The Champions League group stage came to a dramatic end, Wednesday, but not without some good news for Premier League teams in Europe's top competition. After Manchester United's shock exit on Tuesday, Wednesday brought better news for England's top squads, with Arsenal beating Olympiakos 3-0 to reach the round of 16 while Chelsea beat Porto 2-0 to win its group and go through as well.
It was not all good news for England on the day, as Gary Neville's Valencia lost 2-0 to struggling Lyon in his managerial debut. Even if Valencia had won, Gent’s win over Zenit was enough to put the Belgian side through, the nation's first side ever to reach the last 16 in the modern-day format.
Roma squeaked past in Group E, with a 0-0 home draw against BATE enough to get by Bayer Leverkusen, which was unlucky to draw 1-1 with Barcelona.
Elsewhere, Dynamo Kiev took advantage of Chelsea's win to sneak into second place in their group with a 1-0 win over last-place Maccabi Tel Aviv, while a weakened Bayern Munich–which had U.S. international Julian Green in the starting lineup–finished off a strong group showing, getting two goals from Robert Lewandowski in a three-minute span to down Dinamo Zagreb 2-0.
Europa League berth
Out of Europe
Maccabi Tel Aviv
Zenit St. Petersburg
Here is what stood out from Wednesday's action:
Player of the day: Olivier Giroud, Arsenal
It was back in February when Arsenal lost 3-1 at home to Monaco in the round of 16 in last season’s competition, and the villain of the night was Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman squandered a succession of chances on that night and the perception took hold–not helped by Thierry Henry, a vocal critic–that Arsenal would never win a major trophy with Giroud as its main man.
In Greece, Giroud was Arsenal’s savior. The Gunners needed to win by two goals–no easy feat against a team that had won its last 12 league matches and has a fantastic home record in Europe–and did so thanks to Giroud, who headed the opener from Aaron Ramsey’s cross, after great work by Mesut Ozil, in the first half.
It was a smart header, but goalkeeper Roberto should have stopped the ball squirming under his body at the near post.
Giroud went down early in the second half and for a while looked a doubt to carry on. Arsenal is grateful he did; he began a move that led to the second goal, nodding the ball onto Joel Campbell, who jinked around two markers and fed the ball to Giroud who stroked home the second. It was a fantastic play from Campbell, who spent a year on loan at Olympiakos.
When Arsenal was awarded a late penalty, it was inevitable that Giroud would take it–with Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla out injured–and he made no mistake from 12 yards for his first Gunners hat trick.
Giroud has his critics, but performances like this prove why Wenger continues to stick with him. He now has five goals in five European matches this season. As for whether Arsenal will splash out on another striker in the January window, fans should not hold their breath now.
Goal of the day: Max Cornet, Lyon
The France Under-21 international had few options open to him as he burst towards the Valencia area at the Mestalla. So he cut inside and curled a glorious left-footed shot into the top corner of Juame Domenech’s goal. Cornet was a constant threat to the Valencia back line, with pace and dribbling skills that belied Lyon’s position at the bottom of Group H.
Eye-opening result of the day: Gent 2, Zenit St. Petersburg 1
Who would have predicted Champions League debutant Gent would qualify in second place ahead of Valencia and Lyon in Group E? The Belgian champion rendered the result of Gary Neville’s coaching debut irrelevant with yet another impressive home performance against Zenit.
The first scorer was Laurent Depoitre, a striker that cost Oostende just €145,000 in January 2012. He moved to Gent last season and might be worth 50 times that now. A host of scouts from Europe’s top clubs were watching him in Belgium, and they would have left impressed with Danijel Milicevic, the Gent midfielder who scored the winning goal. Gent is known as the Buffalos, after a visit of the original Buffalo Bill and his Wild West circus to the city in the early 1900s; the fans roared this attacking team onto a deserved success.
As for Hein Vanhaezebrouck, the Gent coach who gave his players singing lessons to improve their on-pitch communication, he deserves to be in demand from bigger clubs.
Turning points of the day: Early Valencia goal disallowed/GKs deny Leverkusen
It wouldn't be a true English coaching performance without a refereeing scapegoat, and luckily for Gary Neville on his Valencia debut, he could point to Shkodran Mustafi’s early disallowed goal as a contributing factor in the loss to Lyon.
It was one of those nights when nothing went right for Neville.
Enzo Perez limped off with a thigh strain after 11 minutes, increasing the number of injured players to 11 (one of the most pressing issues Neville has to resolve), while it just so happened that Lyon, winless in its first five games, seemed galvanized by Matej Jug’s decision on the Mustafi header and achieved an unlikely result.
Neville changed things in the second half, pushing Dani Parejo into a deep-lying midfield role and bringing on Alvaro Negredo in an attacking move that ultimately did not pay off. Valencia did push forward but was hit on the counter when Pablo Piatti’s wayward attempt turned into an opportunity for Corentino Tolisso to set up Alexandre Lacazette for a breakaway goal.
Now we await the Europa League draw with interest, especially if Neville’s new side ends up drawing Manchester United, or, if results go its way Thursday, Liverpool. That could be interesting.
In Group E, Roma edged through in second place, but it was a nervy affair as the Italian side could only draw 0-0 with BATE while Bayer Leverkusen drew 1-1 against a heavily rotated Barcelona side missing the injured Neymar.
Leverkusen needed to win the game and came so close time and again: Javier Hernandez matched Lionel Messi’s opener–his 12th goal in the last 11 games–but could not get a second. Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was Barca’s best player, with some of his efforts to keep out Hernandez and Karim Bellarabi outstanding. Roma can consider itself lucky to get through; it owed that to Wojciech Szczesny, whose point-blank save from Mikhail Gordeichuk was superb.
Roma is through but not in style: 16 goals conceded and only six points on the board.
Major takeaway of the day: Is the old Chelsea back?
Diego Costa missed a one-on-one, had a row with his Spain teammate Iker Casillas and was outpaced by a center back when clean through on goal; aside from that, this could have been the Chelsea forward’s best performance of the season.
Like Chelsea itself, it was all about controlled aggression. The host was fortunate to go ahead, when Costa’s shot rebounded off Casillas and into the path of the backtracking Marcano, who could not stop himself deflecting it over the line. The own goal was Chelsea’s fifth of the season; only Willian has scored more goals for the club this season.
Sure enough, the Brazilian midfielder sealed the win with a rasping drive, his seventh of the season and first from open play.
This was more like the old Chelsea; it saw out the game comfortably. Eden Hazard played well, and Ramires, in for Cesc Fabregas, moved the ball forward quickly.
Next up for Chelsea: a trip to Premier League leader Leicester, coached by ex-Blues boss Claudio Ranieri, on Monday. And for Jose Mourinho, the possibility of an easier opponent in Monday’s Champions League draw.
“We’re delighted to be in it and I think a lot of teams will be fearing us in the draw,” said captain John Terry.
Real Madrid, Wolfsburg, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Zenit
Paris Saint-Germain, PSV Eindhoven, Benfica, Juventus, Roma, Arsenal, Dynamo Kiev, Gent
ON TO EUROPA LEAGUE
Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester United, Galatasaray, Sevilla, Bayer Leverkusen, Olympiakos, Porto, Valencia