With 12 teams having already qualified for the round of 16, the final round of group stage matches in the UEFA Champions League meant that the spotlight focused mainly on three groups.
Group C was given the tag of this season’s “Group of Death”, with Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli and Liverpool drawn together, along with 1991 European Champions Red Star Belgrade.
After the completion of five rounds of matches, the top two places were still up for grabs, with only Red Star Belgrade having been eliminated from the competition. The other three teams were all capable of finishing in any of the top three positions.
The requirement for PSG was straightforward, with a win against Red Star guaranteed to see them through. The result was far from a certainty, given PSG’s record of two wins from their previous eight Champions League matches, but a 4-1 win ensured a place in the last 16 for the seventh successive season and left Napoli or Liverpool facing an early exit from the competition.
Starting the evening at the top of the group, Napoli needed only a point to qualify. But a 1-0 loss at Anfield saw the Italians finish on the same number of points as Liverpool. With an identical head-to-head record and a goal difference of +2 for each club, the result left goals scored as the deciding factor in separating the teams, with Liverpool advancing.
Not a club to do things the easy way, Liverpool had to survive an injury time scare when Arkadiusz Milik was denied an equalising goal by a heroic save by Allison.
And although last season’s beaten finalists ended with a perfect home record for only the second time in 11 Champions League campaigns, they also became the first team in 11 years to reach the last 16 without securing a single point away from home. With five successive Champions League defeats in matches played away from Anfield, the Reds are in need of some improvement in order to challenge again this season.
Group A was less complicated, with Tottenham and Inter Milan fighting it out for the right to finish runners-up to Barcelona. Spurs needed to match the result achieved by Inter, with the Italians playing at home to PSV Eindhoven, who were already confirmed as the team who would finish bottom.
Spurs had a tougher match away to Barcelona, but benefited from a weaker Barcelona team than might have started the match had the Catalans required a win. Nonetheless, Spurs had to come from behind in order to earn a draw, which was ultimately enough to progress thanks to a surprise result at the San Siro, where Inter were also held to a draw.
With only 8 points and a negative goal difference, Spurs recorded the worst record of any English team to have qualified from the group stage – only a year after recording the best ever record for an English team in the group stage. But after a bad start to this season’s campaign, Spurs won’t worry about the manner of their qualification and can can now focus on an opportunity to improve on last season’s performance, when they were eliminated at the last 16 stage.
Man City had already qualified from Group F, but the match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Lyon would decide the team to join them.
A home win for Shakhtar would have seen them leapfrog Lyon and secure second place in the group, but despite taking the lead, the Ukrainian champions were unable to secure the victory, with Lyon coming back to draw their fifth Champions League match in a row and achieve qualification from the group stage for the first time in seven years.
For defending champions Real Madrid, the post-Ronaldo era has not begun particularly well. They may have finished top of a group that also contained last season’s semi-finalists, Roma, but Real Madrid require a huge improvement in order to seriously challenge for a fourth title in a row.
Not since the 2008-09 season have Real Madrid suffered two losses in a Champions League group stage. On that occasion, the defeats were both inflicted by a Juventus team inspired by Alessandro Del Piero.
This time around, it was CSKA Moscow who claimed victories over the 12-time winners of the competition – including a 3-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu, which is Real Madrid’s heaviest home defeat in European competition. It was also Real Madrid’s first home loss in a Champions League group stage match since 2009 when Milan won 3-2 against a Madrid team which was without both Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain through injury.
Ronaldo’s personal success in the competition may well continue at Juventus, who comfortably negotiated a group containing Man United and Valencia. Even the two late goals conceded in a home match against Man United couldn’t prevent Juventus from qualifying with a game to spare, and the Bianconeri will offer a stern test for any potential opponent in the round of 16.
The draw for the next stage takes place on Monday December 17th, with ties set to be played between mid-February and mid-March.