Ian Hawkey looks at some of the finer talking points as we approach the final round of group games
Champions League talking points: Is finishing first a mixed blessing?
An English clean sweep?
All five Premier League clubs are not only on course to make the last 16, with one group match remaining, but, with positive home results this week for Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, to all take top spot in all their respective mini-leagues.
A clean sweep of first-places would certainly mean some busy airports around London and the north-west in early March, as the flourishing five, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool would all be at home for the second legs.
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Finishing first: a mixed blessing
It’s an argument rehearsed every year: How valuable is it really to gain top spot rather than second place? Home advantage in the second leg can feel reassuring with the away-goals rule, but it is not always the case that the quality of you next opponent will be higher if you do not top the group. If there is an English spread across the seeded positions, then, as things currently stand, there is a very high chance of a Premier League club meeting Juventus, or Bayern Munich, or – Spurs excepted – title-holders Real Madrid.
Portuguese peril, German jitters
Since Porto lifted the European Cup in 2004, the last 16 has lacked a Portuguese presence just twice. With Benfica disastrously anchored to the bottom of Group A already and Sporting needing a win against Barcelona coupled with a Juventus setback against Olympiakos in Group D, Porto carry the hopes of a country which is, after all, the reigning European champions at international level.
Porto’s position is delicate, equal on points with novices RB Leipzig, who would overtake Porto and clinch second place in Group G if they win at home against already qualified Besiktas, and Porto cannot beat Monaco, the club they defeated in the final 13 years ago.
If Porto come through, then it will leave the Bundesliga looking a little thin, with only Bayern Munich in the next phase. That’s out of four German teams who began the Champions League journey. Hoffenheim fell out in the play-off round in August; Borussia Dortmund perished last month.
Sergio Ramos set a new, unwanted record on Saturday, the Real Madrid captain’s red card against Athletic Bilbao the 19th of his Primera Liga career. Nobody in the history of Spain’s top flight has ever been sent off as many times. Ramos is now just one red card away from reaching his quarter-century of dismissals in all competitions. And he established a new landmark in the Champions League in his most recent outing: his 90th minute booking in the defeat against Spurs was his 33rd yellow card in the European Cup. No man, current or retired, has more.
Atletico Madrid have it all to do if they, the Champions League finalists in 2014 and 2016, are not to slip into the Europa League. Even if they beat Chelsea, they need Roma to drop points against Qarabag to finish second in Group C.
The problem? Looks like their new home, the ultra-modern Wanda Metropolitanostadium may be a factor. In the first 130 minutes of European football staged there, Atletico conceded as many goals – in losing 2-1 to Chelsea and drawing 1-1 with Qarabag – as they had let in through 18-and-a-half hours of Champions League action over the previous two seasons at the intimidating and rickety Vicente Calderon arena. Atleti can only hope that in the next 12 months they can make the Wanda their ally: it will host the Champions League final in 2019.
So will their newest signing. Diego Costa will be eligible to play for Atletico as soon as it is 2018, and, irony or ironies, must watch from afar tonight as his old club, Chelsea, determine whether his second spell at Atletico will start down in the Europa League.