PREVIEW-Soccer-Shakhtar, Arsenal and Braga take it to the wire
By Mitch Phillips
LONDON, Dec 6 (Reuters) – Braga could complete a memorable Champions League turnaround by reaching the 12-point mark this week but it is likely to be a bitter-sweet success as they could still fail to progress to the knockout phase despite four wins.
Having badly lost the first two games of their debut Champions League season and won the next three, the Portuguese club face an unprecedented scenario going into the competition’s final round of fixtures this week when only four of the 16 qualifiers are still to be identified.
Group H is the only one where both places are still available and Braga, Shakhtar Donetsk, who they visit on Wednesday, and Arsenal could all finish on 12 points. No team has ever earned 12 points and failed to progress.
Shakhtar sit top on 12, three clear of Arsenal and Braga. A draw would send the Ukraine league leaders through for the first time and in top spot and even defeat is unlikely to derail them.
If all three teams end on 12 points the qualifiers will be decided by goal difference in games between the three.
Arsenal, with a 6-0 thrashing of Braga and 5-1 win over Shakhtar in the bag, would almost certainly come out top in that equation should they beat Partizan Belgrade at The Emirates.
Shakhtar have a goal difference of 0 from the “mini-group” with Braga on -7, leaving the Portuguese side needing a four-goal victory to swing things in their favour.
If their domestic form is anything to go on, that looks a long shot. They lost 3-1 at Uniao Leiria on Saturday when they conceded two penalties and had three players sent off.
The defeat was their fourth in the last five games and leaves them still without an away win all season.
Having begun their first Champions League campaign with the Arsenal humiliation and then a 3-0 home defeat by Shakhtar it is something of a surprise that they are still in contention but coach Domingos Paciencia still sees the domestic league as his main focus.
“The most important goal for Braga is the national championship and finishing in the top four,” he said. “We know the toll will be very different to previous years because taking part in the Champions League for the first time has a big physical and emotional cost.”
Arsenal warmed up by beating Fulham 2-1 to go top of the Premier League and they will expect to progress to the knockout phase for the 11th successive season by making it six defeats out of six for Partizan.
Barcelona have already secured top spot in Group D and Copenhagen will join them if they beat Panathinaikos in Denmark. The Danes have seven points to the six of Rubin Kazan, who visit Barcelona where they pulled off a shock 2-1 win last season.
Bayern Munich, on 12 points, are assured of finishing first in Group E and AS Roma, second on nine, are likely to join them in the last 16.
A point at CFR Cluj would guarantee it but a defeat would allow Basel to overtake them with a win in Munich.
The only other issues at stake are the top two finishing order in three groups and the identity of some of the third-place finishers who will go into the Europa League.
Manchester United will finish first in Group C if they do not lose at home to second-placed Valencia. A clean sheet for United would make them the first team to go through the group stage without conceding.
Tottenham Hotspur can cap a memorable first foray into the Champions League by finishing top of Group A.
Their superior head-to-head record against Inter Milan means they just need to match the holders’ result when Spurs visit Twente Enschede and Inter travel to Werder Bremen.
Schalke 04’s one-point lead over Olympique Lyon and a superior head-to-head record gives them the advantage in Group B but the remaining fixtures, where Schalke travel to Benfica and Lyon host Hapoel Tel Aviv, leave the group interestingly poised.
The draw for the first knockout round take place on Dec. 17. (Editing by Dave Thompson; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)