- It figured to be a day when a number of spots were claimed in the last 16, and that field is now half full after Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Ajax, Roma, Man City, Man United and Juventus secured their places.
Real Madrid, Roma, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Juventus, Manchester City and Manchester United joined all secured their places in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday in the penultimate round of games in Groups E-H, joining Barcelona in a knockout stage that is now half full.
Madrid was not entirely convincing–certainly there was no ringing endorsement of Santiago Solari as manager–but it won 2-0 away to Roma. A poor clearance from Robin Olsen compounded by a weak back header from Federico Fazio let Gareth Bale put Real Madrid ahead in the 47th minute, and Lucas Vazquez touched in the second 12 minutes later. The goals came on the heels of Cengiz Under's horrendous miss, failing to touch home from point-blank range just before halftime.
Both sides, though, had already secured their places in the last 16 thanks to Viktoria Plzen’s 2-1 win away to CSKA Moscow earlier in the day. A Nikola Vlasic penalty put the Russians ahead after 10 minutes. Roman Prochazka missed a penalty just before halftime but second-half strikes from Prochazka and Lukas Hejda lifted the Czech champion level with CSKA on four points in the race for third in Group G.
Elsewhere, doubles from Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski helped Bayern on its way to the last 16 as it put recent indifferent form aside with 5-1 demolition Benfica. In the other Group E game, two Dusan Tadic goals meant Ajax joined Bayern in the knockout phase of the Champions League, advancing to the stage for the first time in 13 years with 2-0 win over AEK.
In Group H, Juventus booked its place in the knockout phase with a 1-0 win over Valencia, with Mario Mandzukic getting the only goal from Cristiano Ronaldo cross. Manchester United will join Juve in the last 16, but it had to work for it, as Marouane Fellaini struck for an injury-time winner vs. Young Boys to eke out a 1-0 win at Old Trafford and eliminate Valencia from conetntion in the process.
In Group F, Lyon needs a point at Shakhtar Donetsk in the final round to go through after a 2-2 draw against a much-changed Manchester City side impacted by injuries. Twice, Maxwel Cornet curlers put Lyon ahead, but two headers, from Aymeric Laporte and Sergio Aguero, ensured City did not suffer a second defeat of the season to Lyon.
Shakhtar kept its hopes of progress alive with a 3-2 win at Hoffenheim. The Ukrainians raced out to a two-goal lead, but Hoffenheim pulled level by halftime. Adam Szalai was then sent off after collecting two yellow cards in 69 seconds, and Taison nicked an injury-time winner to keep things interesting.
Here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League:
Fan violence overshadows Ajax's achievement
Ajax qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League for the first time since 2005-2006 after a 2-0 win over AEK, but their achievement was overshadowed by scenes of violence within the stadium. A petrol bomb was thrown by a home fan at Ajax supporters, with rumors that fans of Panathinaikos had infiltrated the away end. At least as troubling, though, was the way riot police, having stood by as flares were fired by home fans, waded into that away end, lashing out indiscriminately with batons leaving several fans bleeding from head wounds.
The game itself was settled by two Dusan Tadic goals in the space of four minutes midway through the second half. First he converted a penalty after Marko Livaja had handled, an offense for which he received a second yellow card and was sent off on his Champions League debut. The Serbia international then rolled in a calm second after a neat counter involving David Neres and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
It's been a while since Ajax was among Europe's elite, but after reaching the Europa League final in 2016-17, it's back in the last 16 of the preeminent competition.
Breathing room for Kovac, Bayern
German magazine Kicker ran an article this week about the Bayern coach Niko Kovac, asking “How long?” With Bayern fifth in the Bundesliga table, nine points behind the league leader Borussia Dortmund, the pressure is on, with a meeting among the Bayern hierarchy later this week to discuss the manager's future. The feeling is still that Kovac will be kept on, at least until the end of the season, but if his position was under immediate threat, Tuesday's 5-1 win should have eased some of the pressure.
It’s not just that Bayern secured its place in the last 16 or that it remains two points clear of Ajax at the top of the group, it was the emphatic nature of the performance in what could easily have become a pressure game given a win would have lifted Benfica to within three points.
But two of the most predictable goals imaginable from Arjen Robben, cutting in from the right onto his left foot, eased Bayern nerves.
Robert Lewandowski then headed his 50th goal in the Champions League, becoming only the seventh player to reach that mark. Gedson Fernandes pulled one back in the first minute of the second half, but before too many thoughts of the late collapse in Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Fortuna Dusseldorf could surface, another Lewandowski header restored the three-goal margin.
Franck Ribery stroked in a fifth, so that all three of the much-criticized front line had scored in a statement victory.
Fellaini bails out Man United again
Manchester United produced a performance the opposite of most of its displays this season, as it scraped a 1-0 win over Young Boys. United’s standard game this season has been to start slowly and then fight back, but here it began well and slowly seemed to lose faith in itself. Jose Mourinho had, slightly bafflingly, left out Paul Pogba–even though United is only playing lowly Southampton at the weekend – but as Marcus Rashford twice went close early on, it seemed it would win rather easily. Gradually, though, Young Boys began to come into the game and it took a remarkable save from David De Gea to deny Kevin Mbabu.
But Fellaini came off the bench to turn the game yet again. He caused the chaos as Juve capitulated last time out and pivoted onto a long ball here to tuck in the only goal of the game. Mourinho smashed the water bottles on the sideline in reaction, a cathartic one of sorts at that, as the goal sent United to the last 16 with a game to spare.