Thursday, October 19, 2006

Champions League - The Story So Far

The group stages of the Champions League have reached their half-way stage and, like so many fat boys in a school dinner queue, the contenders are jostling for qualifying positions and the creamy, calorific goodness of the knockout rounds.

In all but two of the groups the seeded teams occupy the top two spots, justifying the convoluted calculations of UEFA's co-efficient system. Inter Milan and Porto are the two seeded sides letting down the Swiss-based calculator bashers thus far, limping along as both are in third place in their groups.

Following a horrendous opening to their campaign, consisting of defeats at Sporting Lisbon and at home against Bayern Munich, the expensively-assembled Milanese looked to be heading towards the sort of ignominious failure all too familiar to the club. However, last night's win over Spartak Moscow and the fact that their usurpers in the box seat alongside Bayern, Sporting, have only amassed a measly four points themselves, mean that Inter are still very much in contention to overturn their rotten start and drag their Armani-clad behinds into the second round. They may have to get a result in Munich to do so, but they will likely be one of the second-place teams to avoid for the group winners come the draw for the last 16.

Porto's status as seeds was more an afterglow from the giddy heights of their success under Jose Mourinho a few seasons ago than a reflection on the genuine form of a team who last season failed to qualify out of last season's 'group of dross' in which they were pipped to second spot by Rangers. They have improved on that form this season, but look like they will struggle to overhaul Arsenal or the shadily bankrolled CSKA Moscow.

As evidence of the changing backdrop of European football and the increasing financial muscle of Russian clubs, CSKA fielded as many Brazilians as did Porto (three), despite Portugal's top clubs being the traditional stopping off point for Brazil's footballing exports' journeys into Europe. One presumes the likes of Daniel Carvalho and Vagner Love were not attracted to Moscow for the borscht.

Elsewhere all appears to be calm, with the favourites cantering along upfront in the other groups. After their now-customary tanking by Lyon, Real Madrid unleashed multi-goal vengeance on the surprisingly feeble Dynamo Kiev and Steau Bucharest. Incidentally, how heartwarming to see the Madrilenos, many of whose fans were culpable for the racist chants endured by England's black players in their friendly against Spain two years ago, flattered by the imitation of the Romanians and their treatment of Madrid's coloured players?

Lyon and Real, Liverpool and PSV Eindhoven and Valencia and Roma all seem cut and dried as qualifiers even as this stage. Barcelona's position looks strangely precarious at this juncture. While one would be ill-advised to bet against the holders at this juncture, the lurking presence of the doughty Germans, Werder Bremen (who were seconds away from eliminating Juventus in last season's competition), is a danger to the Spanish champions.

While many scoffed at the importance of the group stage double header between Chelsea and Barcelona in the greater scheme of things, Chelsea's victory last night means that Barca are under real pressure to get a result in the return fixture in a fortnight's time. Should Chelsea defeat the Catalans again - and there is no reason to suspect that Mourinho and co. would not do all within their power to help eliminate their great rivals of the last two seasons - and Werder defeat Levksi Sofia away and take at least a point off Chelsea at home - again, one can envisage the by-then already-qualified Blues mischieviously relaxing a little if that scenario arose - then Werder would come to the Camp Nou needing only a draw to qualify.

Finally, at the outset of Group F, some would have applied the same analysis to Celtic's position as second seeds as to that of Porto: that it was the statistical remnant of the success achieved by Martin O'Neill a few seasons ago, and that Benfica, one of last season's quarter finalists, should be considered the likeliest to ride on Manchester United coat-tails into the knockout phase.

However Celtic appear to be in a very strong position to qualify at this juncture. While their easiest fixtures are arguably behind them, and Benfica's yet to come, the presence of points on the board and the clubs' respective fixtures on the last matchday favour Celtic. Should things be tight on December 6th, Benfica will need a result at Old Trafford, while Celtic must go to the less fearsome surroundings of the Parkstadion in Copenhagen.

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