So the group stages are in the books, and I really can’t tell if there’s anybody who actually wants to win this competition. Yes, some big clubs that stumbled had already won their group, but not all of them did, and even some that managed to pull it out in the end were on the ropes at one point. So let’s take a look.
Borussia Dortmund: The rotated Dortmund side came up with a solid win, but it should’ve been by so much more than just 2-0. The returns of Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho to the side will help in the knockout stages, but Dortmund needs to be more clinical.
Club Atlético de Madrid: Atlético will probably be disappointed about not winning the group, but it’s not as if they played badly in Belgium. Jan Oblak came up big when he had to, but a 0-0 draw away from home is a result that Diego Simeone and Co. will probably take in the knockout stages.
Club Brugge: Brugge managed to hold a very good Atlético side scoreless, just as it did on Matchday 5 with Dortmund. They won’t be favorites, but at the same time, they certainly won’t be an easy draw for anyone in the Europa League. Expect them to make more noise than anyone expects.
AS Monaco FC: I can’t imagine being Thierry Henry right now. His players don’t believe in themselves, and it showed in the way they played throughout the group stages. At least he can now fully devote his efforts to keeping them in Ligue 1 without midweek European matches looming over his head.
FC Barcelona: Before anyone goes nuts about how “bad” Barcelona looked in the second half, remember they had already won the group. Gerard Piqué didn’t play. Neither outside back is Ernesto Valverde’s first choice. Barcelona cruised to the finish, though I have to admit, I have no idea why Sergio Busquets is pressing on the edge of Tottenham’s box in the 85th minute.
Tottenham Hotspur FC: Tottenham got what it needed, but dodged a couple of bullets, namely Philippe Coutinho curlers hitting the post. I’m surprised Mauricio Pochettino gave a start to Kyle Walker-Peters in such an important game, but he got away with it. However, if this match held any sort of consequence for Barça, Spurs would be out.
FC Internazionale Milano: Inter are going to the Europa League knockout stages instead of the Champions League knockout stages because they couldn’t create enough offensively. Mauro Icardi seemed like the only player on the field who would score, and if someone else had the ball near the goal, it never felt like PSV was in danger. Also, leaving Radja Nainggolan on the bench and giving Borja Valero the full 90 seemed foolish, especially since Nainggolan played in the semifinals last year while Valero basically wasted space.
PSV Eindhoven: Steven Bergwijn was very good, and anything that came for PSV going forward involved him in some way, shape, or form. However, they relied on Jeroen Zoet in goal to keep teams out because they weren’t all that great at defending, which they showed again in Milan. But at least “El Chucky” Lozano scored. The Mexicans are showing well this competition.
Paris Saint-Germain: We already know how good PSG is going, and all three stars scored, but on the goal conceded, the whole midfield was sucked to one side of the field, leaving a player unmarked on the far post. That being said, PSG is the only team in this group to get a full three points from a trip to Serbia, and it’s the most professional PSG has looked in quite some time.
Liverpool FC: I’m not sure what’s going on with Sadio Mané at the moment, but Liverpool won’t care because they’re through anyway. Mohamed Salah was brilliant, and Alisson Becker came up with a huge save in stoppage time to win it for the Reds, but I don’t advise betting on them unless they can get results in big games away from Anfield.
SSC Napoli: Mário Rui couldn’t handle Salah, but even so, Napoli had its chances to advance. José Callejón couldn’t hit the target when it mattered, and Arkadiusz Milik missed a golden opportunity again in this knockout stage. Napoli need a pure striker that won’t shoot right at the goalkeeper in those situations because they’re being punished for being the better team in five of its six matches, yet only notching two wins.
Red Star Belgrade: There’s only so much you can do if PSG is flying, and PSG was flying on the night. Marko Gobeljić showed great technique with his goal, but outside of that, Red Star never had a chance in this match.
FC Porto: Maxi Pereira played about as badly as he could have played, and he’s lucky his team escaped with a victory. Moussa Marega has scored in five straight Champions League matches, which is impressive, but he benefited from a soft group. Porto did just enough on this day, but when they don’t play their strongest side, they’re vulnerable.
FC Schalke 04: This team is just boring, and I’ve been trying to settle on an American sports analogy for them and came up with the Deron Williams/Carlos Boozer era Jazz. They’re kind of good, but aren’t really a contender for anything because they don’t have anyone all that special to elevate their play. They’re just kind of there to be a tricky team to play against while still being boring.
Galatasaray AŞ: You can’t miss a penalty and still expect to win. Bad defending hurt them on the other end, and they’re lucky that they just squeaked into the Europa League.
FC Lokomotiv Moscow: Defending the second ball on set pieces was atrocious, and that’s where Lokomotiv gave Schalke its best chances. They did deserve to lose though because any time they went forward, it seemed more like a fluke than anything else.
FC Bayern Munich: Vintage Bayern takes advantage of the Ajax red card. This year, Bayern sees Thomas Müller sent off for a horrendous challenge. I’m not too sure about Robert Lewandowski’s penalty run up, but I am sure that Jérôme Boateng playing in the back is a recipe for disaster. As a side note, Thiago Alcántara should start.
AFC Ajax: I’m not quite sure how the last goal stood, because Klaas Jan Huntelaar was a good five yards offside, though they may have gotten the penalty anyway. But André Onana was absolutely brilliant in goal, denying Lewandowski twice from point blank range. Hakim Ziyech needs to have a greater impact in the knockout stages because you don’t win this competition while your best player is invisible.
SL Benfica: What a free kick by Alex Grimaldo. Haris Seferović also deserves a mention for a performance that probably deserved a goal. They knew they were third and played for pride in front of their home fans, and they played well, at least.
AEK Athens FC: They couldn’t get shots on target, but might have escaped with a point were it not for a mistake by Kostas Galanopoulos, and even if Grimaldo doesn’t score the free kick, getting two yellow cards in five minutes is not a very good way to help your team. AEK is the only team to come away from the group stages with no points at all.
Manchester City FC: If they’re going to win this competition, they need to be more clinical. You can call the headers off the woodwork and saved by Oliver Baumann unlucky, BUT THAT DOESN’T APPLY TO MISSING A THREE-ON-ONE WITH THE GOALKEEPER. I still can’t believe I saw that.
Olympique Lyonnais: They got the job done. Nabil Fekir ended up with the goal, and Anthony Lopes, once again, came up big when Lyon needed him to bail out the defense. Memphis Depay was good as always, and so was left back Ferland Mendy, though the same can’t be said for Bertrand Traoré. He’s got everything in his locker expect for his finishing, which is exactly why Chelsea kept sending him on loan before finally giving him up and selling him.
FC Shakhtar Donetsk: It was a good shift from them, and the opener was typical Shakhtar, working the ball well in a tight space before a good finish from a Brazilian attacker, this time named Júnior Moraes. However, the defending wasn’t good enough, and when they finally got a chance late, Ismaily’s touch skidded just a bit too much on the snowy ground.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim: They had no chance from the get go. They did well to keep City out for as long as they did, but they simply weren’t good enough for this competition.
Real Madrid CF: It doesn’t matter that they rotated the defense and already had the group won. They still had Isco, Marco Asensio, and Karim Benzema on the field and brought on Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos. Yet after CSKA scored, Real created nothing and were rightfully jeered off their own pitch after a 3-0 loss.
AS Roma: I’m not going to say they rolled over, but Roma certainly wasn’t playing at 100 percent on the night. With that being said, there’s no excuse for Davide Santon falling asleep and letting his man slip by him, directly leading to both Plzeň goals.
FC Viktoria Plzeň: They got lucky in that Roma had nothing to play for on the night, but they took advantage of it. However, they were certainly content to sit on their lead once they got it. That may come back to bite them in the Europa League, but for now, all that matters is that they just edged out CSKA for third place in the group.
PFC CSKA Moscow: What a way to end your European nights for the season, but CSKA should be really disappointed. They took six points off the defending champions yet still finished in the bottom of the group because they only took one point from the remaining 12 available. I wonder how far they could have gone if they played like they did in Madrid in every game.
Juventus: It’s an awful mistake from Alex Sandro to give away the penalty, and up front it just wouldn’t click for Cristiano Ronaldo. They didn’t play badly, but they also weren’t anywhere near their best. Otherwise, they would’ve blown Young Boys out of the water.
Manchester United FC: Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones haven’t played much this season, and this match showed exactly why. Both were awful. What I don’t understand is why José Mourinho left Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard, two of his more creative players, on the bench when Valencia held United scoreless the first time around.
Valencia CF: Carlos Soler took his chance really well, but Valencia easily could have been three goals up at halftime. They aren’t advancing because of what happened before this matchday, but in the Europa League, there are enough good teams that poor finishing will be punished more ruthlessly than United did.
BSC Young Boys: What a win for Young Boys. Guillaume Hoarau nearly had a hat trick with a bicycle kick, and he would’ve deserved it for the way he played. A combination of the post, crossbar, and goalkeeper Marco Wölfli kept Juventus at bay, and the Swiss side can celebrate. They earned it.
Round of 16 Preview
Pot 1: Dortmund, Barcelona, PSG, Porto, Bayern, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Juventus
Pot 2: Atlético Madrid, Tottenham, Liverpool, Schalke, Ajax, Lyon, Roma, Manchester United
A couple reminders here: A team can’t draw an opponent from its own country or group for the Round of 16. With this in mind, here are the possible opponents for each side, ranked from my opinion of least to most difficult.
Dortmund: Ajax, Manchester United, Lyon, Roma, Tottenham, Liverpool
Barcelona: Schalke, Ajax, Manchester United, Lyon, Roma, Liverpool
PSG: Schalke, Ajax, Manchester United, Roma, Tottenham, Atlético Madrid
Porto: Ajax, Manchester United, Lyon, Roma, Tottenham, Liverpool, Atlético Madrid
Bayern: Manchester United, Lyon, Roma, Tottenham, Liverpool, Atlético Madrid
Manchester City: Schalke, Ajax, Roma, Atlético Madrid
Real Madrid: Schalke, Ajax, Manchester United, Lyon, Tottenham, Liverpool
Juventus: Schalke, Ajax, Lyon, Tottenham, Liverpool, Atlético Madrid
Atlético Madrid: Porto, Bayern, Manchester City, PSG, Juventus
Tottenham: Porto, Bayern, Real Madrid, Dortmund, PSG, Juventus
Liverpool: Porto, Bayern, Real Madrid, Dortmund, Juventus, Barcelona
Schalke: Real Madrid, Manchester City, PSG, Juventus, Barcelona
Ajax: Porto, Real Madrid, Dortmund, Manchester City, PSG, Juventus, Barcelona
Lyon: Porto, Bayern, Real Madrid, Dortmund, Juventus, Barcelona
Roma: Porto, Bayern, Dortmund, Manchester City, PSG, Barcelona
Manchester United: Porto, Bayern, Real Madrid, Dortmund, PSG, Barcelona
Before you all have a go at me for my rudimentary difficulty rankings, let me explain them.
Ajax is as low as they are because, despite how good they look, they’re inexperienced at this stage in the tournament. Lyon took four points from Manchester City, so that has to count for something. As for Atlético over Liverpool, Liverpool has lost all three of its matches on the road, Virgil van Dijk is suspended for the first leg, and aside from van Dijk and Mohamed Salah, I will take Atlético’s players over Liverpool’s at every position.
On the other side, the way Real and Bayern have looked this season, they aren’t the same juggernauts they used to be. Real lost twice to CSKA, but also beat Roma twice. That, as well as being three-time defending Champions, outweighs Bayern’s mediocrity. Dortmund are good, but not great, so the top four are a cut above the rest. City is the worst of them because they’ve shown to be vulnerable with key players missing from injury. PSG comes next because if Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, and Edinson Cavani are on form, they’re difficult to stop. Juventus would be top, but we’ve seen them struggle to finish their chances, plus Wojciech Szczęsny can make a mistake. And of course, Barcelona has Lionel Messi.