The squandering of a 3-0 lead against Sevilla a fortnight ago was met with anguish and disgust by Liverpool fans, but we need not have worried as a night that could have gone horribly wrong against Spartak Moscow ended up being as placid and comfortable as a pre-season friendly. For the second time this season, the Reds hit seven in a Champions League match and while the Russian side offered minimal resistance, Liverpool performed with conviction, as best evidenced by their purposeful start to the second half even when they were three goals to the good. Philippe Coutinho, who began the night as captain of the side, ended with a hat-trick while Sadio Mane netted twice and there was one each for Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, meaning that each of the ‘Fab Four’ were on target. As it transpired, Liverpool could have drawn against Spartak and still topped Group E, as Sevilla were held to a 1-1 draw in Maribor. It wasn’t the result the Spanish side would have liked, but it mattered little as they would have finished second in the group regardless of what happened in Slovenia.
Manchester United were through in everything but name prior to Tuesday night’s clash with CSKA Moscow and did enough to round off Group A with a fifth win out of six, confirming themselves as group winners. The home side dominated the first half at Old Trafford but couldn’t convert any of their chances; instead it was CSKA who opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time, Vitinho turning the ball home amid cries of offside from United. Despite falling behind, Jose Mourinho’s men were never in any danger of going out of the tournament and they turned the game on its head in the space of 66 seconds midway through the second half, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford netting quick-fire goals to send the United faithful home happy. Defeat for CSKA meant that they had to settle for third in the group after Basel won 2-0 at Benfica to join the English club in the last 16. That result for Benfica left them without a point to their name in what surely ranks among their worst European campaigns of all time.
Chelsea had already assured their passage to the last 16 by the time they met Atletico Madrid at Stamford Bridge, but a 1-1 draw proved costly as it bumped them down to second in Group C. The Premier League champions were the better team in the first half against an Atletico side who needed a win and a favour elsewhere to stay in the competition. They had brief hope when Saul Niguez scored on 56 minutes but their fate remained out of their hands and their elimination was put beyond doubt with 15 minutes left after Stefan Savic deflected Eden Hazard’s shot into his own net. Both teams ended up frustrated at the final whistle because of events in Italy, where Roma’s 1-0 win over Qarabag propelled them to top spot in the group. The Serie A side were made to earn the three points, which came courtesy of Diego Perotti’s second half header.
Before last night, you had to go back to 23 April and the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal for Manchester City’s last defeat. Pep Guardiola took a strong squad to Ukraine for the clash with Shakhtar Donetsk but saw his team lose for the first time this season. First half goals from Bernard and Ismaily put Shakhtar firmly on course to join City in the last 16, the latter of those strikes owing a lot to a rare misjudgement from Ederson. Sergio Aguero’s penalty in added time was nothing more than a statistic as the Ukrainian club celebrated their passage to the knockout rounds. Even had Shakhtar been beaten, they would still have progressed as Napoli fell to a surprise 2-1 defeat away to a Feyenoord side who had lost their first five group games.
If you’d had said at the outset of the group stage that Tottenham would claim 16 points from a possible 18 in a group alongside Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, you’d have been laughed out of town, but that was the impressive tally racked up by Spurs following Wednesday’s 3-0 win over APOEL Nicosia at Wembley. Fernando Llorente and Son Heung-min netted in the first half and then there was a rare goal for Georges-Kevin Nkoudou as the Londoners set a new record for the most points garnered by an English club in the Champions League group stage. Real Madrid defeated Borussia Dortmund 3-2 in the other Group H encounter, Cristiano Ronaldo becoming the first player to score in six Champions League group matches in a single season. Dortmund finished an abject campaign with no wins and only two points, but that tally was still enough for them to claim the Europa League spot in what proved to be a far more clear-cut group than anyone would have expected.
Celtic achieved what was by common consensus their pre-group stage aim, to secure Europa League football in the spring, but they ended Group B on a whimper after losing 0-1 at home to Anderlecht. While the Belgians needed a three-goal victory to move up to third, Celtic’s display on the night was so awful that there was a genuine fear that this scenario would come to pass. The statistics don’t make for good reading for Brendan Rodgers’ side: five defeats out of six, 12 goals conceded against Paris Saint-Germain, zero points from three home games. A rapid improvement will be needed when they resume European duties in February. Elsewhere, PSG lost their 100% record after being beaten 3-1 at Bayern Munich, for whom Corentin Tolisso excelled and scored twice, with Robert Lewandowski also on target. It was a rip-roaring tie between two of the competition’s heavyweights and while it was PSG’s second defeat in a week, they had done enough previously to retain top spot.
Juventus could have been facing a nervy Tuesday night as their Champions League future was on the line, but in the end they cantered through to the last 16 with a comfortable 2-0 win away to Group D whipping boys Olympiakos. They were ahead inside 15 minutes, ex-Chelsea enigma Juan Cuadrado giving them the lead, and they bossed the game against their very limited Greek opponents. Fernando Bernardeschi scored in the closing minutes to round off a good night’s work for Juve and, as it transpired, they could have lost and still gone through. That was because Sporting Lisbon lost 2-0 away to Barcelona, who had already wrapped up top spot in the group. Paco Alcacer put the five-time European champions ahead in the second half and Jeremy Mathieu, back at his former club, scored a late own goal to seal Sporting’s fate. The Europa League awaits for them in a few weeks’ time.
The same applies to RB Leipzig, who in their first European season still harboured hopes of qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League on the final group matchday but fell short after a 1-2 home defeat to Group G winners Besiktas. The Bundesliga side’s goal was scored by Naby Keita, who netted at the end of a silky solo run but could not stop his current club bowing out of Europe’s premier competition. Instead it is FC Porto who advance to the last 16 and they did it in style, thumping Monaco 5-2 at the Estadio Dragao to seal their place in the knockout rounds. That defeat brought a sad end to a nightmare campaign for the Ligue 1 side, who were so delightful in reaching last season’s semi-finals but looked a pale shadow of that team in this year’s group stage.
Most Liverpool fans would probably have been content with getting out of the group at the start of the season, so to end up as Group E winners brings a huge sense of satisfaction. It means that the Reds will avoid the likes of Barcelona and PSG in the last 16, although Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus are all possible opponents. Still, that’s the calibre of opposition against which Liverpool want to test themselves year after year, and with the attacking talent at Jurgen Klopp’s disposal, the Reds are capable of taking a big name scalp in the spring. Monday’s draw for the last 16 cannot come soon enough!