With Match day five now submitted to memory, qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League is already assured for only a number of clubs. Bordeaux, Chelsea, Fiorentina, Lyon, Manchester United and Arsenal have passed difficult group tests to take their place in the business end of the competition with one match to spare. European footballing giants like last years finalists Real Madrid and Barcelona top their groups and are almost certain to go through but there is still a little work to be done yet.
On the English front, the most accomplished and assured performances are coming from the capital in the form of Chelsea and Arsenal. Both teams have won four and drawn one of their five matches with a healthy goal difference behind them. In their respective groups there has simply been no challenge to their top of the group status. Arsenal will feel that they are a much stronger unit this year after a strong start to a domestic campaign and an equally dismissive approach on the European stage.
The most impressive performer this year is their London rivals Chelsea, who sit both top of the Premier League and the Champions League Group D table. The group contained some potentially difficult opposition in La Liga’s Athletico Madrid, displaying Chelsea target Sergio Aguero, and Porto, who famously won the competition in 2004. However the Blues have professionally passed their group stage test with flying colours, and will believe that this year could finally be the year that they lift the prestigious trophy that continues to evade them. In the five games that Chelsea have played, only Spanish giants Athletico Madrid have scored against them. Carlo Ancelotti has instilled a discipline into his side, carrying on the good work of temporary manager Gus Hiddink, which allows attacking players to flourish, while at the same time keeping it tight at the back. Both Chelsea and Arsenal face the possibility of facing teams such as AC Milan, Lyon and Inter Milan in the second round. Both look equipped and ready for a long and arduous European campaign after strong group performances.
Looking at the Northern contingent, it was no surprise to see Liverpool bow out of this season’s competition one match early after a potentially disastrous season took another hard blow. The Reds won in Hungary in tepid fashion, playing like a team who knew that destiny was not in their own hands. Their cautious attitude almost resulted in Debrecen finding an equaliser in the dying moments. It would not have mattered anyway. Fiorentina delivered the result that they needed to eliminate Liverpool from the competition with a penalty just after the half hour mark from Juan Vargas. One of the most consistent performers in the Champions League over recent years must not settle for a place in the second tier of European football, the Europa League. However this tournament itself will not be as straightforward as some may think, boasting some talented teams such as Valencia, Roma, PSV and Shakhtar Donetsk. Similarly, joining the Reds in the competition is Rangers, who appear to be out of their depth after some demoralising defeats, including a 4-1 home hammering by Unirea Urziceni.
Manchester United lost their 23 match unbeaten European record at Old Trafford after Turkish side Besiktas stole a 1-0 victory. The Red Devils need a point from their final group game in order to progress to the next stage as group winners. Sir Alex Ferguson named a youthful side, which lacked enough composure in front of goal to collect the point that they needed to top the group after CSKA Moscow earlier defeated Wolfsburg. With qualification assured weeks ago, Sir Alex has attempted to give youth and fringe players a chance, which has resulted in a lively 3-3 draw against Moscow and then this most recent defeat against Besiktas. The momentum built after three straight victories in the group stage, which virtually guaranteed qualification, appears to have waivered slightly as we approach the most important stage of the Champions League.
All three teams, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea will feel they each have a good chance of going all the way in the competition, with the Londoners displaying some scintillating evidence that they are the teams to avoid in the second round. The two teams lock horns on Sunday at the Emirates Stadium in what is certain to be a crucial match in the title race, as well as sending out a message to the rest of the Champions League that they have their sights firmly on the illustrious trophy.