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Matchday 5 – Wednesday Preview

We’ll look over the results of Tuesday’s matches along with Wednesday’s matches in one big wrap-up article on Thursday. For now, we’re going to preview matches in Groups A through D.

We start with Liverpool where coach Rafa Benitez has been pestering club owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett about sanctioning more transfer activity in January. The owners have told him they will not discuss any plans until they arrive on Merseyside for the match against fierce rivals Manchester United on December 16. Liverpool are coming off a 3-0 win at Newcastle. This should tempt Benitez to field an unchanged line-up but don’t bet on it. Both clubs have the bulk of their squads to choose from and will both field stong lineups. Porto arrive at Anfield at the top of their domestic league and an unbeaten record in the Champions League as well. With all the talk about Liverpool and their managerial-ownership drama, now is a great time for Porto to come in and get a result. I think they will scrap for a draw in this one as the Reds have not had a great home record this season thus far and Porto know how to keep a game tight when they need to get a point.

Despite the 8-0 blowout they suffered against Liverpool on the last Matchday, Be?ikta? still have plenty to play for against Marseille. They are currently bottom on three points but a win for Be?ikta? combined with a Liverpool win would mean that all four teams go into the final round of games separated by just two points. A victory for Marseille combined with a Porto loss will take them back to the top of the group. Marseille are likely going to play a packed midfield and look to counter-attack through pacy players such as Samir Nasri, Mathieu Valbuena and Djibril Cissé. However, too conservative an approach could be fatal as the home crowd will defintely be an advantage for Be?ikta?.

In Group B, a resurgent Chelsea will be looking to prove a point against Rosenborg. The Norwegian side, currently second in the group, held Chelsea to a draw at Stamford Bridge and will look for at least the same result at home on Wednesday. However, Rosenborg have not played a competitive game for three weeks due to their season finishing ahead of the cold northern winter. Their players could be lacking match sharpness and would present Chelsea with an advantage. Weather could be a factor in this game as the temperature at kickoff is forecasted to be hovering around the freezing point and there is a chance of rain/snow. Under those conditions it could be a very turgid match and a draw is not an unreasonable expectation. The other wildcard will be the fitness of Chelsea striker Didier Drogba. He’s their most reliable source of goals and if not fit they’ll need to rely on the inconsistent Kalou and Shevchenko.
The other matchup in Group B should see Valencia put out of the misery by Schalke. I won’t be so bold as to say that Schalke will win the match but a draw is quite possible considering Valencia’s recent form. The pressure is on Valencia as they know that anything less than a win will end their hopes of progressing to the knockout phase. Schalke will take some comfort from the fact that they have won the only Champions League game they have played in Spain, beating Mallorca 4-0 in 2001.

Werder Bremen are really up against it on Wednesday as they prepare to face Real Madrid without talisman Diego after he was sent off in their last Champions League match for dissent towards the referee. Bremen will also have to do without leading scorer Hugo Almeida, who will be missing due to a muscle strain. To further complicate matters, it was reported that Brazilian midfielder Carlos Alberto and Ivory Coast striker Boubacar Sanogo came to blows during a training match in midweek and were left out of the squad for last Saturday’s trip to Energie Cottbus. After a poor start, Bremen had managed to turn the season around, at least domestically, before these recent problems. They will need Sanogo to have his head right as they do not have many strikers available at the moment.

Madrid will guarantee their place in the knockout stages with a win in Germany but they have only won once in their last four games in all competitions and they have yet to pick up an away win in this year’s Champions League. They will be without Wesley Sneijder who is recovering from a right knee injury. I don’t think there will be many changes to the side from the weekend and oft-injured Arjen Robben, just back from another layoff, will likely feature among the substitutes along with Pepe and Gonzalo Higuaín, who also are coming back from injuries.

As both teams prefer an attacking style, this could be a very open game with lots of chances at both ends though Bremen may try to nick an early goal and keep things tight as they desperately need the result in order to have any hopes of keeping their European campaign going.

The other match in Group C could become a winner takes all affair depending on the result of the Bremen-Madrid match. If Werder Bremen do not beat Real Madrid, the winner of the Lazio-Olympiakos match will progress through to the knockout stages. Lazio have a major injury worry as leading scorer Tommaso Rocchi has a thigh injury and is currently doubtful to be available. For the Greek side, they are likely to be missing defender Raul Bravo as well as defender Didier Domi and striker Marco Ne who are recovering from longer-term injuries.

It’s a massive game for both sides as Lazio desperately need the cash infusion the knockout stage would bring and Olympiakos would love to end their long and futile history in European club tournaments. I’m going to have to go with the home side in this one and I think Goran Pandev will be a major factor in the match.

Over in Group D, AC Milan will be looking to book their place in the final 16 when they travel to Lisbon to face Benfica. Milan’s Serie A form has been poor by their usual high standards but they are in the driver’s seat in their Champions League group. They will be without Marek Jankulovski (knee surgery) as well as Emerson and Filippo Inzaghi, who have been left out of the squad. Massimo Ambrosini will have to serve the mandatory suspension of one match for yellow card accumulation and will also miss out. One other change might see Kakha Kaladze step into central defense for Paolo Maldini, who went the full ninety on Sunday and at . Also, Clarence Seedorf has recovered from an ankle injury and could start.

For Benfica, a defeat or draw would eliminate them. Midfielder Nuno Assis suffered a leg injury during their domestic league match on the weekend and is likely to be replaced by Cristian Rodriguez. Armando Petit, who returned on Saturday after two months out, should replace Augustin Binya, who has been suspended for six games for his horror tackle on Celtic’s Scott Brown.

The other match in the group sees Celtic host Shaktar Donetsk and all we really need to talk about is Celtic’s tremendous Champions League record at Celtic Park – they have won 11 and lost just once at home in 14 group games. The only big worry they have is the fitness of goalkeeper Artur Boruc but backup Mark Brown stepped in and had a solid match against Aberdeen on the weekend. I really would be shocked by anything other than a Celtic win in this one. A win for the home side should secure their passage into the knockout stages.

Random Facts:
At the age of 43 years and 168 days, Lazio goalkeeper Marco Ballotta became the oldest player to compete in the Champions League when he started against Olympiakos on Matchday 1 . The record was previously held by Alessandro Costacurta, the AC Milan defender who played against AEK Athens in the 2006/07 season at the age of 40 years and 211 days.

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