Chelsea's Hopes in Balance in Champions League
Although Rafa Benitez can't be blamed for Chelsea's current plight in the Champions League, elimination this week would give his many critics further ammunition at the end of a tortuous first two weeks in charge of the club.
Roberto Di Matteo's final act as Chelsea manager was to oversee a 3-0 loss at Juventus that leaves the team on the cusp of becoming the first reigning champion to fail to qualify for the knockout stage of the competition.
For the holders to squeeze through, they will need to beat FC Nordsjaelland and hope already-qualified Shakhtar Donetsk defeat Juventus in Ukraine in the other Group E match.
Only two other last-16 spots are up for grabs in the final round of matches, with Benfica and Celtic battling for second place in Group G while Galatasaray and Cluj vying for the runner-up spot in Group H.
But much of the focus will be on Chelsea, which only seven months ago was targeting a prosperous future among Europe's elite after winning its first Champions League title.
The London club was placed in a tough group in the defense of the trophy, however, and has only won two of its five matches — one of the victories being sealed in stoppage time at home to Shakhtar.
The change in manager hasn't had the desired effect for owner Roman Abramovich, with Benitez yet to win after three Premier League games and facing the wrath of Chelsea fans angry at Di Matteo's abrupt dismissal. Benitez even admitted after Saturday's 3-1 loss at West Ham that he wasn't sure he'd see out his seven-month interim stint.
"I would say that it depends on the things that we can do on the pitch," Benitez said. "So, if we improve on the pitch, it will be easier for everyone."
The odds aren't completely against Chelsea, which should comfortably see off Nordsjaelland — a Danish side with just one point so far. Although Shakhtar is through, it will want to qualify in first place to set up what would probably be an easier match in the last 16.
Juventus, which was held 2-2 at home by the Ukrainian champions, would finish top of the group with a win but isn't likely to settle for just a point, according to midfielder Claudio Marchisio.
"We can't go out onto the pitch hoping to take it easy," said Marchisio, who scored twice in a 3-0 derby win for the Serie A leaders over local rival Torino on Saturday. "We've got to play like Juve. Yesterday's win gives us a lot of motivation to face Shakhtar, which I believe is the toughest team in the group."
Celtic and Benfica are level on points going into their final matches Wednesday, with the Portuguese team ahead courtesy of a better head-to-head record from their two matches. Celtic may well be the slight favorite to advance as while the Scottish champions play Spartak Moscow at home, Benfica has the daunting prospect of a trip to Barcelona, which is guaranteed to top the group.
"We are not counting on Barcelona to do the job for us," Celtic defender Efe Ambrose said. "We have to do that at Celtic Park."
Galatasaray and Cluj are also tied on seven points, with the second-place Turks holding the head-to-head advantage. Galatasaray just needs a win at eliminated Braga to progress ahead of the Romanian side, which visits first-place Manchester United.
"No one should be fooled by the fact that Braga is last-placed in the group," Galatasaray defender Emmanuel Eboue said. "They beat us 2-0 here (in Istanbul). We need to concentrate hard and fight hard."
Top spot — and what could prove to be a crucial seeding for the knockout stage — is yet to be decided in four of the groups, with AC Milan, Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain among the teams hoping to move up a place from second.
English champion Manchester City needs to beat Borussia Dortmund away and hope Ajax loses at Real Madrid to finish third in Group D and qualify for the Europa League. City was eliminated from the Champions League a fortnight ago after a home draw to Madrid.