With the world watching on, Manchester’s two clubs last night blundered and vomited as if drunk on the success of the current season. City, and to a lesser extent United, face an exit from the competition after indifferent results in what is usually a benign part of the Champions League. If the unthinkable were to happen and both English sides (Chelsea and Arsenal) lose tonight, we are faced with the prospect that an English side won’t reach the last 16.
City’s problems manifested themselves in their opponents scoring an early goal. Edison Cavani, a transfer target of the Abu Dhabi owned mega-club, registered the strike much to the delight of the firework-obsessed Neapolitan crowd. Balotelli, prior to chucking his guts up, registered a strike in his home country before the fire-cracker-fest continued with Cavani’s second. Boss Roberto Mancini will rue a few missed chances by his side and had he introduced Sergio Aguero for the faltering Edin Dzeko they would have got a goal. As it is they need a minor miracle to overhaul Napoli and go through to the next stage.
United still lie second in their group and will qualify barring a Swiss masterclass next week. Spain may be where Basle looks for the best available help. Another mistake from Iberian keeper David De Gea meant Alex Ferguson’s order of Paella was swiftly cancelled as his side failed to beat Benfica. It leads you to think both of these two going out isn’t such a ridiculous statement to make.
At least three teams have qualified for the knockout stages since the last 16 was reintroduced back in 2003/04. You have to go back as far as 1995/96 for the last time a team (Blackburn Rovers) didn’t even qualify for the knockout stages – albeit in a scaled back 24 team version of the competition. For just one club to qualify for the final 16 would simply be unprecedented compared to recent years with an English club making the final almost a given.
Arsenal look the most likely to qualify and can do so with a win over German opponents Borussia Dortmund later tonight. Dortmund did, however, manage to beat Bayern Munich at the weekend and need a win themselves to stay in the competition. Chelsea faces a trip to Leverkusen and a bout with former-midfielder Michael Ballack. Their hold on top spot is more precarious and Andre Villas-Boas won’t want to rely on beating Valencia at home on the next matchday.
More than anything else if these sides go out of the Champions League we’ll have one hell of a Premier League European-place race on our hands. It might be considered bad for English football if three or even all four bow out but as a neutral the Premier League may get the shot in the arm that makes it even more exciting than it is already.