Atalanta and Atletico Madrid confirmed their places in the knockout stage of the Champions League meaning that, for the first time ever, only Europe’s Big Five leagues will be represented in the last 16.
There were only two issues to be resolved on the final night of the group stage. Atalanta, despite losing its first three games, went through with a 3-0 win away to Shakhtar as Dinamo Zagreb’s challenge was ended by a 4-1 home defeat to Manchester City, for whom Gabriel Jesus scored a hat-trick.
Atletico made sure of its place by beating the bottom side in the group, Lokomotiv Moscow, 2-0 at home. As it turned out, it would have gone through even with defeat as Bayer Leverkusen lost 2-0 at home to Juventus.
The top two in the other two groups were already settled, the only interest in who would finish third and secure Europa League qualification. Club Brugge, despite going down 3-1 at home to Real Madrid, and took third in Group A as Galatasaray was hammered 5-0 away to the group-winner Paris Saint-Germain.
An 87th-minute penalty from Youssef El-Arabi gave Olympiacos a 1-0 win over Red Star to pip the Serbian champion to third in Group B. Bayern made it six wins out of six – only the seventh side ever to achieve that – with a 3-1 victory over Tottenham.
Here are three thoughts on Wednesday's matches and what's ahead as we enter the tournament's knockout stage.
WE ALL LIVE IN A BERLUSCONI DREAM
The Champions League began as a dream. The big clubs, spooked by the way the European Cup draw in 1987-88 had paired Napoli and Real Madrid, the champions of Italy and Spain, in the first round, came together to create a format that would ensure such a thing could never happen again, while also becoming as rich as possible,. The Champions League began in 1992 and, finally, 27 years later, it reached its logical conclusion. The only countries represented in the last 16 will be England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. The domination of the super clubs is complete. Whatever delight there may be that this season set a new record for goals scored in the group stage, that is the big story this week.
Even Portugal and the Netherlands, with 10 European Cups/Champions Leagues between them, have been reduced to fringe leagues. This is the logical outcome of football’s untrammeled globalized neoliberalism: all the resources concentrated in five countries, with the rest of the world essentially doing no more than offering up their natural resources to be turned into content in the big five leaves to be sold back around the globe.
There have, over the years, been various proposals for a super league that Uefa has, by offering concessions, managed to rebuff. But what is the Champions League now but a super league by another name? What is this but the vision the then AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi had in 1988?
ATALANTA COMPLETE REMARKABLE COMEBACK
Only Newcastle United in 2002-03 had previously lost its first three games in the group stage and still progressed, but Atalanta, with an astonishing amount of luck, matched its achievement with a 3-0 win away to Shakhtar Donetsk. Atalanta’s first piece of fortune was that both games between Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar were drawn. If either of those games had ended with a victory, for either side, the opportunity would not have been there.
Atalanta needed Manchester City to win in Zagreb to have an opportunity, and it did, comfortably, albeit only after going behind. After that, everything went Atalanta’s way. First Shakhtar and a goal (rightly) ruled out for offside. Then the Atalanta forward Luis Muriel mystifyingly avoided a second yellow card for an ugly lunge. And then a very tight offside VAR decision went Atalanta’s way allowing Timothy Castagne to put the Serie A club ahead. As Shakhtar lost their heads, Dodo was sent off for a limp flap into an opposing face. Goals in the final ten minutes form Mario Pasalic and Robin Gosens confirmed Atalanta’s progress.
ATLETICO COMPLETES JOB
All Atletico Madrid had to do secure its place in the last 16 was beat Lokomotiv Moscow at home, something it achieved with a level of ease. Kieran Trippier missed a third-minute penalty but, 14 minutes later, Atletico was gifted another opportunity from the spot. This time Joao Felix took the kick and scored, setting Diego Simeone’s side on its way.
Although Alvaro Morata had a goal ruled out by VAR for a tight offside, a smart side-foot volley from Felipe made it 2-0 nine minutes into the second half. Atletico hasn’t been at its best after significant changes of personnel in the summer but as the new players settle and with Simeone’s capacity to organize a defense, it could be a dangerous opponent in the last 16.