Matchday 6 knockouts and the Ballon d'Or curse

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MATCHDAY 6 FIXTURES Tue Dec 8: Atlético Madrid v Porto ; Besiktas v CSKA Moskva ; Chelsea v APOEL ; Juventus v Bayern Munich ; Maccabi Haifa v Bordeaux ; Olympique Marseille v Real Madrid ; VfL Wolfsburg v Manchester United ; Zürich v Milan Wed Dec 9: Dynamo Kyiv v Barcelona ; Internazionale v Rubin Kazan ; Liverpool v Fiorentina ; Olympiakos Piraeus v Arsenal ; Olympique Lyon v Debreceni VSC ; Sevilla v Rangers ; Standard Liège v AZ ; VfB Stuttgart v Unirea Urziceni

Matchday 6: It’s (almost) a knockout

Eight places in the UEFA Champions League knockout round remain undecided, with seven former winners – Barcelona, Bayern, Inter, Juventus, Marseille, Milan and Real Madrid – still not sure of progressing.

The game of matchday six must surely be Rubin Kazan’s visit to the San Siro in Group F.

Normally, you'd bet your mortgage on an Italian side winning 1-0 on home soil against a team of promising newcomers like Rubin.

But Inter have shipped six goals in five games in Group F and, as they showed again when losing 2-1 at Juventus, lack the ruthless defensive organisation you would expect of a club shaped by Helenio Herrera and managed by the coach who is his closest contemporary heir. 

Under some permutations, Inter could draw and still progress, but Jose Mourinho needs a win.

Much may depend on Inter’s Argentine striker Diego Milito who, as has pointed out, has been scoring at a rate of 0.767 goals a game in Serie A, a rate only surpassed in the last 80 years by Pedro Patrone (0.841 in the 1930s) and Gunnar Nordahl (0.773 in the 1950s).

Milito in typical pose

Rubin love to fill the midfield and break, primarily through Milito’s compatriot Alejandro Dominguez – so the Nerazzurri faithful, players, coach and increasingly vexed owner Massimo Moratti may be in for a nerve-shredding 90 minutes.

Mourinho is not the only coach under pressure. Ronald Koeman and Markus Babbel have already been given the order of the boot by AZ and Stuttgart.

Louis van Gaal knows that Bayern’s trip to Turin – where the Bavarians have never won and Juventus haven’t lost at home in this competition in 16 matches – is virtually a referendum on his reign, while his opposite number Ciro Ferrara knows that a place in the last 16 will silence his critics for a while.

The only coach whose team isn’t already in the last 16 who can look forward to the action without any apprehension is Leonid Slutsky.

He’s only been in charge at CSKA Moscow since the end of October and will keep his job unless his side are thrashed 8-0 by Besiktas.

Three points in Istanbul for CSKA means Wolfsburg will need to match that against Manchester United to reach the last 16 on head-to-head results against the Russians.

The law of karma surely favours Slutsky: the former goalkeeper is the only coach in the competition whose playing career was curtailed by an injury suffered while trying to rescue a neighbour’s cat from a tree.

Underrated and unpronounceable

UEFA Champions League coverage tends to rhapsodise about a few predictable stars (sample quote at random: “Rooney, what a player!”) and ignore others who have impressed possibly at unfashionable clubs or in a game few were watching.

Brazilian winger Wendel has created half of Bordeaux’s goals in Group A, but you won’t hear much about him because the 27-year-old has said he will end his career with the Girondins. Hinting that you are open to offers – even if you aren’t – is a prerequisite for any footballer wanting to make a name these days.

Wendel: More sticker than twister

Unirea Urziceni – or The Unpronounceables, as they’re known in Stuttgart – could sell most of their squad next summer.

The Romanian champions’ stand-out performers include Argentine wing-back Pablo Brandan, winger/striker Marius Bilasco (long overdue a call-up for Romania), Valeri Bordeanu (once a left-sided midfielder at Steaua who shone as a right-sided defender against Sevilla) and Dacian Varga, 25, an escapee from Dinamo Bucharest’s youth system, who has been as impressive harrying opponents as he has leading Unirea’s fast, skilful counter-attacks.

With a rumoured price tag of £50 million, Ajax’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez sounds vastly overrated.

But with a third of the season gone and 17 goals in the bag, Suarez may, as Ernst Bouwes notes, outdo Cruyff, Van Basten et al and surpass cigar shop owner and PSV striker Coen Dillen, whose 43-goal tally in 1956/57 is still an Eredivisie record.

The most astonishing aspect of Dillen’s record is that he went 12 games without a goal that season.

Golden balls and knockout blows

Do you know how many reigning Ballon d’Or winners have won the World Cup? None.

Here, for completists, is the dismal World Cup record for the 13 Ballon d’Or winners before Leo Messi.

1957 Alfredo di Stefano (Spain). Failed to qualify for Sweden 58.

1961 Omar Sivori (Italy). Came third in Group 2 at Chile 62.

1965 Eusebio (Portugal). Semi-finalist at England 66.

1969 Gianni Rivera (Italy). Losing finalist at Mexico 70, who only came on with six minutes to go as coach Ferruccio Valcareggi belatedly threw caution to winds with the Azzurri trailing 4-1.
1973 Johan Cruyff (Holland). Losing finalist to the hosts at West Germany 74.
1977 Allan Simonsen (Denmark). Didn’t qualify for Argentina 78.
1981 Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (West Germany). Substituted in 70th minute of Spain 82 final, which his side lost 3-1 to Italy.
1985 Michel Platini (France). Beaten by West Germany in Mexico 86 semi-finals.

1989 Marco van Basten (Holland). Beaten by Germany in second round of Italia 90.

1993 Roberto Baggio (Italy). Skied penalty in shoot-out as Italy lose USA 94 final to Brazil.

1997 Ronaldo (Brazil). Controversially barely present at the France 98 final as the hosts destroyed the favourites 3-0.

2001 Michael Owen (England). Gave England lead in Japan/Korea 2002 quarter-final against Brazil but the Selecao, even down to 10 men, still saw off Sven-Göran Eriksson's men.
2005 Ronaldinho (Brazil). Languished out of position as Carlos Alberto Parreira’s zombified team bowed out in the Germany 2006 quarter-final to France after having just one shot on goal in the entire match.

Leo's only golden trophy?

This is exactly the kind of history that great players like Messi rewrite.

But history does suggest it is better to win the World Cup first and round off the year with the Ballon d’Or – like Bobby Charlton (1966), Paolo Rossi (1982), Lothar Matthaus (1990), Zinedine Zidane (1998), Ronaldo (2002) and Fabio Cannavaro (2006).

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