YA GOTW: Champions League Crunch-Time

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The Champions League Group Stage has finally reached its final round of games, and several Americans are feeling the crunch, needing results to stay alive in the competition as YA takes a look at the game(s) of the (mid)week.

Here at YA, we occasionally find a few minutes between writing articles to watch a game or two, so we’ve decided to highlight the occasional YA-relevant game that we are excited about watching; whether it’s some steamy Yank-on-Yank action, a top-billed battle between two powerhouses, a heated derby, or a David vs. Goliath battle that catches our fancy.

This week, we set the table for what will be a tasty feast of games happening on Tuesday and (mostly) Wednesday where multiple Yanks are in a cutthroat competition, often with each other, to advance to the Champions League Round of 16 in early-2022.

Of all of Americans in the competition with reasonable expectations to play for their teams, only Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic can breath easily.

Zack Steffen gets an honorable mention in this category as backup keeper for one of the competition favorites – Manchester City – and could get his one-and-only chance this week against one of the teams that gets a footnote in this article, RB Leipzig. Living the life of a backup keeper means that no matter how well or putridly he might play on Tuesday night, the only way he’ll see the field in any of Manchester City’s knockout games is if the stater gets hurt.

Otherwise, Sergiño Dest, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson and John Brooks each have the possibility to reach final 16 depending on the outcome of their games on Wednesday. Let’s take a look at the critical games, and the situation each player faces on their hopeful road to the final 16.

Barca’s uphill battle to avoid rolling downhill

To put it bluntly, at the moment the situation looks bad for Sergiño Dest and his Blaugrana teammates. Don’t be fooled by their current spot in second place in Group E, two points ahead of Benfica. The team, under new coach Xavi, is in grave danger of missing out on the knockout round for the first time since 2004.

Third-place Benfica are heavy favorites to win at home against last-place Kiev, which would put them on eight points and holding the tiebreaker over Barcelona (who they beat 3-0 in Lisbon and drew in Camp Nou). This means a draw for Barcelona, at the house of the so-far perfect Bavarians, will likely not be enough, and they will have to push for a win against a team that by all accounts is several levels above them at the moment.

While many x-factors could give little advantages to the visiting Catalonians (is Bayern really that motivated to go six-for-six?), the most likely scenario sees Dest and his Barcelona teammates waking up Thursday morning in a luxury Munich hotel, realizing that they are overwhelming favorites to lift their first-ever Europa League title in a few months.

At least Xavi might get to win a trophy in his first season as Barca coach.

YA musical chairs in Group G

In the three-Yank Group G, where Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson and John Brooks all landed, none of the teams have been able to push ahead, and none have irrecoverably fallen behind, which leaves each of the four teams – Lille, Salzburg, Sevilla and Wolfsburg – everything to play for.

All four teams are still in the running to advance or even win the group. All except for Lille could also finish last and be out of Europe.

Sadly, Weah will not be available for Lille due to an injury suffered in the lead-up to their last league game, however he has European knockout games to look forward to in 2022, no matter what happens on Wednesday. Lille have the easiest task, as even a draw against Wolfsburg guarantees a top-two finish and a place in the final 16.

Wolfsburg is in the odd postion of all-or-nothing: a win against Lille and they are through to the knockout round, anything else and they out of Europe as last place in the group.

Salzburg are through to the knockout with as much as a draw against Sevilla, as they would hold the edge over both Lille and Wolfsburg on tiebreakers if they end up on tied on eight points with either team. On the other hand, loss to the Spaniards sees them either drop down to the Europa League knockout or completely out of Europe, depending on what Lille does in Wolfsburg.

That was exhausting.

So what about the actual games?

For Lille’s visit to Wolfsburg, Weah is definitely out due to the aforementioned injury, and Brooks got pulled at halftime in the German team’s 3-0 loss to Mainz over the weekend, so there is no certainty that he will even be selected to play.

On form, Lille has to be favorites to get a result in Germany; Wolfsburg are winless in four straight games, which includes three straight losses preceded by a draw against…sigh….the powerhouse Bielefeld. Conversely, Lille hasn’t lost in their last seven, and has Canadian forward Jonathan David in world-class form.

Wolfsburg has an uphill road in this one, despite playing at home (if there is much of a homefield advantage anymore considering current crowd restrictions in Germany), and is more likely to be spending next spring concentrating on a Bundesliga campaign that is currently trending downward under new coach Florian Kohfeldt.

And what about Salzburg versus Sevilla?

Salzburg is in as rough of a patch as is possible for them in Austria, having acually lost a league game just over a week ago, and more recently needing a heroic comeback in the final minutes to win this past weekend. Life is hard in Austria.

Likewise, Aaronson is in a rough patch for Salzburg, having been lackluster since returning from USMNT duty, getting pulled after an hour in their recent loss, and being left as a bench option in their more recent last-second win.

Comparatively, Sevilla is currently second place in La Liga, with their only domestic loss in over two months coming narrowly to leaders Real Madrid just over a week ago. Admittedly, their form in the Champions League this season has been consistently underwhelming, as normally a La Liga team of this quality would be expected to sweep this group. Instead they must win on the road in their final game, and could even be knocked out of Europe entirely.

This one is hard to predict, but I have a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach that Sevilla will pull this one out on the road, sending Aaronson and his teammates to the Europa League knockout.

Not really crunch-time, but still…

Manchester City’s visit to Leipzig, which has literally no bearing whatsoever on their status as Group A winners, is the game that all YA fans have had circled on their calendar since August as the likely chance to see USMNT starting keeper Zack Steffen make his lone Champions League appearance for his team.

That it could come against his national team captain, Tyler Adams, adds some bit of intrigue to game. If only Leipzig had been a bit better on a few instances, this game might have meant something, and Jesse Marsch might still be their coach, but it wasn’t to be.

As it stands, Adams and Leipzig can still secure a spot in the Europa League knockout on Tuesday night, as disappointing as that may be considering their lofty ambitions. For them, it’s relatively simple: their result in terms of points needs to be equal to or greater than last-pace Brugge’s. With Leipzig hosting Manchester City and Brugge visiting PSG, the most likely scenario is a loss for both teams and a spot for Tyler Adams in the Europa League.

We also shouldn’t forget Jordan Pefok, who could feasibly help Young Boys into the Europa League knockout should they win at Manchester United on Wednesday and see Atalanta lose to Villarreal. This is highly unlikely (can lightening strike twice? probably not!), and the author has a previously-admitted, borderline-militant, pro-Atalanta bias, so it’s best to leave this one alone.

As a final note, any hopes that Borussia Dortmund’s home game against Besiktas, another dead-rubber game that has zero impact on their Europa League destiny, will be the come-back game for Giovanni Reyna were effectively squashed by pre-game statements by head coach Marco Rose.

All in all, the most Yank-packed edition of the Champions League Group Stage of all time is drawing to a close in just over 48 hours. While a number of these players will drop out (or drop down) after this week, enough will remain to give us hope that for the second year running, the final game on May 28 in St. Petersburg will hold a special significance for American fans.


David Smith

I'm YA's resident doctor, but not the kind of doctor you would want giving you an examination anywhere outside of a lecture hall. I've been YA's feet-on-the-ground in Germany since 2008, have an affinity for overly verbose descriptions of irrelevant minutiae, keep an eye on YAs in most of the destinations on mainland Europe, and watch a whole lot of Serie A.

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