The end is near in the UEFA Champions League “Group of Death,” as last year’s runner-up Borussia Dortmund and pre-tournament sleepers and Italian title-seekers Napoli meet in Germany today in the penultimate week of play at this stage.
Back on Sept. 18, Napoli began their campaign with a boom, stunning Der BVB in Italy 2-1 through goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Lorenzo Insigne.
After the Germans got back on track with a win at home against Marseille and a smash and grab victory against Arsenal in London, defeat to the Gunners in the return fixture leaves them in a perilous position, especially as Napoli collected two wins against their French foes in the same period.
With Arsenal and Napoli, led by experienced European manager Rafa Benitez, on nine points, and the German giants just with six, Dortmund’s UCL fate could well be decided today in front of the Yellow Wall at Signal Iduna Park. Robert Lewandowski, Marco Reus, Nuri Sahin and the rest of Jurgen Klopp’s world-class attack will need to be humming as the club is dealing with a defensive injury crisis, notably missing both halves of their feared central partnership of Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic.
Group F table toppers Arsenal, ahead of Napoli on goal difference, is rising to the challenge the group requires through the inspirational Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil and will seek to seal a Round of 16 place today. Arsene Wenger’s men need win at home against Marseille, yet to collect a point this UCL season, to assure they advance on what promises to be another electric European night.
Also in UCL action today:
*all games kickoff at 2:45 ET, except the Atletico Madrid and Zenit St Petersburg match in Russia, which begins at noon ET
The games: FC Basel v Chelsea, St Jakob-Park, Basel, Switzerland
Stea Bucuresti v Schalke, Stadionul Ghencea, Bucharest, Romania
The stakes: Back in September on the first week of UCL group stage play, Basel scored a famous victory at Stamford Bridge coming back from a goal down to score eight minutes from time and win 2-1. That turned the whole group into doubt. Since then, Jose Mourinho’s Blues have responded with three wins on the trot, including two against second-placed Schalke.
Now Chelsea have a chance to secure advancement with a point, or take a huge step toward top spot with a win. If Basel, just one point behind the Germans with five, goes back to the upset well, they could leapfrog into second. Schalke will be looking to secure their position on travels to Romania where they meet Steaua Bucharesti, a team they defeated 3-0 earlier in the competition.
The games: Zenit St. Petersburg v Atletico Madrid, Petrovski Stadium, St. Petersburg, Russia
FC Porto v Austria Vienna, Estadio do Dragao, Porto, Portugal
The stakes: Atletico Madrid, led by the likes of Diego Costa, Koke and David Villa, has had their way with this quartet, triumphing in four of four contests, scoring 12 goals and only conceding twice. That’s good enough for Los Colchoneros to be out of sight in first place with two games still to play.
Zenit St Petersburg and Porto are left to fight it out for second, with Hulk, Axel Witsel and their Russian-based compatriots hoping to catch Atletico uninterested to help the Zenitchiki underscore or extend their one point lead over the Portuguese champions. Faltering at home could prove problematic for Zenit as Porto should be able to be victorious in Vienna today.
The games: Ajax v Barcelona, Amsterdam Arena, Amsterdam, Holland
Celtic v AC Milan, Celtic Park, Glasgow, Scotland
The stakes: Barcelona, playing without Lionel Messi and goalkeeper Victor Valdes, can lock up top spot with a win or a draw and an AC Milan loss or draw in Scotland.
The Rossoneri, in the midst of a less than stellar patch of form, will be desperate for points as they are only one ahead of Dutch champions Ajax and two in front of Celtic. Second place in this group comprised of four former UCL champions is all for the taking.
What match are you most looking forward to watching today? Who do you think will be advancing from Groups E, F, G and H?