Commentary

Belgian surprise joins behemoths in Champions League knockout stage

The dominance of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid continues unabated. Arsenal makes a great escape in Greece, Gent is living large on a modest budget, and Manchester United tantalizes its fans before crashing out in Germany while Wolfsburg makes history.

Group winners: Real Madrid, VfL Wolfsburg, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Zenit St. Petersburg.

Runners-up: Paris Saint-Germain, PSV Eindhoven, Benfica, Juventus, Roma, Arsenal, Dynamo Kyiv, KAA Gent.

The three amigos. The last seven UEFA Champions League finals have all featured Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, with these three behemoths winning five of the last seven titles, and capturing 10 of the last 18 Champions League trophies. These modern soccer giants have also produced over a quarter of the European finalists throughout history (with 31 in the 60 previous tournaments), but we’ve never seen two of them playing for all the marbles. Will this year’s final, held May 28 at the San Siro in Milan, produce a clash of the titans?

Barcelona has an excellent chance to become the first team to repeat as champion since AC Milan did so in 1989 and 1990, with odds-makers listing Barcelona and Bayern as 5/2 co-favorites prior to Monday’s draw for the round of 16, Madrid is third favorite at 5/1 --- no other club is better than 12/1.

Limited to three UCL games due to injury, Leo Messi only has three UCL goals, while Cristiano Ronaldo fattened up his total with a record 11 group-stage goals, opening an eight-goal margin on the all-time UCL scoring list (Ronaldo 88, Messi 80). Ronaldo was held scoreless in both games against PSG, but still broke the record by tallying a ridiculous 11 goals in four games against Malmo and Shakhtar Donetsk.

Unexpected survivors. Arsenal summoned a great performance when it mattered most; winning 3-0 in Greece, but it was far from “perfect,” which is how a jubilant Arsene Wenger referred to it. Olympiakos, which would’ve gone through while losing 1-0 or 2-1, dominated the game’s first 25 minutes, the Greek club also had more shots, more corners, and possessed the ball 49 percent of the time. The Gunners definitely created the better scoring chances --- aided by a terrific outing from Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell, and Olivier Giroud’s hat trick -- but Arsenal’s flight home from Athens could’ve just as easily been heading to the Europa League.

The most surprising club reaching the round of 16 has to be Gent, which isn’t just the first Belgian team ever to reach the knockout stages (after three wins and a draw in six games), it did so by outperforming Valencia, which finished fourth in La Liga last season, and Lyon, the Ligue 1 runner-up that nearly toppled PSG last year, all while overcoming vast financial shortcomings.

Manchester United’s thrilling failure. United was bounced out of a group full of teams it would’ve easily dominated in the not too distant past, but it did exit with its fans on the edge of their seats. Man U entered Week 6 in second behind Wolfsburg and ahead of PSV, which was hosting CSKA Moscow.

United scored in the 10th minute at Wolfsburg, putting the Red Devils on top of the group, but the German club tied the game in the 13th, and when Wolfsburg took a 2-1 lead in the 29th with things still scoreless in the Netherlands, it meant United was heading out and PSV progressing, until late in the second half, when all hell broke loose.

CSKA converted a penalty at PSV in the 76th to take a 1-0 lead, sending PSV out and giving United a lifeline to progress, setting off celebrations by United fans in Germany. Two minutes later PSV tied the game at 1-1, a score carrying PSV through and knocking United out, but four minutes after that a Wolfsburg own goal tied things in Germany at 2-2, and once again United was going through at PSV’s expense. But Wolfsburg took the lead at 3-2 just two minutes later, a result eliminating United, and a minute later, in the 85th, PSV went ahead 2-1, which meant United now needed a two-goal swing --- but after combining for five goals in less than 10 minutes, the goals dried up.

A day later, Man United, notorious for its ability to turn a profit, but suffering a bit of a PR crisis, was left offering discounted Europa League tickets and guaranteeing season-ticket holders they won’t be forced to buy them.

Quick hits. Juventus only needed a draw in Spain to clinch first in its group, after beating Man City twice, but squandered its advantage by losing 1-0 at Sevilla. Last year’s runner-up goes through in second behind City, and the difference is dramatic, as group winners reach the quarterfinals more than twice as often as runners up.

Roma’s scoreless home draw with tournament lightweight BATE Borisov wasn’t as costly, but was probably more embarrassing. With Bayer Leverkusen earning a 1-1 tie against a Barcelona team featuring Messi surrounded by reserves, BATE nearly pulled a shocker in Italy, with some excellent late chances to score, and go through. Roma’s listless effort drew boos and whistles in Italy’s capital, even as it progressed.

Roma’s six points tied the fewest by any team reaching the knockout stages, while PSG, which totaled 13 points in second behind Madrid, tied the tournament record by conceding just one goal during the group stages.

Spain had five teams in this year’s group stages, as Sevilla was the inaugural Europa League winner to earn a bid. Sevilla and Valencia head to the Europa League, while Barcelona, Madrid and Atletico all won their groups, as UEFA’s top rated league continues to thrive.

After much handwringing, and several disappointing performances, the Premier League still put three clubs into the knockout stages, tying La Liga for the most in this year’s UCL, with Man City winning its group for the first time in club history.

This will be Wolfsburg’s first ever trip into the knockout stages, while Arsenal’s great escape in Greece sees the Gunners heading there for the 16th year in a row.

And just because we knew you were wondering, Manchester United spent nearly $150 million on players this summer; Gent spent less than $1.5 million.

Team goal of the week. Wolfsburg’s win included this beautiful go-ahead goal in the first half, with Julian Draxler at the heart of things, laying the ball off to Vieirinha at the last second for the easy finish.

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