Champions League: Liverpool crashes out, Aaron Ramsey stars for Arsenal
There were sub-plots in each of the four Champions League groups in action Tuesday, with six teams still hoping for qualification going into Matchday Six. The biggest casualty of the night was Liverpool, who drew at home to FC Basel, while Juventus pipped Olympiakos and Monaco were surprise group winners.
Here is what caught our eye:
Player of the Day: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal)
The Welshman ensured that Arsenal ended the group stage on a high, masterminding a 4-1 win over Galatasaray in Turkey and leaving the pitch with half an hour to spare while he was at it.
After assisting on Lukas Podolski's opener, Ramsey scored Arsenal's second and third goals, the latter an astonishing effort. Joel Campbell's corner had been headed out, and there was Ramsey, 35 yards from goal, who struck the ball on the low volley. It arrowed into the top corner, and goalkeeper Sinan Bolat could do nothing to stop it. It was Zidane-esque, specifically, similar to the great Frenchman's volley in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen.
So maybe the stage wasn't quite as large, but for an opposition player to get a standing ovation from the home fans in Istanbul is a decent achievement. Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger was even able to hand teenage pair Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Gedion Zelalem their European debuts as the pressure temporarily lifted on his shoulders (until the next defeat, that is).
But this was the kind of form that Ramsey showed last season, and if he can maintain it over the festive period, Wenger might not endure so many angry Gunners fans in future.
Galatasaray, for whom Wesley Sniejder scored a late free-kick, was poor in both of its matches against Arsenal and, currently second in the SuperLiga, might not be in this competition next season.
Goal of the Day: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) and Ramsey
Liverpool was heading out of the Champions League despite all of captain Steven Gerrard's attempts. He was shooting from every angle and even claimed a penalty when goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik reached the ball first. But with 10 minutes left to play, Gerrard curled a 25-yard free-kick in off the post to give his team hope.
It was his 100th goal at Anfield, and a fitting end to what might be his final Champions League game for the club. After the game, he was asked if Liverpool had deserved to qualify for the knockout stage. "No," he said. "We haven't been good enough."
He was right.
Major Takeaway of the Day: Liverpool goes down fighting
Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, now a pundit on British TV, tweeted Reds fans asking which game was more important for Liverpool to win: FC Basel in Europe or rivals Manchester United at the weekend.
Gary Neville, his United nemesis and fellow pundit, was one of the first to reply: "What if you lose both?" he asked. Neville was almost right. For the 10 minutes after Gerrard's free-kick, Liverpool had FC Basel on the ropes, and Vaclik twice had to save smartly from two Jordan Henderson chances.
And while Liverpool may point to a bizarre red card shown on the hour to substitute Lazar Markovic, who threw out an arm in the direction of Behrang Safari with contact looking minimal (if at all), before then, the host had been second-best in every department. The final 10 minutes gave some momentum to the team but in the final analysis, Liverpool could have no complaint with the result. One win from six group games, and you could argue it's fortunate to even make the Europa League.
Surprise of the Day: Monaco reaches the last 16
The surprise may not be that the Principality side beat Andre Villas-Boas's Zenit St Petersburg side 2-0, but that it topped Group C after scoring just four goals in its six games (two of them Tuesday). The others were in 1-0 wins over Leverkusen home and away (Matchday One and Five).
Consider that Monaco sold Radamel Falcao, Emmanuel Riviere and James Rodriguez last summer, a trio that scored 33 goals combined last season, and its feat is even more impressive.
"My job is that we always create three or four chances per game," said coach Leonardo Jardim.
Not quite: Monaco had 12 shots on target across all six games. But from a tough group, and in the midst of a difficult domestic run, where Monaco is seventh, the Portuguese manager deserves credit for progressing. The club conceded one goal in six matches, and will now be among the top seeds that the likes of second-place finishers Arsenal and Juventus will want to face in the round of 16.
Late Near-Twists of the Day
In Group A, Malmo had equalized to 2-2 at Olympiakos before Kostas Mitroglou and Ibrahim Afellay scored in the last two minutes for a 4-2 win for the Greek side. That result wound up making no difference to the group, after the goalless draw between Juventus and Atletico Madrid saw those two qualify and Olympiakos settle for third.
Another late goal from Anderlecht’s Alexandr Mitrovic, a close-range header, saw Borussia Dortmund draw 1-1 at home, a result that was enough to pip Arsenal to the top spot on goal difference. Arsenal needed to win by six to overhaul that difference (it was up 3-0 at halftime and looked possible for a bit).
The draw for the next round is on Monday, and only then will we know how crucial it might be. Last season, all eight group winners advanced to the quarterfinals. Wenger won Ligue 1 as Monaco coach in 1988: he will be hoping for a reunion.
Juventus 0, Atletico Madrid 0
Olympiakos 4, Malmo 2
(Atletico Madrid, Juventus go through; Olympiakos enters Europa League knockout stage)
Liverpool 1, Basel 1
Real Madrid 4, Ludogorets 0
(Real Madrid, FC Basel go through; Liverpool enters Europa League knockout stage)
Monaco 2, Zenit St.-Petersburg 0
Benfica 0, Bayer Leverkusen 0
(Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen go through; Zenit enters Europa League knockout stage)
Galatasaray 1, Arsenal 4
Borussia Dortmund 1, Anderlecht 1
(Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal go through; Anderlecht enters Europa League knockout stage)