The Matchday Five of UEFA Champions League is upon us. Matchday Four established the group stage as something to look forward to instead of embarrassing mismatches. It served one of the most exciting UEFA Champions League games in recent memory with Celtic’s victory over Barcelona, on their 125th anniversary, grabbing all the headlines. Chelsea’s last gasp win against Shakhtar, Manchester United making yet another comeback to secure qualification, were among other exciting games. Here, TheHardTackle previews the games from Group G and Group H.
Spartak Moscow v FC Barcelona
Stadion Luzhniki, Moscow
In the reverse fixture at Camp Nou, Spartak turned out to be quite a handful for Barcelona until Lionel Messi bailed them out. Having gone a goal behind, the little magician struck twice inside ten minutes to hand Barcelona the win. Since then, Barcelona have earmarked on one of the most successful starts to their domestic campaign, with the only blip coming against Celtic on Matchday Four in UCL.
On the domestic front, Barcelona sit a hefty eight points above arch-rivals Real Madrid and six above second placed Atletico Madrid. They are unbeaten in La Liga and the winning streak does not look likely to be coming to a halt anytime soon.
Spartak on the other hand, are going through a less than satisfactory season, sitting fifth in the Russian Premier League. If Spartak want to play in Europe this season, nothing short of a win will do against their Spanish opponents.
While Barcelona would be looking to qualify for the ninth consecutive time by beating Spartak, Tito Vilanova would surely guard against complacency in the ranks. Even though they continue to sweep aside all opponents in front of them, they have been found out more than once this season against dogged and determined teams.
As a side show to the fixture, Lionel Messi is in pursuit of breaking Gerd Muller’s record of 85 goals in a calender year. He currently has 78 and would like to add to that tally in the Spartak Stadium. Barcelona look likely to get the three points and secure their qualification to knock-out stages.
Prediction: Spartak 1-3 Barcelona
SL Benfica v Celtic FC
Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon
Celtic play in Lisbon, the city where they won their first and till date the only European Cup and gave birth to the famed Lisbon Lions. It is here that they can clinch qualification to the knockout rounds, although Benfica would be anything but an easy customer. The two times European Champions are targeting another successful run in the UEFA Champions League, after making it till the quarter finals last season, going out against eventual winners Chelsea.
On the domestic front, Celtic are on a fine run of form and sit top of the Scottish Premier League. They come into the game on the back of a famous victory over Barcelona on the club’s 125th anniversary, while they also emerged victorious over third placed Aberdeen over the weekend. Confidence will be high and clinching qualification is a possibility even if they manage a draw and Spartak fail to beat Barcelona.
Benfica too have been doing brilliantly and sit second in the Portuguese Primeira Liga only on account of goal difference. They come into the game on back of a 2-0 win and if they can clinch a victory over Celtic they will go second in the group table, having held out a draw against Celtic in Glasgow.
On current run of form of both the teams, a draw at The Stadium of light would be the most likely outcome.
Prediction: Benfica 1-1 Celtic
Galatasaray v Manchester United
Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi, Istanbul
“WELCOME TO HELL” was how Galatasaray welcomed Manchester United back in 1993/94.
Although such hostilities might not prevail this time around, Galatasaray look to build on the victory over CFR Cluj on Matchday Four and keep hopes of making it to the knock-out stages in what remains a tightly contested group where the pendulum could yet swing either way.
Manchester United have already qualified for the knock-out rounds and will be looking to rest key players and giving a chance to some of the young fringe players.
On the domestic front, Galatasaray sit top of Turkish Super Ligue courtesy only goal difference, and they come into the game on the back of 1-3 defeat against Karabukspor, with team selection reflecting that the coach had one eye on this fixture. Manchester United are second in the English Premier League, after slipping to a 1-0 defeat against Norwich City.
Even so, Manchester United are more than likely to send out a relatively younger squad. Talented young players such as Nick Powell, Alexander Buttner and Michael Keane may get a run in. Galatasaray would have greater desire to triumph and the relative inexperience of side likely to be put out by Sir Alex, Galatasaray might nick this one.
Prediction: Galatasaray 2-1 Manchester United
CFR Cluj v SC Braga
Dr. Constantin Rădulescu Stadium, Cluj-Napoca
A defeat in the contest could mean the end of Braga’s hopes for qualification into the knockout stages, after giving up two goal and one goal leads against Manchester United during the course of the competition.
CFR Cluj too could get knocked out, depending on the results in the other fixture in Group H. Incidentally, both teams have displayed better form away from home rather than the other way around. Braga would look to garb at it with both hands.
On the domestic front, Braga are third in the Portuguese Primeira Liga and here too have performed strongly away from home. They come into the game on the back of 1-3 away win against Pampilhosa. CFR Cluj have performed below expectations in the Romanian League, and occupy the sixth position. They come into the game on back of a 0-2 loss on home turf and will be looking to get a result out of this game and put behind a poor run of form in home games.
The importance of the fixture for both teams and strong away record of Braga and the obvious home advantage for Cluj means that a score draw would be the most likely outcome.
Prediction: CFR Cluj 2-2 SC Braga