UCL & UEL: Second Stage Ready

The UEFA Champions League and Europa League return this week. David Whitworth looks back at the group stage, and which matchup to look forward to as the knockout round begins.

The first halves of the 2020-21 Champions League and Europa League campaigns were fascinating affairs, with excitement and surprise in spades. And though the lack of supporters in stadiums has removed the atmosphere for the biggest European nights, it has arguably contributed to more unpredictable results than ever before.

There were 32 teams in the Champions League group stage when it got underway on October 20, representing 14 countries. Some were dreaming of reaching the final, scheduled for May 29 at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Turkey, while some were almost expecting to be there.

The competition was marred when it was alleged an assistant referee in the Istanbul Basaksehir vs. Paris Saint-Germain fixture in December used a racist term towards Pierre Webo, one of the Istanbul coaches. The match was abandoned after 14 minutes with the scores goalless when the Istanbul players walked off, followed by their opponents. UEFA decided that the game should resume 24 hours later – with a new set of officials – and was won 5-1 by PSG. UEFA announced an investigation into the incident, but many onlookers applauded the decisive action from Istanbul and their players, and the support offered by PSG.

This year’s Champions League games have seen several surprise outcomes. Real Madrid losing at home to Shakhtar Donetsk 2-3 – the Ukrainians going 0-3 up at one stage – was the standout shock, and lightning struck twice with Madrid succumbing to a 2-0 defeat in Ukraine as they suffered back-to-back defeats against Donetsk. Shakhtar really did throw a curveball in this group as they also secured a goalless draw at the San Siro against Inter, who remarkably crashed out of Europe altogether, finishing bottom of Group B.

In other surprise results, Manchester United’s win away 1-2 at Paris Saint-Germain and Atalanta victorious against Liverpool 0-2 at Anfield were both fully deserving, and quite surprising in their own right.

Barcelona hammered 3-0 at Camp Nou against Juventus showed the Catalans are in free fall – losing at home in the group stage for the first time since 2016. In the showcase individual battle, meeting for the first time since May 2018, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who got the better of Lionel Messi with a decisive performance and two penalties. Ronaldo has now scored 134 goals in the tournament and the Portuguese shows no signs of letting up. Neither does 42-year-old Gianluigi Buffon, who with a clean sheet became the first goalkeeper to record shutouts in four different decades from the 1990s.

But the most impressive team in the group stage was holders Bayern Munich. The Bavarians powered past a strong Atletico Madrid on the group stage’s opening night, netting four goals without reply. That set the tone for an unbeaten group stage, as Bayern took 16 points from a possible 18.

Bayern weren’t the only Bundesliga side to catch the eye, though, as Borussia Monchengladbach impressed too. In a difficult group that also featured heavyweights Real Madrid and Inter, Gladbach finished second with eight points. It may have been the lowest total of any team to qualify for the knockout stage, but it was no less deserving. One of the group stage’s standout individual performers was also found in the Bundesliga, as Erling Braut Haaland continued to rack up the goals. The Norway international became the fastest player to reach 15 Champions League goals – from only 12 appearances, with six goals this season. To put that into context, after 12 Champions League games Messi had only scored twice, and Ronaldo hadn’t scored at all.

Also on six goals after returning to Juventus was Alvaro Morata, while Marcus Rashford’s on-field performances were often as heroic as his off-field work. His late winner against PSG and superb hat-trick against RB Leipzig were highlights of Manchester United’s disappointing group stage. Neymar rounds on the six-goal quartet, having also grabbed a hat-trick against Istanbul Basaksehir.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Morata, though. The Spain international set an unwanted record as he became the only player to record a hat-trick of goals disallowed for offside. Morata was thwarted three times by the assistant referee’s flag on matchday two, when Juventus were beaten 2-0 by Barcelona in Turin. When you’re luck’s out, it’s out…

Morata and Juve, as well as Barca, made it through to the Round of 16, to be played out in February and March. Joining them are many of the usual suspects, including Madrid, Porto, 2019 winners Liverpool and holders Bayern. Atletico, Dortmund, PSG, Manchester City, Sevilla and Chelsea remain in the hunt too, along with outsiders Gladbach, RB Leipzig, Lazio and Atalanta.

It’s Bayern that remain this year’s team to beat and the German machine looks as well-oiled as ever. But Champions League kings Madrid can never be written off in what Los Blancos feel is ‘their’ tournament as the record winners. For a wild card choice, Madrid’s La Liga rivals Sevilla know how to win in knockout football. In the strange season that is 2020-21, why not?

The race to succeed Sevilla as Europa League champions is equally fascinating. It’s the half-century edition of the competition formerly known as the UEFA Cup, and never has it been so closely contested. 213 teams entered from 55 member associations, with May 26 and the Stadion Energa Gdańsk in Poland their aim.

Granada had never participated in the Europa League before this season – or any European competition for that matter. But they set the tone by producing an upset to beat European regulars PSV Eindhoven in the first round of group stage action. Steven Gerrard’s Rangers almost got a scalp as they led Benfica 3-1, only to draw 3-3, and Lille thrashed Milan 3-0 in the San Siro as the form book was upturned across the continent – Royal Antwerp’s 1-0 win over a strong Tottenham Hotspur side just another example.

There were no shocks for Arsenal, who won all six games. Granada, reaching the knockout rounds at the first time of asking, were equally impressive with veterans Roberto Soldado and Jorge Molina key to their success. And Rangers recovered from giving up the lead against Benfica to put together an unbeaten group run, claiming first place with 14 points.

Benfica could lay claim to one of the competition’s standouts as striker Darwin Nunez claimed five goals in as many games. Lille’s Yusuf Yazici lit up the competition too, with six goals in six games, including a San Siro hat-trick. Even more remarkably, that was his second treble of the competition, as he also grabbed three at Sparta Prague. The Europa League also brought moments of farce, as the preliminary round qualifier between Tottenham and Shkendija of North Macedonia was almost played with the wrong size goals. The Spurs ‘keepers noticed something was amiss when they went out for their pre-match warm-up, and Jose Mourinho agreed. The UEFA delegate got their tape measure out and confirmed the posts were 5cm too short. It was an honest mistake ahead of a game Spurs won 3-1.

Spurs successfully made it through the group stage and with North London rivals Arsenal are among the tournament favourites. So too are Italian qualifiers Napoli and Milan and the Spanish Armada of Real Sociedad and Villarreal.

Indeed, Mourinho won this very tournament with Porto back on 2003 and his in-form Tottenham will be primed for a good run to finally land a piece of silverware. They’ll have to battle Milan’s renaissance, inspired by – who else? – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the Rossoneri have every chance of success.

Also in the running are Villarreal, coached by three-time winner Unai Emery, and 2017 winners, under Mourinho, Manchester United. They and Ajax, who lost to the Red Devils in that 2017 showpiece, are arguably the pick of the Champions League dropouts and both boast squads strong enough to deep in the competition once more.

Champions League draw

The Round of 16 pairings left the competition wide open, David Whitworth writes, with heavyweights and underdogs equally represented…

The draw for the Champions League Round of 16 took place in Nyon, Switzerland, in mid-December, and threw up some intriguing ties. An argument could be made for any one of the eight fixtures to be the pick of the bunch.

Highlights include a tasty tussle between Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona and Mauricio Pochettino’s Paris Saint-Germain. Barca are enduring a torrid season domestically and will hope for some momentum from their European voyage. These two super-clubs have meant frequently in recent years – remember the 2017-18 Round of 16 double-header that ended 6-5 on aggregate to Barca? – and any game that sees Lionel Messi and Neymar on the same pitch is one to watch.

Elsewhere, holders Bayern Munich face Italian opposition in Lazio. The Bavarians continue to fly domestically and in Europe and are hot favourites to retain the Champions League, with Robert Lewandowski’s goals key to their hopes.

An evenly matched battle sees experienced Atletico Madrid face a youthful, new-look Chelsea under Tuchel. Atleti have fond memories of their last trip to England – when they defeated the then-defending champions Liverpool in an epic second leg. Atletico grabbed two injury time goals to win 3-2 on aggregate in March 2020 – will they be celebrating 12 months later?

  • Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Manchester City
  • Lazio vs. Bayern Munich
  • Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea
  • RB Leipzig vs. Liverpool
  • Porto vs. Juventus
  • Barcelona vs. Paris Saint-Germain
  • Atalanta vs. Real Madrid
  • Sevilla vs. Borussia Dortmund

Europa League draw

The Europa League sometimes goes under-the-radar but the draw for the Round of 32 deserves attention. David Whitworth explains…

Standout ties for the Europa League Round of 32 pit an outsider from Spain against one of Europe’s most successful sides. Real Sociedad, who are enjoying a fantastic La Liga season and have topped the table ahead of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid already this season, will face three-time Champions League winners Manchester United. Not only is it a David vs. Goliath battle, but it will see David Silva – one of Manchester City’s all-time greats – return to the city in which he spent 10 successful years. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s inconsistent Red Devils will have to be at their best.

The pairing of Benfica and Arsenal is one that is rife for a shock. The Portuguese side have the goals of Pizzi and Darwin Nunez, and a familiar face to the Gunners in Jan Vertonghen. With Mikel Arteta’s men struggling in the Premier League, this is a tie Benfica should relish.

Perhaps the two most entertaining fixtures will be Lille vs. Ajax and Napoli vs. Granada. The former is a game that pits two teams riding high in their domestic leagues against one another, while the latter is a test of the Granada fairy-tale. Can it survive a meeting with Gennaro Gattuso’s aggressive, excellent Partenopei? There’s only one way to find out.

  • Wolfsberg vs. Tottenham Hotspur
  • Dynamo Kiev vs. Club Brugge
  • Real Sociedad vs. Manchester United
  • Benfica vs. Arsenal
  • Crvena Zvezda vs. Milan
  • Royal Antwerp vs. Rangers
  • Slavia Praha vs. Leicester City
  • Red Bull Salzburg vs. Villarreal
  • Braga vs. Roma
  • Krasnodar vs. Dinamo Zagreb
  • Young Boys vs. Bayer Leverkusen
  • Molde vs. Hoffenheim
  • Granada vs. Napoli
  • Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
  • Lille vs. Ajax
  • Olympiacos vs. PSV Eindhoven
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