Europe’s elite football competition retains a unique capacity to enthral, to entertain, and to provide a story. Theoretically, nothing too grand was at stake on the final evening of the Champions League group stage: Bayern Munich and Valencia had already qualified from group F, and Shakhtar Donetsk, Barcelona, and Manchester United were guaranteed to join them in the round of 16. The qualification spots up for grabs were between Chelsea and Juventus, (Chelsea needed to beat Nordsjaelland with Shakhtar defeating Juve), Celtic and Benfica, and Galatasaray and CFR Cluj.
With all due respect to the latter four clubs, none is among the contemporary powerhouses of European football. And while Chelsea, the Champions League holders, and Juventus, the Italian champions, undoubtedly are major draws, few predicted that tonight’s results would allow the Blues a shot at retaining their crown. Tonight was merely the confirmation of an elimination proscribed by defeats in Donetsk and Turin which spelled the end for Roberto di Matteo, champion of Europe.
And yet there seemed to be a new story with every passing minute. The most significant was probably Celtic’s. Just last month we wrote a piece on the problems facing Scottish football; two remarkable 2-1 victories (against Barcelona and tonight against Spartak Moscow) at Celtic Park later, Scotland has a representative in the knockout phases of the Champions League. With Celtic needing to better Benfica’s result to progress, there was much anxiety in Glasgow when Spartak forward Ari cancelled out Gary Hooper’s opener. Benfica were drawing 0-0 at the Camp Nou, which is how the game finished. Celtic fans won’t remember the dubious decision thanks to which Giorgios Samaras won the 82nd-minute penalty that Kris Commons scored to win the game. Neil Lennon, face buried in his thick winter jacket, wasn’t even watching. Nor will it matter to Celtic fans that in stoppage time in Barcelona, Benfica’s Oscar Cardozo paused when through on goal thinking his side were going through. Had Cardozo scored, Celtic would be facing the Europa League. He didn’t, and Lennon’s team can look forward to taking on Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-German or another European giant.
Chelsea must have recorded the least enthusiastically-received 6-1 victory in football history. With the fans at Stamford Bridge chanting Roberto di Matteo’s name for a good quarter of an hour, it took the hosts a while to get going, but in the second half the Nordsjaelland felt the full force of Juan Mata’s creative prowess and Fernando Torres’s long-lost finishing ability. Rafael Benitez has registered his first Chelsea win at the fourth attempt, but it seems that winning over the supporters will be more difficult than coaxing good performances from a talented but raw squad.
With Lionel Messi having scored 84 goals in 2012, one shy of Gerd Müller’s record tally of strikes in a calendar year, it was a distressing sight to see him stretchered off at the Camp Nou. Barça have four matches remaining before the New Year, and will hope that his injury isn’t as bad as the stunned home crowd first feared. Reports currently circulating suggest little more than a knock to Messi’s left knee, but it’s a lesson that football fans worldwide must appreciate his special talent while they can.
Manchester United, Arsenal, and Celtic will represent the UK in the draw for the round of 16 on 20 December. Chelsea slip into the Europa League, while winless Manchester City are out of European football altogether.
GROUP WINNERS: Paris Saint-Germain; Borussia Dortmund; Bayern Munich; Barcelona; Manchester United; Juventus; Malaga; Schalke 04
RUNNERS-UP: FC Porto; Valencia; Real Madrid; Celtic; Galatasaray; Shakhtar Donetsk; Arsenal; AC Milan