Last month (December) marked the passage of the first half of the 2018-2019 UEFA Champions League season, arguably the world’s most important annual soccer/football competition. In and of itself, this admittedly doesn’t signify much. But insofar as the midway mark coincides with the close of the season’s group stage, it heralds the approach of the critical knockout phase. And that in turn means that we’re that much closer to the final, which is scheduled for June 1!
A total of 96 matches were played, with an average of 2.86 goals for each. Drama was hardly in short supply, with quite a few upsets and surprises along the way. Let’s have a look at how it all unfolded.
Qualifying rounds, play-offs, group stage
In the qualifying rounds, arguably the biggest upset came with AEK Athens eliminating Celtic. Then, in the play-offs that take place between the qualifying rounds and the group stage, Swiss side Young Boys managed to beat Dinamo Zagreb on aggregate. This marked Young Boys’ first ever accession to the Champions League’s group stage – though they, like AEK Athens, proved unable to progress any further.
Red Star Belgrade gave us an even bigger surprise; the Serbian domestic champions started the competition with a goalless draw, but then went on an unbeaten run en route to qualifying for the group stage. For a while, it looked as though they might continue their success – but they ended up crashing out at the bottom of their group.
The great winnowing down
Just in case you don’t know, here’s how the group stage works: A total of 32 teams are split into eight groups. Each group’s four constituent teams then play each other. The top two teams of each group advance to the knockout phase.
In Group A, Borussia Dortmund and Atlético Madrid came out ahead with 13 points each. This is the outcome everyone expected, given that the two powerhouses faced the considerably weaker Club Brugge and a struggling Monaco side.
Barcelona topped Group B with 14 points; Lionel Messi netted an impressive six goals in four games! Meanwhile, Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan battled it out for the coveted second spot. After earning a measly one point in their first three games, Spurs mounted a spectacular comeback, beating Inter and then scoring a late goal to tie Barcelona on the latter’s home turf, thereby finishing second in the standings.
In another tough draw, Group C, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) managed to clinch the number one spot, while Liverpool nabbed second place (on the last day, no less) by vanquishing Napoli with a tight-angle strike from Mo Salah. Earlier, there was some fantastic action between PSG and Liverpool, with a whopping eight goals in two fixtures, as each side won their home match.
Porto were clearly the best team in Group D. They won all their games after starting the campaign with a draw against Schalke, who grabbed the remaining qualification spot with 11 points.
To no one’s surprise, Bayern Munich and Ajax qualified from Group E. Ajax were on their way to earning the group’s top spot, leading 2-1 against the German giants in a match with only three minutes to go – only to concede twice and score once in the dying seconds, thereby securing a 3-3 draw and qualifying as runners-up. Bayern’s Lewandowski buried two balls in the back of the net in this nail-biter; his total tally of eight goals makes him the season’s top scorer so far.
Manchester City started their campaign in Group F with a disappointing 2-1 defeat at home to Lyon. City then went on an undefeated run to win the group, while Lyon managed to win just one game and secure five draws to finish as runners-up.
In Group G, Real Madrid showed their mettle once again, emerging atop the pile with 12 points. This has become a common feat for Los Blancos; they have now played in the group stage on 27 occasions and qualified for the knockout phase every single time! Roma snatched the second-place position despite suffering a 2-1 loss at the hands of Czech side Viktoria Plzeň on the last day. Meanwhile, CSKA Moskva stunned everyone by defeating Real Madrid in both their games – but lost or drew even in their other engagements, meaning that they finished at the bottom of the group with seven points.
In Group H, Champions League veterans Juventus and Manchester United made it through. Juventus were in fine form, winning their first three games, including one against United – but the latter managed to spoil the fun for the Italian side the second time they faced each other. The Red Devils scored two quick goals in the last minutes of that match to cancel out Ronaldo’s brilliant volley and end the Juventus winning streak. Juve still managed to take the group with a two-point lead over United. Even though the Red Devils made it through to the knockout stage, their celebrated manager José Mourinho was sacked less than a week later, apparently owing to the United board’s displeasure with the team’s overall performance.
It’s time to gear yourselves up for the knockout phase! This will commence with the Round of 16, the two halves of which are set to take place in February and March. Stay tuned for AUM Live’s coverage!
Aside from the usual and always highly charged combination of top-notch action, heartbreak, and elation, this season’s knockout phase will go down in history. After all, VAR (video assistant referee) technology, which was employed throughout the 2018 World Cup, is about to make its UEFA debut.
In the words of UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin: “We are ready to use VAR earlier than initially planned and we are convinced that it will be beneficial for our competitions as it will provide valuable help to match officials and will reduce incorrect decisions.”
Let’s hope so – at any rate, we’ll find out soon enough!