So Chelsea have managed to defy their doubters and detractors and finish in first place in UEFA Champions League Group E, despite a series of poor results (if not actually poor performances) away from Stamford Bridge. The cards broke just right for the Blues on Tuesday as they swept aside Valencia 3-0 and saw RC Genk hold Bayer Leverkusen to a draw in Belgium, meaning that Chelsea managed to overhaul the Germans to pip them to the top spot by a solitary point.
Some of our domestic colleagues were less fortunate, and out of the four English clubs that began the season in Europe's most prestigious tournament, only ourselves and Arsenal remain. Since both London clubs finished in top spot in their groups, all seven second-place finishers are open to us. We have two clubs each from Italy, France and Russia as well as Manchester United killers FC Basel as possible opponents. Let's take a look at what each has to offer.
Milan are the defending Serie A champions, having won the Scudetto ahead of Inter Milan and Napoli last season. Thanks to the Neopolitans' late fade, they weren't really pressed very hard on their way to the title, and ended up well clear at the top of the table. Milan are Milan, and we know almost exactly what we're going to see from them. They'll use a midfield diamond to attempt to dictate play and then try to get the ball to one of their forwards, be that Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Robinho or Alexandre Pato.
Tottenham Hotspur draw Milan in the knockout rounds last year and actually dealt with them fairly easily, exploiting the diamond's classic weakness down the flanks by using Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon to blow Milan away with speed. If Chelsea are drawn against them, they should focus on the Daniel Sturridge-Didier Drogba axis, because that's where they're going to get the most joy. Getting drawn into a midfield battle against Kevin-Prince Boateng, Antonio Nocerino and Mark van Bommel is unlikely to be a particularly profitable exercise.
Drawing Milan wouldn't be the worst thing in the world - despite their domestic success they're a flawed team, which Spurs demonstrated last year. However, the Italian champions would still represent an interesting hurdle for the Blues to overcome, and we'll probably want to avoid them unless a few more of their players get strokes*.
*Get well soon, Antonio Cassano!
Napoli are the last team any 'top' club should want to face in the first knockout round. Aside from Real Madrid, they're probably the best counterattacking side in the world, and if you try to play possession against them they will defend their hearts out and then use their attacking trident of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik to inflict multiple stab wounds upon the opposition.
Walter Mazzarri favours a weird 3-4-2-1 and doesn't deviate from it even when his opposition doesn't use two forwards, which means that in general a tactical battle will go Chelsea's way. However, as Manchester City found out, that means very little - every single time they win the ball they're a major threat, especially if they catch their opposition up the pitch. Against Napoli, you're playing with fire if you try to push for the win.
However, Napoli aren't actually that good at breaking sides down. They're a reasonable threat from set pieces but haven't really adjusted to dealing with an organised defence. This is why their domestic form is so odd - they can beat teams that think they have a chance against them, but as soon as a side sets up shop and tries to hit on the counter, they're pretty much useless. If Chelsea can get the lead against them, the tie is probably over. But getting that lead will be fraught with risk. Avoid.
The beneficiaries of an odd little meltdown by Dinamo Zagreb and Real Madrid's 3-0 victory at Ajax, Lyon will find themselves very pleasantly surprised to still be in the competition at all. The Ligue 1 side are more or less the same Lyon we've come to know and love over the last few Champions Leagues - good enough to get out of groups, good enough to cause an upset, but nowhere near good enough to be serious threats to win the whole thing.
Bafetembi Gomis, Lissandro Lopez and Michal Bastos all represent potent scoring threats, despite their general inability to click in Europe before Wednesday, and Lyon's fullbacks might be the most capable in Ligue 1. There are no obvious holes to exploit in the team - Chelsea are better than them in all areas of the pitch, but there's no overwhelming weakness to play with here. Fortunately, there are no positions of overwhelming strength either. If we end up with these guys, we'll just have to play hard and force them to react to us. Easier said than done, right? At least Yoann Gourcuff sucks now.
We're familiar with Marseille from last season, where they ended up as runners up in Group F behind us before being knocked out by Manchester United in the second round. They had a poor start to the season domestically, but have been strong in European competition all year, and pulled off a come from behind victory against Borussia Dortmund to qualify from Group G with Arsenal.
Ignore the 1-0 loss to them at the end of last year's group stage campaign - we were playing the reserves by then and had already secured top slot in the group. The 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge was far more telling, and in that game the midfield dominated the match. Still, don't rely on that one either: Since then, plenty has changed for both sides, and Marseille are actually a fairly threatening team down the flanks and on the counterattack. If Chelsea play the sort of shape they did against Arsenal, say, we could be in for some serious sads when Andre Ayew turns on the jets. Chelsea's aim should be to control the game, using their midfield superiority (maintained by the emergence of Ramires and Oriol Romeu) to open up space for Juan Mata, and let him do the rest.
CSKA Moscow & Zenit St. Petersburg
I don't watch as much of the Russian Premier League as I like*, so I'm less informed about CSKA and Zenit St. Petersburg than I should be. All I've got is the Champions League matches they've played in, where both sides have been... somewhat erratic. CSKA in particular look like a sublime attacking force for long periods before turning into a defensive farce, and they were lucky to qualify after entering match day six at the bottom of Group B. Their games are fun, but any disciplined team should be able to weather the storm induced by the likes of Vanger Love and Seybou Doumbia before hitting them hard on the counterattack. Oh, and they're going to be much better than they were - a whole host of important names have been missing so far and will be back by the knockout rounds, including Japan star Keisuke Honda. If Andre Villas-Boas is listening: Do not open the game up against CSKA or I'll call you names.
Zenit are less generally impressive to watch than CSKA, but they're markedly less insane and did just manage to knock out Porto by holding them to a goalless draw, something that their compatriots would only have managed with eleven doses of horse tranquiliser. Zenit have looked very good against the likes of a disappointing Shakhtar Donetsk and a weirdly-impenetrable APOEL Nicosia, but against Porto they required a red card to notch a home win and then barely held on in Portugal. Still, the ability to hold off better opponents is a worry if they somehow pull out a shock lead.
*i.e. I don't watch the Russian Premier League. Sorry, Yuri. I still love you!
First of all, congratulations to FC Basel for making me smile. Their victory over Manchester United was no fluke; they did well against Sir Alex Ferguson's amazing midfielderless wonders at Old Trafford and had Xhedran Shaqiri, their best player, back for a well-earned 2-1 win at St. Jakob's Park. They've got some fine players (Marco Streller, Alexander Frei and the aforementioned Shaqiri are each superb) and they can do some damage if you let them own the game, which is just what United did.
That said, they're not the strongest side in the world by any stretch of the imagination, and if it weren't for a series of injuries sustained by United they probably would not have emerged from the group. Their performances have been erratic - the two games against United and a 1-1 draw at the Estadio da Luz were counterbalanced by two disappointingly narrow wins against punching bags Otelul Gatali and home defeat against Benfica - and it's difficult to see how Basel will break down a Chelsea side that's been rejuvenated by the presence of Romeu in central midfield. Despite their giant killing, Basel are probably our best bets.
Even if the idea of Shaqiri taking on Ashley Cole makes me vomit a little bit.
At this point in the tournament, there are no easy games. Each team deserves to be there, and each will be a strong opponent. However, none are as good as Chelsea, and we're going to be favourites to progress no matter what the draw. Contrast that with the possibility of playing one of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, and I think we're all fairly happy with how things have turned out.
And now to the polling device!