It is almost the perfect scenario for Liverpool in their fight for a top 4 spot and Champions League place. Arsenal failed to secure a point at Napoli coupled with Dortmund’s dramatic late winner that saw the German side top the group with Arsene Wenger’s team relegated to the runners-up spot. Manchester City were one goal away from somehow topping the group against last season’s treble winners Bayern Munich, only for Manuel Pellegrini to miscalculate goal difference and instead defend his single goal lead by bringing on Jack Rodwell for Edin Dzeko, leaving Sergio Aguero on the bench for the whole game.
Now, both City and Arsenal will have to deal with the big guns in European football. Both City and Arsenal can face one of Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paris Saint-Germain, Diego Costa and Atletico Madrid or Lionel Messi and Barcelona. Also, City have the added option of Borussia Dortmund, while Arsenal could also be drawn with Bayern Munich.
All these teams are arguably in the running for the Champions League title, even Atletico, who is on the rise with strike duo Costa and David Villa, and PSG, with the added goal threat of Edison Cavani.
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Let’s look at Arsenal’s situation first. If they were drawn to play the first-leg on 18/19 February and subsequently the second-leg on 18/19 March, that would mean a possible fifth round FA Cup tie and a home game to Sunderland sandwiches the first leg while a trip to White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge sandwiches the second leg. Wenger’s team will definitely be stretched to the limits. Even if he rests players for the fifth round tie, the second leg, being away from home, in between two London derbies will definitely see his side drop points and put a significant drain on his players. Though, if by that period Arsenal are still on top – even if that means they are knocked out of the Champions League – they are surely destined for the title.
If Arsenal were to be drawn to play on 25/26 February for their first-leg and 11/12 March for the return tie, their first-leg will be after the home game against Sunderland and a tough away fixture at Stoke City, points could be dropped there. The away tie will be played between a possible FA Cup quarter final and the away trip to Spurs, and if Spurs’ new signings were to gel and hit a run of form by then, that could be a very tough game for Wenger’s side.
For Manchester City and Pellegrini, a first-leg on18/19 February and the return tie on 18/19 March will, fortunately for the Blues, not see a tough run of fixtures for them. Two home ties against Sunderland and Stoke bookend the the first-leg, at the Etihad as well, while the second-leg comes after a potentially tricky away fixture at Hull City and a home game against Fulham.
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Having to play the first-leg on the 25/26 February and the second-leg on 11/12 March will be slightly more challenging for the Blues, with Manchester United at Old Trafford awaiting after their first-leg, who will look to avenge their 4-1 reverse at the Etihad earlier this season, no matter what position the Red Devils lie at that stage. That potentially tricky away game at Hull would come after the away return leg, so there is a good chance Pellegrini’s men might trip up at the KC Stadium.
What this means for Liverpool is that with City and Arsenal drawing really tough opponents for the last 16 of the Champions League, Brendan Rodgers and his side will hope that the emotional and physical drain of playing such tough opponents will take its toll on Wenger and Pellegrini’s team, such that City and Arsenal will drop points after, and even before, their two-legged last 16 ties. This way Rodgers can hopefully maintain some form, gain some momentum, and overtake the two title-challenging sides heading into the crucial last stage of this key campaign for Rodgers himself and Liverpool as a whole.
However, if Liverpool mess up this crucial December period AND fail to add in the January transfer window, all these circumstances would prove moot by the time February comes around.