****The field of the final 16 is now set. Here’s how it all played out:
In Group E: Basel’s Ivan Ivanov was sent off in the 30th minute, paving a path for Schalke to grab a crucial winner through Julian Draxler to provide the difference and send the German side through with a second place finish in the group. Joel Matip added a second to sure up the points and advancement to the Knockout Round.
Demba Ba’s 10 minute goal for Chelsea against a spirited Steaua side was enough to ensure the Blues earned top spot and a seeded place in next Monday’s UCL Round of 16 draw.
In Group F: We promised drama in Group F, and boy did we get it.
The entire proceedings were thrown into chaos early in France when Robert Lewandowski showed his class in scoring in the 4th minute, letting the ball run across his body to slip the defense and chip deliciously over Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda.
The French side, though, playing under an interim manager and in search of their first UCL points this term, struck back 10 minutes later with a Souleymane Diawara header from a set piece. Though Marseille’s Dimitri Payet was sent off in the 34th minute, earning a second yellow for diving, the two teams were knotted at 1-1 at halftime.
That meant, with Arsenal and Napoli tied at 0-0 at intermission, the Gunners would top the group on 13 points, while der BVB was poised to advance on goal difference.
That all changed in Naples in the 73rd minute when Gonzalo Higuain, a man the Gunners tried to sign this summer, scored for Napoli, receiving the ball with his back to goal and turning, fooling Per Mertesacker, and crossing up Wojciech Scezney as he rolled the ball along the grass into the far netting. Now, Napoli was through in second, Arsenal was still first on goal difference and the German giants were destined for the UEFA Europa League.
Things got more dire for Arsene Wenger’s men three minutes later, though, when captain Mikel Arteta was then sent off, controversially to be sure, for running up the back of Jose Callejon for a second yellow. Now Arsenal had to avoid losing by three goals to stay ahead of Napoli on goal difference.
For their part, the Italian team was happy with a 1-0 win and second place, wasting time and urging the game toward its conclusion.
Then, the final twist; Kevin Grosskreutz netted for Dortmund in the 87th minute, putting them up 2-1 and now Napoli was the team set to miss out on goal difference, unless they could score twice against Arsenal with just 10 minutes to go.
Once word arrived to the players, they charged forward. Callejon scored with one of the game’s final kicks to win 2-0, but Napoli still missed out on the Round of 16. The trio ended the Group Stage tied with 12 points apiece.
Harsh. Crazy. Enthralling. It was UCL Group Stage drama at its best.
In Group G: If Group F was the Group of Death, Group G was one of lifelessness. Napoli surely will be ruing their fate after seeing Zenit Saint Petersburg advance in the competition with just six points.
The Russian big spenders held their destiny in hand, up a point on Porto in the race for second as Atletico Madrid had outclassed the competition here, but instead of grabbing the game by the horns, Zenit followed up their opening goal by allowing four to Austria Vienna. They still advance, though, as Atletico, playing with nothing at stake for themselves, put in a professional performance and beat Porto 2-0.
In Group H: Barcelona continue to prove they are much more than just Lionel Messi as Neymar netted a hat trick and the Blaugrana throttled Celtic 7-1 in Spain. In doing so Gerardo Martino’s side secured top place in Group H.
Meanwhile, AC Milan captain Ricardo Montolivo was on the wrong end of one of the day’s many red cards, going studs up on Ajax’s Christian Poulsen to earn a 22nd minute sending off. The Italian’s teammates resisted in his absence, though, seeing out a 0-0 result against the Dutch champions at the San Siro to beat them to second place by a single point despite being outshot 25-4 and allowing Ajax to control 71 percent of possession.
Wednesday finals mean that the 16 teams who will compete in the Knockout Round are set.
The draw takes place Monday in Switzerland and teams who competed in the same group or who hail from the same country cannot be matched against each other. Take an early look at how things could shake out:
Pot 1 (top seeds):
Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid
AC Milan, Arsenal, Bayer Leverkusen, Galatasaray, Manchester CIty, Olympiakos, Schalke, Zenit Saint Petersburg
After seven teams (more on the eighth below***)— Manchester United, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen, Olympiakos and Manchester City—sealed spots or sured up position in the Knockout Round on Tuesday, the UEFA Champions League Group Stage resumes today for a final bow.
Only one contest remains with uncertainly surrounding the fortunes of many a top side. Will Chelsea and Barcelona top their groups? Who will be knocked out among the trio of Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli? After Benfica fell Tuesday, can Porto earn a place in the Round of 16 for Portugal? AC Milan or Ajax?
Answers come today. All games kick at 2:45 p.m. ET. Here’s what you need to know before the opening whistles blow:
Chelsea v Steaua Bucuresti, Stamford Bridge
Schalke v Basel, Veltins-Arena
Only two points separate leaders Chelsea from third place Schalke on the final day of competition in Group E meaning no one is safe and only Romanian champions Steaua Bucuresti, doomed to finish last no matter today’s results, already knows their fate.
Jose Mourinho’s Blues find themselves on nine points having lost twice to Basel but defeating Schalke in both meetings. Basel earned a draw while hosting Schalke in Switzerland and would advance to the Round of 16 with the same outcome today in Germany.
Schalke, led by midfield maestros Julian Draxler and Kevin Prince-Boateng, two players who will face the U.S. Men’s National Team in Brazil, needs a home win to go through, and could top the table if Chelsea falters today at home. The Germans are without injured striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar while USMNT midfielder Jermaine Jones misses out due to suspension.
Mourinho was in a giving mood Tuesday in his pre-match press conference, signing and handing the shirt off his back to a Romanian translator who grappled with his long-winded analysis. He is expected to hand a start to Samuel Eto’o
Steaua hasn’t lost in 11 matches but also drew their last four league games. Chelsea won 4-0 last these two teams met back in October.
Marseille v Borussia Dortmund, Stade Velodrome
Napoli v Arsenal, Stadio San Paolo
The killer blow in the widely regarded Group of Death comes today with three teams, Arsenal (12 pts), Napoli (9) and Borussia Dortmund (9) all still capable of going through or crashing out. Neutral eyes surely will cast their gaze upon Group F today as nervous supporters try to survive the drama.
Arsenal, which put on their finest show of the season amid a sparkling performance from Mesut Ozil last time against Napoli, travel to Italy where Rafa Benitez’s men await. Napoli’s star Slovakian attacker Marek Hamsik faces a late fitness test to be in contention. The Gunners look to be without right back Bacary Sagna. Arsenal needs a point to top the group, but are expected to play their usual attacking game. Napoli will advance by bettering Borussia Dortmund’s result at Marseille.
Last year’s UCL runner up has been hit by the injury bug and with rivals Bayern Munich 16 points ahead of der BVB in the German Bundesliga, advancement to the Knockout Round is absolutely vital. They will have to overcome the absence of Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Ilkay Gundogan, Marcel Schmelzer, Sven Bender and Nuri Sahin.
Luckily for Jurgen Klopp’s charges, their French foes have been utterly dismal in this star-studded group, failing to earn a point in five games to date. This will be the club’s first match since firing manager Elie Baup and replacing the tactician temporarily with sporting director Jose Anigo.
It’s all to play for here.
Atletico Madrid v FC Porto, Vicente Calderon
Austria Vienna v Zenit St. Petersburg, Ernst Happel Stadium
Atletico Madrid has been a delight to watch in European play this season and had already secured advancement through four games of play. Los Colchoneros will easily top Group G no matter what happens on the field today; they are seven points clear.
The interest in Group G comes in the race for second place. Zenit St Petersburg is just one point in front of Porto, with the two teams sharing a -1 goal difference. The Russian side starring Hulk, Axel Witsel and Andrei Arshavin can book a spot in the Round of 16 with a win in Austria or a draw and Porto draw or loss in the Spanish capital.
It’s a daunting task for the Portuguese team as Atletico is yet to lose at home in the Spanish league, where they are joint top with Barcelona. The question remains, though, if Diego Simeone will rest some of his top players such as Diego Costa and David Villa.
After missing out on advancement last year by a single point and bumping down into UEFA Europa League, Zenit controls their destiny and will want to take advantage today with the Austrian side yet to win at home in the Group Stage.
AC Milan v Ajax, San Siro
Barcelona v Celtic, Camp Nou
In the only group boasting four former European champions, Barcelona is already through but will want to earn at least a draw while hosting Celtic today. The Scottish side is playing for pride alone as, four points behind Ajax, they can’t qualify for the UEFA Europa League.
The Blaugrana are without the injured Lionel Messi, Dani Alves, Jordi Alba and Victor Valdes and the suspended Cesc Fabregas. Any other team would be crippled by the absence of those stars, but this is Barcelona. Neymar will anchor the attack with Pedro and Alexis Sanchez supporting him. They have plenty of firepower to get the right result today and earn a seeded place in the UCL draw.
As Barcelona jockeys for position, AC Milan and Ajax are slated to battle for survival. The Rossoneri have their noses in front of the dynamic Dutch by a single point, meaning Ajax must win at the San Siro to seize a spot in the next round. When the two teams met in October in Holland, each scored in stoppage time to share the points. Ajax comes into the contest with confidence, though, after stunning Barcelona 2-1 in Amsterdam last time out in this competition.
***Moving from preview to review, and also of note, Galatasaray and Juventus finished their tension-filled match this morning after the game was suspended Tuesday due to snow. With the Turkish champions needing a win at home at advance and Juventus hanging on to second spot in Group C with a draw, Gala’s Wesley Sneijder found the winner in the 85th minute.
Still amid snowy conditions, Sneijder, an old Juve foe from his time at Inter Milan, and his teammates raced to a bank to celebrate. The shock result means that the Scudetto holders are now UEFA Europa League bound.
What match are you most looking forward to watching today? Who do you think will ultimately win the competition? A debate awaits in the comments section.