The top two sides in the Premier League are far from assured of their places in the UEFA Champions League when the knockout programme begins in the New Year.
Only a loss of concentration at Fulham, when they squandered a 2-0 lead, has prevented Manchester City from recording twelve wins in as many Premier League games this season. Their eleven triumphs, including that 6-1 win at Old Trafford, has opened up a five-point lead at the head of the table, sparking genuine optimism for a first title since 1968.
It’s a different story further afield, though, as their defeat to Napoli has placed them on the edge of Champions League elimination. The Serie A side need only win their final group game at pointless Villarreal to progress, and even if they fall at the final hurdle, City can only take advantage if they can overcome Group A winners Bayern Munich at home.
The Etihad Stadium will certainly be no place for the feint-hearted on 7 December, but whilst there is a chance of the Blues celebrating what would be one of the memorable English nights of Champions League football, their coach is refusing to wave the white flag.
“We have another game and Villarreal can beat Napoli,” Roberto Mancini reminded Sky Sports. “It is the first time we have played Champions League but I don’t think Villarreal will lose another game, they can win or draw – why not? Never say never.”
United, meanwhile, had the chance to assume control of Group C when Benfica provided the opposition. Yet the Portuguese side, who had earlier in the campaign held the Reds to a 1-1 draw at the Estadio da Luz, refused to roll over and left on the back of a 2-2 stalemate which, based on the head-to-head between the two teams, gives them the group lead.
Not quite as tricky as what their rivals have it, Ferguson’s side must now go to Switzerland to take on Basle, who have also registered a draw at Old Trafford in the corresponding fixture, knowing they require just a point to qualify. Anything less than a draw would see last season’s beaten finalists exit at the group stage for the first time since 2005.
How United have managed to find themselves in such a sticky situation when handed a relatively comfortable group is worrying, but their manager remains in confident mood. “It’s going to be a hard game but the chips are down for us and I’ve got every confidence in my team,” Sir Alex told Sky Sports after a second home draw of the group.
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