The fourth round of games in the Champions League group stage is now completed, and the picture of which Americans in the competition will join in next year’s knock-out round or watch from their couch is beginning to come clear.
Two final games remain in group play. For some teams, a path to the final 16 in early-2022 is straightforward, if not already confirmed.
For some, well, we’ll get to Leipzig later.
So, whose teams are already in good shape for reaching the final 16, who has work to do, and who will, at best be fighting for the consolation prize of dropping into the Europa League? Let’s check it out.
The champs and The Old Lady
We might as well throw Christian Pulisic’s Chelsea and Weston McKennie’s Juventus into the same category since both of them are as good as qualified in Group H. Juventus have been perfect so far, winning all four games with a +7 goal differential, and are a mathematical certainty to qualify.
Chelsea’s lone blemish in the group, a 1-0 loss to Juventus on the second gameday, technically leaves them within firing range of third-place Zenit. However, a six-point turnaround by the Russians, while making up a five-goal differential, is almost certainly out of the question.
This doesn’t mean the group is a done deal. Aside from the joy of watching an in-form McKennie and a recently-returned Pulisic over the final two gamedays, the clash between the two leaders on November 23 in Stamford Bridge will be the decisive game for who wins the group, and one of the highlights of the entire group stage from the pure footballing standpoint.
Apart from that, the only thing that might keep the two Americans from participating in the first round of knock-out games in February and March would be if the neverending rumors of their transfers to new clubs actually come to fruition…but we’ll deal with that in the winter silly season.
USMNT battle for Group G
Everything is still up for grabs in Group G, where three US National Team regulars – Brenden Aaronson, John Brooks and Timothy Weah – all have solid chances to grab one of the top two spots. This turned out to be perhaps the most evenly-balanced group of the competition, with only Aaronson’s Salzburg managing more than a single win through the first four games, and each of the four teams still having a chance to win the group.
Truth be told, it’s difficult to make predictions about how this group will end up, and the form of the individual teams in the group only deepens the puzzle:
Salzburg should qualify if they win either of their last two games, either at Lille or home against Sevilla. Apart from the minor setback last week against Wolfsburg, they have been the best team in the group so they are the safest bet to go through one way or another.
Wolfsburg has been decidedly mediocre in all except their most recent win over Salzburg. Will the addition of a shiny new coach, namely one Florian Kohfeldt, most recently at the helm of the worst Werder Bremen teams in recent history, bring them through? They either have to win in Sevilla or at home against Lille to make it, which is not out of the question. Also, losing both games is well within the realm of possibility.
Lille are in a similar position, having underwhelmed through the first three games before claiming second place with an unlikely win at Sevilla last week. They next host Salzburg, which could put them into first with a win, but have demonstrated little reason so far to indicate they will manage it.
Based on all of this, the most likely scenario is that Wolfsburg, Lille and Sevilla will still be fighting it out for the last spot in the sixth and final round of games, with Brooks and Wolfsburg ever-so-slight favorites to join Aaronson and Salzburg in the final 16.
Lost dreams in Leipzig
In contrast to Group G, very little is still up for grabs, at least as far as Americans are concerned, in Group A, where Jesse Marsch has yet to notch his first Champions League victory for RB Leipzig.
To be fair, few would have expected the German upstarts, with USA team captain Tyler Adams a regular contributor in the midfield, to grab a top-two spot in a relative murderers’ row that contains competition favorites Manchester City and Paris St. Germain. However their failure to even take a point off of Belgium’s Club Brugge has left them already eliminated after four games, and even struggling for the consolation prize of Europa League qualification.
If they can beat Brugge on the road on November 24, then they do have a good chance of being placed in the preliminary knockout round of the new Europa League format. However if their European campaign so far is any clue, they have a much better chance of being able to avoid any long-distance European travel in early-2022.
We would be remiss to not mention Zack Steffen, who has sat on the bench as backup keeper for group leaders Manchester City in every game where he’s been available. Their passage to the final 16 is a practical, although not mathematical, certainty, however Steffen’s best shot at seeing the field will be if their final game in Leipzig on December 7 ends up being dead-rubber.
Dortmund: lessons on how to implode
Giovanni Reyna has been out for all of Dortmund’s first four group-stage games, and based on recent reports indicating that his recovery from a hamstring pull is hitting complications, will also miss their last two games.
The silver lining is that it’s impossible to attribute Dortmund’s European implosion to the American in any way whatsoever.
Dortmund was flying high with a perfect two wins from their first two games, albeit with an inferior goal differential to leaders Ajax, and a six-point lead over the two teams below. After a combined 7-1 capitulation to Ajax over the next two games, they are now in third, with an underwater goal differential, and a lot of work to do.
Dortmund now trails second-place Sporting only by goal differential, but a -6 deficit in that statistic almost certainly means they have to win the points battle outright. The two teams face off in the next game on November 24 in Lisbon, in a game which will be the clarifying point for both teams.
If Dortmund wins, then they just need to avoid slipping up in their final game against last place Besiktas, the punching bag of the group on zero points. Conversely, if they lose, then they are almost certainly destined for seeking their first-ever Europa League title in 2022.
A draw will also put them in a decent position, as it would only require them to earn more points than Sporting in the last game. Yes, they should have an easier time beating Besiktas than Sporting will have at overcoming first-place Ajax. Nevertheless, their recent cleaning at the hands of Ajax gives no confidence of their ability to get the job done.
It’s Xavi time
After looking dead in the water, Barcelona and Sergiño Dest might reach the final 16, but it’s far from guaranteed. To their credit, after looking pitiful in their first two games, losing both with an overall -6 goal differential, they have eeked out a pair of wins over the mighty Dynamo Kiev to climb to a precarious third place.
Depending on how much faith you have in one of the greatest club legends – new head coach Xavi Hernández – to turn things around, February, 2022 could see the first knockout phase of this competition without the Blaugrana since 2004.
History aside, they are by no means out of the blue. Let’s skip ahead to the final two games of the group, which will see Barcelona visit Bayern, while second-place Benfica, who trail by two points, host last-place Kiev. You can imagine how this is likely to go, and it’s not in Barcelona’s favor.
Therefore, practically speaking, the only way they can breathe easily is by beating Benfica on November 23, which would make their final game against FC Bayern meaningless. In contrast, a draw against Benfica would put Barcelona in the position of having to defeat Bayern – a tall task for this post-Messi iteration, even with Xavi at the helm – or else face the likely scenario of having Benfica advance by beating Kiev.
Losing to Benfica in just over two weeks will almost certainly resign Barcelona to the consolation prize of the Europa League knockout round.
With the scenarios laid out, how is this likely to pan out? Based on Barcelona’s domestic and European form up to now, a third-place spot would be the most likely case. However, Xavi has already proven himself to be capable coach, albeit in Qatar, and the boost of having this former legend, who has battled alongside several of the players still taking the field, should push the team to defeat Benfica and grab their spot early.
Insert childish joke about Young Boys
Growing up as a child who always enjoyed pushing the boundaries with jokes in horrendously poor taste, and becoming an adult who has only escalated the habit, I can say that my biggest disappointment in this season’s Champions League is that Young Boys Bern didn’t end up in a group with Juventus, known by her fans as The Old Lady.
Bad jokes aside, Jordan Pefok and Young Boys have done mostly what were expected of them, and are in last place, behind traditionally strong clubs Villarreal and Manchester United, and recent European upstarts Atalanta. For first-year Young Boys coach David Wagner, it’s not been a blazing success, but claiming the scalp of ManU in their first game, thanks to the foot of Pefok, is certainly a highlight of his coaching career.
I’ll save an in-depth presentation of the scenarios and just say that Pefok and his teammates will almost certainly not make it into the knockout round, and will likely also miss the Europa League consolation prize. Mathematically, they can still reach both, but the chances are slim and the reality is grim.
Their lone opportunity to prove me wrong will come when they host Atalanta on November, with a chance to jump into third with a win. They did make the Italians fight hard for what ended up a 1-0 win for the hosts in Bergamo in the second game. However, Atalanta has momentum on their side, and quite frankly are only in third, rather than first, due to the brilliance of one Portuguese man with a long neck and conspicuously large Adam’s apple.
Apart from that, Young Boys close out group play at Manchester United. Could Pefok strike again? Even if by some act of sabatoge by a Liverpool-led cabal, the shambolic head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjær is still at the Red Devils’ helm, the chances of Young Boys pulling off the heroics of their first game is slim to none.
In the end, surprises are the norm, particularly in the current age where many of the typical European powerhouses are shadows of their former selves for one reason or another. The fact that we’ve even considering uncertain qualifying scenarios for teams like Barcelona and Dortmund, not to mention other typically locked-in knock-out round participants like AC Milan (last place and winless in Group B) or Sevilla means that there will be no shortage of unexpected developments in the last two round of group games and beyond.
On that note, we’d like to prematurely congratulate 2022 Champions League victors Young Boys, and let David Wagner and Jordan Pefok know that it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience to watch them spank The Old Lady.
(sorry, sometimes the dirty-minded child wins the battle)