THE FINAL ROUND of the Champions League group stage is upon us – meaning it’s about to get interesting.
Holders Barcelona, Arsenal, AC Milan, Bayer Leverkusen and Apoel Nicosia have all booked their places in the last 16, but there are still three spots to be filled tonight.
Here’s how things stand…
It’s winner takes all as Chelsea and Valencia go into tonight’s game level on eight points apiece.
Manager Andre Villas-Boas will no doubt be sending his players out to win but a goalless draw would also see Chelsea progress with a better head-to-head record against Los Che.
Spanish midfielder Juan Mata was arguably the best player on the pitch against Newcastle on Saturday and the 23-year-old will need to be in similar form when he meets his former club at Stamford Bridge.
After the big two, Valencia have looked the best side in La Liga this season and Unai Emery will be looking to striker Roberto Soldado, who has six goals in his last four appearances, to come up with the goods.
Bayer Leverkusen are guaranteed a spot in the knockout stages having amassed nine points from the five games so far but victory over basement side Genk will hand them top spot and possibly a more attractive tie in the last 16.
Arsenal were the only English club to confirm their qualification in the last round of games, so Gunners manager Arsene Wenger is likely to field an experimental starting XI away to Olympiakos in what will be the Frenchman’s 200th European game at the helm.
It is a nice luxury for the North Londoners to have considering they only qualified for the group stages after coming through a tough two-legged play-off with Udinese back in August.
Expect to see combative midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong and fellow teenage sensation Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain feature from the outset against the Greeks, who are still in what a chance of qualification and are hoping to cause a major upset according to their coach Ernesto Valverde.
With three sides vying for the final spot, the meeting of Borussia Dortmund and Marseille at the Westfalenstadion is bound to be an intriguing one.
Dortmund have it all to do against a team who beat them 3-0 back in September with Jurgen Klopp’s men needing to better that result and pray for an Arsenal win if they are to have any hope of progressing.
This year’s surprise package Apoel Nicosia made history by becoming the first Cypriot side to make it to the last 16 of European football’s elite competition and a win over Shakhtar Donetsk would see them clinch top spot.
The Ukrainians have been awful to date and are without a win in this year’s campaign.
In the group’s other game, a point separates Zenit St Petersburg and Porto who do battle for the remaining place at the Estadio do Dragao.
The Europa League champions need a win against the Russians, who have spent the past week training in the Algarve as there is currently a winter break in their domestic league.
The big two in Group H have already ensured their involvement in the Champions League will be extended to beyond the Christmas break as reigning holders Barcelona can’t be caught at the top while neither Viktoria Plzen nor BATE Borisov can threaten AC Milan in the runner-up spot.
Pep Guardiola will surely rest a number of his stars ahead of Saturday – when La Liga’s giants meet in El Clasico for the first time this season.
Even a weakened Barca will provide formidable opposition for the Belarusians, so Plzen must fancy their chances of holding onto the Europa League spot even if they suffer defeat at home to the Rosseneri.