Big Champions League tests await Man City and Arsenal
The importance of qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Champions League as group winners couldn’t now be clearer with runners-up Manchester City (now 14/1 with Coral to win the trophy outright) and Arsenal (20/1) now facing huge tasks in the round of the last 16, whoever they are drawn against.
Both Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger tried to play down the disadvantage of not topping their respective groups – and you can particularly understand Pellegrini not wanting to make too much of it after miscalculating the last-day mathematics – but the reality will hit home when they are paired with either one of the big five clubs from Spain and Germany or PSG in Monday’s draw.
In contrast Chelsea (14/1) and Manchester United (18/1) are guaranteed relatively soft draws with their possible opponents comprising competition outsiders Galatasaray, Olympiakos, Zenit St Petersburg, AC Milan and one of the lesser German clubs.
AC Milan would appear to stand out from that group as the ones to avoid, but only on reputation; they are a shadow of the team they were just a few years ago and only just scraped through their group.
Of course, all these teams will have to be faced at some stage, but ideally later rather than sooner, especially for Chelsea and United, who, under new management and in a period of transition, are likely to become stronger as the season goes on.
The other way of looking at all this is that City and Arsenal will be the two teams the big beasts of Europe will be very keen to avoid – you wouldn’t write the two English clubs off against anybody on their day.
Arsenal seemed to run out of steam in Naples and were just a goal away from going out altogether, although that would have been extremely harsh, 12 points being the mathematical maximum a team can be eliminated with (that fate befell Napoli instead, while Zenit qualified from their group with just six points!).
City, of course, also have a new man at the helm and, aside from the problems he has with counting, Pellegrini has done what was urgently required of him at the Etihad – made it through to the Champions League knock-out stage.
Beating the mighty Bayern Munich in their own back yard will have given City a tremendous confidence boost.and the Premiership favourites are still, I feel, the best equipped of the English clubs to go all the way.
The other value bet for me is Atletico Madrid at Coral’s 18/1. They continue to fly just under the radar and I’ve even heard it said that they are the weakest of the eight group winners. But this is an extremely skilful, solid and well-organised outfit who just keep on impressing, both in La Liga and on the European stage.