When the Champions League kicks-off tonight, there will be qualifications on the line and jobs at stake. It is by no means one of those boring group stage days.
As far as qualification is concerned, then Juventus, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, AC Milan, Benfica and Barcelona will all be looking for wins to stay in the hunt/seal qualification.
But the champions are always under more scrutiny. For them, it's simple: get a point or flirt with becoming the first defending champions to not qualify from their group — a record no club would like to own.
Roberto Mancini could also do with a win against Real Madrid. But more importantly, Champions League winner and Roman Abramovich's favourite manager till date — Roberto di Matteo — is in danger of becoming Abramovich's former favourite manager and newest friend off the pitch.
The rift in the dressing room after the loss to West Bromwich hasn't helped the Italian's case.
In short, Di Matteo needs points or he may be sacked prematurely -- something that the English press, who cannot seem to wait for this season's first sacking, certainly wouldn't mind.
His problems seem to have cropped up suddenly. He seems to have done nothing wrong. In fact, a few weeks back, we were writing about how Chelsea are the most stylish team in the EPL. They were first in the table for seven consecutive weeks.
But then came the loss to Shakhtar Donetsk, followed by another one to Man United. They did win a thriller against United in the League Cup and beat Shakhtar in the return leg, but then draws against Swansea and Liverpool and the loss to West Bromwich have left them four points behind leaders Manchester City and three behind 2nd placed United.
Keeping just the Champions League in mind, they desperately need points in an extremely close group. Shakhtar are 1st with seven points, Chelsea 2nd with seven too and Juventus 3rd with six. Every team has two games in hand.
Let's say Juventus beat Chelsea and Shakhtar, as expected, beat Nordsjaelland. That will take Juve to nine points and Shakhtar to 10, while Chelsea will drop to 3rd with seven. It then goes down to depending on Shakhtar vs Juventus a fortnight later to qualify.
Sympathisers will say that there is no reason for Di Matteo to be under pressure. But, we all know Chelsea and their whims. Abramovich has fired managers due to failure in Europe and despite them winning domestic trophies.
So, not qualifying from the group stages should come under the 'inexcusable' list of things-to-do if you're on his payroll.
What is intriguing is the fact that Chelsea are playing good attacking football and still losing. It's the little controversies that nag and pull at them — the John Terry case, the Mike Clattenburg-Obi Mikel issue, the fan who was arrested for racism and most recently the dressing room bust-up.
The number of controversies have gone to such a level, that even if a journalist makes up something and writes about it, people might tend to believe it if it's Chelsea (the same happens with Mario Balotelli too).
The players are certainly at fault. Fernando Torres' Resurrection has stopped midway. Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar have too much at hand and Frank Lampard is sulking on the bench. It would also help if Terry started defending on the pitch, and not in court.
Add to that the pressure of playing against the most consistent team in Europe — Juventus have lost only one game at home in the last two seasons and win 69.5% of their matches in Turin, and they face a daunting task.
The other dilemma is this: continue playing attractive football and risk dips in form, or revert to a more defensive set-up. The former was being lauded recently and their fans and owners don't want the latter.
The players have backed Di Matteo but he is in a fix. He needs a result, he needs his team to back him up and he needs it more than ever.
And with Manchester City up next on 25 November, he better get it.
First Published On : Nov 20, 2012 17:57 IST