Who would have thought that going into the last round of group stage fixtures that the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea would be in serious danger of falling at the first hurdle? Not many I can assure you, but alas this is the case and arguably England’s three strongest sides are right up against the metaphorical ‘it’.
Of these three giants the side in the most grave danger of failing to progress are Manchester City which is rather unbelievable given their contrastingly magnificent league form. Week after week they are continuing to churn out formidable domestic displays, which, have seen them race five points clear of their Manchester rivals at the top of the Premier League, whilst also seeing themselves through to the last four of the League Cup. However, their stunning form outside of Europe has been belittled by their lacking performances on the continent so far this season and it has left them in an incredibly precarious position.
Manager Roberto Mancini is usually an enormously confident man and has already this season said that he believes that he is in charge of a side that are on a par with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. City’s fairly dismal European form has seriously contradicted their manager’s assessment of their standing in world football though, to the point where going into Wednesday’s game against Bayern Munich he has conceded that they have a “60% chance” of an early exit.
Mancini’s concession that his side are facing an unenviable task must have been a really bitter pill to swallow. Having guided them to their first piece of silverware in their wealthy new-era and their first ever qualification to the Champions League, Mancini will have no doubt dreamt that his charges would venture out into the unknown and lay down a serious marker. Along with their passionate fans he will have let his mind wander freely to thoughts of making the Etihad Stadium one of European football’s most feared fortresses whilst moulding his squad into ferocious battlers when travelling away on the continent. Sadly, the blue side of Manchester have seen little of these dreams becoming a reality and their team have looked every bit a rookie side in this year’s competition.
It is quite often the case that one of England’s teams struggle en route to first round qualification but this year has provided us with two additional strugglers in the form of Manchester United and Chelsea, who in recent years have established themselves as two of the most consistently strong European performers. Manchester United must go away to Basle on Wednesday and get a point to secure qualification and though this would usually be run of the mill for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, this season has seen them repetitively stuttering through their group matches to the point where they have only achieved victory over whipping boys Otelul Galati.
Though they will undoubtedly go into Wednesday evening’s game as big favourites to progress, their Swiss opponents have already proven their ability to compete with United in their thrilling 3-3 draw at Old Trafford. This game saw United cruising as a result of a first half brace from Danny Wellbeck, but then they suffered a dramatic second half collapse nearly losing all three points only to be saved by Ashley Young’s most crucial United goal to date in the dying embers of the game. Maybe the fact that they know not to be complacent against their inferior opponents will aid them in their quest to secure qualification, but win, lose or draw Sir Alex will know that his team have drastically under performed throughout a group which they should have topped with some spare left in the tank.
The third English offering on this year’s list of under-achievers in the Champions League groups are Chelsea whose struggles have extended to all competitions under new boss Andre Vilas-Boas. Having raced to seven points from their first three games Chelsea looked to set to win the group with comfort, but since then they have suffered a major dip in European success that has coincided with a rotten run of results in the Premier League. Their previous two games have seen them play out a stale draw against Belgian minnows Genk and an immensely disappointing defeat away to Leverkusen having taken the lead in Germany. These equally damaging results have seen them slump to a position in the group where they must either achieve victory or a scoreless draw against a very decent Valencia side. They, like Manchester United, will be expected to make their class and experience show on a huge night for the club but there are perhaps greater doubts about their ability to do so than United’s when taking into account their poor recent form and their manager’s limited experience of facing up to serious adversity.
If all three of the aforementioned sides fail to qualify for the knockout stages then it would probably make for just about the greatest shock in the history of the competition given each of their standings in world football. Though Manchester City are in their rookie year in the competition they are fast establishing themselves as one of England’s strongest outfits, and the quality and depth of their squad is well in line with their lofty ambitions. For some reason though they, along with United and Chelsea, are performing with a lack of resolve and at times a complete lack of imagination in this year’s competition and as such have found themselves on the verge of an embarrassing early exit.
The fallout from the these three sides’ potential failure to progress could be enormous in terms of their finances and their reputations and if the rumour mill is to be trusted then it could even cost them the services of their managers. If Chelsea were to fail this evening then it is entirely feasible that Andre Vilas-Boas could be given his marching orders just months after taking the reigns at the club. Mancini too, in spite of his domestic success thus far this season, could face serious scrutiny if City don’t qualify for the next round. Probably the most strongly positioned manager of the three is Sir Alex Ferguson given that he has twenty five years of great success at United, but even he may have to re-consider his remaining value to the club if they were to be knocked out on Wednesday.
As it stands things look fairly dire for three of our major forces in European football, but just what will be the outcome of this week’s huge matches? We await the results with enormous anxiety and anticipation and soon we will know if English club football is set for a crisis of confidence on the European stage.
Chelsea win and take second place, United win and take second place, City draw at home to Munich but are eliminated as a result of Napoli defeating Villareal.