We are now halfway through the 2015-2016 UEFA Champions League group stage, and the tables in most cases are starting to clarify. Five of the six teams that still had perfect records entering the matchday were held to draws, with only Zenit St. Petersburg emerging with a third straight victory to solidify its spot atop Group H. Three matches still remain to move up or down, with qualifying positions still well up for grabs in most cases. What follows are a look at how each group is shaping up at the midpoint of the group stage.
The headliner in Group A was inevitably the clash between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid at the Parc des Princes. Despite having 60 percent of the possession, the hosts managed only one shot on target despite generating 11 chances. Luckily for PSG, however, Real was equally off target — generating 18 scoring chances but testing German goalkeeper Kevin Trapp with just four of those shots. In the end neither team could find the back of the net, and each had to settle for a point that kept them deadlocked at seven points apiece atop the group table. They will square off in the return match in Madrid on November 3 with another chance to separate from one another.
The other two squads are likely fighting for Europa League positioning, though there is still ostensibly an outside chance for either to reach the knockout stages should either Real or PSG completely collapse in the second half of the group stage. That left the showdown in Sweden critical for both Malmo and Shakhtar Donetsk, neither of which entered the matchday with a single point. The hosts faced over a dozen solid scoring chances from the Ukrainians, yet managed to get an early Markus Rosenberg goal and then held on for dear life to claim all three points. If they can muster a draw in the return match in two weeks, they would be either three or four points out of second place with two matches to go.
Group B is as convoluted now as it was entering the third matchday, with little separation emerging between a quartet of teams that was deadlocked at three points apiece. VfL Wolfsburg seized the top spot in the table thanks to a 2-0 victory at home against PSV Eindhoven, as they stifled any semblance of a Dutch attack and notched second-half goals from Bas Dost and Max Kruse to pull away. Almost as important as the three points was the second goal, which might prove crucial should the rankings require parsing down to the goal differential. The Germans travel to Eindhoven in two weeks to see if they can replicate the result.
At the same time that Wolfsburg was rolling to a resounding victory, CSKA and Manchester United were slogging through a sluggish match in Moscow that yielded few opportunities and led to a goal apiece. The hosts opened the scoring 15 minutes into the match off the left boot of Seydou Doumbia, and held the Red Devils scoreless for over an hour until Anthony Martial’s header leveled the affair in the 65th minute. Neither team was able to pull away in the final half hour, with each creating few genuine chances and eventually splitting a point apiece. The draw leaves both the Russians and the English with four points, two behind Wolfsburg, and only a point ahead of PSV for the second spot. Group B is still anyone’s to conquer.
Benfica traveled to Istanbul, took an early lead in the second minute on a Nicolas Gaitan goal off a free kick, and then watched Galatasaray chisel away until they sent the visitors back to Portugal as 2-1 losers. Yet Benfica still sits atop Group C despite the defeat, tied with Atletico Madrid on points but holding the head-to-head victory (with the return match to be played in Lisbon on Matchday Five.) With their next two matches at home, and the final matchday away against an overmatched Astana squad, Benfica is now in the driver’s seat of Group C with the opportunity to reach the knockout stage for the first time since 2012 after reaching the Europa League final each of the past two seasons.
Atletico Madrid will obviously be hoping to take away the top spot from the Portuguese side, looking for revenge when they head to Lisbon later in November. With the Kazakh neophytes coming to the Spanish capital, it was imperative that Atletico score as many goals as possible. Pouring on the pressure early and often, the hosts managed to go up 2-0 by the intermission. Oliver added a third goal midway through the second half, and an own goal by Denis Dedechko right before stoppage time gifted Atletico a fourth to pad the goal differential. Though they are three goals up on Benfica on goal differential and level on points, they remain in second spot due to the head-to-head home loss with their Portuguese rivals.
Thanks to their 2-1 win in Manchester on the opening matchday, Juventus remained atop Group D despite earning just a point at home in a 0-0 draw against Borussia Monchengladbach. The Italians were dominant throughout the match against the Germans, generating nearly two dozen chances against the visitors while holding Borussia to just five chances of its own. But Juventus squandered nearly all of its chances, with only two of its shots actually forcing Monchengladbach keeper Jann Sommer into action. It was a missed opportunity for the defending finalists to claim a lock on the top spot, with two points left on the table for nought.
Meanwhile in Manchester, City fended off an early Sevilla onslaught that yielded a go-ahead goal from Yevhen Konoplyanka at the half-hour mark to take all three points. The comeback began with an equalizer off an Adil Rami own goal six minutes after Konoplyanka’s strike put Sevilla ahead, though it took until second-half stoppage time for Kevin De Bruyne to emerge as the hero with the winning strike off a Yaya Toure feed to his left boot. With the victory Manchester City pulled within a point of Juventus with three matches left. The return match in Sevilla on November 3 provides an opportunity to pull six points clear of the Spaniards in the table and effectively secure a spot in the knockout stage with two matches left.
Injuries and transfer restrictions have wreaked havoc on Barcelona’s season, but the Catalans still have far too deep a squad to have been worried much about their trip to Belarus to face BATE Borisov. Ivan Rakitic took center stage for Barcelona on the road, scoring twice in the second half on a Tuesday evening where the visitors held 73 percent of the possession and generally controlled the flow of play throughout the match. The defending European champions should have little trouble qualifying out of Group E, already three points clear of Bayer Leverkusen and due to face BATE in the rematch at Camp Nou on November 4 in a must-win match for the Belorussians.
A wild night in Germany threatened to flip the group table as Roma and Bayer Leverkusen split the points in an eight-goal instant classic. Javier Hernandez had the hosts up 2-0 within the first 20 minutes, his first goal coming off a spot kick and the latter off a close strike just outside the six-yard box. Then Daniele de Rossi went to work, scoring a brace himself to level the match before halftime. Miralem Pjanic put Roma ahead 3-2 less than 10 minutes into the second half, and it looked like the Italians had secured the three points when Iago Faique scored with a little over a quarter-hour remaining in the match. But goals from Kevin Kampl and Admir Mehmedi two minutes apart in the 84th and 86th minute once again leveled the score, and now it is Bayer instead of Roma sitting three points behind Barcelona.
Given Arsenal’s recent Champions League history, there was little reason to expect them to steal more than a point from Bayern Munich when the Bavarians visited Emirates Stadium on Tuesday. But the Gunners kept the throttle down all evening, challenging Manuel Neuer to make some world-class saves in the visitor’s goal. Munich got their chances as well, forcing Petr Cech into several stylish saves of his own, and a worldwide audience was treated to a goalkeeper duel that kept things scoreless well into the second half. Then Olivier Giroud came on for Theo Walcott and made an instant impact, potting an ugly header past Neuer off a Santi Cazorla free kick to take the lead. Mesut Ozil’s stoppage time goal only solidified Arsenal’s dominance against the Bundesliga titans.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Arsenal is out of the cellar. The match between Olympiakos and Dinamo Zagreb featured a pair of teams that had already beaten the Gunners, and this time around it was the Greeks getting the better of the Croatians to draw level with Bayern Munich on points. For most of a highly defensive affair it appeared that Dinamo and Olympiakos would split the points and tighten up Group F even more, but instead Brown Ideye found the net behind Dinamo keeper Eduardo and passed the full compliment of points over to the visitors. Olympiakos and Dinamo will battle yet again on November 4, this time in Athens, and both remain alive for one of the top two spots despite Arsenal’s resurgence.
The woes that have seen Chelsea slip to midtable mediocrity in the Premier League continue to strike in Europe as well. The Blues saw both Eden Hazard and Willian hit the woodwork on their visit to Dynamo Kyiv, and were forced to settle yet again for less than the full three points as they left Ukraine scoreless. The point allowed the hosts to retain a hold of second place in Group G, one ahead of the Londoners, though they must travel to Stamford Bridge in a fortnight hoping to maintain or extend their tenuous grasp on a knockout spot. Jose Mourinho’s squad has three games remaining to turn around what has been a disappointing season to date; should Chelsea fail to reach the Round of 16, the manager will see the heat levels turned up to 11 under his seat.
While Chelsea has been a disappointment, FC Porto has once again shown itself to be among the perennial stars of European competition. They extended their lead in the group with a 2-0 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv, as Vincent Aboubakar and Yacine Brahimi scored four minutes apart right before the intermission and the Israeli side was held to just one shot on target and 37 percent of the possession. Maccabi looks incapable of even challenging for the Europa League spot at this point, having been outscored 8-0 in their first three matches in Champions League play, and the group will boil down to the three teams separated by three points. Porto looks like a lock for one of them, so next week’s Chelsea-Dynamo clash in London will likely settle the second spot.
Group H houses the only team that still boasts a perfect record through the first half of the group stage, as Artem Dzyuba snatched Zenit St. Petersburg a quick lead against Olympique Lyon just two minutes into their Tuesday clash in Russia. Alexandre Lacazette drew the visitors level just after halftime, but the 1-1 score lasted less than 10 minutes before Hulk put the hosts back up for good. Danny’s 82nd-minute finish of an Oleg Shatov setup on the break ensured that Zenit would snatch three points for the third straight match, positioning the Russians as the favorites to emerge atop the group and setting them up as a potential dark horse once the knockout stages roll around.
In the other match, Gent has looked like the Little Engine That Could throughout this year’s group stage. After falling behind to a 15th-minute Sofiane Feghouli goal, the Belgians fought back and found the equalizer five minutes from the intermission thanks to Thomas Foket. If not for an own goal by Stefan Mitrovic in the 72nd minute, Gent likely would have stolen away a point on the road at Valencia. Instead it was the Spaniards who walked away with three points in a match they had little business winning, and thanks to the result Valencia now needs just one more point in two weeks in Belgium coupled with a Lyon draw or loss to secure early passage through to the Round of 16 for the first time since 2013.