Blog by: Souvik
A year after the English sides caught the ire of the Champions League; it was the bowing out of two of the biggest names from the Italian Serie A that made the headlines this time around. Juventus and Napoli formed the two biggest casualties of this year’s competition in the group stages. While Napoli could count themselves unlucky with the results coming out as they did, Juve’s performances in the group left a lot to be desired and was probably the lowest point in Antonio Conte’s tenure at the head of the Old Lady so far.
The Groups of Upset
Snow and misery poured down at the Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi as Group B claimed the first big casualty of the competition when Juventus were left floored. The defending Serie A champions, coming into the competition as one of its favourites were a poor shadow of themselves; managing to win only one of the 6 games in the group stage. Hail, snow and Wesley Sneider were enough to drill the final nail in the coffin for the bianconeri. However, even before the Dutch midfielder rippled the back of the net amongst ghastly conditions, Juventus had already made its bed. Conte summed it up perfectly in his post-game comment, “The regret is that we let everything go down to the last game”. You can’t say that you were put in a bad position after conjuring up only six points after first five games. Real Madrid on the other hand cruised through the same group with utter ease.
Group F, the group of death in this year’s competition probably brought the biggest drama to the screens. Whilst Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund seeped through the cracks, Napoli was left distraught as the Italians were knocked out despite amassing 12 points in the group stage. Coming into the final game game, Napoli needed to beat Arsenal by 3 clear goals. Whilst an injury torn Dortmund side battled through to a 2-1 victory over a 10 man Marseille side to put their name in the draw for the second round, two second-half strikes from Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon was just too little too late for the azzurri. Thus, Napoli became the first team to finish third with 12 points in a Champions League group and the first to be eliminated with such a tally since 1997.
The group also brought us the first ever French team to be eliminated from the group stages of the competition without having registered a single point in the form of Olympique Marseille who looked a class below their fellow groupies throughout the competition.
So close, yet so far
The margin between a place in the last 16 of the Champions League and a place in the much maligned Europa League is thin. While a few rejoiced at clinching their place amongst the last 16 of Europe’s elite, some “giants” in their own respect drifted down to the second tire of European competition. Amongst the big names as per say that failed to make the second stage were the pair of Portuguese giants Benfica and Porto.
Benfica fluffed their lines for the second consecutive season, going out from the group stages for the second consecutive season whilst being tied on points. After Neil Lennon’s Celtic the previous year, it was the turn of a Kostas Mitroglu inspired Olympiakos this time around to upset the applecart for the Pourtuguese powerhouse. Group C proved to be too strong for Benfica as a last gameday win over PSG at the Stadium of Light wasn’t enough to see the Eagles through. It was their loss at the hands of the Greeks on Gameday 5 came back to bite them big time. Progress to the second round might now mean that Olympiakos will try and hold on to their prized possessions in the form of Manolas and Mitroglou who have constantly linked with big clubs from the big leagues. PSG meanwhile romped through the group, looking a class apart from the rest.
Porto meanwhile crashed out of the group stages after impressing last season. The Dragões were eliminated had their home form to blame for their fortunes in the competition. The losses of Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez were clearly felt in their performances as they failed to record a single win at home in the group stages. That never bodes well for any club, let alone those with aspirations of going through to the second of Europe’s premiere club competition. However a weak group kept their hopes alive till the last game. Porto however had the unenviable task of eking out a result away to the Spanish powerhouse Atletico Madrid. In the end it proved to be a too big a task as Atletico made short work of the Portuguese, romping home to a 2-0 victory which put out the light for good for the Lisbon outfit. Coming second in the group were Zenit St. Petersburg, who themselves were given a 4-1 hiding by last placed Austria Wien.
Another team that would go out of the competition heartbroken was Ajax Amsterdam. The Dutch constantly punched above their weight in Group H and set the cat amongst the pigeon with a victory over eventual group champions Barcelona in the fifth gameday. Going into their last game against Milan needing a win straight up front, Ajax however fell short of the target. A goalless draw was all that the Dutch could manage to take home from the San Siro. This leaves their future forays in Europe confined to the Europa League. Barcelona on the other hand, comfortably passed through the group in spite of losing to Ajax. The Catalans’ depth of talent made their route into the final 16 quite comfortable in spite of Lionel Messi missing a large chunk of the games. Celtic meanwhile couldn’t pull off any tricks this time arpound as they bowed out of the competition tamely after managing to register a solitary victory over Ajax.
Chelsea might have found their European kryptonite in the form of FC Basel, but there was nothing much else to bother the Blues in these early stages of the competition. Like all Jose Mourinho’s teams, Chelsea remained astute at the back throughout the group stages, conceding a Champion League low 3 goals in the competition. Schalke on the hand got the better of Basel to qualify to the last 16 of the competition, defeating the 10 men Swiss team on the last day of the competition to keep their dreams of furthering Champions League adventures alive. Steaua Bucharest rounded out the group as the minnows of the lot.
Group A failed to live to its billing as Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen cruised through the group without having to break their stride. United in Europe has been a different animal altogether when compared to their endeavours in the domestic league. Shakhtar as always gave some brilliant displays of attacking football and still had a faint chance coming into the last game at Old Trafford. But there was no mercy to be had a t Old Trafford midweek as the Red Devils themselves looked to bring some momentum into their campaign this season after a couple of hapless displays had seen them drop two games in a row at home in the Premier League. Real Sociedad however was the big disappointment of the lot as they failed to meet the lofty heights that they had set in the previous LaLiga campaign and folded tamely on their return to the competition after a decade.
There were no thrills or spills to be had in Group D as favourites Bayern Munich and a rampaging Manchester City made mincemeat of their competition. Neither Viktoria Plzeň, nor CSKA Moscow could build up any kind of strong challenge to the big powerhouses as their gap in class was well reflected in terms of the points in the table.