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Champions League set for some much-needed drama Napoli, Dortmund and Arsenal battle for two spots

BERNE, Dec 9, (RTRS): The Champions League is set for some much-needed drama this week with the conclusion of a group stage which has been all too predictable and produced an embarrassing procession of one-sided matches. Eight places in the round of 16 are still up for grabs, with much of the attention focussed on Group F where Napoli, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal are battling for two spots. With Juventus and AC Milan each needing a point to qualify against tricky opponents, Italy could end up with all three of their teams in the last 16, or none at all. Benfica’s chances of reaching the final in their own Estadio da Luz are out of their hands and will be prematurely ended if Olympiakos beat winless Anderlecht, while their compatriots Porto also face an uphill battle.

Swiss champions Basel, whose two wins over Chelsea have provided the only real upsets, need a point to progress at the expense of Bundesliga side Schalke 04. Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, Zenit St Petersburg and Ajax Amsterdam are also still in with a chance of going through. Manchester United, Real Madrid, Paris St Germain, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona have safely qualified and can use the games to give their lesser-used players a run-out. So far, four games in the group stage have been won by five-goal margins, six games won by four goals and 13 matches have ended with a difference of three goals.  Despite the group stage’s predictable nature, this season has at least proved more competitive than last term when 13 of the 16 knockout stage places had been booked before the final round of group matches. aAs expected, Group F has turned out to be by far the toughest.

Leaders Arsenal (12 points) travel to Napoli (9) needing a draw, or a defeat by less than three goals, while Borussia Dortmund (9), will go through if they beat pointless Olympique Marseille away, regardless of the other result. Should Napoli and Dortmund both win, they will finish level with Arsenal on 12 points and the qualifiers will be decided by the results between the three teams. Group E will also have a dramatic finish when habitual over-achievers Basel (8 points) visit spectacularly inconsistent Schalke (7) needing a point to join Chelsea in the last 16. Despite their dismal domestic form, seven-times champions AC Milan (8) should get the point they need at home to Ajax Amsterdam (7) and follow Barcelona through from Group H.

“The Dutch have achieved great results and have good technique and we must take all the necessary precautions,” said Milan’s unflappable coach Massimiliano Allegri whose future is the source of constant speculation. “We have to score a goal, we cannot think of playing for the 0-0.” A point also appears to be well within the reach of Serie A leaders Juventus (6) when they visit Galatasaray (4) in Group B, especially as they Turks’ formidable home reputation took a huge knock when they were thrashed 6-1 by Real Madrid.
Juventus have won their last seven league games without conceding a goal and would be in the last 16 already had they not conceded a late goal at home to Galatasaray and drawn 2-2. “We made qualification more difficult for ourselves and it’s only right that now we have to resolve the situation,” said Juventus coach Antonio Conte.

Zenit St Petersburg (6) are favourites to follow Atletico Madrid through from Group G and give Russian football a boost as they visit winless debutants Austria Vienna for their final match. Porto (5) have a tough trip to Atletico and, although the Spaniards are already through, their Argentine coach Diego Simeone is not known for allowing his teams to relax. Benfica and Olympiakos (both 7 points) will duel for the second qualifying place in Group C where Paris St Germain are already through. The Greeks are firm favourites as they have the better head-to-head record and need only to beat bottom side Anderlecht at home while the Portuguese host formidable PSG. Group A, where Manchester United are qualified, is also set for a nerve-wracking finale.

Shakhtar Donetsk (8) are currently second, but must visit Old Trafford while Bayer Leverkusen, who are a point behind, have a much easier trip to Real Sociedad who have mustered only one point so far. Bayern Munich’s home clash with Manchester City, which should have been one of the highlights of the group stage, is effectively a friendly as both teams qualified from Group D with two games each to spare. Matches in Groups A to D will be played on Tuesday and Groups E to H on Wednesday.

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