- With one group matchday to go, half of the places in the UEFA Champions League knockout stage are spoken for, with a few powerhouses on the cusp and one still alive with a chance to go through.
Barcelona and Chelsea secured their places in the last 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday, while Atletico Madrid kept its hopes alive with a dramatic win over Roma and Manchester United suffered a shock 1-0 defeat to Basel.
Atletico had to win to avoid an early exit and did so thanks to Antoine Griezmann’s first goal for eight matches, a spectacular hooked volley over his shoulder setting the hosts on their way to a 2-0 win. Roma, though, will go through if it beats Qarabag at home in two weeks. Chelsea beat the Azebaijani side on the road, with Willian scoring twice against the 10-man side to move to first in the group.
Manchester United could join its fellow Premier League side in the last 16, faltering in the second half and conceding a last-minute winner to Michael Lang.
In the other game in the group, Igor Akinfeev finally ended his run of 43 Champions League games without keeping a clean sheet, as CSKA Moscow beat Benfica 2-0. Georgi Schennikov was perhaps offside as he latched onto Bebras Natcho’s throughball to score the first, and Jardel was unfortunate to deflect Vitinho’s cross into his own net, but this was a desperately poor display from Benfica, which set a new Portuguese record of six successive Champions League defeats. Man United leads Basel and CSKA by two points.
Barcelona secured the top spot in its group with a 0-0 draw away to Juventus, which leads Sporting by a point after the Portugese side beat Olympiakos 3-1. Bas Dost, having failed to score in the group stage this season, scored twice.
PSG, meanwhile, took its tally for the group stage to 24 goals, setting a new Champions League record with one game still to play, in thrashing Celtic 7-1, Neymar and Edinson Cavani both scored twice on a day when Celtic actually led after 56 seconds, thanks to Moussa Dembele's opener.
PSG is still not guaranteed top spot in the group, as Bayern won 2-1 away to Anderlecht. Bayern, though, would have to beat PSG by four goals in their final group game to supplant the French power.
Here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League, with just one match remaining for each team in the group stage:
GRIEZMANN GIVES ATLETICO A LIFELINE
Griezmann has been out of sorts this season, widely blamed for Atletico’s indifferent form, but having failed to score in his previous eight games, he lashed in an acrobatic volley after 69 minutes to ensure that Atletico will at least be fighting for qualification for the knockout phase in the final round of games.
Atletico had outplayed Roma in Italy on Matchday One, but had been held to a 0-0 draw thanks to a superb display from Brazilian goalkeeper Allison. Since then, though, Atletico has dwindled. Although its only defeat this season was in its home Champions League game against Chelsea, it has drawn 10 times. It’s debatable whether the cause is as simple, as some have suggested, as the club lacking an in-form striker, but at the moment it feels as though it's in a holding pattern before Diego Costa is available in January.
It looked for a long time like another evening of frustration was in the cards, as Augusto Fernandez had a first-half effort ruled out for handball, and Radja Nainggolan almost put Roma ahead with a cross that struck the near post. But Griezmann’s goal changed everything. Bruno Peres was sent off after collecting a second yellow card and then Kevin Gameiro latched into a Griezmann pass to add a late second. Simeone's side isn't in the clear, but at least it has a pulse going into the finale.
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WILLIAN DOWNS 10-MAN QARABAG
As an uneasy peace reigns, Chelsea secured its place in the last 16 of the Champions League with a comfortable win away to Qarabag. The decisive moment came after 19 minutes as Qarabag captain Rashad Sadygov was penalized for a slight tug on Willian. The award of a penalty and a red card–the third suffered in three successive games for the Azerbaijani champions, only the third time a team has suffered such a run in the Champions League–was harsh but not unfair. Eden Hazard converted from the spot.
Willian became the key figure as Chelsea ran away with it, scoring two and winning another penalty. Hazard's backheel laid in the Brazilian to add a second nine minutes before halftime. Cesc Fabregas converted another penalty, awarded after Gara Garayev had pulled Willian back, to make absolutely sure of the three points with 17 minutes remaining. But for good measure, Willian then drove in the fourth from outside the box in sensational fashion, punching Chelsea's ticket to the next phase.
MAN UNITED WOBBLES TOWARD KNOCKOUT STAGE
Six years ago, Manchester United’s Champions League campaign came to an end in Basel. This defeat wasn’t as significant–it would take a combination of a heavy loss to CSKA in the group finale and a Benfica win over Basel to keep United from advancing– but it was a worrying display. United had been much the better side in the first half, twice hitting the woodwork, but in the second half the intensity dropped and Basel came increasingly into the game. It was all most un-Mourinho-like.
Nemanja Matic was brought on to try to shore things up, but when he squandered possession in the final minute, Raoul Petretta crossed low from the left and Michael Lang converted from a tight angle at the back post. United should still go through, and will probably feel it was the better side even here, but the second-half laxity invited the defeat.