LONDON: Six clubs enter this week’s final round of Champions League group matches harbouring hopes of grabbing one of the three last-16 places still up for grabs although for holders Chelsea their fate is beyond their control.
The Londoners are vying with Juventus for the second qualifying spot from Group E but even if they beat Nordsjaelland at Stamford Bridge tomorrow they will become the first champions to go out at the group stage if the Italians avoid defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk.
Interim Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez, an unpopular choice with the fans after he succeeded the sacked Roberto Di Matteo 12 days ago, has done little to win the supporters over after losing one and drawing two of his three games in charge.
“We have to improve on the pitch in order for the fans to be happy,” Benitez told the club website (www.chelseafc.com).
“We have experienced players who have played at this level for a long time. You can see how they train and it’s clear they want to improve.”
Celtic and Benfica still have a chance to join Group G winners Barcelona in the knockout rounds while Galatasaray or CFR Cluj will end Group H as runners-up.
For the other teams already assured of a place in the last-16 draw (to be announced on December 20), their final matches will determine whether they progress as group winners.
Even some of those with no chance of progressing will be eyeing consolation prizes in the Europa League.
Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat by Juventus last month left their hopes of surviving Group E hanging by a thread.
The move to replace Di Matteo with Benitez was designed to try and re-ignite a fading season that had begun in style but instead the club are still stuck in a downward spiral that gathered pace at the weekend when Chelsea were hammered 3-1 by West Ham United.
The Stamford Bridge club are without a victory in seven matches and discontent is rife as fans openly vent their frustration at the decision to replace the Champions League-winning Di Matteo.
While Shakhtar are formidable opponents at home, Juventus will go there full of confidence after a 3-0 win against Torino on Saturday cemented their place at the top of Serie A.
Victory would also see Juventus go through as group winners.
The Italians were held 1-1 by Ukrainians Shakhtar in October and Juve midfielder Claudio Marchisio said he was well aware of the dangers that lurk in Donetsk.
“We can’t go on to the pitch hoping to take it easy,” he said. “We’ve got to play like Juve always do.
“Saturday’s win gives us a lot of motivation to face Shakhtar who I believe are the toughest team in the group.”
Scotland’s sole representatives Celtic will reach the last-16 for the first time since 2008 if they better Benfica’s result at Barcelona when they host Spartak Moscow tomorrow.
“We have to rise to the occasion. We have to win the game,” Celtic manager Neil Lennon told the media after his weakened side were surprisingly held 1-1 by Arbroath in the Scottish Cup at the weekend.
Turkish side Galatasaray look favourites to win their scrap for the Group H runners-up spot as they travel to bottom club Braga needing to match what Romanians Cluj manage against leaders Manchester United at Old Trafford tomorrow.
The only issue to be resolved in Paris today is whether Paris St Germain can overtake Porto with a victory over the Group A leaders.
Bayern Munich will also guarantee top spot in Group F ahead of Valencia with victory against BATE Borisov tomorrow.
Manchester City have been eliminated from the group stage for the second year running and will even miss out on the Europa League if they fail to triumph at Group D winners Borussia Dortmund today. REUTERS