Now that the 48 matches that make up the group stage of the UEFA Champions League have all been played and the round is officially concluded, we can begin to evaluate which teams impressed and which fell flat. With the group stage fading quickly in the rearview mirror and the Round of 16 draw looming on tomorrow’s horizon, it is time to take a quick look at the biggest winners and losers of this year’s groups.
Before we dive in, though, it is important to remember that “winner” and “loser” is relative. One team that clawed its way to runner-up status might be considered a winner relative to expectations, while a fall from the top spot in the group to second place can be considered a loss for other clubs. Keep that in mind as we go through the list.
Most of the teams on this list won’t be your garden-variety superclubs. When Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich all qualify top of their respective groups, they haven’t “won” so much as met expectations. Likewise, when a team like last year’s Europa League champion Sevilla comes up short behind Manchester City and Juventus, or well-matched teams like Roma and Bayer Leverkusen are fighting for one spot, it is rather disingenuous to refer to the team which falls short as a “loser”.
So, with that caveat, let’s look at the three teams that came out of the group stage smelling like roses… and which three suffered the greatest disappointment en route to seeing their Champions League dreams die for the 2015-2016 campaign.
With the rise of Belgium’s national team, it is amazing that the country’s Champions League teams failed to get out of the group stage for 14 straight years years — the last time coming when Anderlecht took advantage of the short-lived and ill-advised second group stage. Entering the final matchday in Group H, the only way Valencia could have passed Gent for the second spot behind Zenit St. Petersburg was if the Spaniards won and the Belgians lost. Instead the reverse occurred, as Gent dealt Zenit its first defeat of this year’s Champions League 2-1 at home and Valencia tumbled on their home turf 2-0 to Lyon. As a result Gent goes through to the knockout stage in style with a squad that rebounded from early losses in Russia and Spain with three consecutive wins, carrying momentum into the Round of 16 no matter who they get matched against.
LOSER: Manchester United
On a Tuesday when everything was completely up in the air, it was Manchester United that flamed out of the competition and fell far short of its goals. For the Red Devils, all they had to do was win at Wolfsburg to advance top of the group. It looked like they were on the way to doing so when Anthony Martial scored the first goal for the visitors just 10 minutes into the contest. Then Wolfsburg regrouped, went up 2-1 by the half-hour mark, and benefitted from a controversial but legitimate offside call to remain up at the break. It looked like they would still need just a draw to advance in second place… at least until PSV awakened and scored two goals in the final 15 minutes to reverse their fortunes at home. In the process, the preseason favorite in the group was relegated to Europa League status, while the Bundesliga and Eredivisie come out of the group stage looking even better.
Midway through the group stage, it looked like another traditional underachieving European campaign for the Gunners. Even a key home win over Bayern Munich felt like an aberration after the Londoners lost the return match in Bavaria 5-1. A pair of comfortable 3-0 victories on the final two matchdays, however, allowed Arsenal to reverse its fortunes and move into the knockout stage with some semblance of momentum. During the group campaign Olivier Giroud continued to rehabilitate his reputation as an erratic striker, breaking the club record for fewest games to reach 10 Champions League goals. (His hat trick against Olympiacos in the final matchday was his 21st match in the Champions League for the Gunners, allowing him to reach the career 10-goal mark in one fewer match than it took Thierry Henry.) Their late surge set up a winner-take-all match in Greece, and the English side came through with flying colors.
LOSER: FC Porto
Conversely, all FC Porto had to do to reach the knockout stage was to draw against Dynamo Kyiv at home in the fifth matchday. Instead the Portuguese side fell 2-0 on home turf, which set up a winner-take-all scenario against former manager Jose Mourinho and Chelsea on the road at Stamford Bridge. Dynamo did exactly what was needed against Maccabi Tel Aviv, winning 1-0 on Wednesday, meaning a draw would not be enough for Porto to advance. Rather than a rebound in London, though, Porto completely flopped its way into the Europa League with an anemic 2-0 result that included an own goal by Marcano and an erratic shooting display throughout. (Porto technically generated five more scoring chances than Chelsea, but only put three of their 16 attempts on target.) From group leader to Europa League in less than a month, Porto lost big.
WINNER: VfL Wolfsburg
The Germans entered Group B competition looking like a solid young contender-in-the-making that could put a scare into more established Manchester United and PSV Eindhoven sides before moving on to the Europa League. The roster had seemingly been turned back over after selling off key attacking parts such as Kevin De Bruyne and Ivan Perisic to major clubs Manchester City and Inter Milan respectively. Instead they retooled with new burgeoning stars like Julian Draxler, won all of their home matches in the group stage, and pipped the English and Dutch squads to finish atop the group table. Rather than merely being happy to be in the group stage, Wolfsburg proved that it is possible to retool quickly in the Bundesliga and remain competitive not just domestically but on a continental level.
A Lyon side that already sits 19 points behind PSG in the Ligue 1 table will now watch the rest of this season’s European competition from home.Even as they won their final match on the road against Valencia, Lyon was too far in arrears to climb out of the cellar and claim even just the Europa League place. For six straight seasons during the first decade of the 21st century, the French side was a reliable regular in the knockout stages of the Champions League, but after a six-year absence from the group stage they simply couldn’t recreate the magic of those forebears. About the only positive thing about this year’s quick exit from the competition is that Olympique can now concentrate more seriously on moving up from its sixth-place spot in the domestic table and potentially getting back to the Champions League in 2016.