Wednesday night saw the Group Stage of European football’s premier club competition, the Champions League, come to a close. With half the places in the final sixteen still up for grabs, the sixteen games played over Tuesday and Wednesday would decide the fate of several of the biggest clubs in European football including super-clubs such as Juventus, Milan, Inter, Real Madrid and current holders Barcelona. Will Cooling gives you the lowdown on all the action from Matchday Six of the UEFA Champions League.
Before we start, I should probably declare that I’m not really a fan of the current Champions League format as it’s an awkward compromise between the old straight knock-out European Cup and a fully fledged European Super League. The confused nature of the Champions League is best shown by its name which is laughably inappropriate for a cup competition with many participants who are not champions of their own league. Interest in the Champions League generally peaks when it returns in February as a sixteen-team knock out tournament but first there’s the often tedious business of the Group Stage. Made up of eight groups of four teams, the Group Stage sees thirty-two teams battle for the sixteen places in the First Knockout Stage while another eight teams get the consolation prize of entering the final thirty-two of the Europa League (European football’s secondary club competition).
The result of several political deals between UFEA and the leading European clubs, it often feels like it exists merely to pad out an already excessive fixture list and ensure that all those unfashionable, unmarketable teams aren’t in the way when the Champions League proper starts in February with the knockout stages. The Group Stage is structured in a way to ensure that the biggest teams get through with the thirty-two participants being divided into four pots based on their previous record in European competitions and then each group having one team from each pot. So in theory every group should have one excellent team, one very good team, one good team and one ordinary team. All being equal, that should mean that the two top ‘seeds’ go through from each group and then UEFA and the TV stations can have the all-star final sixteen they want.
And unsurprisingly it pretty much went to plan with big names such as Inter, Barcelona, Milan and Real Madrid all going through this week even after scares earlier on in the group stage. Barcelona and Inter were both pushed to their very limit on Wednesday by Eastern European powerhouses Dynamo Kyiv and Rubin Kazan while Milan had to rely on Real Madrid defeating Marseille after surprisingly being held by Zurich. However, it didn’t all go according to plan for Europe’s elite teams with Champions League regulars Juventus and Liverpool both crashing out. Juventus were knocked out after somehow managing to lose 4-1 to Bayern Munich in Turin, a remarkable defeat given Bayern’s stuttering form and squad discontent under new manager Louis Van Gaal. Liverpool’s failure this season was less spectacular but far more complete. When you discount their two victories against group whipping boys Debrecen you realise that in their four games against Lyon and Fiorentina all they could muster was a scrappy draw against a Lyon side that only needed a point to secure their passage to the knock out stages. They surrendered meekly in Florence and twice squandered leads at Anfield en route to losing both games 2-1. For a club that in recent years has relied so much on the Champions League for boosts in morale and money this early exit could prove to be a devastating blow.
Outside of the two shock exits, the big story of the group stage was the beginning of what could be resurgence for French football. Since the corruption scandals that engulfed the European and French League Champions Marseille in 1993 French clubs have struggled to make an impact within European competition due to the stringent regulations that were put in place to prevent corruption and financial malpractice. The standing of the French league in the wider game was not helped by the dominance of Lyon, who while winning the domestic league seven years in a row consistently failed to impress in the Champions League. Last year Lyon’s dominance was broken by Lauren Blanc’s Bordeaux and both the former and reigning French champions impressed en route to qualifying from difficult groups. Lyon’s 4-0 thrashing of Debrecen meant that they finished the Group Stage as the side with the best goal difference while Bordeaux were the form team of the Group Stage, dropping only two points despite having to face European giants Juventus and Bayern Munich. While Marseille failed to join them in the final sixteen they ran Milan and Real Madrid impressively close in what was a bona fide ‘Group of Death’.
In other news from Matchday Six, Olympiakos defeated a second-string Arsenal side to book their place in the final sixteen while CSKA Moscow took advantage of Manchester United’s clinical dissection of Wolfsburg to progress to the next round by beating Besiktas in Turkey. And finally, in Group G, Stuttgart and Unirea Urziceni played each other for the remaining qualification place and Stuttgart quickly put the game to bed, racing into a three-goal lead before the visitors could catch their breadth.
Below is the full breakdown of Matchday Six in the UFEA Champions League and who progressed from the groups look at the end Group Stage. The top two teams proceed to the knock out stages while the third place team enters the final thirty-two of the Europa League. For a full breakdown of each group, visit UEFA’s homepage.
Juventus 1 – 4 Bayern Munich
Maccabi Haifa 0 – 1 Bordeaux
Bordeaux and Bayern Munich progressed to the next round of the Champions League, Juventus qualified for the final thirty-two of the Europa League
Wolfsburg 1 – 3 Manchester United
Besiktas 1 – 2 CSKA Moscow
Manchester United and CSKA Moscow progressed to the next round of the Champions League, Juventus qualified for the final thirty-two of the Europa League
FC Zurich 1 – 1 Milan
Marseille 1 – 3 Real Madrid
Real Madrid and Milan progressed to the next round of the Champions League, Marseille qualified for the final thirty-two of the Europa League
Chelsea 2 - 2 Apoel
Atletico Madrid 0 -3 Porto
Chelsea and Porto progressed to the next round of the Champions League, Atletico Madrid qualified for the final thirty-two of the Europa League
Liverpool 1 – 2 Fiorentina
Lyon 4- 0 Debrecen
Fiorentina and Lyon progressed to the next round of the Champions League, Liverpool qualified for the final thirty-two of the Europa League
Inter 2 – 0 Rubin Kazan
Dynamo Kyiv 1 – 2 Barcelona
Inter and Barcelona progressed to the next round of the Champions League, Dynamo Kyiv qualified for the final thirty-two of the Europa League.
Stuttgart 3 – 1 Unirea Urziceni
Sevilla 1 – 0 Rangers
Sevilla and Stuttgart progressed to the next round of the Champions League, Unirea Urziceni qualified for the final thirty-two of the Europa League
Olympiakos 1 – 0 Arsenal
Standard Liege 1 – 1 AZ Alkmaar
Arsenal and Olympiakos progressed to the next round of the Champions League, Standard Liege qualified for the final thirty-two of the Europa League