LONDON (AP) — Despite being relentless in its seemingly inexorable march to a first English title since 1968, Manchester City's first campaign in the Champions League is likely to falter at the first hurdle if it loses to Napoli on Tuesday.
Bankrolled by Abu Dhabi owners who have splashed more than $1 billion on the club since taking over in 2008, City's star-studded team was thrust among the favorites to win the European competition back in August despite being in arguably the toughest of the eight groups.
However, a top-two finish in Group A is still in the balance and a defeat at Napoli, which is unbeaten at home in 10 matches since returning to continental competition in 2008 after 13 years out, would drop Roberto Mancini's men into third spot with one match left.
With Napoli facing already-eliminated Villarreal in its last game and Bayern Munich likely to have qualified in first place by then, City could be left with only Europa League football to look forward to in the New Year.
"We have a good chance now we are in second position but I think it will be difficult in Naples," said Mancini, whose side is top of the Premier League by five points after an unbeaten run in its opening 12 matches.
"For Napoli it is the last chance but I think it is important we play (good) football and that we can go through."
Real Madrid, AC Milan and Barcelona are already through to the last 16 and it will be a major surprise if they aren't joined by Bayern, which needs only a point at home to Villarreal to qualify.
On what is set to be a crunch matchday five in Europe's elite club competition, fellow continental heavyweights Arsenal, Manchester United and Inter Milan are also expected to advance to ensure a strong lineup of teams in the first knockout round.
For Bayern, progress will be particularly sweet as the German giant is due to host the final at the Allianz Arena in May.
"We have the quality but you need luck, too," Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told the club's AGM on Friday, when asked about the team's chances of becoming European champion for the fourth time. "I'd say let's go for it, but let's not insist on it. Pressure can be counterproductive in football."
Inter, which won the Champions League in 2010, needs a point against Trabzonspor on Tuesday to secure a top-two place in Group B but will be wary of a Turkish side that handed the Nerazzurri a humiliating 1-0 home defeat in its debut in the competition in September.
Despite Saturday's 2-1 win over Cagliari, Inter is fifth-from-last in Serie A but has won its last three Champions League games.
"The squad is starting to tick, especially the new signings," said Inter president Massimo Moratti.
If Trabzonspor loses, second-place CSKA Moscow can qualify with Inter with a victory at home to French champion Lille.
Manchester United has won its last five matches in all competitions without conceding a goal and knows a home win in Group C over Benfica, which troubled the English champion in a 1-1 draw at Lisbon in September, guarantees a place in the last 16 for the sixth season running.
Resurgent Arsenal is in the same situation heading into a home match against Borussia Dortmund in Group F on Wednesday, while Chelsea visits Bayer Leverkusen in another Anglo-German clash to see which team will be top of Group E going into the final matchday in two weeks' time.
Chelsea, the group leader, can advance with a win but could find itself dropped to third place if it loses and Valencia beats Genk as expected in the pool's other match.
Unbeaten Group G leader Apoel Nicosia can become the first Cypriot team to reach the knockout phase of the Champions League if it can conjure up a victory at Zenit St. Petersburg, which is a point behind in second.
Even a point will be good enough for Apoel should third-place FC Porto lose at Shakhtar Donetsk, with all four teams still in with a chance of advancing.
Arguably the most attractive game of matchday five is reigning champion and competition favorite Barcelona visiting AC Milan at the San Siro protecting a two-point lead in Group H. Both teams have already qualified but securing top spot in the group is likely to secure an easier draw in the last 16.
- Manchester United
- Manchester City