The Champions League group stage is over, and now we’re left with 16 of Europe’s elite clubs in the draw for the knock-out round. The draw will be held on Monday in Nyon, Switzerland, so until then, here are the biggest winners and losers from the group stages.
Needing to avoid defeat in the final game at home to Manchester United, Wolfsburg turned on the style with a dynamic attacking performance. Last year’s Bundesliga runners-up scored three goals against the Premier League’s best defence, topping the group and sending United into the Europa League in the process. Twice Wolfsburg showed impressive character to respond to conceding by scoring one of their own minutes later, and in youngster Julian Draxler the German side have one of the competition’s most exciting talents.
Before the match against Olympiacos, Arsene Wenger said that his side needed “A great escape”, and so it proved to be. The Gunners arrived in Greece requiring to win by two goals – no mean feat on a ground where the home side has won every league game this season. Ravaged by injuries to several key players, Arsenal turned on the style and delivered a performance of control and composure not usually associated with Wenger’s side. Olivier Giroud scored all three, defying the critics who say he’s not a man for the big occasion. The 3-0 win has sent them into the hat for the next round, although finishing second in the group to Bayern Munich means they’ll have a tough draw, possibly against the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico Madrid.
Winner: Atlético Madrid
Atletico Madrid have struggled for consistency this season. A host of attacking summer signings bought to counter the loss of Mario Mandzukic and Arda Turan have taken a while to adapt. Disappointing draws against Deportivo La Coruña and Astana toward the end of October left what’s usually a fiercely loyal fan-base demanding more from their side, and how they’ve responded.
Manager Diego Simeone recently spoke out against the criticism, saying that Atletico, contrary to the belief that their play should be more progressive as a result of heavy investment, should instead go back to the aggressive, counter-attacking style that has brought them so much success in recent years. Since then they’ve turned a corner, sitting second in La Liga and topping their Champions League group with a 2-1 win away at Benfica on Tuesday. After the goalless draw with Astana and the recovery of their intensity, Atletico have won seven games and conceded just two goals. It looks like they’re back.
Winner: Jose Mourinho
With his job in a perpetual state of being ‘on the line’ at the moment, the 2-0 win over Porto which confirmed Chelsea’s progress as group winners couldn’t have come at a better time. His side looked to have regained some of their fight and intensity of old, and the Portuguese even found time after the game to have a dig at old nemesis and former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas. After the game he said, “now Casillas can win the only trophy he hasn’t won: the Europa League”. Now now Jose…
Loser: Gary Neville
New Valencia manager Gary Neville chose to remain in the stands during his side’s creditable 1-1 draw with Barcelona last weekend. He instead wanted his first game in charge to be the Champions League decider against Lyon. His side turned in a performance which suggested a team short on both confidence and quality, and Lyon, despite having nothing to play for, left the Estadio Mestalla with a 2-0 win. Gent’s win over Zenit effectively put Valencia out no matter the scoreline, but this served as a reality check to those thinking Neville would change things overnight.
Loser: Louis van Gaal
The hallmark of Van Gaal’s Manchester United side this season has been, aside from a penchant for slow, uninspiring football, a very solid defence. Strange then, that United were so open in a game they needed to win on Tuesday. They lost 3-2 to an impressive Wolfsburg side, and twice conceded from set pieces. Admittedly, several first-team regulars were out with injury, but there’s no doubt that Van Gaal’s use of the resources he had available has quite rightly come under scrutiny. The substitutions of Juan Mata and Bastian Schweinsteiger when chasing the game were nothing short of astounding, while the decision to bring on Nick Powell and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson over the more experienced Ashley Young and Paddy McNair raises serious questions over the Dutchman’s judgement.
Through to the Knockout Stage
Group Winners: Real Madrid, Wolfsburg, Atlético Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Zenit St Petersburg.
Runners-Up: Paris St-Germain, PSV Eindhoven, Benfica, Juventus, Roma, Arsenal, Dynamo Kyiv and Gent.