UEFA Champions League: 10 Things We Learned from Champions League Week 5
Once again, the UEFA Champions League lived up to the hype as the most prestigious tournament on the planet, with another brilliant week of matchups and results.
From incredible comebacks to stunning bicycle goals, Europe's best teams continued to battle it out for Champions League glory. Several booked their place in the final 16 of the tournament whilst several more conceded their title aspirations were over.
We had Manchester City's European dream ending,we had Chelsea losing another manager due to a poor Champions League showing, we had further dominance from the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Dortmund in their quest for success.
Read on to see what else happened in Champions League and the 10 things we learned from the European matches this week.
1. The Champions Are Gone
Without doubt the biggest talking point of the week is Chelsea, who lost 3-0 to Juventus this week and all but ensured their elimination from the tournament in the group stages next fortnight.
The Blues will need to beat Nordsjaelland at home in Matchday 6 and hope that Shakhtar Donetsk beat Juventus—something that seems unlikely given the fact Shakhtar have already qualified and will not want to risk injury to their best players.
Even a draw for the Italian giants would see them progress, leaving Chelsea will the very real possibility of becoming the first-ever defending champions to be eliminated in the group stages.
And it seems that possibility was too much for the club to handle, with Roman Abramovich firing manager Roberto Di Matteo after the loss—less than eight months after the Italian had led the West London club to the Champions League title.
Their champion manager is gone—perhaps a fitting statement given what we're likely to see take place in two weeks time, when more champions—this time the players—will also be gone from the competition.
2. As Are Manchester City
Chelsea weren't the only big-name club to fall in the Champions League this year, with defending English champions and current league leaders Manchester City surrendering their qualification dreams this week also.
The Citizens picked up a 1-1 draw at home against Real Madrid, but the point was not enough to keep their dream of qualification alive. They will now travel to Borussia Dortmund in the final week to take on the German champions—a match that neither side will be able to gain (or lose) anything form.
Granted, the Manchester club were drawn into one of the harder Champions League groups ever, but still, Roberto Mancini's men failed to deliver against the best teams in the world—which you need to do to stake your claim in Europe.
Ajax, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund—these are the sides that City would have come up against in the knockout rounds of the tournament had they not been drawn into the same group, and from what we've seen this year, they simply would not have come close to beating any of those sides.
Their elimination from the Champions League is what they deserve for their performances—having yet to win a single match in the tournament—but will no doubt make them a tougher side to beat domestically in the English Premier League this season.
3. Celtic Control Their Own Destiny
Few Celtic fans would have dreamt that at the start of their Champions League campaign, they would still be alive in the tournament heading into December, with a very real chance of ensuring qualification in the final 16 of the competition.
The Scottish club progressed through the third qualifying round, then through the playoffs, and have established themselves in Group G in the group-stage, including a historic 2-1 victory over Barcelona only a fortnight ago.
Celtic sit level with Benfica on seven points. But with the Portuguese club having to travel to Camp Nou and take on Spanish giants Barca in the final week, their home match against Spartak Moscow should see them progress through to the final 16.
Moscow have just one win in the tournament to date, and having already been beaten by Celtic away from home, you'd have to think that the home side can get the job done.
I mean, they can beat Barca at home—surely they can therefore beat Spartak Moscow?
4. Are Shakhtar Donetsk the Team to Beat?
Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk continued their incredible run in the Champions League this year with a resounding 5-2 victory over Nordsjaelland, booking their place in the final 16 of the competition.
And heading into the knockout stages, Shakhtar have made themselves one of the teams to beat in the competition, with their explosive midfield and attack one of the best on the continent.
They've proven themselves against both Juventus and Chelsea—two very different styles of football—and have one of the most formidable home records in world football, where they have only lost a handful of games in the past six years.
But more importantly, this is a club that is filled with self-belief and confidence at the moment, and with a good break off over winter, they'll be able to focus their full attention on playing well in the Champions League and going as far as they can in the tournament.
Are they the team to beat this year?
5. Or Is It Borussia Dortmund?
Or does that honor fall to German champions Borussia Dortmund, who booked their place in the next round with a commanding victory over Ajax in Holland.
Dortmund are still yet to taste defeat in the competition, and having emerged from a group of champions as, well, the champions, you'd have to say that they are well-placed to make a strong run in the knockout rounds of the tournament.
Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski are simply unstoppable in attack, and with a dominant midfield behind them, Dortmund are no doubt the real deal. They have a good thing going and don't look like relenting any time soon, especially not after their strong performances in the group stage.
The reigning German champions are, for me, the team to beat in the Champions League this year, and look like the top team in the tournament to date.
Can they continue their strong form into the round of 16?
6. Cinderella's Fairytale Is Over
The Cinderella story of the Champions League—BATE Borisov—is over after the Belarusian club dropped a 2-0 loss at home to Lille, thus ending their chance at progressing through to the next round of competition.
But what a tournament it had already been for the world football minnows, who had proven so many wrong just to make it this far in the tournament.
They won a 3-2 aggregate against Vardar in the second qualifying round of the tournament, keeping the home side scoreless at home to move through to the next round.
There, they would beat Hungarian side Debrecen, booking a place in the playoffs of the competition, where they would beat Israeli club Kiryat Shmona and establish themselves in the 32-man tournament for the most prestigious trophy in Europe.
BATE Borisov were always going to be hard-pressed to emerge from a group featuring Bayern Munich and Valencia, but they did manage to pick up a win over the German giants in the group-stage matches, giving them one of their greatest wins in recent history.
They weren't the whipping boys that many expected, and look set to continue their European chase with a spot in the final 32 of the Europa League.
Or, to continue the metaphor, the Cinderella story of the tournament might be over, but another fairytale looks set to take its place.
7. Stephan El Shaarawy Oozes Talent
The 20-year-old Stephan El Shaarawy continues to establish himself as one of the premier strikers in world football, with another strong performance in the European competition.
El Shaarawy netted his second goal for the Italian giants in their recent win. Whilst that finish might have been overshadowed by the remarkable effort of Philippe Mexes—which we'll get to in a minute—he still showed that he is an attacking force to be reckoned with this year.
Fast and deadly on both feet, the Milan striker simply oozes talent and class and if he continues to develop and succeed at the current rate, could well turn out to be one of the greatest strikers in world football in the next few years—perhaps in the same category as the likes of Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Milan have struggled in Serie A this season and they have struggled in the Champions League at times as well. Were it not for the strong performances of El Shaarawy, they most likely would not have achieved in the tournament what they have done so far.
Definitely a player to watch in the round of 16.
8. Valencia Are Surprisingly Strong
If you're looking for an underdog in the round of 16, it's definitely worth watching for Spanish side Valencia, who booked their place in the knockout stages with a 1-1 draw against Bayern Munich.
Their most recent result wasn't the most convincing in terms of attacking prowess and free-flowing football, but considering that they had a player sent off before half-time and still kept side with the offensive power of Bayern at bay for most of the match, it was a very strong performance.
Valencia's only loss in the Champions League so far came back in September, when they lost to Bayern in Germany by a single goal. It seems they have rectified some of their defensive issues that caused them grief earlier in the season.
Their squad is deceptively strong, as is their character, and with a match against Lille in the final round of the group-stages, looks set to carry good momentum into the knockout rounds.
The Spanish giants have only lost two matches in all competitions in the last three months, and despite having a player sent off in four matches in that time period, haven't lost a match when they have been reduced to 10 men in that time.
Valencia have some good momentum at the moment, and for me, are a real dark-horse heading into the knockout rounds of the Champions League.
9. Philippe Mexes Is a Freak
Forget Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal—Philippe Mexes' effort against Anderlecht is the greatest bicycle kick that you will watch in world football this month.
The Swedish international's effort had praise flying in from all around the world, with my contribution this article outlining the 10 greatest overhead goals of all time.
I wish I could write it again and include Mexes in there, because this goal is one of the best goals that you will see in the Champions League—ever.
Unlike Ibra, the goalkeeper is still on the line here as Mexes flings it over his head from outside the box. Yet the result is still the same, as the AC Milan star all but guarantees the win for his team.
We could debate as to which goal is better—Mexes or Ibrahimovic—for a long time and still reach no conclusion, so how about we just say that Mexes is a freak.
For I know we can all agree on that. Incredible goal.
10. Sportsmanship Is Still Up for Debate
However, for all the great and fantastic occurrences that Week 5 of the Champions League provided, one moment of poor sportsmanship by Shakhtar Donetsk striker Luiz Adriano will remain the talking point for the remainder of the week and perhaps even longer.
Bleacher Report's Will Tidey explains what happened in their 5-2 win over Nordsjaelland that caused the frustration of both the Danish club and football fans around the world.
Play was stopped by the referee after a Nordsjaelland player went down hurt midway through the first half, with the Danish hosts owners of surprise 1-0 lead.
Shakhtar's Willian explained he would take the drop-ball unchallenged and pass it back to Nordsjaelland's goalkeeper from inside his own half [when play resumed]
Only Adriano had other ideas. As Willian's lobbed ball made its way into the Nordsjaelland half, Adriano took possession and proceeded to round the goalkeeper and slot home to bring the Ukrainians level.
What is clear here is that this was not a mistake by Adriano. It was not as if he simply did not know what was going on and what his team were doing. This was a conscious decision to go against the general ethics and sportsmanship of the game to try and advantage his team.
They needed to win, they weren't winning, and so he did what he is paid to do—score goals. Only that he isn't paid to cause the ire of the opposing team like he did.
Since the debacle, Shakhtar manager Mircea Lucescu has apologized to Nordsjaelland for the actions (per The Guardian) whilst Adriano has been cited for unsportsmanlike conduct by UEFA (per The Daily Mail).
The Champions League brought about many wonderful things this week, and has done through the tournament so far this year—this simply just wasn't one of them.
What did you learn from Week 5 of the UEFA Champions League?
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