We have made it to the end of the Champions League Group Stage for 2022-23. It’s been emotional.
Mostly for fans of those clubs who have outperformed expectations, or indeed, scuffed their chances of making the knockout rounds. You’re lucky we have one more round of Winners and Losers to wipe those tears away, whether happy or sad…
Everything was following the usual formula as the half-time whistle sounded during Tuesday’s clash between Marseille and Tottenham.
Spurs, top of an incredibly tight Group D heading into the game, were 1-0 down and in desperate need of a goal to remain in the competition. Antonio Conte, sitting in the stands following his red card during last week’s frustrating draw with Sporting Lisbon, glumly watched on as his side mustered zero touches in the opponent’s box during the first 45 minutes.
Tweets of ‘Spursy’ and ‘the history of the Tottenham‘ cranked into gear. Chancel Mbemba’s terrific header sent the Stade Vélodrome into delirium as Marseille, bottom at kick-off, put themselves on the precipice of the knockout stages. Consider the fact that Spurs had lost Heung-min Son through a head injury on the half-hour mark and the story fans had feared began to etch itself into stone.
But you know what? Spurs showed guts in the second half. Clément Lenglet’s equaliser 10 minutes after the break settled Conte’s men. They began to dictate. Marseille certainly had chances to send the North London side tumbling into the Europa League–former Arsenal left-back Sead Kolasinac will struggle to sleep after his point-blank miss–but Spurs held firm.
Pierre-Emile Höjbjerg’s last-minute winner was a justified reward. Losses against Manchester United and Newcastle have made it a difficult month for the club, but Spurs overturned a 2-0 deficit to overcome Bournemouth on the weekend and dug in to win Group D. Not very ‘Spursy’ at all.
It’s worth dwelling on the absurdity that was Group D: Spurs won with 11 points, Eintracht Frankfurt came second with 10, Sporting were third with seven and Marseille finished bottom with six. Every team sat top at some point of Tuesday’s final group games.
Even the goal difference between all four sides was a maximum of three, with last place putting up a better total than second. You get the feeling that if there were 30 minutes more play, the final standings would have changed again.
Frankfurt deserve a special mention after winning their last two games to jump ahead of Sporting and qualify for the round of 16 for the first time. There was a fearlessness to their play after going 1-0 down in Portugal as they jolted into life with a 2-1 win to send their hosts into the Europa League.
Sporting really let things slip after a promising start in the group. One point from their final four games, including handing Marseille all of their points in back-to-back defeats, is a huge opportunity missed.
Rúben Amorim will know his side are contenders for the second-tier competition, but there was a huge chance of making waves in the Champions League up for grabs, something rivals Benfica managed in Group H alongside Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.
But really, it’s time to salute the competitiveness of Group D. Any quartet that can qualify or be knocked out going into the final game is all right with us.
Atlético Madrid won a single match in Group B, which included Porto, Leverkusen and Club Brugge. It was a group that many onlookers would have expected them to comfortably win when the draw was made.
Last week Diego Simeone’s men lost their chance to make the knockout stages in dramatic fashion after Yannick Carrasco’s last-second penalty miss condemned the Rojiblancos to a 2-2 draw with Leverkusen. This week, there was little drama. Just another blunt performance and defeat against a group-topping Porto team who were good value for their 2-1 win.
The notion of Atlético finishing fourth and missing out on the Europa League didn’t seem possible, but here we are. Atlético haven’t scored more than two goals in any game since the 4-1 September 10 win over Celta Vigo in La Liga. Even the defensive hallmark of the Simeone blueprint–remaining tight in defence, outbattling the opponent and fighting to the end–has waned.
It’s fair to say Atlético have outperformed expectations during Simeone’s 11-year tenure. This man has led them to eight trophies, including two Europa Leagues and two Super Cups. They have made the Champions League final twice in the last nine years, a fantastic achievement for a club that has consistently worked beyond its means.
Ahem. It feels like a long time since we celebrated the Scottish teams both qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in 15 years. Positivity was in the air. It’s an understatement to say the group stage did not go to plan.
Rangers and Celtic accumulated a joint total of zero wins, two draws and 10 losses across 12 matches. They scored a combined total of six goals. Sure, Celtic fans, both of those draws and four of those goals were yours. But there’s nothing to celebrate here, unless of course, you’re up for celebrating a little Rangers misery.
The Ibrox side officially put up the worst performance ever in group stage history with zero points and a minus-20 goal difference. This included the 7-1 loss to a struggling Liverpool and a double dose of slappings from Ajax and Napoli. You could say Celtic fought hard and missed great chances to grab a few extra points. You can’t really say that about Rangers.
All in all, a terrible showing from the Scottish sides, who both looked completely out of their depth.
Thanks to the away goals scored tiebreaker, Benfica topped a group that included Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Maccabi Haifa. They did it unbeaten! They needed to beat Haifa and match PSG’s goal difference, with only a 6-1 win in Israel being enough after the French champions beat Juve 2-1. They did exactly that! Exclamation marks aren’t doing the achievement justice!
Wednesday’s picking apart of the Israeli side was full of the intricate, beautifully constructed attacking football that has led Benfica to a 22-game unbeaten run.
Haifa couldn’t live with the sharp passing moves around the box as the Liga Portugal side tore through them in the second half, an offensive output that means they will now avoid a knockout tie against Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Manchester City.
We know they can live with teams of PSG’s quality after battling to two 1-1 draws with them. You wouldn’t want to be the second-placed side to draw the team that has only improved since the high-profile departure of Darwin Núñez in the summer… a man who finished second in Group A with Liverpool.
Will the narrative be kind enough to throw the star striker against his former club? We can only hope it features in the next round of Winners and Losers very soon…
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