Thursday December 10th, 2015

The Champions League group stage is complete, and Monday we'll learn the pairings for the first knockout round, as the road to the final in Milan continues.

Favorites Barcelona and Bayern Munich did nothing to convince anyone that they won't be on display on May 28, but they're at the mercy of the draw, as dangerous clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus loom as potential round-of-16 opponents. 

Barça and Bayern were joined by Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City, Atletico Madrid, Zenit St. Petersburg and Wolfsburg as group winners. PSG and Juve are joined by PSV Eindhoven, Benfica, Roma, Arsenal, Dynamo Kiev and Gent as runner-ups.

Before we look ahead to the elimination battles down the line, let's look back at the best and worst from the 2015-16 Champions League group stage:

Most valuable player: Willian, Chelsea

Chelsea saved face amid its horrific Premier League campaign by winning its Champions League group, and it has Willian to thank, in large part. He scored five goals–a record-tying four on free kicks–including crucial tallies against Dynamo Kiev and in Wednesday's finale vs. Porto. Arguably the only player in blue to meet or exceed expectations with Chelsea this season, the 27-year-old Brazilian midfielder made sure that Chelsea's embarrassment was limited to its domestic woes.

Planet Futbol
Watch: Ronaldo scores four goals in 20 Champions League minutes

Other candidates include Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored a group-stage record 11 goals (all against Malmo and Shakhtar Donetsk, none vs. PSG...but 11 goals in four Champions League games is the stuff of legends); Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller, who scored seven and five goals, respectively, in leading Bayern to first in Group F; and Zenit's Artem Dzyuba, who scored in the Russian side's last five UCL games en route to a rather easy first-place finish. 

Best goal: Alessandro Florenzi, Roma vs. Barcelona

Planet Futbol
Redemption for Olivier Giroud, Arsenal, Chelsea in Champions League

The audacity. The execution. The opponent. Florenzi's midfield rocket against the defending champion was the jaw-dropping moment of the group stage, as he caught Marc Andre ter-Stegen off his line and let go from the right sideline, some 50 yards from goal. The goal helped Roma to a 1-1 draw with Barcelona in a group where every point mattered. Roma eked by Bayer Leverkusen on a tiebreaker after both netted six points to reach the knockout stage.

Florenzi's goal is up for the FIFA Puskas award.

Best way to kill a narrative...for now: Three EPL clubs advance

Chelsea and Arsenal did what they had to on Wednesday to advance, avoiding an absolute catastrophe for the Premier League by ensuring three clubs would be in the round of 16. For Arsenal, the feat was most impressive, as it overcome some atrocious early showings and three losses in its first four games to go through. Chelsea ousted Porto on the final day to win its group when a loss would have sent the Blues out. Manchester City's feat of winning its group (more on that directly below) aside, the EPL needed this to put a halt to the narrative that English clubs can't compete with Europe's best.

Now, let's see what happens in the knockout stage to either revive or further bury that storyline. 

Best accomplishment: Manchester City wins its group

Overcoming injuries to key players and playing in the most treacherous group, Manchester City emerged on top of Juventus, Sevilla and Borussia Monchengladbach and is in line for a more favorable draw in the round of 16. Given the growing expectations for City to perform well in Europe, winning that group is a nice notch on the belt for manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Worst showing: Manchester United

Planet Futbol
Manchester United crashes out, Ronaldo nets 4 in Champions League

Back on the European stage after a year away, Manchester United was drawn into a favorable group and had the means to acquire the players necessary to get to the next stage. Instead, the Red Devils were left behind by Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven and are now in the Europa League, where they might have to navigate through games against Gary Neville (manager at Valencia) and former striker Javier Hernandez (transferred to Bayer Leverkusen).

It's not a good look for Louis van Gaal & Co.

Best underdog story: Gent

The side is the first Belgian one in the current Champions League format to reach the knockout stage, and it overcame experienced European sides Valencia and Lyon to do so. Gent won its final three matches to secure its unlikely place in the final 16, including a 2-1 result at Lyon. Hein Vanhaezebrouck's club has earned its way.

There's an American connection at Gent as well. Reports out of Israel Thursday suggest that Florida-born Israeli-American midfielder Kenny Saeif is on the verge of an invitation to U.S. camp, which could potentially give Jurgen Klinsmann another player on the Champions League stage.

Most under-appreciated team: Atletico Madrid

Quietly, Atletico Madrid won its group, and Diego Simeone has Atleti on the right path yet again despite selling the likes of Arda Turan, Mario Mandzukic, Raul Garcia and Miranda. Atletico conceded just three times in going 4-1-1 in a group that included Benfica and Galatasaray and continues to enjoy success despite being overshadowed by Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Best Homecoming: Zlatan to Malmo

Zlatan Ibrahimovic booked his hometown's main square for a watch party as he returned to play his first club as a member of PSG. Naturally, he scored, as PSG eased its way to a 5-0 win

Quirkiest elimination variable 

Dynamo Kiev has to play two games at home in front of an empty stadium due to fan racism, meaning whichever team draws the Ukrainian side will play its road leg in a vacant arena.

Keeping up with CONCACAF

Borussia Monchengladbach's Fabian Johnson scored against Juventus and Sevilla, becoming the sixth U.S. international to score in the Champions League. He also set up two goals against Manchester City Tuesday on the heels of scoring against Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. Safe to say he's responded quite well to being booted from the U.S. national team by Jurgen Klinsmann after asking to be subbed out in extra time of the CONCACAF Cup playoff against Mexico.

Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez scored five goals in six group games–three in two games vs. Roma, one vs. Barcelona and one vs. BATE Borisov–to lead Bayer Leverkusen, but the club finished third in its group and will drop down to the Europa League. 

Chicharito will be joined in the secondary competition by Porto's Mexican trio of Hector Herrera, Jesus Corona and Miguel Layun, who also endured a third-place group finish.

Hector Moreno and Andres Guardado will be a part of the Champions League knockout stage, though, as PSV Eindhoven pipped Manchester United for second in Group B. Moreno scored and broke Luke Shaw's leg in one of PSV's matches against United.

Raul Jimenez will also be in the knockout round with Benfica. His two goals helped the Portuguese power to a point in a 2-2 draw with Kazakhstan's upstart, Astana.

Costa Rica's Joel Campbell, seemingly always on loan from Arsenal, came through in a big way for the Gunners in their group finale vs. Olympiakos–where he spent 2013-14 on loan–with the vital assist on the goal Arsenal needed to go 2-0 up in Greece.

His Tico teammate Keylor Navas earned clean sheets in all four of his Champions League starts–including two against PSG–before giving way to Kiko Casilla after Real Madrid had already secured advancement.

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