On a day when two of the last three Champions League winners could have sealed their places in the last 16 of this season’s competition, Real Madrid ensured that it's not even guaranteed a third-place group finish and subsequent spot in the Europa League's knockout rounds.
While a shorthanded Liverpool did achieve advancement, with an edgy 1-0 win over Ajax, Real Madrid slipped to a second defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in this season's group stage. It seemed last week that Madrid had done the hard work. Having slightly fortuitously beaten Inter Milan 3-2 at home, it then won at San Siro, outplaying Antonio Conte’s side, which lost discipline and focus. There were signs of promise from Eden Hazard and Martin Odegaard and the sense that it would survive a poor start to the competition. But Saturday’s defeat at home to Alaves was a reminder of just how much is amiss with this squad.
Still, the prospect of defeat to a Shakhtar side that had taken a single point from its three Champions League games since beating Madrid (while being outscored 10-0 in that time) seemed remote. Shakhtar was toothless in the first half, but the introduction of Dentinho for the injured Junior Moraes after 25 minutes changed everything. As Raphael Varane hesitated in the 57th minute, Dentinho pounced for the opener, and with Madrid lacking any sense of energy, drive or cohesion it exerted very little pressure on the home goal. Solomon added a second on the break with eight minutes remaining, as nobody closed him down, but the truth is Shakhtar had enjoyed two or three other excellent second-half opportunities, too.
Perhaps the personnel isn't quite what it was, but that cannot explain just how bad Madrid was here, or how inconsistent it has been all season. This was a pitiful performance. There seemed to be little organization, little plan, little idea of how to find a way through a stubborn and increasingly confident Shakhtar side, but worse than that, there seemed to be little urgency or desire in the Ukrainian snow.
Zinedine Zidane’s approach has always been about keeping things tight and waiting for talent to take its course, but that has proved harder and harder since Cristiano Ronaldo left, a situation exacerbated by the absence of Eden Hazard with a muscle injury. But neither is Madrid defensively solid, looking desperately tentative without Sergio Ramos. Madrid may not be in as bad a situation as Barcelona, but it, too, is suffering from an over-reliance on a couple of big-name individuals.
Real Madrid's position is complicated by the fact that Inter, after a miserable campaign, is still not eliminated. As has become habitual for Conte in Europe, his side has combined misfortune with self-destructiveness. There have been opportunities and there have been periods of football good enough to make it mystifying that it entered the day at the bottom of the group. And for once it got the result–though only with VAR helping overturn a goal that would have capped a Monchengladbach comeback from two goals down.
Inter was dominant in the first half and took the lead through Matteo Darmian, only to concede to an Alassane Plea header just before the break. Romelu Lukaku, though, struck twice in the second half to keep Inter hopes alive, despite a later second from Plea. Gladbach leads the group by a point from Shakhtar and Madrid, although Shakhtar has the head-to-head advantage, with Inter two points further back. Real Madrid hosts Gladbach in next week's group finale, with Shakhtar away at Inter. Just as there's a scenario where Madrid wins the group–a win over Gladbach and a Shakhtar draw or loss to Inter–there's one where Real gets dumped out altogether, failing to take part in the knockout rounds for the first time since 1997. A Real Madrid loss and Inter Milan win would send Real bottom of the group and out of Europe altogether, and the pressure is enough to cause Zidane to defiantly claim "I am not going to resign" in his postgame remarks.
As for the 2019 European champion, the decision to pick a weakened side against Atalanta last week backfired on Liverpool as it lost 2-0, meaning that Jurgen Klopp had to pick a relatively strong side against Ajax. Liverpool needed only a point to secure progress, but that seemed in doubt for long spells as Ajax had the better chances, culminating with David Neres hitting the post after 58 minutes. Within a minute, though, Liverpool had the lead, thanks largely to a bizarre error from Andre Onana. The Ajax goalkeeper left Neco Williams’s cross, presumably thinking it was going out of play, but Curtis Jones stole in to cushion the ball into an empty net with the outside of his right foot.
Liverpool’s form this season remains patchy, but it has done enough. Atalanta and Ajax, who meet next week, both have the chance to progress from that group behind Liverpool.
Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, twice a finalist in the past decade, missed out on a chance to secure its place in the knockout stage by conceding a late penalty against Bayern in a 1-1 draw. The defending champion, having already clinched first place in the group, fielded a much-weakened side and was widely outplayed, going behind to Joao Felix's goal before pulling even (though snapping its 15-match winning streak in the competition). Atletico switching off late on means it must avoid defeat at Jesse Marsch's Salzburg next week in order to progress–and ensure that at least one team from the Spanish capital remains alive.