The ‘Group of Death’ in the Champions League has become an increasingly rare beast in recent years.
UEFA’s expansion of the competition and seeding pots mean the chances of being drawn against, say, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, as Manchester United were in the 1998-99 group stage, are greatly diminished these days.
But while the prospects of three genuine heavyweights being paired together are slim, we still have plenty of scenarios where the progress of a big name is far from guaranteed.
Borussia Dortmund players celebrate after their weekend win over Borussia Monchengladbach – now they turn their attentions to the Champions League and Inter Milan
Manager Lucien Favre celebrates their latest league win but now a double header against the Italian side will determine their Champions League fate
How Champions League Group F looks after the first two rounds of fixtures
That was the case this season when Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan and Slavia Prague were thrown into Group F.
Slavia club officials were caught on camera chuckling at the draw in August but the designated ‘whipping boys’ of such groups feel no weight of expectation.
The pressure on Dortmund and Inter, however, is immense and it’s clear that their two meetings in the next fortnight – at the San Siro on Wednesday and the Signal Iduna Park on November 5 – will prove pivotal.
Inter, once Champions League regulars, finished third in a tough group containing Barcelona and Tottenham last season and, given their strong start to the Serie A season, have little desire to play in the Europa League again.
Dortmund have become accustomed to Europe’s elite competition in the past decade, reaching the 2013 final as well as two other quarter-finals, and similarly won’t want to crash out before Christmas.
So these two matches have plenty riding on them and will determine not only the outcome of Group F but the trajectory of their respective seasons.
Dortmund would have beaten Barcelona on matchday one but for Marc-Andre Ter Stegen’s penalty save from Marco Reus at Signal Iduna Park
But Achraf Hakimi scored twice as Dortmund won 2-0 at Slavia Prague on matchday two
INTER MILAN vs BORUSSIA DORTMUND
Wednesday 8pm kick-off (UK time)
Champions League Group F
Live on BT Sport ESPN
It’s tricky to know, however, where the Champions League lies in Dortmund’s list of priorities for the season.
Back in August, plenty of pundits and bookmakers tipped Dortmund to win the Bundesliga for the first time since the Jurgen Klopp era.
It was founded not only on an effective summer in the transfer market and the depth of their squad, but also a perception that the champions of the past seven seasons, Bayern Munich, looked ill-prepared.
However, two months on and despite Dortmund sitting just a point off the summit, opinions and predictions appear to have shifted back towards Bayern.
That’s because Dortmund have thrown away a lead to draw 2-2 on three occasions so far this season, conceding last-minute own goals in two of those, raising questions they have a problem with mentality.
It was something angrily refuted by captain Marco Reus when he told a TV interviewer ‘honestly, that mentality s*** you keep talking about, it’s just a pain in the ass’ after September’s 2-2 draw at Eintracht Frankfurt.
Dortmund captain Marco Reus was enraged when the team’s mentality was questioned
Dortmund had thrown away a winning position to draw away to Eintracht Frankfurt
But they again conceded a last-minute equaliser at Freiburg a few weeks later
But the fact it has happened twice since then suggests Dortmund do have a glaring weakness when it comes to seeing out games they are leading.
And the way Dortmund have conceded three goals against Union Berlin, plus two against Eintracht Frankfurt, Werder Bremen and Freiburg this season will only have Romelu Lukaku and company licking their lips.
Antonio Conte has revitalised Inter, who look like genuine challengers to Juventus for the Scudetto, and goals have not been an issue so far in domestic competition.
But it’s been a different story in Europe, with Inter needing a stoppage-time Nicolo Barella equaliser against Slavia on matchday one before a 2-1 loss away to Barcelona from which they emerged with plenty of credit.
Dortmund were unlucky not to beat Barcelona in their opening game, with Marc-Andre Ter Stegen saving a penalty from Reus, before a straightforward enough 2-0 win in Prague.
Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez celebrate during Inter Milan’s 4-3 win at Sassuolo
Antonio Conte has turned Inter into realistic title challengers in Italy this season
Form aside, there are plenty of other reasons why Dortmund can come out on top in their two meetings.
They will be without the injured Paco Alcacer and the flu-stricken Reus for their visit to Italy but are still blessed with plenty of attacking strength.
Jadon Sancho will return having been dropped by manager Lucien Favre from Saturday’s 1-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach having returned late from England duty.
He will likely be accompanied by Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt in behind Mario Gotze up front. Gotze has been something of the forgotten man this season, but now has a chance to impress.
Jadon Sancho is likely to play a key role when Dortmund head to the San Siro on Wednesday
Dortmund will be backed by thousands of their fans in Milan, as they were in Prague (pictured)
Sancho has three goals and five assists so far this season in the Bundesliga, while Hazard also has five assists to his name, so creativity shouldn’t be an issue for the German side.
And they should have Alcacer, who has scored seven in nine this season, and Reus, who has six in 12, back for the return game in Dortmund.
With four points on the board, Dortmund are in a decent position in Group F but with a visit to the Nou Camp looming after their Inter double-header, they’ll be well aware their lethal attack and not their leaky defence must be the talking point.
Another intriguing sub-plot emerged on Tuesday when Bild reported that Dortmund are in ‘regular contact’ with Jose Mourinho over becoming their new manager, amid the inconsistency under Favre.
If that defensive weakness is exposed by Inter, Mourinho might just move one step closer to the Dortmund hotseat.
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