Friday, December 13, 2013

Champions League Group Stage Reflections

The Champions League group stages have come to an end after an exciting Match Day 6, in which every group had something to play for until the very last day. Here are my reflections on all eight groups after the conclusion of the first round, from the very good to the downright poor.

Group A

Manchester United were worthy winners of the group, a silver lining in David Moyes' tumultuous start to life as manager at Old Trafford. It wasn't the most difficult of groups, but you can only beat the opposition in front of you, and 14 points in his first Champions League campaign as manager is an accomplishment Moyes should be proud of. The highlights were two vibrant performances against Bayer Leverkusen, while United did just enough to beat Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad at home while drawing away. The prospects for the round of 16 aren't that bad considering their likely opponents in Monday's draw, but progress beyond the quarters is hard to see considering the calibre of opposition and weaknesses in the Red Devil's midfield.

Bayer Leverkusen were another team with a manager leading his first Champions League campaign, and qualifying for the last 16 makes Sami Hyppia's first sojourn into Europe an automatic success. Leverkusen needed a favour from United against Shakhtar as they won a nervous last match at San Sebastian. The highlight for Hyppia's men was the 4-0 thrashing of Shakhtar at home, and the team displayed mental fortitude in two wins against Sociedad when they weren't at their best. Also impressive was the fact that Leverkusen qualified with star man Stefan Kiessling contributing only 2 goals. However the 2-9 aggregate against Manchester United suggests Bayer will struggle against any of the group winners they are drawn against in the round of 16. However, just qualifying for the knockouts provides foundations for a team whose main aim is to qualify for the group stages again next season.

Shakhtar Donetsk will be disappointed with their Champions League campaign after finishing third in the group, and ending up in the Europa League. The truth was that despite Mircea Lucescu's great work over the years, Shakhtar were always going to struggle in following up on their excellent campaign last year after selling Willian in January followed by a summer in which they lost Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Bernard showed glimpses of his potential, and Douglas Costa and Adriano remain wily operators. However, the team simply didn't have enough quality this time around, and whether Lucescu can get his players motivated for the Europa League - a trophy they have won recently - is up for debate.

Real Sociedad were the disappointment of the group after finishing with only one point gained in a stalemate at home with United. It promised to be much different, after a fantastic win against Lyon in the qualifying playoffs, but it seems losses in the opening two games against Shakhtar and Leverkusen when they dominated simply knocked the stuffing out of the team. Antoine Griezmann and Carlos Vela didn't show up, and the teams inexperience showed as they simply had no composure on the ball, and played without a clear tactical identity. Sociedad are at least getting their domestic campaign back on track, and are in the hunt to qualify for the Champions League again.

Group B

Real Madrid hardly broke a sweat, amassing 16 points and 20 goals. Cristiano Ronaldo scored goals galore, while Angel Di Maria, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema also got into the act. Real are unlikely to keep up the rate of scoring against higher quality opposition, so I think their two performances against Juventus were more indicative of their future prospects in the competition. Los Blancos were fortunate to get four points against the Old Lady, and in another season could easily have ended up with two losses against Juve. While Carlo Ancelotti tries to finalize his preferred formation, everything at Real still seems to be based around Ronaldo performing to herculean standards. Ancelotti needs to find the ideal midfield balance and soon, or Real could struggle against teams with superior midfields in the knockouts.

Galatasaray have to rank as one of the worst teams to have qualified for the knockout stages in the competition's recent history. The 2-10 aggregate against Real was bad enough, but the low point was surely being the only team to lose to FC Copenhagen. Were it not for one brilliant moment between Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder in a deciding clash against Juventus, Gala would have been playing in the Europa League. Another team bereft of a clearly tactical identity, manager Roberto Mancini has a lot to figure out if Gala are to repeat last year's run to the quarterfinals.

Antonio Conte can fume all he wants about the conditions in Istanbul when Juve lost the decider to Gala, but even he acknowledged the damage was done when points were thrown away in draws against the Turkish and Danish champions before the double header against Madrid. It must be a chastening feeling for Conte, after two and a half almost flawless years at the helm of the Old Lady. Signings were made in the summer specifically with an improved Champions League campaign in mind after last season's humbling quarterfinal exit to Bayern Munich. At least Juve are still clear favourites to win their third successive Serie A, while the carrot of a Europe League final at home in Turin should keep Conte's men sufficiently motivated to play well on Thursday nights in Europe.

FC Copenhagen were always expected to finish last in the group, and one could argue they performed above expectations. The Danish champions were rarely humiliated, and did not appear overawed in any of their games against such illustrious opponents. A 1-1 draw against Juventus at home to open the campaign was noteworthy, but the highlight was a 1-0 home victory against Galatasary in a match they dominated from start to finish.

Group C

There was hardly a doubt at any stage about Paris Saint-Germain winning the group convincingly. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored eight goals, including four away to Anderlecht, while new star signing Edinson Cavani contributed four of his own. After three consecutive wins to start the campaign, PSG took their foot off the pedal and understandably so, but still displayed the fight in them with a tense 2-1 victory against Olympiakos to seal top spot in the group. Slowly but surely the players are buying into Laurent Blanc's philosophy, and while they are not favourites, they definitely are dangerous opponents that most teams would prefer to avoid in the knockouts.

Olympiakos were the big surprise, as the Greek champions unexpectedly finished second to qualify for the last 16. The revelation of their campaign was Kostas Mitroglu who scored a stunning hat rick against Anderlecht, and followed up with two crucial assists in the double header against Benfica. Olympiakos outplayed Benfica both home and away, and deservedly secured qualification by beating Anderlecht in the last game thanks to Javier Saviola. While they won't get beyond the last 16, a feisty first leg in Athens is guaranteed.

After reaching the quarter finals in 2012, Benfica have dropped down to the Europa League for the second successive campaign. It's a huge disappointment for the Portuguese giants, and going out of the competition behind Celtic and Olympiakos in consecutive years blots the glorious history of the Eagles. That Benfica were even in the hunt to qualify was down to atrocious weather saving them from a certain defeat at home to Olympiakos. Much soul searching is needed in Lisbon, and the prospects of a good Europa League campaign after finishing runners-up last year are pretty dim.

Belgium may have captured the footballing world's imagination with one of the most exciting generations of players to play across the best teams in Europe, but the champions of their domestic league were a huge disappointment. Anderlecht gained a solitary point in an away draw in Paris when PSG were coasting, and the incompetence was borne out by the fact that they scored only four goals and conceded 17.

Group D

The champions were always going to go through from the group, and Bayern Munich did so in convincing style despite a loss at home to Manchester City in their final game of the first round. The goals were spread around the team, and the performance at the Etihad was as comprehensive as away performances come. With their excellent midfield and plethora of options, Bayern remain favourites however with Jerome Boateng and Dante capable of having bad days, the Germans could be vulnerable in a tense knockout match.

After two forgettable campaigns, Manchester City finally made it out of the group stages under the guidance of Manuel Pellegrini. It would have been a travesty if City wouldn't have made it out of the group considering the opposition other than Bayern. As things turned out, City ended the first round with regret at not scoring one more goal in Munich to top the group. The defence without Vincent Kompany is still a shambles as proven by four goals conceded at home to CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen. However, City might have stumbled on the ideal formation for Europe in their final game with five in midfield, and despite finishing runners-up, they are the opponents most group winners would like to avoid in the round of 16.

Two late goals in their final match against CSKA Moscow helped minnows Victoria Plzen qualify for the Europa League ahead of the experienced Russian team, which certainly qualifies as a fantastic achievement. That was Plzen's only win of the campaign, but the Czech team did themselves credit with four goals away in Manchester and Moscow, and could conceivably make the last 16 of the Europa League.

CSKA Moscow were a major disappointment as many expected them to give City a tougher run for the fight to second. As things turned out, CSKA were eliminated by the fourth match day, and with Keisuke Honda now leaving for AC Milan in January, it surely is only a matter of time before Zoran Tosic and Igor Akinfeev leave the club, as the Russian champions come to terms with gradual end of a successful cycle over the past five seasons.

Group E

As expected Chelsea finished as group winners, although the nature of their performances left a lot to be desired. Two abject performances resulted in two losses to Swiss champions Basel, while the twin 3-0 victories against Schalke were extremely misleading, a testament to Chelsea's ruthlessness rather than excellence. Ultimately Mourinho is a results oriented manager, and regardless of the travails in the group stage, Chelsea should beat any of their possible opponents in the round of 16, and once we are down to the quarterfinals, a Mourinho team simply can't be ruled out.

After starting the campaign with two victories, Schalke came up short in back-to-back fixtures against Chelsea, where basic defensive errors condemned the Germans to defeats in games where their midfield performed rather well. Ultimately, Schalke made it through on the back of an unconvincing home win against Basel in the last game, where they had to rely on the Swiss being down a man, and on top of that score a blatantly offside goal to get the breakthrough. Schalke seem to be in a perpetual state of flux, and despite the outstanding attacking talent of Julian Draxler and a returning Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, I can't see them going past the round of 16.

Basel must be wondering how they haven't qualified from the group stages despite winning home and away against Chelsea. The answer lies in two horrible performances in drawing home and away to Steaua Bucharest. Many believe Basel would have been difficult opponents in the knockouts due to their fanatical home crowd, but ultimately the Swiss champions only have themselves to blame for being complacent in the double header against Steaua. Nonetheless, another good run in the Europa League where they made the semis last year is certainly possible for Murat Yakin's men.

Steaua Bucharest ended up last as many expected, but can still feel good about the aforementioned draws against Basel as well as a draw at home against Schalke. A good experience for the Romanian champions who should return next season with invaluable experience.

Group F

Despite a horrible injury crisis and one of the toughest groups in the recent history of the Champions League, Borussia Dortmund showed remarkable resilience to qualify for the round of 16 as group winners. Jurgen Klopp's pressing game continues to deliver results, and the understudies to the injured defenders all stepped up to the occasion. The concern however lies with Robert Lewandowski and Maro Reus missing chances galore throughout the group stages, and such wastefulness can be punished in the knockouts. There is hope that players will return fresh for the resumption of the Champions League, and Dortmund can't be ruled out as dark horses.

In typical fashion, Arsenal almost contrived to throw away their place in the next round, as they lost all composure in the final twenty minutes of their fixture against Napoli. Nonetheless, finishing with four wins while generally maintaining a very good standard of football in this group is laudable when most pundits feared for the Gunners hopes. Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud carried over their good domestic form, and despite playing one of the group winners in the round of 16, Arsene Wenger's midfield generals have it in them to cause an upset in the next stage.

Napoli can justifiably feel aggrieved at failing to qualify despite amassing 12 points in this extremely difficult group. When looking back at the campaign, Rafa Benitez might regret the fact that Napoli were not focused and incisive when travelling to London and Dortmund, two-goal margins of defeat ultimately costing them their place in the round of 16. Nevertheless, once the disappointment fades away, Napoli can consider themselves genuine contenders for the Europa League, led by a manager who has a fantastic record in the competition, and the form of Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon.

Unbelievably, Marseille were actually the second seeds in this group. The French team did themselves and their league a huge disservice by losing all six games in the group stage. Manager Elie Baup was fired, and the only consolation for fans of L'OM was that under Jose Anigo they at least showed some fight in the last fixture against Dortmund, where they almost scuppered last years runners-up's progression into the next round despite playing with ten men for 60 minutes.

Group G

Atletico Madrid finished with 16 points and can lay claim to being the most impressive team of the group stages in this year's Champions League. Were it not for Thibault Courtois making an uncharacteristic error away to Zenit, Atleti would have finished with a perfect record. Diego Simeone is earning a reputation as one of the best managers in Europe, ensuring his players are always motivated while performing in a perfect tactical system. Diego Costa scored some lovely goals, the midfield has a variety of different players, and the defence is watertight. Dark horses in many circles, and even considered favourites by a small minority, Los Colchoneros are one of the teams to beat.

Zenit St Petersburg just about pipped Galatasary to being the worst team to qualify for the knockout stages. The Russians qualified on the back of one away win at Porto, and the fact that they weren't able to win against Austria Vienna at home and then by spanked by the Austrians 4-1 away doesn't bode well for their prospects when they come up against one of the group winners in the round of 16.

That Porto finished even lower than Zenit has to be considered the shock of the competition so far. The Portuguese champions started well, but seemed unable to recover from a rare loss at home to Atletico in their second fixture. The discipline and experience that have become a hallmark of the team simply disappeared, and to make matters worse, rivals Benfica amassed five more points despite being eliminated. The squad has the quality to make a deep run in the Europa League, but whether the players will be motivated enough is doubtful.

Austria Vienna were expected to make up the numbers, but ended up giving a decent account of themselves. Away draws at Zenit and Porto are not to be scoffed at, but the cherry on the top was the fantastic 4-1 win in the final game against Zenit in Vienna. It would be nice to see them again in the group stages next year.

Group H

Barcelona had to wait till the last game of the group stages to seal top spot, which they eventually did with a 6-1 thrashing of Celtic at the Camp Nou. It's highly unlikely that the Blaugrana are going to face such charitable opposition in the later rounds of the competition. Away performances were certainly not up to scratch, and for purists it was quite a shock to see Ajax play the better football between the two in Amsterdam. Despite Tata Martino having many critics, there is greater defensive stability, and while the flair hasn't always been obvious, Barcelona are pressing better this season, and that alone makes it unlikely that they will be brushed aside like they were against Bayern last season.

Despite being average or even below average at times, AC Milan managed to get out of the group stages in time honoured fashion. The two wins against Celtic proved to be crucial, as well as a generously awarded penalty in stoppage time to get a share of the spoils in Amsterdam. That Milan weren't able to win any of their four matches against Barcelona and Ajax highlights the scale of the task that awaits them against a group winner in the round of 16. There were positives in the form of Mario Balotelli and a seemingly rejuvenated Kaka, while the emergence of Mattia De Sciglio as a composed defender is a silver lining in the Rossoneri's oft-criticized youth policy.

Ajax will feel aggrieved at the injustice of Mario Balotelli's wrongly awarded penalty in Amsterdam, but nonetheless the Dutch champions gave an excellent account of themselves with a young team playing some beautiful football. In fact, it was because Frank de Boer's men abandoned their principles and decided to just cross the ball into the box against Milan's ten men for seventy minutes, that Ajax missed out on the round of 16. However, with some vibrant talent such as Davy Klaasen and Danny Hoesen buying into the passing ethos of the club, Ajax should manage a good run in the Europa League.

After the high of making the round of 16 last year, Celtic came back down to earth in a very disappointing campaign. Neil Lennon will admit that despite the calibre of opponents, the Bhoys didn't do themselves justice in home games at Celtic Park. With Rangers' continued absence from the SPL, Europe is what keeps fans of the Hoops going, and for players and manager all that remains this season is a six-month long stroll to the title, as Celtic failed to even make the Europa League.
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