If, as is quite likely, Atletico Madrid pip Liverpool to win Group D of the Champions' League, Rafa Benitez will claim that finishing second does not matter. He has already rehearsed his argument that in the past Liverpool have done better in the knockout stages after finishing runners-up. "I remember we won the group and played Benfica and lost," he is apt to say. "And we were second and played Juventus and Inter and won."
That is perfectly true, but what it ignores is the indisputable fact that, overall, teams who win their group are better than those who finish second. Liverpool had been expected to beat Benfica when they lost 2-0 at Anfield in 2006, but were underdogs against Juventus the previous year and against Internazionale last season, surprising both the Italian clubs with their ferocity at home and then defending brilliantly away.
The additional advantage in winning the group is to play the second leg of the knockout round at home, which despite the above examples is normally helpful. It also follows that any of the weaker teams who manage to make it to the last 16 – as Olympiakos did last year, and Famagusta or Panathinaikos will this time – only do so as runners-up and therefore provide easy meat for whichever lucky group winners are drawn against them. So if Manchester United win Group E, as they should, they could meet one of the latter pair, whereas Liverpool's prospective opponents as runners-up would probably include Barcelona, Inter, Real Madrid and Juventus.
Of the other English clubs, Arsenal would lose top spot to Porto if they are beaten away to them on Wednesday and Chelsea have work to do as the only one of the quartet not yet qualified. Carelessly conceding a late goal to Bordeaux's Alou Diarra from a corner, they allowed the French side to stay within a point of them and must therefore beat the Romanian outsiders Cluj to go through, but cannot expect to catch Roma, who are a point ahead with a home game to come.
Champions' League matches
Chelsea (8pts) v Cluj (4pts)
Luiz Felipe Scolari may have been joking about returning to Brazil if Chelsea fail to secure a place in the knockout stages but it will be no laughing matter if they mess this up. Roma (9pts) should help by not losing to Bordeaux (7pts).
PSV Eindhoven (3pts) v Liverpool (11pts)
One goal worse off than Atletico Madrid (11pts), Liverpool could do with a thumping win as their rivals go to Marseille (3pts). They have hardly been in prime scoring form, though, and needed Steven Gerrard to see them through against the French side last time out.
Celtic (2pts) v Villarreal (9pts)
Even the Uefa Cup is beyond Celtic after a campaign in which fabled home form failed to materialise but they managed the usual run of away defeats, including at Villarreal when Marco Senna scored the only goal.
Manchester United (9pts) v Aalborg (5pts)
One little favour from Celtic would not go amiss, but United, who are two goals better off than Villarreal at the top of the table, should not need it against the Danish opposition they sauntered past 3-0 in September.
Porto (9pts) v Arsenal (11pts)
Does Arsène Wenger go with his strongest side to secure a draw and win the group, or risk defeat to give some of the youngsters European experience? Ideally, they would win the game first, then throw on the kids against a team who were beaten out of sight (4-0) at the Emirates.
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