DAVID SHONFIELD: Things are about to get serious

Tonight is when the Champions League starts to get serious.

By match day four the top clubs are looking to close out qualification while others begin to think apprehensively about the fixture list and chilly Thursday nights in Warsaw or Moscow. It may not quite be sudden death from now on, but the nerves are starting to twitch in Turin, as well as Manchester and Liverpool.

“This is the first crucial match of the season,” says Claudio Marchisio. Juventus have endured some mixed results over the past month, and that’s putting it kindly. Consecutive defeats against their group rivals Atletico Madrid and Olimpiakos have coincided with two setbacks in Serie A. All these games were away from home, and Juventus are still top of the league. They should turn it round against the Greeks, but it is that turnaround aspect that makes this week’s clashes interesting.

The Champions League becomes a bit more like a cup competition with consecutive fixtures against the same opponents. There is an opportunity to bounce back from a beating, although in some cases the chances may seem remote.

Remote, but not impossible. Teams have turned round heavy defeats on several occasions at this stage, even if it has not usually enabled them to qualify. If you include slightly soft draws, such as Slavia Prague against Arsenal and Genk against Chelsea, the list of successful underdogs swells to 10 in these back-to-back encounters.

Anderlecht pulled off an unlikely 1-1 draw against Paris St Germain last season after going down 5-0 in the first game. Basle managed to win a point in Barcelona in 2008, also after losing the first match 5-0.

Arsenal fans will remember Shakhtar springing a surprise win in Donetsk after a 5-1 drubbing at the Emirates, a result that allowed the Ukrainians to finish top of the group.

Further back, outsiders such as Real Betis, Sturm Graz and Anderlecht have all picked up three points on the rebound from a heavy defeat.

It does happen, even if you’d only risk a small flutter on Roma’s chances in the Allianz Arena or on Liverpool tonight in the Bernabeu.

Pep Guardiola’s side has just seen off Borussia Dortmund, never easy even against a Dortmund side that’s struggling in the Bundesliga.

Carlo Ancelotti has just achieved the longest winning run in Real Madrid’s long history and his team, like Bayern, are now strong favourites for the league title.

Even the best teams can let their guard down in these situations.

However, the crucial matches this week will be those where head-to-head results could be decisive.

Over the past two seasons we have seen Benfica lose out on points to Olympiakos and Manchester City on goal difference to Bayern. It can get even tighter than that. Chelsea were tied with Shakhtar on 10 points at the end of the 2012-13 group stage and went out of the tournament on away goals.

Juventus-Olympiakos has the ingredients to be that sort of tie-breaker, and there will be some tension in tonight’s early game in St Petersburg beween Zenit and Bayer Leverkusen, who are two goals to the good from their first match. The Russians are not straightforward opposition on home ground, and Leverkusen went down 1-0 in Hamburg on Saturday after a battle that had more yellow cards than goal chances.

Group B has the clash of the outsiders, Basle and Ludogorets, which could yet complicate life for Liverpool.

Even Barcelona may be slightly concerned about their game with Ajax tomorrow after their shock home defeat at the weekend, especially as they face APOEL, the most dangerous of minnows, in the next round of matches.

The Champions League has a habit of producing at least one memorable performance at this point, usually against the odds. In 2011 it was APOEL’s last-minute triumph in Nicosia, which was to send Porto reeling out of thetournament, with the Cypriots becoming their country’s first-ever qualifiers for the last 16.

A year later came Celtic’s remarkable 2-1 win against Barcelona. Twelve months ago it was Arsenal’s turn in Dortmund.

The usual view of the group stage is that it’s all too predictable. The outcome often is, but there is scope for a couple of upsets over the coming two nights.


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