League of Champions

This piece is about the Champions League group stage and what I expected and how it was surprising.

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In the group stage of the Champions League, London-based Chelsea welcomed Roma in a heavily Chelsea-favored match. The match began as expected, with David Luiz scoring a long shot that stunned the Roma goalkeeper. 25 minutes later, Eden Hazard scored after Alvaro Morata’s deflected shot fell to Hazard, who placed it past the keeper, doubling Chelsea’s lead. Despite their early lead, Chelsea did not look confident and Roma remained aggressive. Roma defender Aleksandar Kolarov had a rare moment of attacking brilliance as he touched the ball past two defenders before beating the keeper with a powerful shot. Later in the match, Roma striker Edin Dzeko volleyed the ball in to level the score at two apiece, before scoring a header to complete Roma’s comeback. But Hazard would have the last laugh as he calmly headed in Pedro’s cross to earn Chelsea the point, saving their blushes and ending the match in a draw.

The Champions League is a tournament featuring all the best European soccer teams. Each of the eight groups has four teams, with each team playing the other three twice, resulting in a six-match group stage. In any group stage game, there are three points up for grabs. A win earns the winning team three points, while a draw earns both teams one point. The two teams with the most points at the end move on to the next stage. The Champions League has long been a source of excitement for soccer fans around the world, and this year’s installation proves to be no different.

This year’s group stage has been one of the most eventful, boasting many close games, such as the Chelsea-Roma match, and countless unexpected results. This year’s Champions League is also full of goals, unlike the tactical defensive style of previous years’ competitors. The 32 competitors combined to score a shocking 306 goals, the most goals in group stage history.

Group A—Manchester United, Basel, CSKA Moscow, Benfica

Manchester United were expected to finish the group stage in first place, but were not taking the competition lightly. “I think it's a dangerous group, and if you go to the recent history of United, United lost against Basel, United couldn't beat Benfica in two matches,” said Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho in an interview with Alex Smith of “The Mirror.” Despite Mourinho’s words, United easily beat most of the opposition. However, when you delve deeper, it is clear that Manchester United lacked the creativity that they usually display. They had a total of 90 shot attempts, which is a respectable stat. However, their problem was that only 41% of those attempts were on target. They only averaged about six attempts on target per game, which is nowhere near their usual high standards. Basel’s performance against Manchester United was also surprising, as they made it difficult for Manchester United and advanced to the next round with a second place finish. Basel were able to score 11 goals and only conceded five in the process, getting them the necessary results to advance.

Group B—Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich, Celtic, Anderlecht

Though Bayern Munich was expected to top their group given their strong performance last year, Paris was soaring with confidence after acquiring Neymar from Barcelona for a world-record fee of $263 million. They breezed past the opposition and finished first in their group. Their 25 group stage goals set a new Champion League record that will be difficult to beat.

Group C—Chelsea, Roma, Atletico Madrid, Qarabag

Qarabag were expected to struggle against the three juggernauts in their group. The predictions were true to form, as they were only able to get two points after six games, unable to rise to the occasion like Basel had in Group A. Roma, on the other hand, were able to defy expectations, drawing with Atletico Madrid before beating Qarabag and Chelsea, a team I believed would finish in first. Stephan El Shaarawy came alive in the Chelsea game for Roma, scoring two goals and propelling Roma to a first place finish and relegating Chelsea to second.

Group D—Barcelona, Juventus, Sporting CP, Olympiakos

Though Barcelona lost Neymar last summer, they remained in good position to finish in first place and did so, pulling ahead of Juventus with 14 points. It will be interesting to see if they can continue to perform well in the following stages despite their slight struggles against Olympiakos. Another issue is that all of Barcelona’s chances lie on Lionel Messi’s shoulders. The Argentine magician single-handedly led his team to victory against Juventus. He stepped up when his team needed him the most and led them to success. However, if he were to falter, the team would definitely struggle.

Group E—Liverpool, Sevilla, Spartak Moscow, NK Maribor

Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp, thought his team was one to be feared following an unexpected 6-3 win over Hoffenheim to qualify for the group stage, but his confidence did not translate onto the pitch. Liverpool were held to only three draws and three wins. The teams in this group all had attacking mentalities, which led to exciting and high-scoring games, but that mentality did not translate into wins. Despite their defensive woes, Liverpool were able to outscore the opposition and top their group. However, they are going to have to start defending better if they wish to advance further this year, especially with the uptick in quality of opposition. Their main struggles have been conceding late goals and some signings on defense can change that.

Group F—Manchester City, Napoli, Shakhtar Donetsk, Feyenoord

Manchester City were expected to translate their incredible domestic success to the Champions League and they did just that, winning their first five games. Their only loss was to Shakhtar Donetsk, giving Shakhtar Donetsk the opening they needed to claim the second spot. Manchester City’s intricate team goals and high pressure style have led to some immaculate plays that included great passing and finishing. City boast the greatest passing accuracy in the Group Stage, as well as the second highest ball possession (60 percent).

Group G—Besiktas, FC Porto, RB Leipzig, AS Monaco

AS Monaco, who reached the semi-finals of last year’s Champions League, sold a large part of their team and were unable to return to their previous form and finished at the bottom of the standings with just two points. The newcomers Besiktas clinched the top spot with Porto finishing as runner-ups after Besiktas beat Leipzig in the final match. This group embodied the strength of newcomers in this year’s Champions League, with two new teams advancing. Porto’s electric attacking play has led to a rejuvenation on offense, as they have scored the fifth most goals this campaign with 15.

Group H—Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Apoel Nicosia

Lastly, in this year’s most difficult group, Real Madrid were expected to top their group after winning the tournament last year. Madrid had the highest number of attempts on target in the group stage. However, they couldn’t take enough of their chances and they lost and drew to Tottenham. There may still be hope for Madrid to have a successful campaign as the team secured a second place finish and winger Cristiano Ronaldo has managed to score nine goals so far, earning him the top spot in the scoring charts. Again the newcomers, Tottenham pulled off an impressive performance and finished in first place despite their lack of experience in this competition. It will be interesting to see if their lack of experience hurts them as the pressure increases.

Now that the group stage has concluded, teams take a break until March, when the top two from each group will randomly play each other. The hype for this year’s knockout stages is high. With teams given the ability to make new signings to bolster their squads, the excitement will rise as the pressure increases.