DAVID SHONFIELD: Predictable Champions League group stage plods on

Europe’s football hierarchy is not known for piety. Its devotion is mostly to something more tangible than God, in particular to the Swiss franc.

But there may well be some discreet praying this evening and tomorrow night as the latest round of Champions League fixtures takes shape.

This week is what Uefa calls Matchday 4, and usually at this stage there is still a lot to play for, with qualifying groups in the balance and the chance of intriguing battles to come.

It could still happen, but it is also distinctly possible that come Thursday morning we will already know 11 of the 16 qualifiers for the knockout stage and the remaining two rounds of matches will seem almost redundant.

The group stage of the Champions League has never been the fiercest of competitions, but this season it threatens to turn into a procession.

The 11 clubs who can qualify this week are Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, Leicester, Juventus, and Sevilla.

There are those who claim the current format provides the best contest in world football but currently it looks horribly predictable.

Even the most entrenched Uefa officials will be hoping for one or two upsets.

Credit to Leicester, who are well set to win their group in their first-ever Champions League outing. But even that achievement is slightly tarnished because it is one of the weakest groups in the history of the competition.

Uefa’s reform of the seeding arrangements, with Pot One reserved for league champions, was well-intentioned but if anything it has made the group stage less interesting than before.

Only one of the eight groups — Group E, involving Monaco, CSKA Moscow, Tottenham, and Bayer Leverkusen — will still be in the balance, with all to play for, after tomorrow night.

There is a chance this group will go to the wire, even though Leverkusen have yet to win a game. In the past, 11 teams have managed to qualify from the group stage after failing to win any of their first three. However, losing to third-tier opposition in the German cup, even with a weakened side, was not the best preparation for their return match against Spurs.

Back-to-back fixtures give this week more of an edge, in theory anyway. Leverkusen were slightly unlucky only to draw against Spurs.

Similarly Napoli are smarting from their surprise defeat against Besiktas, the first time they have ever lost at home in the Champions League or European Cup. But they are not the side they were last year after selling Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus, and the injury to his Polish replacement Arkadiusz Milik leaves them without an obvious targetman.

Defeats against Roma, and most recently at Juventus, have also damaged their chances in Serie A.

Besiktas are a strong side at home — unbeaten in 12 games since February — but the hope for Napoli is a Turkish injury crisis. Besiktas have six players out injured or in doubt for tonight’s match, four of them in midfield, including Gokhan Inler, eager to make an impression against his former club after failing to make an impact for Leicester.

With due respect to Juventus and Lyon, the big game to watch is obviously in Manchester.

The first match somehow seemed destined to turn on a goalkeeping blunder, and Claudio Bravo duly provided it. With Bravo suspended, Zabaleta semi-fit, and Pep Guardiola ringing the changes at the back, City’s preparation for this match has been seriously blighted.

The odds clearly favour Barcelona, especially as they only need a draw to qualify and a win gives them complete control of the group. The hope for City is that the strange frailty that sometimes afflicts Barcelona in La Liga also infects this match. Andres Iniesta is injured and Luis Enrique has his own worries at the back with both Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba absent.

Even ignoring Barcelona’s surprise cup defeat against city rivals Espanyol, when they fielded a reserve team, their full-strength side, Messi, Suarez, and Neymar included, only managed a 1-0 win against Granada, who are odds-on for relegation.

Against Valencia they were saved from defeat by yet another Messi hat-trick. If Guardiola can get his side to do a job on Messi then an upset could be on.

It is a big if though. Barcelona’s former manager seems to be almost mesmerised by his former player. It is not impossible to stop Messi: Other managers have devised ways, both fair and foul. This is one of those occasions when a bit of (legal) skulduggery might be necessary to even up the contest. Not that the Uefa bigwigs would be praying for anything like that, though.


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