Although Rafa Benitez can’t be blamed for Chelsea’s current plight in the Champions League, elimination this week would give his many critics further ammunition at the end of a tortuous first two weeks in charge of the club.
Roberto Di Matteo’s final act as Chelsea manager was to oversee a 3-0 loss at Juventus that leaves the team on the cusp of becoming the first reigning champion to fail to qualify for the knockout stage of the competition.
For the holders to squeeze through, they will need to beat FC Nordsjaelland and hope already-qualified Shakhtar Donetsk defeat Juventus in Ukraine in the other Group E match.
Only two other last-16 spots are up for grabs in the final round of matches, with Benfica and Celtic battling for second place in Group G while Galatasaray and Cluj vying for the runner-up spot in Group H.
“We’ve got to play like Juve. Yesterday’s win gives us a lot of motivation to face Shakhtar, which I believe is the toughest team in the group”
Juve defender Claudio Marchisio
But much of the focus will be on Chelsea, who only seven months ago were targeting a prosperous future among Europe’s elite after winning their first Champions League title.
The London club was placed in a tough group in the defence of the trophy, however, and has only won two of their five matches – one of the victories being sealed in stoppage time at home to Shakhtar.
The change in manager hasn’t had the desired effect for owner Roman Abramovich, with Benitez yet to win after three Premier League games and facing the wrath of Chelsea fans angry at Di Matteo’s abrupt dismissal.
Benitez even admitted after Saturday’s 3-1 loss at West Ham that he wasn’t sure he’d see out his seven-month interim stint.
“I would say that it depends on the things that we can do on the pitch,” Benitez said.
“So, if we improve on the pitch, it will be easier for everyone.”
The odds aren’t completely against Chelsea, who should comfortably see off Nordsjaelland – a Danish side with just one point so far. Although Shakhtar is through, they will want to qualify in first place to set up what would probably be an easier match in the last 16.
Juventus, who were held 2-2 at home by the Ukrainian champions, would finish top of the group with a win but aren’t likely to settle for just a point, according to midfielder Claudio Marchisio.
“We can’t go out onto the pitch hoping to take it easy,” said Marchisio, who scored twice in a 3-0 derby win for the Serie A leaders over local rival Torino on Saturday.
“We’ve got to play like Juve. Yesterday’s win gives us a lot of motivation to face Shakhtar, which I believe is the toughest team in the group.”