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The most condensed UEFA Champions League group stage in the history of Europe’s top club competition came to an end Wednesday as the final slate of Matchday 6 games concluded.
Despite the breakneck pace of the schedule — the 2020-21 campaign started a month later than normal because of fixture congestion caused by the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in games almost every single week — there was absolutely no drop-off in drama. Now that the first round is over, with the knockout phase set to begin February as usual, a look and the biggest winners and losers is in order.
Champions League group stage winners
Real Madrid: The most successful team in tournament history came into its sixth and final match sitting third in a tricky Group B, meaning Real Madrid needed to beat then-leader Borussia Monchengladbach to emerge from a foursome that also included Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk.
But Zinedine Zidane’s team made no mistake, strolling to a comfortable 2-0 victory over the German side, with veteran striker Karim Benzema scoring both of the goals. Not only did the triumph vault Real into the next stage, it was enough to take the group, too.
Juventus: The Italian titan came into its final Group G contest knowing that following a 2-0 loss to Barcelona in Turin in October, only a three-goal margin in the rematch in Spain would be enough to leapfrog Barca and top the group, guaranteeing (in theory anyway) an easier Round of 16 foe. For a club looking for its first European title this century following a pair of fruitless appearances in the finals since 2015, every advantage matters.
And in the first meeting between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in more than two years, Ronaldo got the better of his fellow living legend by scoring twice from the penalty spot — including the all-important group clincher — in a 3-0 rout at the Camp Nou.
Borussia Monchengladbach: After losing to Real, the only hope Gladbach had of advancing was if Inter and Shakhtar played to a stalemate in the other Group B contest. Yet that’s how it shook out, allowing the Germans to move on.
Chelsea: Frank Lampard’s Blues were the favorites to win Group E from the start. But after opening the tourney with a disappointing scoreless draw with Sevilla, Chelsea was lights-out in advancing, stringing together four consecutive wins — including a 4-0 drubbing of the Spaniards in Seville — en route to the top spot.
U.S. men’s national team: When Manchester City keeper Zack Steffen made his debut in the competition Wednesday in the already-qualified Sky Blues’ group finale, he became the record ninth American to play in the Champions League this year.
Steffen kept a clean sheet in 3-0 win over Marseille, and he’ll join seven of his other eight compatriots — Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Konrad de le Fuente, Sergino Dest (both Barcelona), Weston McKennie (Juventus) Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich) and Christian Pulisic (Chelsea) — in next year’s knockout round. The only USMNT regular who didn’t advance was Club Brugge’s backup backstop Ethan Horvath, who starred in a last-gasp win over Zenit St. Petersburg in his only appearance this campaign.
Champions League group stage losers
Manchester United: The Red Devils’ furious comeback was too little, too late in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss in Leipzig, relegating once-feared United to third place behind last season’s surprise semifinalists and Group H winners Paris Saint-Germain. (PSG trounced İstanbul Başakşehir 5-1 behind Neymar’s hat trick Wednesday, a day after the match was abandoned following a racist incident.)
Despite being drawn into arguably the most difficult of the eight groups, it was an embarrassing exit for the three-time European champs. And it heaped more pressure on manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who now must balance trying to win the Europa League with climbing up the standings in the Prem, where United sits sixth.
Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk: Both teams came into their final day meeting with the chance to move on from Group B. A win for either would’ve been enough; a draw would result in mutually assured destruction. Inter attacked like crazy, but put just four of 20 shots on frame, while defensive-minded Donetsk clearly was content to settle for the Europa League rather than risk finishing last.
Lionel Messi: Watching a visibly frustrated Messi in Tuesday’s thumping by Juventus, it was hard not to think back to the historic drubbing Bayern Munich put on Barcelona in the 2019-20 quarterfinal. This one wasn’t as bad, granted. But it also inspired zero confidence that this Barcelona squad, as currently constructed, has any realistic chance of competing for the Champions League title, either this year or in the near future.
However long Barcelona is able to survive in the knockout stage, those matches could well mark the last handful of Messi’s incomparable Blaugrana career. The 33-year-old, who tried to leave his only professional club last summer in a bid to win another European crown before he retires, has just six months remaining on his contract.
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