will show up. If it’s the free-scoring Liverpool that we’ve seen recently – 21 goals in five matches – then it could be a long night for the Marseille defense. But, if it’s the Liverpool that has found the net only twice in three away European ties this year (one win, one draw, one defeat), you might have to favor Marseille doing enough to get the point they need.
As for Marseille, they’ve taken four of six points from their home matches. And, the last time they faced Liverpool at home, in the UEFA Cup round of 16 in 2003/04, a 2-1 victory saw them through to the quarters.
But, what gives Liverpool an edge, besides their recent form, is the fact that they’ve won their last two trips to France (1-0 over Toulouse in this year’s qualifying round, 1-0 over Bordeaux in last year’s group stage).
Porto vs. Besiktas: In Matchday 2 action, Ricardo Quaresma’s injury-time goal handed Porto a 1-0 victory in Turkey. The odds favor Porto getting a similar result when they welcome Besiktas next week. Besiktas have been outscored 10-0 in two away defeats, while Porto have picked up a win and a draw in their two home matches in the group stage.
Who Advances to the Round of 16? Porto, Liverpool
UEFA Cup? Marseille
Out of Europe? Besiktas
Current table: Chelsea 11, Rosenborg 7, Schalke 5, Valencia 4
Tiebreakers: Valencia hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Schalke, having won 1-0 in Germany and drawing 0-0 in Spain.
Chelsea have sealed the top spot in the group, and a place in the round of 16, so all that’s left to decide is who gets the second place in the knockout round and who goes into the UEFA Cup.
Chelsea will play host to Valencia, while Rosenborg go to Gelsenkirchen needing to avoid defeat in order to book their ticket to the next round.
Schalke vs. Rosenborg: In Matchday 2, second-half goals from Jermaine Jones and Kevin Kuranyi propelled Schalke to a 2-0 victory in Norway.
In the three matches since, Rosenborg picked up two wins over Valencia before taking a 4-0 beating at home to Chelsea, while Schalke have followed a 2-0 defeat in London with consecutive goalless draws against Chelsea and away to Valencia.
Rosenborg seems to play their best in a hostile environment. In their three home matches in the group stage, a 2-0 win over Valencia was the only positive result. But, in their two away fixtures thus far, they have picked up four points (a 1-1 draw at Chelsea, a 2-0 win at the Mestalla). Throw in two away wins in their qualifying round matches, and the Norwegians have have a near-perfect away record.
As well as Rosenborg have played in away fixtures, it’s hard to pick against them getting at least the point that they need to go through. But, Schalke will at least have the consolation of remaining in Europe, even if it’s the second-tier competition.
Chelsea vs. Valencia: With little to play for, Chelsea might not put their best side forward for this match. But, that won’t hand Valencia three easy points.
The last time the two teams clashed in London was just this year, in the first leg of the quarterfinals of last season’s Champions League, with Didier Drogba’s 53rd minute equalizer securing a vital 1-1 draw for Chelsea.
Valencia’s only win in the group stage came in their away match against Schalke, a 1-0 victory in their group opener, and if they could repeat the feat, and get a little help from Rosenborg, would fall into the UEFA Cup.
Who Advances to the Round of 16? Chelsea, Rosenborg
UEFA Cup? Schalke
Out of Europe? Valencia
Current table: Real Madrid 8, Olympiakos 8, Werder Bremen 6, Lazio 5
Nothing has been decided in this group, though Real Madrid and Olympiakos both only need to record draws to secure their place in the round of 16.
Olympiakos vs. Werder Bremen: In Matchday 2, three goals in the final 20 minutes sent Werder to a stunning 3-1 defeat at the Weserstadion.
Olympiakos haven’t played poorly at home (draws vs. Real Madrid and Lazio), but have been at their best away (two wins, one defeat).
But, the advantage is clearly in the home side’s favor, given Werder’s struggles away from home in the last few years. In their last 12 Champions League away fixtures, they have only two wins and a draw, with those wins coming against Levski Sofia in last year’s group stages, and against Dinamo Zagreb in this year’s third qualifying round.
Real Madrid vs. Lazio: In Matchday 2, it was Goran Pandev 2, Ruud van Nistelrooy 2, as their two sides draw in Rome.
Another similar result at the Bernabeu will suffice for Real, who are unbeaten at home in all matches dating back to a 1-0 loss to Levante on Feb. 4, a run of 19 matches (17 wins, two draws).
With the odds so heavily in Real’s favor, it doesn’t help that Lazio have only two wins in nine away fixtures this season, including a 1-1 draw and a 2-1 defeat in their away matches against Olympiakos and Werder Bremen respectively.
Who Advances to the Round of 16? Real Madrid, Olympiakos
UEFA Cup? Werder Bremen
Out of Europe? Lazio
Current table: AC Milan 10, Celtic 9, Shakhtar 6, Benfica 4
Tiebreakers: Shakhtar holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Celtic, with a +1 edge in goal difference in the two matches they played.
AC Milan have clinched a spot in the round of 16, and will seal top spot in the group with a draw against Celtic tonight.
Celtic are in position to qualify, but will need to avoid defeat in Milan, or have Benfica pick up a point in their away tie against Shakhtar.
AC Milan vs. Celtic: The not losing part of the equation doesn’t bode too well for Celtic, as they’ve been dismal away from Scotland in the last few editions in the Champions League, including their last two trips to Milan (1-0 in last year’s round of 16, 3-1 in the group stage in 2004/05).
Milan haven’t been at their best at home this season, with two wins, five draws, and two losses at the San Siro thus far, but both of those wins have been in the Champions League – 2-1 vs. Benfica on Matchday 1, 4-1 vs. Shakhtar on Matchday 3. Dating back to the start of the 2004/05 competition, Milan have excelled at home, getting positive results in all but two of their home matches.
Celtic do, however, know what it takes to beat the Italian giants, having beaten them 2-1 at Hampden Park on Matchday 2, with Scott McDonald’s last-second goal handing the SPL leaders a famous victory. It’ll require that same performance tonight in order to get the point that they need to go through.
Shakhtar vs. Benfica: In Matchday 2, Jadson’s goal in the 42nd minute was enough to produce a 1-0 win for the visitors in Portugal.
Shakhtar have a 3-0-1 record in their home matches in the Champions League this term, with their lone loss a 3-0 defeat to Milan, a match that was a goalless draw until Pippo Inzaghi scored in the 66th minute.
Benfica have seen defeat in their first two away matches in the group stage, a 1-0 defeat away to Celtic, and a 2-1 defeat at the San Siro. The last time Benfica picked up a positive result in an away fixture (outside of qualifying play) was a 0-0 draw at FC Copenhagen in their opening group match of last year’s competition.
Who Advances to the Round of 16? AC Milan, Shakhtar
UEFA Cup? Celtic
Out of Europe? Benfica
If the results do shake out this way, there will be a few unfamiliar names in the round of 16. It may disappoint some people who love to see the big sides gunning it out for Europe’s top club prize, but it certainly will make Michel Platini happy.