Champions League Winners And Losers

Manchester United and Chelsea make bizarre table-toppers after pretty unconvincing campaigns against poor opposition, while Manuel Pellegrini was a silly boy...

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Winners

Manchester City
If only Manuel Pellegrini had learnt his sums. It must have been an odd game of cat and mouse on the touchline at the Allianz Arena as Pep Guardiola wondered what City would do next to try and sneak the fourth goal that would have secured top spot in Group D. "Rodwell for Dzeko? Manuel, you sly dog."

While Pellegrini has taken the flak for failing to spot that City were in a position to better Bayern's head-to-head record, one wonders why Brian Kidd and co didn't think to remind the manager of the situation. City had half an hour to find the extra goal they needed and, while Alvaro Negredo was introduced for David Silva, it was astonishing that his prolific strike partner remained on the bench. Surely Sergio Aguero would have found some joy out of Dante given the Brazilian's performance on Tuesday?

"It is very important to be first in the group but not the most important thing," said Pellegrini after the final whistle. Perhaps that is true in the context of City's failings over the past two seasons but, should they be drawn against Real Madrid or Barcelona, the manager will no doubt regret his confusion. It is not just a short-term problem, either, as the further City progress, the further they improve their co-efficient, which is the reason they landed in a tough group last year and faced Bayern this time around.

Still, it was clearly an enormous achievement to turn what looked set to be a sound thrashing after 12 minutes into a 3-2 victory against the strongest team in Europe, especially considering that several first-teamers - Aguero, Samir Nasri, Vincent Kompany...Costel Pantilimon - were absent. It is a result to inspire belief, if not huge confidence in Pellegrini's ability to master an abacus.


James Milner
Boring James Milner? Quite the opposite, as the England man once again proved his worth with a match-winning display in Munich.

"It was massive for us for going forward in the competition," said Milner.

"We are obviously going to get a tough draw in the next round. But we know we can beat the reigning champions on their own patch, scoring three goals, so that is a massive confidence boost and gives us massive momentum for the next round."

We're still worried about how he's going to cope in Manaus, mind.


Galatasaray and Roberto Mancini
They may have progressed with only seven points and a goal difference of -6, having lost 10-2 to Real Madrid over two matches, as well as suffering defeat to Copenhagen, and benefiting from the postponement of Tuesday's match at the Turk Telecom Arena, but taking Galatasaray past Juventus and into the last 16 is arguably Roberto Mancini's greatest achievement in Europe.


PSG and Atletico Madrid
Thirty-one goals scored and only one defeat between them as Groups C and G became a cake walk for PSG and Atletico. They may be seen as two of the 'easier' group winners to draw in the next round, but anyone who was watched these two sides and their powerful strikers this season will know that Manchester United are a much more favourable opponent at present.


Manchester United
Winners after an improved second half against Shakhtar Donetsk that helped them finish top of the group and remain unbeaten. However, United have been far from convincing in the Champions League, despite what their results might suggest.

Aside from two hammerings of a Bayer Leverkusen side who can safely be called the most puzzling in Europe (destroyed 9-2 on aggregate by United and yet through to the last 16, as well as finding themselves second in the Bundesliga), the champions have replicated their stuttering performances in the Premier League. They required an own goal to beat a dismal Real Sociedad over two matches, while Shakhtar should have been out of sight by half-time on Tuesday. The visitors played by far the better football in the final third while United again relied on a set-piece to gain the result.

"If I had the answer I would have solved it by now and it would all be okay," said David Moyes when asked about the contrast between United's domestic and European form. The answer is quite simple - Bayer Leverkusen were bloody awful while Shakhtar, who only recently finished their league season, faded rapidly after the break at Old Trafford. Moyes deserves some credit for improving United's shape, and the introduction of Tom Cleverley aided the team's ball retention, but it cannot be denied that there were other factors at play.

Unless United can begin to create better chances (and not for the abysmal Ashley Young), they will continue to struggle, either losing out to the 'small things' - such as the deflection on Yohan Cabaye's strike for Newcastle, as Moyes reminded everyone in his programme notes - or relying on them, with Taison losing his footing when clean through on Tuesday and Yaroslav Rakitskiy striking the post.

As Thierry Henry said in the Sky Sports studio: "Now when I see teams going to Old Trafford, they are not even scared. They play. Some teams didn't even pass the halfway line (in the past). But when I see teams now, they are comfortable - they pass the ball around."

Finishing top of the group is of course a great benefit, but at the moment United are the owners of a false reputation. When they take to the pitch, it soon becomes obvious that there is little to fear and Shakhtar should have taken full advantage.


Borussia Dortmund
An ugly, ugly goal to secure progression and top spot in Group F, but we can all admit that we're delighted to see last year's beaten finalists in the knock-out stages.


Cristiano Ronaldo
A goal every 50 minutes thus far. Not bad, Ronaldo. Not bad at all.


Chelsea
As curious a progression as United's, having recorded their best aggregate victory against the team in second place (6-0 v Schalke), and lost twice to third-placed Basel. What strange times these are at Stamford Bridge.

Jose Mourinho's desperation for a striker has become so severe that he pleaded for a draw against Galatasaray in the last 16, just to see Didier Drogba back on the Chelsea pitch. As Nick Miller wrote here, the Blues may be able to cope without a prolific No 9 until the end of the season, although any fears have been eased by Demba Ba's heavily contextual purple patch of three goals in his last seven appearances.

Mourinho will also have been relieved to see his team keep a clean sheet for the first time in five matches after joking that the training dummies could even score against them on Tuesday. But the manager's focus swiftly turned back to domestic matters ahead of a busy festive schedule: "We have to forget the Champions League now. Until it starts again in February, March, we have to work to improve the team and get results in the English competitions."

A home match against Crystal Palace on Saturday is a chance to further boost Ba's confidence, before difficult fixtures against Arsenal and Liverpool sandwich the Boxing Day visit of Swansea. Win those three matches and the club's title hopes suddenly seem a lot more realistic, despite Mourinho's recent anguish.


Neymar
A first Champions League goal, a first hat-trick for Barcelona and the shining light in Lionel Messi's absence as Barcelona shrugged off their recent malaise to thrash Celtic 6-1.


Austria Vienna
Three defeats, two draws and only one goal before thrashing Zenit St Petersburg 4-1 in their final fixture. Oh, Vienna.


AC Milan
Through but fanciable to any of the group winners in the last 16.


Bayer Leverkusen
A better head-to-head record than United against Real Sociedad and Shakhtar Donetsk, whom they thrashed 4-0, and yet they suffered two humiliating defeats to the English champions. Like I said, puzzling.


Viktoria Plzen and Fairytale Endings
A last-minute winner to secure Europa League football at CSKA Moscow's expense in Pavel Vrba's final game as manager before taking over the Czech national team.


Losers


Hulk
The most shots in the competition (40 - only 12 fewer than AC Milan and Arsenal, who have recorded the fewest), but only two goals. Considering Zenit progressed with a paltry six points, they will need Hulk to be at his very best to stand any chance in the last 16.


Shakhtar Donetsk
Following an excellent first-half display it seemed that Shakhtar would grab the victory they needed to top Group A but, after wasting a hatful of chances, Mircea Lucescu's side are left to rue their profligacy. It appears they require more time to adjust to the loss of key players Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.


Arsenal
Losers on the night, hence their place in the Losers section, but winners overall after creeping out of an enormously tough group to set up an exciting tie against Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid or Barcelona. If the Gunners play to the standards they have shown they are capable of this season, then it is possible to beat any of their potential opponents and reach the quarter-finals for the first time in four years. They have nothing to fear.

It was a difficult fixture to play against Napoli considering the permutations involved, but Arsenal will need to learn from the experience to avoid a similar implosion in the future. "The most difficult is when you are in between, do we attack or defend? As long as we didn't score, they had hope," said Arsene Wenger, while Per Mertesacker conceded that the Gunners were "lucky" after giving "ten per cent less mentally because we were always thinking we were through".

This points to a worrying lack of mental preparation ahead of a crucial fixture and a match that Wenger declared he wanted to win. That desire is something to be commended, of course, but there have been times in 2013 - notably Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund at home - when Arsenal have perhaps been guilty of being too confident. It is not necessarily a negative aim to simply try and frustrate an opponent - especially if it could secure top spot in the group - but Wenger failed to adapt convincingly to Napoli's second-half onslaught.

Arsenal have shown great resilience to recover from set-backs this season, last losing two matches in a row back in February, but they will need to be at their best to maintain that record away to Manchester City on Saturday.


Porto
Only three teams scored fewer than Porto's four goals in the group stage. How they must long for Hulk and Falcao.


Juventus and Serie A
After the overstated 'crisis' in the English game last season, the consternation now switches to Italy after Juventus and Napoli dropped into the Europa League leaving AC Milan, who are ninth in Serie A, as the country's only representatives in the knock-out stage.

There are mitigating circumstances for Napoli's exit, given the difficulty of their group and narrow failure, but Juventus have no excuses, despite Antonio Conte's moaning after Wednesday's hastily re-arranged clash against Galatasaray.

"At half-time I reiterated to the referee that it was not safe to play in these conditions. Didier Drogba said it was the same thing for both teams, but I pointed out it wasn't, because we were trying to play football," said Conte, in the bitchiest post-match reaction we have heard for a long time.

"I will say our mistake was to get to the last game and play everything here. With a decent pitch, I am sure we would've played our game. We couldn't have predicted these circumstances, so in my view our exit is unfair, but we also made life difficult for ourselves."

Indeed, failing to beat Galatasaray at home or Copenhagen away was Juventus' downfall and it is impossible to argue that they deserved to progress after picking up a solitary victory. And yet, the back-to-back Scudetto winners lead Serie A by three points having won 13 and lost only one of their 15 fixtures thus far. If Juve are the current benchmark in Italian football, what does their failure say about the strength of Serie A? The inquest starts now.


Real Sociedad
Their only point came in the 0-0 draw against United at home. That says it all.

(This is a joke. Do not get angry.)

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