6 Key Storylines To Watch on Champions League Matchday 5
The UEFA Champions League group stage is almost complete, but first, several storylines need resolution.
Eight matches are scheduled for Tuesday and eight more Wednesday as the best teams on the continent contest the penultimate round of group-stage matches.
Who will advance? Who will go home early? What are the stories to watch?
Keep reading to find out.
Manchester City's Millions Not Enough?
Match: Manchester City vs. Real Madrid, Group D, Wednesday at 2:45 p.m. ET
Manchester City won the English Premier League last season with an expensively assembled squad backed by the millions of owner Sheikh Mansour. City again lead the English table through 12 matches, but their Champions League campaign has not been quite as successful.
After a tight defeat at Real Madrid on Matchday 1, City drew at home to Borussia Dortmund and then lost in embarrassing fashion at Ajax. A controversial 2-2 draw at home to Ajax on Matchday 4 leave City needing a "perfect" performance against Real, according to manager Roberto Mancini (via The Guardian).
Mancini has drawn criticism for using a three-man defense at times this season, but the strategy worked two weekends ago against Tottenham Hotspur. With Cristiano Ronaldo leading the charge, Real Madrid will present a stiffer challenge.
Real routed Athletic Bilbao (a Europa League finalist last season) 5-1 over the weekend, and striker Karim Benzema claimed the Real of last season have returned (via ESPN FC). Jose Mourinho's team are second in the group and need points themselves to qualify for the knockout stages.
Defeat would prove fatal to City's slim hopes of advancing to the knockout phase. But even victory might not be enough at this point.
3-Way Race in Group B
Matches: Arsenal vs. Montpellier and Schalke vs. Olympiakos, Group B, Wednesday at 2:45 p.m. ET
The top of Group B is a three-car pileup waiting to happen.
German club Schalke lead the group with eight points through four matches after beating Arsenal in London on Matchday 3.
Arsenal are second with seven points, and Olympiakos are third with six. The top two teams advance to the knockout stage.
Schalke can seal qualification by beating Olympiakos on Wednesday. If that happens, Arsenal could also qualify with a home win over Montpellier, who have already been eliminated.
But considering the way Arsenal's season has played out so far, the easiest scenario also feels like the least likely.
Two weekends ago, the Gunners blew a two-goal lead against Fulham before eventually drawing 3-3. On Matchday 4 in the Champions League, they led 2-0 at Schalke before drawing 2-2.
But this past weekend, Arsene Wenger's team fell behind North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur before eventually winning 5-2.
Such erratic results suggest anything could happen Wednesday—and on the final matchday. Forward Olivier Giroud has started to round into form, but the Gunners defense has been poor lately.
How will they fare this week?
AC Milan Poised To Qualify?
Match: Anderlecht vs. AC Milan, Group C, Wednesday at 2:45 p.m. ET
Isco and Málaga continue to be the feel-good story of Group C. But since Málaga have qualified for the knockout phase, we'll pick up their story again later.
For now, the story of AC Milan is most compelling.
When the fixture list came out, few probably expected AC Milan to need anything from their Matchday 5 trip to Belgium to face Anderlecht. But through four matches, the Italian giants sit in second place, having collected only five points.
Anderlecht are currently third in Group C with four points, so victory over the Rossoneri would give the Belgian champions hope of qualifying for the knockout stage on the final day of group play.
Then again, victory for AC Milan would seal up qualification. Considering how rough the season has been so far—AC Milan are 12th in Serie A through 13 matches—that would be a welcome bit of good news.
Young forward Stephan El Shaarawy has 10 goals in Serie A. Can he bring that form to Europe with him?
The Next Step
Match: Benfica vs. Celtic, Group G, Tuesday at 2:45 p.m. ET
It wasn't, however, decisive.
Two matches remain for each team in Group G. Celtic need a result in one to advance to the knockout phase.
Neil Lennon's team have seven points through four matches, good for second place in the group behind Barcelona. Benfica are third with four.
Benfica finish group play with a trip to Barcelona on Dec. 5. Barcelona should have qualified for the knockout phase by that time, but even so, it's difficult to imagine Benfica winning at the Nou Camp.
That means a draw Tuesday should be enough for Celtic. If not, a home match against Spartak Moscow on Matchday 6 will be decisive.
But Lennon and his players will be looking to wrap up qualification as soon as possible.
Royal Rumble in Group E
Match: Juventus vs. Chelsea, Group E, Tuesday at 2:45 p.m. ET
Three clubs are still alive in Group E.
European champions Chelsea top the group with seven points and a goal differential of plus-four. Ukrainian champs Shakhtar Donetsk are second with seven points and a differential of plus-two.
Italian champions Juventus are third with six points.
Clearly, then, Chelsea's trip to Turin on Tuesday to face Juventus is key. The Blues would wrap up qualification with a win, and if Shakhtar also defeat Nordsjaelland as expected, Juventus would be out.
Then again, Juventus could put Chelsea in serious trouble with a home win. Just for added spice, we'll remind you that Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo is reportedly on the hot seat (via Daily Mail).
Never mind that Di Matteo led the Blues to the Champions League title last season as interim manager. With Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, that's ancient history.
Midnight for Cinderella?
Match: BATE Borisov vs. Lille, Group F, Tuesday at noon ET
BATE Borisov (home ground: the 5,402 capacity Borisov City Stadium) shocked Europe by beating Lille and Bayern Munich in their first two Group F matches this fall.
Since then, nothing.
Bayern recovered and now sit level with Valencia atop the group. Lille, meanwhile, turned out to be one of the competition's worst teams (no points and a goal differential of minus-10 through four matches).
So were BATE just a flash in the pan? On Tuesday, the Belarusian champs host group whipping boys Lille while the two heavyweights face off in Spain.
Victory would keep BATE alive—possibly level on points with either Valencia or Bayern heading into the final day of the group.
Defeat or even a draw might prove fatal: Up next is a trip to Bayern, who will surely have revenge on their minds.