In recent years, there has been a growing trend of smaller clubs earning shock results against illustrious, high-spending heavyweights. A year ago, Cypriot side APOEL advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals; the year before, Schalke stormed past holders Inter en route to the semifinals.
This season, many of Europe’s traditional powers have struggled against supposedly lesser teams. Barcelona nearly succumbed to an embarrassing home defeat against Spartak Moscow, while Manchester United had the woodwork to thank for preserving their narrow win against Galatasaray.
Last Tuesday, Bayern Munich were not as fortunate as United, however, and were forced to accept a humiliating 3-1 loss to BATE, a side listed at No. 54 in the UEFA club rankings.
Despite being drawn into an ostensibly manageable group, Bayern are far from clinching progress to the knockout rounds. However, the Bavarians are not the only big team facing a tricky path to the Round of 16...
The nouveau-riche side shattered Ligue 1 records over the summer, spending €146 million on transfers. And although they began their Champions League campaign with a decisive 4-1 win against Dynamo Kyiv, Paris Saint-Germain have yet to reach a consistent, high level of play. Their 1-0 loss to Porto last week proved there is plenty left to be desired in the French capital, as Carlo Ancelotti’s men were comprehensively outplayed by their hosts.
PSG are collectively unfamiliar with the physical and mental demands that come with competing in the Champions League and on the domestic front, and will need as many points as possible early on. The French are now level on points with a Dynamo Kyiv side they once beat but which nonetheless comes equipped with a wealth of experience. PSG are still favorites to advance, but still have it all to do.
Gelsenkirchen’s finest appreciated an excellent start to their group stage campaign with a win away to Olympiacos, and appeared to be on their way to a second straight victory against Montpellier last week, but were denied at the death. It was the second time in as many games that Schalke conceded a late equalizer, and left the Royal Blues second in Group B.
Schalke enjoy a three-point lead over Montpellier, but are in real danger of seeing that evaporate as they take on Arsenal in each of the next two rounds. To make matters worse, the away match in London comes just four days after Schalke face bitter rivals Dortmund in the Ruhr derby. Huub Stevens' men will need at least a couple points in the Arsenal matches—a very tall order, given the Germans' notoriously leaky defense—to avoid a showdown in the final two rounds.
Don’t let their recent win against Zenit fool you: Milan are anything but comfortable with their three-point hold of second place in Group C. Following the summer exodus of nearly every established name in his squad, Massimiliano Allegri has a dearth of quality and experience at his disposal, and it has shown in the club’s performance.
It took an absolutely heroic performance from Christian Abbiati and a few fortunate deflections to save Milan from what easily could have been a two- or three-goal loss in St. Petersburg. Milan now face consecutive matches against group leaders Malaga, from which a pair of losses are by no means out of the realm of possibility.
Allegri is not without hope, though: there are a few bright spots in his squad, particularly young attacker Stephan El Shaarawy. Even so, the coach will need far more from his team after the international break.
“Dortmund played better than us and at the moment are a better team than us,” Roberto Mancini said last Wednesday after his side took what he admitted to be an undeserved point against the Bundesliga champions. This cannot bode well for Manchester City, given that the Premier League holders now face a dead heat against Borussia Dortmund for a second knock-out round berth alongside Real Madrid.
Mancini still hasn’t found a way to overcome his longstanding struggles in European play. For all their success in the Premier League, City’s midfield has been exposed as tactically and technically poor in Europe. Nevertheless, the Citizens have an explosive, star-studded attack that could hit form at any moment. The question is: Can Mancini get the best out of his team before it’s too late?
With Real Madrid cruising and both Ajax and City slumping, Dortmund have a real chance of surviving the so-called Group of Death. The two-times defending German champions are three points clear of City and looked by far the better team at the Etihad Stadium.
However, Dortmund are all too familiar with playing convincing football in Europe, only to fail to achieve the results needed to advance. In the Champions League last year and the Europa League before that, BVB often outplayed their opponents, only to see a couple unnecessary goals bring their European campaign to an early end.
Jurgen Klopp's men play a physically exhausting brand of football and have a very limited bench: accordingly, they cannot afford to let points slip out of their hands. They did last week and if it happens again, BVB could be set for yet another disappointing exit.
Juventus were far and away the best team in Serie A last season, and have gone undefeated on the domestic front for 46 games. Yet, the Italian champions have hit a barrier in Europe, having taken just a point from each of their first two matches.
After looking impressive in their Group E opener against Chelsea, the Bianconeri appeared sluggish in a 1-1 home draw against Shakhtar Donetsk. As is often the case with teams returning to the Champions League after a lengthy hiatus, Juve are struggling to keep up with the extra demand that comes with competing on a third front. Their perpetual inability to sign a top-class striker is also proving costly, with Fabio Quagliarella the only center forward in the squad who has scored thus far. Now two points behind Chelsea and Shakhtar, the Serie A giants absolutely must win their upcoming matches against Nordsjaelland.
The BATE loss was a wake-up call for Bayern, who, despite winning all nine of their prior competitive matches, have left much to be desired on the European front. The Bavarians almost let two points slip away in their opener against Valencia and more recently were humiliated in Minsk.
Bayern now are third in their group, behind BATE and Valencia. And while last year’s finalists have missed the likes of Mario Gomez and David Alaba, they will have to be careful even after the pair returns to action. Bayern easily have a good enough squad, but need to step up their game to ensure they avoid the catastrophe of crashing out of the Champions League.
Two-time European champions Benfica appeared to experience a renaissance last season as they won their Champions League group ahead of Manchester United and advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual winners Chelsea. The Portuguese have since failed to retain their momentum, however, and have taken just one point from their first two matches in this season’s competition.
A year ago, Benfica may have been more confident in their chances of overcoming a three-point deficit to Celtic. However, having sold Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia over the summer, the Portuguese giants lack the class of yesteryear. They may need to match Celtic’s win in Moscow, or beat the Scottish side head-to-head. Neither is an ordinary task.