Champions League 2013-14: Highlighting Pivotal Group Stage Finales

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Champions League 2013-14: Highlighting Pivotal Group Stage Finales
Michael Regan/Getty Images

The 2013-14 UEFA Champions League season will continue this week with 16 matches to determine which 16 clubs advance to the knockout stage and which 16 are eliminated. 

Several squads, including defending champions Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, have already secured a berth to the round of 16, but others will be desperate for positive results. 

Below, we'll highlight the most pivotal group stage finales to watch for Tuesday and Wednesday.  

 

Manchester United vs. Shakhtar Donetsk

Stu Forster/Getty Images

When: Tuesday, Dec. 10 at 2:45 p.m. EST, 7:45 p.m. GMT

Where: Old Trafford, Manchester, England

Watch: Fox Sports 1 (U.S.), ITV 1 (U.K.)

Manchester United have already secured a berth in the knockout stage, but if the Red Devils hope to advance as Group A winners, they'll need to pick up at least a point Tuesday at Old Trafford

However, the situation is much more dire for Shakhtar Donetsk, which need a victory to guarantee a berth in the round of 16. Mircea Lucescu's Ukranian powerhouse is one point above Bayer Leverkusen in the Group A table but could wind up being leapfrogged by the German club at the last second as Bayer will take on struggling Real Sociedad, which have earned just one point through five matches.

While United's recent struggles in the Premier League give Shakhtar hope, Lucescu isn't quite ready to chalk up a victory, per Claire Gray of UEFA.com:

"Even though they are not playing well, these are two different competitions and you can't really compare them."

The two Group A contenders played to a 1-1 draw in Donetsk back in October, with Taison pouring in a late equalizer for the Miners. 

Alex Teixeira will be the player to watch Tuesday for the visitors, though. The 23-year-old Brazilian boasts three goals and one assist through Shakhtar's first five Champions League group matches and scored his first time out against Real Sociedad.

 

Schalke vs. Basel 

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

When: Wednesday, Dec. 11 at 2:45 p.m. EST, 7:45 p.m. GMT

Where: Veltins-Arena, Gelsenkirchen, Germany

Watch: Fox Soccer 2Go (U.S.), Sky Sports Events Centre (U.K.)

With Group E leaders Chelsea projected to defeat last place Steaua Bucuresti at Stamford Bridge Wednesday, the group's most pivotal matchup will pit Schalke against Basel in a battle for second.

Basel are currently one point ahead of Schalke for second place in the group but will be massive underdogs when they take to the pitch inside Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen. Not to mention the Royal Blues have already proven they can outlast the defending Swiss Super League champions, beating them 1-0 at St. Jakob Park two months ago.

Julian Draxler was the man of the moment for Schalke on that day and could very well wind up being the hero Wednesday. After all, the 20-year-old German midfielder has accounted for two of his side's four Champions League goals thus far.

Keep in mind that Basel can secure a bid to the knockout stage with a draw or victory in this match. However, Schalke will need to win outright to avoid elimination. 

 

Napoli vs. Arsenal

Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

When: Wednesday, Dec. 11 at 2:45 p.m. EST, 7:45 p.m. GMT

Where: Stadio San Paolo, Naples, Italy

Watch: Fox Sports 1 (U.S.), Sky Sports 2 (U.K.)

Group F has lived up to its potential as the Group of Death this season, with Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli fighting for two available spots Wednesday.

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Dortmund will be heavy favorites against Marseille, but anything could happen in Naples, where Napoli will host current Group F leaders Arsenal. If the Serie A giants can win at home and Dortmund defeats Marseille, there'll be a three-way tie atop the group that will be decided on goal differential between the three clubs.

Although the Gunners will be slight underdogs behind enemy lines in Naples, it's Gonzalo Higuain and Napoli who have the most to prove after getting blanked 2-0 at the Emirates earlier this year. Led by Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud, Arsenal dominated Napoli in that match, meaning that Rafael Benitez's squad will need to win big in order to win out on goal differential and book a trip to the round of 16.

There are a number of scenarios that could unfold in Group F, but if Dortmund lose to Marseille, Napoli would only need a draw to advance along with Arsenal.

 

Milan vs. Ajax 

Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

When: Wednesday, Dec. 11 at 2:45 p.m. EST, 7:45 p.m. GMT

Where: San Siro, Milan, Italy

Watch: Fox Sports 2 (U.S.), Sky Sports Events Centre (U.K.)

Group H leaders Barcelona will be heavy favorites Wednesday to beat Celtic at Camp Nou. The Scottish club have already been eliminated and the Catalan Giants can guarantee a first-place finish in the group with a draw or a win.

Therefore, the match to watch for in Group H will be AC Milan taking on Ajax Amsterdam.

Milan, which are currently one point ahead of Ajax for second place in Group H, will host the Dutch powerhouse at the San Siro, where they have picked up four points through two previous Champions League matches this season.

Milan head coach Massimiliano Allegri has made it clear to everyone that failure is not an option for his side, per ESPN FC's Ben Gladwell:

I've got lots of faith in my lads. Sadly we've not got the results we deserved in the league, but the Champions League and Serie A cannot be compared.

It's an important game and we've got to knock Ajax out. They're playing very well and are in great form. They play good football, but we're at home and we've got to try to beat them. We've got to be serene, careful and focused, and I'm certain the lads won't get their approach wrong.

If not for a late penalty strike from Mario Balotelli two months ago in Amsterdam, Milan may have already been eliminated from contention. That vital equalizer salvaged a point for the Italian side and is the reason why they only need a draw the second time around to advance from Group H.

Now, Ajax face the daunting task of beating Milan at the San Siro to ensure their Champions League journey continues. 

 

Follow Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Patrick Clarke on Twitter. 

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