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Champions League Preview

Chelsea v Nordsjaelland, 19:45

When you consider the group draw they got and the fact Chelsea are defending champions in this competition it seems entirely reasonable that the owner would not expect to see his side in danger of missing out on the knockout rounds, but I’m willing to be a fair few other managers would be very pleased if the Blue went out. Of all the games you could need to win a home tie with a Danish side would be a good pick, but the home team will need to display some fluency and thought to do so. Ladbrokes have 13/4 on Chelsea winning by 2 goals, and Rafa is never one to risk a potentially winning lead.

David Luiz is available after suspension, but although John Terry, Frank Lampard and Daniel Sturridge are close to full fitness the visit of the Danish champions comes too soon for the trio, which won’t help a Chelsea side that needs to beat Nordsjaelland and hope Shakhtar Donetsk defeat Juventus.

 

Man Utd v Cluj, 19:45

After the debacle of last season Sir Alex Ferguson will be delighted to finish the group with a home tie against Cluj, knowing United are already into the next stage as group winners. With the defensive issues the club are suffering in the league getting twelve points from five games in Europe is a good effort, but with Turkish, Romanian and Portuguese opposition the Red Devils were always expected to make light work of this section. Wayne Rooney is likely to start in a much-changed team, and may be a good shout to get the opening goal at 9/2 with Bet365.

Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic will not make his return from injury in this match despite some speculation to the contrary, and Shinji Kagawa is also not yet ready to come back for United, although the Japanese midfielder may be available on the weekend.

 

Celtic v Spartak Moscow, 19:45

Celtic must better Benfica’s result in Barcelona in order to progress to the last 16 of the tournament, and as tough as that sounds you know 100% of managers would rather take a home match against Spartak than needing to go to the Nou Camp and get a win. Ironically, the Portuguese may be too good a side to worry the Spanish giants, and Celtic know a draw here will probably be enough to get through to the next stage. I can see this being a nervy 1-0 to Celtic, at 8/1 with Victor Chandler, and Spartak may try to capitalise on those jitters.

Victor Wanyama is suspended but Scott Brown has been training without any discomfort and is ready to start, althoug Pat McCourt, James Forrest and Anthony Stokes all remain sidelined. Former Celtic midfielder Aiden McGeady, who has only recently returned from a foot injury, is a doubt for Spartak after picking up a knee knock in training.

 

Olympiakos v Arsenal, 19:45

Times are tough at Arsenal, and the fans constantly booing the man who has made their club into the home of passing football on these shores would do well to keep in mind that they could well drive Wenger away for good. Tonight we expect to see Arsenal rest players with a diffuclt run of gaes in the league coming up, but it is also worth pointing out that this year finishing top of your group is far from a guarantee of an easy game in round two. Betfred have 9’s on a 2-1 away win, and the Arsenal youngsters often play with a freedom their senior colleagues have struggled to find.

With the Gunners already into the knockout stage, Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski have injury issues while Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker are rested. Youngsters Zak Ansah, Sead Hajrovic, Elton Monteiro, Chuba Akpom and James Shea are all in contention to make their senior debuts.

 

Borussia Dortmund v Man City, 19:45

Aside from a reminder that City again have failed to make the grade in the Champions League, this match essentially represents a stark choice for Roberto Mancini about his after-Christmas workload. If City win and results elsewhere go their way they could be in the Europa League next stage, but a loss would make sure this is their last continental match of the season, and I’d expect the city hierarchy to eventually plump for option B and focus on the league. 188Bet have 28/5 on Dortmund winning by 2, a very real possibility if City are under-strength.

David Silva has been ruled out of Manchester City’s Champions League game at Borussia Dortmund and could miss Sunday’s Manchester derby with a hamstring injury. City will also be without suspended midfielder Yaya Toure tonight and Aleksandar Kolarov, who joined City’s injury list after limping off against Everton at the weekend, while fellow full-back Gael Clichy has an ankle problem. However, midfielder Jack Rodwell has travelled to Germany after returning to training following a hamstring injury.

Arsenal v Montpellier, 19:45

A fair few groups in the Champions League this year have been reduced to a three-team race, and Arsenal are in such a situation right now, but pleased to be facing the fourth. Montpellier are already out of this competition and only have a remote chance of trading in their failure for a pop at the Europa league, so Wenger will expect to see a dominant performance from his side knowing that if Schalke beat Olympiakos and Arsenal can win they will be through. I like the 9/1 with Victor Chandler on a 3-0 Arsenal win, and fully expect Arsenal to take the points.

Theo Walcott will miss the match, and be joined in the stands by Andre Santos, but Kieran Gibbs and Gervinho return from injury to make the Gunners squad. Benjamin Stambouli, injured forward John Utaka, full-back Garry Bocaly and suspended striker Souleymane Camara are all out for Montpellier.

 

Manchester City v Real Madrid, 19:45

As a druid once said, ‘You know nothing of the crunch’, but Manchester City are becoming experts in that particular cliché and probably wish that weren’t the case. If you were to accept that City will play for their lives at least once a year it would seem obvious not to pick an opponent with the greatest manager of the modern era in charge and one of arguably the two greatest players of all time in their lineup, but that is how the cookie has crumbled for Roberto Mancini and he has to deal with it. Ronaldo is 4/1 as first goalscorer with VoctorChandler, and there is no team in the world truly safe when defending against the greasy mastermind.

Gael Clichy is out of the match, Mario Balotelli is also doubtful with a back problem and Micah Richards is an absentee because of a knee injury but midfielder James Milner is expected to return following a hamstring strain.

Juventus v Chelsea, 19:45

It would be unfair to say Roberto Di Matteo is in desperate need of a win, but this game against Juventus is maybe a touch more complex than fans could have anticipated it would be when the group stages were drawn, and the same pretty much goes for the home team. With Shakhtar throwing a spanner in the works this time around whoever gets the three points tonight, should either team manage that, will have achieved the double bonus of improving their own fate and denting the hopes of a potential contender, so a lot is on the line. Sebastian Giovinco looks set to start, and at 15/2 with Paddy Power he could be a good shout for first scorer.

Juan Mata, Oscar, Ramires and Branislav Ivanovic will all be recalled, and could be joined by Ashley Cole who is returning from an ankle injury, but John Terry will miss out. Andrea Pirlo is back for Juve after being banned, but Mirko Vucinic has flu, so Fabio Quagliarella and Sebastian Giovinco could make up the forward line in the Montenegrin’s absence.

 

Benfica v Celtic, 19:45

Neil Lennon and Celtic have always had a degree of pressure over their heads from the historical successes their club has enjoyed, but this year the green and white look to be writing their own chapter in the annals of the game rather than looking backwards, and a win in Portugal is the only way they could possibly top the victory over Barcelona in some eyes. Of course it won’t be easy, but I think the 8/1 with SkyBet on a 1-1 is definitely not an impossible result, especially if the set-plays continue to work smoothly.

Celtic manager Neil Lennon says only two out of Scott Brown, Joe Ledley and striker Gary Hooper are certain to be fit, but refused to name which player is struggling to feature.  Georgios Samaras and Kris Commons will both make the squad.

 

Galatasaray v Man Utd, 19:45

Having already qualified after four games is a marked improvement on how United went in this competition last year, and the relief Sir Alex will feel at not having to go to Turkey needing a result will be not inconsiderable too. The home side are still capable of making it through, and as a result this could be a very tough evening for the inexperienced line-up likely to be wearing the United kits, and I’d be tempted by the 3/1 with Stan James on Galatasaray winning by a one-goal margin if this weren’t such an unpredictable match.

Manchester United have left a number of senior players at home, including Wayne Rooney,Robin van Persie, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Patrice Evra and David de Gea , while Nani (hamstring), Shinji Kagawa (knee) and Jonny Evans (groin) are missing through injury.

Braga v Manchester United, 19:45

Although the away side only need a point from their last three games in this group to be sure of qualification Sir Alex Ferguson will fancy winning the group and taking the slightly easier draw in the first knockout stages. Braga are a decent side, but not beyond the reaches of the United squad and I’d expect a point to be the minimum expectation from a side that have just ascended to the head of the Premier League table. At 15/2 with Bet365 I’d be tempted to back Javier Hernandez as first goalscorer, and that’s all the more likely if Ferguson rests a few of the first team.

Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes are not in Manchester United’s squad for this one, but Chris Smalling, returning from a broken metatarsal, did train and is included. Phil Jones, Shinji Kagawa and Nemanja Vidic are all out through injury.

 

Celtic v Barcelona, 19:45

If the heroics in Catalonia did one thing for the boys in the hooped shirts it was restore a sense, that had admittedly been growing after their first two games, that the side are not just cannon-fodder at this level. For a while Celtic seemed to use their Champions League qualification as a route into the UEFA Cup, as it was, but if they could get a point tonight they’ll be in great shape to make it into the next round, and even a defeat would not be a disaster. Personally I’m not convinced by Barcelona at the moment, but they are still an awesome attacking force and a 1-1 draw, at 10/1 with Victor Chandler, may be Celtic’s best realistic potential result.

Emilio Izaguirre, Thomas Rogne, James Forrest and Lassad have all been ruled out for Celtic, Gary Hooper is also very doubtful, but it is hoped that fellow striker Georgios Samaras will be available. Gerard Pique is back from injury for Barcelona, but Adriano joins Carles Puyol and Thiago in being missing through injury, with Sergio Busquets suspended.

 

Chelsea v Shakhtar Donetsk, 19:45

First plays second in group E this evening, but I’m not sure many would have expected it to be the Londoners trailing in the wake of Ukraine’s finest at the halfway stage of this phase. A home win would put Chelsea in a very good position and also take a bit of pressure off their game with Juventus, who in third will be even more unhappy with their progress to this point. The 11/2 with Ladbrokes on Chelsea winning by a 2-goal margin would be a relatively safe bet, but this Chelsea sides is far from the finished article and can misfire.

Ashley Cole has been ruled out with a hamstring injury but John Terry is expected to return to the team. Juan Mata and David Luiz will undergo late fitness tests after picking up knocks and Frank Lampard is still at least a week away from match fitness.

Manchester City v Ajax, 19:45

In defence of Roberto Mancini I doubt any of the four English sides in the Champions League this year would have much fancied a group with Ajax, Dortmund and Real Madrid, but you have to play the hand you are dealt and there is a feeling the Italian has underachieved even given the low expectations. He is right to point out that it took Chelsea a long time to find their rhythm at this level, and probably won’t lose his job over this result, but the pressure is on the home side to win and keep their slim hopes of qualification alive. Victor Chandler have 17/2 on a 1-0 home win, which would be enough for now without thrilling the boss.

For City Joleon Lescott and James Milner failed to make the side at West Ham on Saturday and are major doubts while Micah Richards, Maicon, David Silva and Jack Rodwell are all definitely out and Kolo Toure is not registered for the competition. Ajax could select the same starting 11 that won in Amsterdam, with Niklas Moisander available for selection after serving a league suspension.

 

Schalke 04 v Arsenal, 19:45

After round one between these two sides this looks like being a fairly straightforward game for the Germans, but I’m not sure even Schalke were truly expecting the kind of victory they picked up in London, and I’m certain Arsene Wenger will want to see more from his players. The defeat to United has raised fairly tired questions about the policies in place at the club, but in reality those won’t go away without some success and at this point there is every chance the Gunners will make it through to the knockout stages. It’s a bit of a long shot, but the 11/2 on Arsenal winning by a one-goal margin with Stan James may be worth a look, although the home side are certainly favourites.

Arsene Wenger makes one change from their last match, with James Shea in for ineligible keeper Damian Martinez. Theo Walcott will be assessed after an illness, but Wojciech Szczesny, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho, Kieran Gibbs, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey are all still out. Schalke centre-back Kyrgiakos Papadopoulos is a doubt after suffering a cut above his eyebrow on Saturday.

 

Ajax v Manchester City, 19:45

If the Ajax team of 95 were magically recreated today Manchester City would be right at the front of the queue to throw millions of pounds in the direction of Amsterdam, but as it is the current Ajax side is a bit of a shadow of that glorious generation. Christian Erisken is the current jewel in the Dutch crown, although he is actually a Dane and may well be moving to take up a greater challenge in the near future, and if City can get a good handle on the young midfielder they’ll have gone some way to nullifying the Ajax threat. Dzeko has been pushing for a start and scoring freely, and at 13/2 with BWin to score first he could be a good shout to continue that.

Manchester City are without David Silva and Vincent Kompany, possibly their two best and most influential players. With Kolo Toure not registered for this stage of the Champions League, it means Matija Nastasic is likely to partner Joleon Lescott in central defence, and Mancini’s options are further limited by injuries to Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia and Maicon.

 

Arsenal v Schalke 04, 19:45

These are two young, developing sides with fans who can bring to mind more successful recent periods, but tonight Arsenal host Schalke with the express intention of taking the win and moving within touching distance of the knockout stages. Already holding top spot and nine points in Group B, a win for the Gunners would put them a eight clear of second with nine left to play for, so the emphasis from Arsene Wenger is likely to be on getting the job done inside ninety minutes now rather than having to fight for the full six matches. Victor Chandler have 15/1 on a 3-1 home win, which would be a fantastic result for the Gunners.

Laurent Koscielny has returned to the Arsenal squad but forward Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain misses out with the hip injury he picked on Saturday. Jack Wilshere, Emmanuel Frimpong and Bacary Sagna played for the Under-21 side on Monday as they recover from injuries but are unlikely to feature and Theo Walcott did a running session on Tuesday but is not match fit.

Manchester United v Braga, 19:45

It will have disappointed Sir Alex Ferguson to see his club dragged back into the race row, albeit not through anything the great man himself has done, and that probably explains the level of ire directed initially at Rio Ferdinand over the t-shirt refusal, but winning is what Ferguson does and he has quickly refocused on that. Braga are not a top team, but as good as some who came to trouble United on their home patch last term, and as a result the team-talk will most likely emphasise the need to start strong and engage the crowd. I quite like the 11’s Stan James have on a 3-1 win, but a lot could depend on team selection for United.

Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra are set to be rested, with Alexander Buttner is likely to deputise at left-back and Scott Wootton potentially slotting into the centre of defence. Ashley Young is available after recovering from a knee injury, and Shinji Kagawa, Tom Cleverley and Ryan Giggs could all return after having a restful weekend.

 

Shakhtar Donetsk v Chelsea, 19:45

In some ways Shakhtar and Chelsea share a few things in common, not least the fact they were both new money teams who have since been surpassed by even wealthier types on the domestic front, but in terms of quality it is clear the current Chelsea squad has a rare level of skill. Every match brings the players closer to a full understanding of each other, and the intelligent movement of Fernando Torres has not gone unnoticed by those who watch the Blues on a weekly basis either. Former Arsenal man Eduardo is 5/2 as an anytime scorer with SportingBet, and has lost none of his skill since leaving our shores.

Chelsea are expected to recall John Terry for the match against Shakhtar Donets, as the four-game suspension he is serving only relates to domestic football, but there were no new injury problems reported after the win over Spurs.

 

Barcelona v Celtic, 19:45

It is difficult to know where Neil Lennon will start in this game, as all conventional wisdom goes out of the window when you play against the best club team in the world. For a start you need a combination of incredibly committed defending and supremely incisive attack to have any hope of troubling the Catalan side, and Celtic can realistically only hope for one of those two. When you factor in the awe some players feel in the Nou Camp it looks like mission impossible, but at least the away team will be used to the level of noise, or maybe even underwhelmed by it. I hope for Celtic’s sake the home team don’t cut loose, but at 13/8 to win by 4 or more with Stan James Barca are heavy favourites to do a demolition job on their guests.

Scott Brown, James Forrest, Georgios Samaras and Kris Commons are all in Celtic’s travelling party after the quartet missed Saturday’s win at St Mirren. Kelvin Wilson suffered a calf complaint during the match in Paisley and is a doubt, while Dylan McGeouch and Lassad Nouioui are sidelined. Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets is suspended, while Carles Puyol and Dani Alves are injured and Gerard Pique is struggling to overcome a foot injury in time.

Arsenal v Olympiakos, 19:45

The Gunners were very pleased to come home from France and their opening trip in the Champions League with a win, but a shaky 2-1 win in Montpellier didn’t convince many in Spain, Germany or Manchester that Arsene Wenger has a team to really worry about. The result against Chelsea only backed up the point that the loss of quality over the summer hasn’t resulted in a better Gunners squad, obviously, and Olympiakos will need to be treated with respect if this is to be a game that ends in a home win.

It is almost certain that Arsenal will have a fitness worry over Abou Diaby, or BRB as he is coming to be known such is the amount of time he spends injured, and this game will be too much too soon for the returning Jack Wilshere, who only managed 60 minutes of an under-21 match with West Brom. I quite like the 6’s on a 2-0 with Boylesports, and I expect after the Chelsea result they would have been working hard on defending.

 

Manchester City v Borussia Dortmund, 19:45

Dortmund come to Manchester this evening without much of a fanfare, but this is a side that has kept Bayern down for two consecutive seasons and for that reason alone the home team have to focus for the full ninety minutes. Robert Lewandowski is still the star turn for the Germans, but even with the loss of Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United hasn’t really hurt Dortmund and for United to break down the defensive partnership of Subotic and Hummels will take some serious inspiration. On the other hand, the Dortmund defence hasn’t quite clicked this term, so it may be easier than at times in the past.

With any luck City won’t be subjected to the terrible refereeing they have endured in the Premier League lately, but even more concerning than that for Mancini will be the drop-off in form shown by Vincent Kompany. Everyone is sadly forced to endure the Halseys of the world, but last year the Belgian was the rock on which opposition attacks founded, and his loss of form is damaging the club on the pitch. Sergio Aguero is 5/1 with Stan James to score the first, and should have more luck here than of late.

Spartak Moscow v Celtic, 17:00

It is a measure of the task facing Neil Lennon that Spartak Moscow put two goals past Barcelona at the Nou Camp and very nearly upset the Spanish behemoth in the opening round of games, and of course the fact they only nearly managed to win means the Russians also have more motivation to get three point here, combined with the extra belief. Celtic did well to get a point in their first game, but to have a realistic chance of joining Barca in the next round they need to start winning. William Hill have 15/2 on a 1-1, which would be a good result and could be made possible by changes to the Spartak lineup.

Right-back Adam Matthews is a doubt for Celtic’s Champions League clash with Spartak Moscow, and Lassad Nouioui is out with a calf injury but Georgios Samaras, Beram Kayal and Joe Ledley are all on the comeback trail, and could feature this evening. Spartak will be without first-choice goalkeeper Andriy Dykan, captain Sergei Parshivlyuk, Brazil international Romulo and leading striker Welliton, while Evgeni Makeev, Nicolas Pareja, Marek Suchy and Kirill Kombarov are all doubtful in fitness terms.

 

CFR Cluj v Manchester United, 19:45

Although Cluj are only a recent addition to the pantheon of European sides in the consciousness of many people, their run last year and a 2-0 win over Portuguese outfit Braga in the opening round of this group have proved they are no mugs, and for Manchester United to get three point this eveing will be no easy task. A win over Galatasary in their first game got them off to a good start, but the memory of last year and the Europa League will still haunt the manager as he plots a route to the knockout stages. The 5’s with SkyBet on United to win by 3 or more may be a bit insulting to Cluj, but the Reds do play well against the smaller teams.

Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Antonio Valencia were missing from the Manchester United squad which travelled to CFR Cluj, with Sir Alex Ferguson being forced for fitness reasons to dilute the quality of his travelling band.

 

FC Nordsjaelland v Chelsea, 19:45

Danish teams rarely make an impact in the Champions League and tonight the home team have a real chance to change that. FC Nordsjaelland are not a famous or easily pronounced name in the game, but playing the champions is an opportunity for their players to gain exposure and potentially a famous win, if things go their way. Chelsea are a very good team, but there is a slight lack of depth to the squad which suggests they could be vulnerable with too many changes. However, with Fernando Torres on form and fit, they are dangerous and the Spaniard is 7/2 to score the opener with Stan James.

Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge misses out with a hamstring problem, and Frank Lampard is set to return to the side as Roberto Di Matteo rotates in order to keep everyone happy and fit. Although it will please the player, the club will need to monitor Fernando Torres as the Spain star has started every game this season, and has a history of fragility.