Posted by: mdegeorge | December 7, 2011

Starting XI Points: Champions League Group Stages

Wednesday delivered one of those legendary European nights that instantly earned its place in soccer lore and that few are soon to forget. There was last-minute intrigue, controversy throughout, underdog stories and, what could be better, the fall of a giant.

Here are the 11 most important takeaways from two (yes, we’ll lump in a largely underwhelming Tuesday slate too) nights to close out the Champions League group stages.

Manchester United's performance against FC Basel Wednesday didn't give manager Sir Alex Ferguson much to applaud. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

England (doesn’t) Prevail

The two main protagonists in the heated battle for Premier League supremacy this season, well, they’ve got more time to focus on that. Manchester United and Manchester City both crashed out of the group stage Wednesday, turning both the blue and red halves of Manchester black for the time being in the first instance of two English teams being eliminated in the group stages in the history of the competition.

The Red Devils’ descent is more spectacular. The finalists last season and participant in three of the last four seasons frankly weren’t good enough to advance. Their only wins in the competition came against Romania basement-dweller Otelul Galati. They were drawn at home by both of the team’s progressing, Benfica and FC Basel, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s men couldn’t come through in the clutch with the win-or-go-to-the-Europa-League proposition Wednesday in Basel. Coupled with their struggles in the league, Ferguson’s men have some serious questions to answer. Goalie David De Gea was culpable on the opener, as was a defense that could be without stalwart Nemanja Vidic for a while and a midfield that has needed Phil Jones to deputize just isn’t working.

Then there’s Manchester City, the Premier League leaders who bowed out in favor of Napoli despite beating group winners Bayern Munich, 2-0, thanks to the Italian side’s 2-0 win over Villarreal. The Citizens lost out by virtue of their inability to best Napoli at home in the group’s first fixture, a 1-1 draw, and fell, 2-1, at a raucous Sao Paolo Stadium two weeks ago. Man City’s group was among the toughest from the outset, to the relegation to the Europa League isn’t all the fault of Roberto Mancini’s men. Unlike their Mancunian counterparts, the refocusing on the domestic league may actually pay dividends down the road.

But there’s a bright side…

Hey, England could have six of the final 32 teams in the Europa League. The two Manchester teams are in, and Stoke City has guaranteed its progress from Group D.

Tottenham needs a win Thursday at bottom club Shamrock Rovers in the last day of Group A play and a loss by Rubin Kazan at PAOK Salonika plus some help on goal differential (the spread is five). In Group H, Birmingham needs to beat Maribor and hope Braga and Club Brugge don’t draw. And Fulham need a win against Odense, the bottom club in Group K, or a draw and Wisla Krakow loss or draw at top club Twente to progress.

Banking on the Swiss

For the disappointment of Man U, there is a great deal of credit due to Basel. The Swiss side deserved the win at Old Trafford in September, only an Ashley Young strike in the 90th minute denying them a win. Wednesday, without injured striker Javier Hernandez, Man U was soundly outplayed by Marco Streller, Alexander Frei and company. The RotBlau are the first Swiss team to make the final 16 since 2002-03 when they qualified for what was then the second group stage. They may not be done playing spoiler in this competition.

Dutch doubled over

It’s a shame that the travails of the teams Manchester overshadowed the biggest shock of the night: Lyon surmounting a monumental comeback that saw them erase a goal differential of seven (seven!!!) to advance. Entering play, Ajax needed nothing more than a narrow loss and even a reasonable win by Lyon to advance, sitting on eight points and plus-3 goal difference to Les Gones’ five and minus-4. Instead, a 3-0 defeat to the Real Madrid reserves and a 7-1 demolishing of Dinamo Zagreb by Lyon sent the French side through.

The Dutch side is the tragic figure in the mix. They had not one but two goals disallowed thanks to erroneous offsides calls, while Madrid scored twice on questionable offside decisions in which the flag stayed down. All four calls came in the first half, so both linesmen, the Portuguese tandem of Bertino Miranda and Joao Santos, are to blame and should have reffed their last European matches of the season. Had Nicholas Lodeiro and Miralem Sulejmani’s strikes stood, we’d be looking at a different team in the final 16. Instead, it’s the fifth straight season the knockout stages progress without a team hailing from the Netherlands.

Some French Resistance

Even if you concede that Ajax deserved a better fate, credit is till due to Lyon, whose outstanding performance was justly rewarded. 10-man Dinamo got the opener, a Mateo Kovacic strike in the 40th minute putting the hosts ahead despite Jerko Leko’s 28th minute red card. But Bafetimbi Gomis’ seven-minute hat trick, the fastest in UCL history, was part of a four-goal night for the Senegalese-French striker. Talk about quick-strike attack: Lyon scored in minutes 45, 47, 48, 52, 64, 70 and 75. I’m not sure if this makes up for feverish comeback put on by Milan in the 2005-06 Round of 16 with goals from Filippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko after the 85th minute (who could forget this agonizing Sheva-to-Gregory-Coupet-to-post-to-post-to-Pippo-and-in job?), but it’s a start for a team that tasted disappointment so much in the knockout stages.

Lyon wasn’t the only French late show of the week, with Marseille carving some drama out of an otherwise dour Tuesday with goals by Andre Ayew in the 85th minute and Mathieu Valbuena in the 87th to get by Borussia Dortmund and qualify for the final 16. The Marsellie win, also on the road to a team eliminated from contention, came from a 2-0 deficit and was also kick-started by a 45th-minute goal, this one by Loic Remy.

Italian Job Well Done

Serie A has taken more than its fair share of flak in recent months, with everyone and their brother relegating it from the top tier of European football league. But the astute observer will notice that all three of its representatives in the group stage – Napoli, Inter and Milan – qualified for the knockout stage. Only Napoli entered the final matchday needing a result to advance, while Milan had progress assured after four matches. England, meanwhile, has had half of its four teams crash out, and it took an excellent performance from Chelsea against Valencia in their last match to assure progress.

… And the Spaniards

That other league that is reputedly among the best in Europe didn’t fare to well either, with half of the Spanish teams headed out of the competition. Real Madrid and Barcelona, to no one’s surprise, flourished in getting to the knockout stage. Valencia slides into the Europa League, but Villarreal, who drew the difficult Group C, had one of the worst performances in recent memory, losing all six of its matches with a minus-12 goal differential.

Russian to the group stages

Also lost by some is that two Russian teams, Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, make it to the Round of 16, on par with such well-respected leagues as Spain, England and Germany. Zenit was especially impressive, holding Porto scoreless, in large part thanks to excellent goalkeeping from Vyacheslav Malafeev in a tense, do-or-die match Tuesday that gave the world another chance to see the sideline histrionics of Luciano Spalletti. Moscow also had a tough order to fill, needing a win at the San Siro against already qualified Inter, a feat they accomplished thanks to a goal from one of the brothers Berezutsky, Vasili, in the 87th minute, and a draw between Lille and Trabzonspor.

Neither side is exactly one that the group-winners will be dreading in the draw. But those trips to the east this time of year are always daunting and could help spring some surprises.

Dinamo explodes

To return briefly to the Croatians: Boy, were they atrocious. Who would have ever mentioned that they were impressive in their opener, a hard-fought 1-0 draw at home against Real Madrid? Oh (check the last line).

The Spanish youth

Some of it is rebelling, but those that are gainfully employed for the two powerhouses in the nation are promising. Barca managed to dismantle BATE Borisov with Pedro, all of 24 years old, as the elder statesmen of a side that featured numerous talented youngsters. Jose Callejon led the way for Real Madrid Wednesday, running his Champions League goal total to four in three matches. There matches may not have meant anything, but it’s still nice to see these youthful B-sides as a glimpse into the future.

And your 2012 European Champions will be …

APOEL Nicosia. Book it.

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