A typically entertaining Champions League group stage drew to a close last Wednesday, with Paris Saint-Germain sneaking into the last 16 at the expense of AC Milan. Manchester United, though, are out after finishing bottom of their group.
However, the knockout stage will not want for quality. Both reigning champions Manchester City and 14-time winners Real Madrid progressed with perfect records, while Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Inter and Real Sociedad all remain unbeaten.
Borussia Dortmund also proved their worth by surprisingly topping the ‘Group of Death’, while Arsenal look like they mean business on their return to the Champions League.
Usurping Atletico Madrid at the top of Group E unsurprisingly proved beyond Lazio, who were beaten 2-0 at the Metropolitano on matchday six. However, the mere fact that Maurizio Sarri’s side are through to the last 16 is shocking, given their domestic form this season has been atrocious. The Biancocelesti currently sit 11th in Serie A! As a result, it’s unlikely they’ll go any further than the last 16, given they’ve been drawn against Bayern Munich.
Ciro Immobile is still occasionally stepping up with big goals, while Pedro also remains a big-game player. But Lazio are lacking in depth and star quality. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s shock decision to move to Saudi Arabia during the summer came as a hammer blow, and, truth be told, it’s a wonder that the still criminally under-appreciated Sarri has taken such a limited side this far.
The story of this season’s Champions League? Few pundits gave FCK any hope of getting out of a group containing Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Galatasaray. They also appeared to be doomed after blowing a 2-0 lead in Istanbul before suffering heartbreaking defeats at home to Bayern and away to United to reach the halfway stage with just a point to their name.
However, the Danes, with Rasmus Falk to the fore, pulled off a stunning late comeback to beat United 4-3 at Parken before holding Bayern to a scoreless draw in Bavaria and then securing second place with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Galatasaray.
Can Copenhagen now go even further? Unlikely, after being paired with defending champions Manchester City. But they did hold Pep Guardiola’s side to a draw at Parken last year and they’ve absolutely nothing to lose after reaching the last 16 for just the second time in the club’s history.
At the end of the day, Porto will be both proud and relieved to have made it through. Their crazy, winner-takes-all clash with Shakhtar Donetsk really could have gone either way. As it was, Porto prevailed 5-3 to seal second spot in Group H.
Sergio Conceicao will have some regrets, though, given they ended up finishing level on points with Barcelona, who only took top spot on account of their superior head-to-head record. That will grate with Porto, who dominated the two sides’ meeting at the Dragao, only to gift Blaugrana a goal, while they also took the lead in the return fixture, only to concede just over 60 seconds later.
Still, those two performances showed that while Porto will be up against it in the last 16 after drawing Arsenal, they have a fine coach in Conceicao, Pepe is still going strong at the back, and they have goals up front, with Evanilson, Ganelo and Mehdi Taremi all on target in the group stage.
For a little while, it seemed like the already-qualified Leipzig actually had a shot at winning Group G, after racing into a shock 2-0 lead at Manchester City on matchday five thanks to the electric Lois Openda. They were rather inevitably brought back down to earth in the second half, but the Germans showed in both of their meetings with the defending champions that they could cause problems in the knockout stage.
Granted, they benefited enormously from having no credible challenge for second spot, but Real Madrid will be wary of Marco Rose’s team in the last 16, as Openda isn’t Leipzig’s only counter-attacking threat. There’s also Xavi Simons, Dani Olmo and Benjamin Sesko to contend with…
PSV’s campaign couldn’t have got off to a more demoralising start, with the Eindhoven outfit routed 4-0 by Arsenal on matchday one. Subsequent draws with Sevilla and Lens left them with just two points on the board by the halfway point of the group stage.
However, evergreen striker Luuk de Jong scored the only goal of the game as the Dutch side defeated Lens at the Philips Stadion, before United States international Ricardo Pepi came off the bench to net a 92nd-minute winner at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan as PSV came from two goals down to claim three points that secured second spot in Group B behind Arsenal.
PSV won’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of their last-16 opponents, Borussia Dortmund, but the pressure is very much off Peter Bosz’s team, who are in the knockout stage for the first time since 2016 and running away with the Eredivisie this season (15 straight wins, with 52 goals scored and just six conceded). For that reason alone, they are a threat to BVB, given the potential for resting players in between games.
Napoli are not the same scintillating side as last season, which is primarily down to the fact that Scudetto-winning coach Luciano Spalletti was sacked and inexplicably replaced by Rudi Garcia. The latter is now gone, dismissed after a dismal defeat at home to Empoli just before the international break, and the return of Walter Mazzarri appears to have somewhat lifted the Partenopei’s spirits.
Napoli were beaten 4-2 by Real Madrid on matchday five, ending all hope of topping Group C, but they did seal their place in the next round with a 2-0 win over third-placed Braga that, rather crucially, saw star striker Victor Osimhen get back among the goals.
Mazzarri can now focus on trying to sort out his side’s domestic form to ensure that they both qualify for next season’s Champions League – they’ve just slipped to fifth in Serie A – and are in decent shape for the last 16. Make no mistake about it: a reinvigorated Napoli would represent a serious obstacle for a struggling Barcelona side to overcome. Right now, the ‘Diego derby’ looks very evenly balanced indeed.
Barcelona have achieved their primary objective: qualification for the knockout stage for the first time in three seasons, which was obviously of huge importance from both a sporting and financial perspective. However, the manner of their progression has done absolutely nothing to quell the suspicion that Xavi still has an awful lot of work to do to turn this team into genuine contenders.
Barca may be the reigning champions of Spain, but they lost group games against Shakhtar Donetsk and Royal Antwerp. In addition, Robert Lewandowski looks a shadow of his former self, while the loss of Gavi to a season-ending injury is really being felt now. So, the increasingly brittle Blaugrana will not be looking forward to going up against Osimhen, who is leading a mini-revival at Napoli.
Is this going to be the season that Diego Simeone finally gets his hands on the Champions League trophy? It’s certainly possible. Atletico remain renowned as one of the toughest teams to play in world football, but their progress this season has gone under the radar somewhat.
However, the Rojiblancos deserve credit for topping a group containing Feyenoord, Lazio and Celtic without losing a single game. It’s also worth noting that while defending is still Atletico’s forte, they scored 17 goals in six games – only Manchester City managed more.
Indeed, Alvaro Morata is going through one of his decent spells in front of goal, while the brilliant Antoine Griezmann is arguably in the best form of his career. Atleti will be touted as dark horses once again if they see off Inter in the last 16.
Last season’s runners-up cruised into the knockout stage, but will they pay a heavy price for failing to win their group? Simone Inzaghi made wholesale changes for his team’s final two fixtures and the Nerazzurri ended up drawing both games, meaning Real Sociedad finished first thanks to the precious point they picked up at San Siro. There was always the risk, then, that Inter would receive a rotten draw in the last 16, and so it proved, with the Italians paired with Atletico Madrid.
The fans will, of course, be looking forward to welcoming former midfielder Diego Simeone back to San Siro, but games against the Argentine’s team are never easy. Inter will be optimistic of course.
Their excellent defence has actually been improved by replacing Andre Onana with Yann Sommer, while they also boast seriously threatening wing-backs (Federico Dimarco and Denzel Dumfries), a nice mix of industry and innovation in midfield, and a wonderfully complementary attacking duo in Lautaro Martinez and Marcus Thuram. Battle past Atleti and Inter will believe another final appearance is well within their grasp.
PSG created enough chances against Dortmund to get the win they needed to top Group F but, in the end, they only went through as runners-up because of Newcastle’s capitulation at home to AC Milan – and a truly terrible penalty call at the Parc des Princes on matchday five… Consequently, it’s difficult to see Luis Enrique’s horribly unconvincing side finally getting their hands on the Champions League this season.
Still, the draw for the last 16 could have gone a hell of a lot worse for PSG as an unseeded side. Granted, Kylian Mbappe is capable of tearing any side to shreds, while teenage midfielder Warren Zaire-Emery has emerged as a truly special talent, but there is absolutely no guarantee that that the Parisians will get past unbeaten Real Sociedad, who pipped Inter to top spot in Group D. As always, much will depend on Mbappe’s mood when the knockout stage rolls around.
Coach Imanol Alguacil said it could take years for the scale of Real Sociedad’s achievement to sink in – and one can understand why. It had been a decade since the Basques last competed in the Champions League, while their only previous appearance in the knockout stage of the European Cup came in 2004, when they reached the last 16. So, for La Real to not only progress, but do so as the undefeated winners of Group D really is a historic feat well worth celebrating in an era of football ruined by money.
The fairy tale could now continue all the way into the last eight, given we’re talking about a team that was unlucky not to beat Inter, last season’s runners-up, in San Sebastian, before then underlining their admirable defensive discipline in the scoreless draw at San Siro that sealed top spot.
Sociedad may not have many goals in them but they boast the best backline in the entire tournament, having conceded just twice so far. They are likely to prove a nightmare for PSG to play against.
Fair to say Arsenal enjoyed their first appearance in the Champions League group stage since the 2016-17 season. The Gunners may have got a nasty fright on matchday two when they lost in Lens, but Mikel Arteta’s men responded wonderfully well to that setback, reeling off three successive victories to seal top spot in Group B with one round to spare.
Arsenal are not without their issues. David Raya hasn’t proven a major upgrade on Aaron Ramsdale in goal, and while Gabriel Jesus struck four times in the group stage, doubts remain over whether he’s really prolific enough to spearhead a team with serious aspirations of conquering Europe.
Still, Declan Rice has proved an excellent addition in midfield and Arteta has some wonderful attacking talent to choose from, while Porto hardly represent the worst draw in the last 16. There’s no telling where this long overdue return to the Champions League might end.
Very few pundits gave Dortmund any chance of surviving ‘The Group of Death’ – but they’ve absolutely killed it, qualifying with one round remaining thanks to a fantastic 3-1 victory over AC Milan at San Siro before then clinching top spot by holding PSG to a 1-1 draw at Signal Iduna Park.
It’s an absolutely staggering achievement for a side that began the season still reeling from blowing the Bundesliga title on the final day of last season before then losing talisman Judge Bellingham to Real Madrid. However, several key figures have stepped up this season, most notably Mats Hummels, who was arguably the best defender on show in the group stage.
Dortmund might not have sufficient strength in depth to go all the way, but it would be a major surprise if they don’t see off PSV to make the last eight.
Real Madrid may not have replaced Karim Benzema during the summer, but even in spite of an injury to Vinicius Junior, scoring goals has not been a problem for Los Blancos, primarily due to Jude Bellingham, who is arguably the best player in the world right now.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side weren’t exactly outstanding in each and every game, but they still managed to post a perfect group-stage campaign and proved particularly impressive in their meetings with Napoli, against whom they netted seven times.
Madrid may have been outclassed by Man City in last season’s semi-finals and their lack of a No.9, coupled with long-term injuries to Eder Militao and Thibaut Courtois, could yet prove costly. Furthermore, RB Leipzig, with their exciting young forwards, were one of the more menacing teams they could have drawn in the last 16.
However, with Bellingham bringing the best out of everyone around him – including Joselu – Madrid will be confident of making it all the way to Wembley.
With Bavarians having already sealed qualification for the last 16 on matchday four, Thomas Tuchel could have rested some key men for Tuesday’s trip to Old Trafford, but the former Chelsea boss instead picked a strong starting line-up that sealed Manchester United’s complete elimination from European competition with impressive ease.
Bayern haven’t always convinced in this season’s Champions League – or the Bundesliga for that matter – but one thing is beyond dispute: Harry Kane is the world-class striker the Germans have been lacking since Robert Lewandowski’s departure for Barcelona. With the multi-talented England international leading the line, the undefeated winners of Group A should have far too much firepower for Lazio, who have been terrible in Serie A this season.
The champions enjoyed a perfect group-stage campaign but they were far from flawless. Despite being placed in the weakest group in the competition, City have kept just one clean sheet, in a home game against Young Boys, and were forced to come from two goals down to beat RB Leipzig at the Etihad, after what midfielder Phil Foden admitted was the worst 45 minutes he’s ever seen from Pep Guardiola’s side.
Still, the Catalan coach will be confident of mounting a successful title defence for a few reasons. Firstly, Kevin De Bruyne will be back from injury soon enough. Secondly, City always come into their own in the second half of the season. Thirdly, their last-16 opponents Copenhagen are the lowest-ranked team left in the competition. And, lastly, the club’s next generation looked mightily impressive in Wednesday evening’s 3-2 win over Red Star Belgrade. There might be no end to City’s cycle of domination.