x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

End of Uefa Champions League road looms for one of the big three

Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Arsenal are barely clinging to their respective spots in Uefa Champions League, writes Ian Hawkey.

Arsene Wenger has Arsenal atop the Premier League table as different challenges await in the Uefa Champions League. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images
Arsene Wenger has Arsenal atop the Premier League table as different challenges await in the Uefa Champions League. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

In the Uefa Champions League, providing exhilaration is no guarantee of enduring in the competition. Over the next two match days, the tournament will lose one of the three teams who, by virtue of their flair, have accumulated significant followings among neutrals, of which there are millions who watch the Uefa Champions League worldwide.

For the large numbers of lifetime devotees of Arsenal, Napoli or Borussia Dortmund, the disappointment will be felt even harder.

Napoli take on Dortmund this evening and confront the so-called Yellow Wall, the bank of fans who jump and chant in unison, creating one of the most vibrant atmospheres in the sport. If any team can get used to that, it should be Napoli.

Their San Paolo arena is another uniquely expressive theatre, and part of their appeal when, two seasons ago, Napoli were such a welcome addition to the Champions League cast. Their exciting, attacking style then also won friends.

But after two decades outside Europe’s elite, Napoli still carry a low Uefa seeding. Dortmund, despite their silver medal from the 2012/13 campaign, are short on accumulated Uefa co-efficient points. Which is why these two powerful outfits found themselves grouped with experienced Arsenal in Group F.

It has been a gripping, hard-to-predict, joust, the one let-up for the leading trio the lacklustre showing of Marseille, seeded higher than Dortmund and Napoli, but so far defeated in all four of their matches.

Marseille are at Arsenal on Tuesday night, and a victory for the English club, coupled with a point or more for Napoli, would eliminate Dortmund, finalists at Wembley last May. The European Cup would lose one of its most watchable sides.

But then, so are Rafael Benitez’s Napoli, and there is an argument that some of the most attractive football anywhere this season has been constructed by Arsenal, currently at the top of the Premier League.

All three contenders have frailties. Arsenal, Napoli and Dortmund have each been defeated domestically this month by the champions of their respective leagues.

Arsenal at the weekend put behind them their setback at Manchester United with a 2-0 win against Southampton.

“When you lose a big game like that, it’s on your mind and it’s hard to digest,” said Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager. “A win in our next game was vital.”

No such cushion for Napoli, who followed up a 3-0 reverse against Juventus with a 1-0 loss, on Saturday, to Parma.

“We are not passing the ball as well as we can,” said Benitez, who has travelled to Germany without the injured playmaker Marek Hamsik.

For Dortmund, the hangover from a heavy defeat, and the problems of unfit absentees, are far greater.

Beaten 3-0 at home by Bayern Munich over the weekend, and knowing they lag behind Napoli because of their defeat in Naples on the opening match day, Dortmund are under the heaviest pressure in Group F.

“Half of my grey hairs have emerged in the last week,” said Jurgen Klopp, the head coach.

On Tuesday night, he must try to cling to a place in the Champions League without any of his first-choice back four or midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, all injured. Dynamic Dortmund have lately looked more like Drained Dortmund.

Chelsea want to ride recent momentum into last 16

Knocked out in the group stage last season as the defending champions, Chelsea need only a draw against Basel in Switzerland on Tuesday night to clinch their place in the last 16, and a fourth successive win in Group E will see them advance as winners of the section.

Chelsea won at St Jakob-Park last season in the semi-finals of the Europa League, but will be wary of the Swiss champions, having lost 2-1 when they met in London in September.

Chelsea come into the game fresh from a 3-0 win at West Ham United that left them in third place in the Premier League. They have lost just one of their last 13 games in all competitions.

Adriano adds to Barcelona’s walking wounded

Barcelona can count on midfielder Xavi for their visit to Ajax on Tuesday, but full-back Adriano has joined the Spanish champions’ growing injury list.

Barcelona are already without Lionel Messi, goalkeeper Victor Valdes, defender Jordi Alba and defender Dani Alves, all because of injury.

Marc Montaya is the only remaining full-back in the squad.

Ronaldo doubtful with hamstring injury

Cristiano Ronaldo is doubtful for Real Madrid’s Uefa Champions League match against Galatasaray on Wednesday after doctors confirmed he has a hamstring strain.

Ronaldo left a medical examination on Monday telling reporters, “I am fine”, but Madrid said they will monitor the injury.


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