Not in the league of champions

The group stage of the UEFA Champions League was full of surprises. Priyansh takes stock.

If one were to count the number of sports events that occur every year, the UEFA Champions League would figure somewhere in the list. It probably would feature a bit higher on the list if you were a football fan.

But why? Isn’t it the same every year? The format, yes, is the same, but there is always a new story to tell in each edition of the competition. As the group stage is over now, here are a few tales from the season’s tournament.

We are the champions… err, not anymore: Chelsea surprised many pundits and fans on its way to Champions League glory last season. While some criticised The Blues for its defensive play, many others could not stomach the fact that a club which was in total disarray earlier in the season was able to complete such a remarkable turnaround.

Fast forward to the current season, and the manager, Roberto Di Matteo, who had led Chelsea to the Champions League title last term, was deemed unworthy of managing the side after the London club was on the verge of an embarrassing exit. Rafael Benitez was brought in place of Di Matteo before the final group game, but even he couldn’t save the ship as Chelsea became the first defending champion to crash out in the round-robin stage.

God Save the Queen (also, English football): With three teams in the semifinals in 2007, 2008 and 2009, it’s fair to say that English clubs were a feared lot in Europe over those seasons. Since then, however, English football has been on a downward spiral, with not more than one club making it to the semifinals in the last two seasons and none in 2010.

Though Chelsea won the Champions League last year, Manchester United and Manchester City were sent packing in the group stage itself, while Arsenal lost to AC Milan in the Round of 16. This season, along with The Blues, Manchester City was also knocked out in the round-robin stage. Moreover, the Gunners finished only second in its group and could meet among other teams, either Juventus, Barcelona or Bayern Munich in the next round. So, it’s over to Manchester United!

German entertainers (no, not Bayern Munich): When the groups were drawn earlier in the season, Group D was unanimously perceived as the ‘Group of Death’ as it featured Real Madrid, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax Amsterdam.

While the group stayed true to expectations and ensured another early exit for City, it also gave the neutrals a team to cheer for. Like Napoli last season, Borussia Dortmund brought a whiff of fresh air to this year’s competition.

Possessing players such as Mario Gotze, Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski et al, the German champion pleased many by playing an attacking brand of football and topping Group D. Remarkably, Jurgen Klopp’s side is still unbeaten this season and it defeated the Spanish and English league winners at home.

Champions League? Not quite: As the tournament progresses to the knockout phase, not many league champions are left in the competition. In addition to defending champion Chelsea, the group stage began with 17 domestic title winners. Now only seven remain, as champion sides from England, France, Holland, Russia, Greece, Croatia, Belgium, Denmark, Belarus and Romania were knocked out in the group stage. While a few of those teams were expected to go out, the early exits of Manchester City and, to a lesser extent, Montpellier were surprising.

Out of the remaining seven league champions in the competition, only two (Dortmund and Juventus) topped their respective groups. Interestingly, three out of the last five Champions League winners won their domestic league title in the previous season.

Paris rising, Glasgow smiling: While progression from the group stage is a satisfying achievement for most clubs, it held special significance for two sides in particular this season. Paris Saint Germain, bankrolled by the Qatar Investment Authority, spent euro 146 million on new signings in the summer as it aims to finally claim the Ligue 1 title and also place itself on the European football map.

PSG’s continental project has begun well. Led by Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack, the French side topped its group to qualify for the last 16. The club’s Swedish captain also set a new record by becoming the first player to score for six different clubs in the Champions League.

Up north, Scottish champion Celtic also joined PSG in the Round of 16 as it defeated Barcelona at home and finished above Benfica in the group standings. Making its first appearance in four seasons in the competition proper, the Glaswegian side has done a massive favour not only to itself but also to Scotland’s UEFA co-efficient ranking which had fallen significantly after poor performance by the country’s clubs in European competitions.

Postscript: Malaga CF, participating for the first time and suffering financial trouble, managed to remain unbeaten and top its group. Also, Shakhtar Donetsk could prove to be the poor man’s Borussia Dortmund.