It’s the middle of December and despite the delay in the season due to COVID-19, we have our top 16 teams in Europe. These giants will now take part in the Champions League Round of 16 to be held in January/February 2021 which will pave way for the eventual final in May, where the best of the lot shall be crowned as the European Champion. This is undoubtedly the biggest annual competition in European football.
While there were some highly acclaimed exits from the competition owing to the high level of the competition, the top sixteen are as follows:
· Bayern Munich (Germany)
· Atletico Madrid (Spain)
· Real Madrid (Spain)
· Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany)
· Manchester City (England)
· FC Porto (Portugal)
· Liverpool (England)
· Atalanta (Italy)
· Chelsea (England)
· Sevilla (Spain)
· Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
· Lazio (Italy)
· Juventus (Italy)
· FC Barcelona (Spain)
· Paris Saint-Germain (France)
· RB Leipzig (Germany)
What made this year’s edition of the Champions League even more interesting was the various events that unfolded with every passing game-week. There was the clash of the two biggest individuals in world football — Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. There were two groups of death where eight teams went to war every two weeks for gaining a place in the last sixteen by resorting to any manner. And finally, there were two teams who walked off the field for raising the voice against racism this past week. This year’s Champions League has really seen it all.
Without much ado, today we take a look at the top moments from the last Matchday of the 2020/21 season of the Champions League Group Stages, as we review some of the top games from the game-week which gave us our top-sixteen.
Real Madrid keep it late to make it to the top
2 weeks ago, the Galacticos from the capital of Spain were in deep trouble. Not only had the team lost it’s second meeting with Shakhtar in the space of a month, they were sitting third in the points table of the Champions League Group B — all set to make an early and very gigantic exit from the contest. Not only Madrid, but Inter Milan too were in deep shock as to how the group had panned about — exactly contrary to the predictions back in September.
Borussia Monchengladbach were sitting first, just 2 points ahead of Shakhtar Donestk — two teams who had surpassed expectations already at the biggest stage in Europe. But with a game remaining at the Alfredo Do Stefano in Spain this past Wednesday, nothing could be assumed. It was a huge game for Madrid though.
Led by the captain fantastic Sergio Ramos at the back and the trio of Casemiro-Toni Kroos-Luka Modric in the middle of the park, Madrid brought their A-game to Monchengladbach. Dominating 63% of the ball possession on average, the white half of Madrid witnessed 19 shots alone, seven of which were on target. But kudos to the German side’s stopper Yann Sommer, the score-line stayed restricted to 2–0 in favour of the hosts.
A shocking exit from the competition was Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, who were the finalists of the Europa League last season. In an interesting turn of events, the blue half of Milan finished last in the Group B, which meant that they do not even qualify for the Europa League Round of 32, which will be played in January.
Atalanta eliminate Ajax in their own backyard
A win for Ajax would have been enough to make it to the knockout stages of the Champions League and the last game being played at the Johan Cruyff Arena — it all seemed going as per plan for the Dutch giants. But Italian dark horses for the past two years — Atalanta — had other plans. The Serie A side, who have been known for their attacking football — especially their highest scoring campaign in the Italian top flight last season — made sure it was not all joy and happiness for the hosts on Wednesday night.
As Ajax dominated the game for majority of the first half, it looked like a goal was coming for the Netherlands’ biggest club, sooner or later, in the second half. But disciplined defending by Gianpiero Gasperini’s side coupled with their counter-attacking prowess made life difficult for Ajax. Soon, the visitors started getting into their stride and in the 85th minute, they finally broke the deadlock with Remo Freuler sliding in a perfect assist to Luis Muriel to finish swiftly.
Though Ajax are heading to the Europa League, which is a sort of a redemption league of its own, the Dutchmen would surely be upset because this has been the second season in a row that they have been ousted out in the group stages of the Champions League. This comes after the Class of 2018 when the young guns of Ajax made it to the semi-final of the competition.
Nevertheless, the club from Amsterdam are the hub of Dutch talent and the future is certain to be bright.
The Reunion of two legends in Barcelona
The biggest highlight of the Champions League Matchday Six was surely nothing other than the reunion of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou. As Barcelona hosted Juventus in Catalonia, the stakes were high for either side due to the exact points difference between them. Before the game, Barcelona sat atop the Group G table with 15 points from 5 games played — a perfect tally to boast about. But Juventus weren’t far behind with 12 points in hand, thanks to their loss to this very opponent last month in Turin.
When it comes to the big stages, the debate between Messi and Ronaldo seems to be heading towards the Portuguese legend always. The same was the case on Tuesday night as Cristiano Ronaldo scored a brace in the space of 40 odd minutes to settle the debate at least for the night. Newcomer Weston McKennie also scored an acrobatic volley to make it 3 goals for Juventus as Barcelona rued their missed chances at the end of ninety minutes.
This might matter more than the reunion of Messi and Ronaldo though. With Barcelona heading to the second spot after the game, the already under-pressure side will have to face a group leader from the other Champions League batches. This could prove to be a fatal blow to the Catalans if an early exit from the round of sixteen is on the cards.
From Racism to Shocking Eliminations — it all happened in Group H
Group H of the Champions League 2020–21 might just have been the most brutal group to be in. With two domestic champions, Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir contending for a spot in the knockout stages, the other two sides in the form of Manchester United and RB Leipzig have been huge in the past few seasons in Europe. It was a group of death.
Not only did the group promise some breathtaking footballing action, it also caused some drama on the last Matchday as football took a back-seat on Tuesday. Apparently, a 4th official made racist remarks in the PSG-Istanbul game which resulted in either side walking off the pitch in support of ‘Black Lives Mattering’. This not only caused huge uproar in media, it also had an impact on the game as it had to be postponed, leaving the group standings hanging at the end of the day.
In some other part of Europe, Leipzig hosted Manchester United, which was a must-win game for the German club as a draw could also eliminate them from the contest. The intentions were clearly displayed by Julian Nagelsmann’s side as Leipzig hit United with an early goal in the second minute of the night. It all went downhill for United from that moment on, as the Bundesliga club went on to score two more goals to make it 3–0. A quick-fire round of two goals were inadequate for the red half of Manchester, as they bowed out of the tournament on the last day.
Overall, the Champions League delivered what it promised at the end of this crazy year of 2020. On and off the pitch drama, clash of some of the biggest individual and collective names in the footballing fraternity and exit of some huge names of the competition. You name it! The competition will return for its knockout stages in January/February 2021.