CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GROUP STAGE REVIEW

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December 19, 2012 by jstevenson0804

The 2012-2013 edition of the UEFA Champions League has proven to be as exciting as ever. On the eve of the knockout round draw, let’s take a look at the story of the group stage.

Group A was a seemingly quiet group with no real superstar team. From the first round of matches it was clear that French big spenders PSG were to tussle with Portuguese champions Porto. This proved to be the case as PSG came away with a last round 2-1 win to seal their position as group winners. The class of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva came through, with most of the French team performing excellently. Porto’s main spark came in the form of Columbian starlet James Rodriguez who proved his pedigree on the greatest stage of all and will surely move on to even bigger things in the future. Dynamo Kiev make their way into the Europa League with Dinamo Zagreb being thoroughly outclassed and able to score only one solitary goal.

Columbian starlet James Rodriguez

Columbian starlet James Rodriguez

On paper Group B promised a good scrap between some of Europe’s ever-present Champions League qualifiers without a truly great side. German side Schalke came away with the group win, largely thanks to 2-0 win at the Emirates and four goals from Dutchman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who has led the way both in Europe and in the Bundesliga. Arsenal were as unpredictable as in the Premier League with no real standout performer but three goals from Lukas Podolski was a bonus. Olympiakos had their own hotshot in front of goal in the form of Konstantinos Mitroglou who chipped in with four goals. Unfortunately for them they could not replicate their impressive league form and instead side-step to the Europa League. Montpellier’s performances summed up their season: a disappointment. After winning the league in spectacular fashion last season they have since struggled to find any form, mainly due to a lack of goals without last season’s top scorer Olivier Giroud.

Klaas Jan Huntelaar - a new Liverpool signing?

Klaas Jan Huntelaar – on his way to England in January?

Group C threw up a surprise as debutants Malaga progressed as surprise group winners in their first European campaign. Three wins out of three all but sent them through and they ended the group unbeaten with Alarcon Isco proving to be the real heartbeat of the team. Milan struggled, as they have done domestically, but sneaked through ahead of Russian giants Zenit. Lacking the impetus of big names, Milan used their experience to edge through but they will have to improve to go any further. Zenit also disappointed with no real strong performers and have to settle for the Europa League. Lastly, Anderlecht, the Belgian champions and league leaders this season, failed to offer anything and as expected propped up the group.

Malaga's maestro - Isco

Malaga’s maestro – Isco

The Group of Death provided some of the most interesting matches of the competition so far. Two-time defending Bundesliga champions, Borussia Dortmund, finally brought their domestic form to Europe. Not only unbeaten but wins against Real Madrid and Manchester City will give them great confidence going into the knockout stages. The entire backline proved to be rock-solid and one of the best defensive units around. Up front Mario Götze, Marco Reus and Robert Lewandowski showed their abilities with all three causing trouble for some of the best defenders in the world. Cristiano Ronaldo starred for Real Madrid as they easily coasted into the knockout stages but will be concerned with another failure against German opposition. Dutch champions Ajax managed to secure Europa League football with Christian Eriksen proving his value to the club with a string of impressive performances. But once again Manchester City disappointed, departing without a single win to their name. Only Joe Hart managed any kind of strong performance and even in the last game a weakened Dortmund still trumped them 1-0: all-in-all another miserable European campaign.

Mario Götze - a future world-beater?

Mario Götze – a future world-beater?

Group E was another strong group on paper. Serie A champions Juventus overcame a slow start to win the group with the evergreen Pirlo showing that he is still one of the best. Shakhtar Donetsk, along with Juventus, are the only team with a domestic record to match Barcelona and managed to power their way through to the next round after a triumphant win over Chelsea. Borges Willian proved to be the difference as he almost single-handedly carried the Ukrainian champions through. Defending champions Chelsea suffered the fate of an early exit, the first reigning champions to fall at the first hurdle. In a fairly tough group Brazilian Oscar showed his pedigree and proved to be the Blues’ standout performer, but it was not enough to make it through. Bottom of the group Nordsjaelland never really stood a chance but defender Jores Okore made a name for himself with some impressive showings against some of Europe’s elite.

Oscar winning performances

Oscar winning performances

Group F was hotly contested between Bundesliga pace-setters Bayern Munich and Valencia. Bayern’s experience shone through as the likes of Lahm and Schweinsteiger carried the team to success, in spite of a shock defeat in Belarus. Improvements will be needed but they were never truly tested and found progress a formality. Valencia will be delighted to have progressed as their league form is abysmal. Star striker Soldado was in the goals once again with Feghouli and Jonas chipping in too. Belarus’ recurring champions once again failed to make it to the knockout stages but can be pleased with the win against Munich. 2011 French champions Lille will be disappointed with their showing with no real positives to come out of this venture.

Soldado the super striker

Soldado the super striker

Group G provided the biggest shock of the competition as Celtic triumphed against Champions League favourites Barcelona. However, the Blaugrana comfortably progressed as their triumvirate of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta proved to be the difference. With five more goals to his tally Messi showed why he thoroughly deserves the Ballon d’or for a fourth consecutive year. Celtic’s reward for a shock win was qualification for tomorrow’s draw. Victor Wanyama also became an overnight hero and found himself linked with the likes of Manchester United. As with so many others Benfica could not bring their strong domestic form to the centre stage, but they will have a second chance in the Europa League. Spartak Moscow were up against it but still managed one win.

Is Wanyama on his way to Old Trafford?

Is Wanyama on his way to Old Trafford?

Group H was perhaps the least impressive group of the competition. Manchester United wrapped up qualification in double quick time. Back-to-back defeats at the end of the group stages may be a slight concern but the main stars were rested and bigger tests lie ahead. Turkish champions Galatasaray edged into the next round with three wins on the bounce, with Burak Yilmaz proving to be a real goal threat. Romanian champions Cluj almost made the next round and can be thoroughly delighted with a victory against United. Braga though will be disappointed. After impressing in the Europa League two seasons ago they will now watch from the sidelines as they struggled to compete in a group that was arguably an easy one progress from.

Turkish delight - Yilmaz voted as UEFA's Player of the Group Stages

Turkish delight – Yilmaz voted as UEFA’s Player of the Group Stages

So what have we learned from the group stages? Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will continue to go toe-to-toe both at home and in Europe. Ronaldo has an extra goal to his name so far but in a straightforward group Barcelona never really looked at their best. But this Champions League is not a straight fight between the La Liga giants. All three Bundesliga sides topped their groups and will prove stern opposition to most of the remaining teams, with both Dortmund and Munich standing a strong chance of reaching the latter stages. Lastly, we have learned that the Premier League is not as strong as it is often proclaimed to be and neither Arsenal nor Manchester United have shown any form to suggest they will compete for the title. Now let’s bring on the draw….

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