UEFA Champions League: 10 Biggest Surprises of Group Stage

Dan Talintyre@@dantalintyreSenior Analyst IIDecember 6, 2012

UEFA Champions League: 10 Biggest Surprises of Group Stage

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    The group stage of the UEFA Champions League is complete for another year, meaning we say farewell to half of the teams involved in Europe's most prestigious tournament.

    There's still plenty to be seen and discussed in the Champions League this season, but for now, let's spend a few moments remembering and assessing what we've borne witness to across Europe in the past two months of competition.

    So counting down from 10 to one, let's take a look at the biggest surprises of the Champions League group stage this year.

10. BATE Borisov Beat Bayern Munich

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    Belarusian club BATE Borisov weren't given too much of a chance in the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League, especially since they'd already made such an incredible run just to make the group stages of the tournament.

    BATE had won through the second and third qualifying rounds as well as the playoffs before making the group stages, playing six games before they even reached the same playing field as the likes of Bayern Munich and Valencia.

    They would welcome the German giants, who had lost the tournament in penalty shootout last year, in a match that few expected to cause any trouble for the visitors. However, BATE had a different idea: winning 3-1 on the night to record one of the more improbable victories of the tournament.

    Their Cinderella story would end in the group stages, but the words of coach Viktor Goncharenko following the remarkable victories summed up just how special their victory over Bayern Munich was for the Belarusian club (per UEFA.com).

    I can't find the words to express my gratitude to everyone—I don't want to single out players. It doesn't matter who scored and who gave the assists—the team is the one that won tonight. We must have been born under a lucky star.

9. PSG Through Without an Issue

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    Despite some big spending in the summer transfer window, Paris St-Germain started the domestic Ligue 1 season in less than impressive fashion. They were winless through their opening three games and left many wondering whether they were actually the real deal this year.

    After all, they had spent ridiculous amounts of money to bring in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, so why weren't the French club dominating the lowly Ligue 1?

    The answers to that are still unclear to an extent, with PSG sitting fourth domestically with just two wins from their last six matches. But the fact that they were able to come in and dominate the Champions League to the extent that they have did come as somewhat of a surprise.

    We knew they had talent, and we knew they had skill. We were just a little unsure of what they would produce on the European stage considering their domestic problems.

    But first place in Group A and five wins from six matches? 

    Yeah. I think PSG are traveling OK in the Champions League.

8. Shakhtar Donetsk Look Strong

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    Like Paris St-Germain, we knew that Shakhtar Donetsk were a tough team to break down, were strong on the counterattack and had some exciting young players to watch.

    But few expected that they would be strong enough to knock defending champions Chelsea out of the Champions League and that they would book their place in the final 16 of the tournament with such ease.

    The Ukrainian champions didn't finish on top of their group following their loss to Juventus in the final week, but they are a very dangerous side heading into the knockout stages of the tournament. They can attack their opponents from seemingly anywhere on the pitch.

    One of the most remarkable home records in world football also stands to help Shakhtar, who have lost fewer than 10 home matches in the past five years of competition.

7. Zenit St. Petersburg Flop Spectacularly

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    Zenit St. Petersburg seemingly announced themselves as "players" in the summer transfer window when they splashed out £64 million to sign Hulk and Axel Witsel (per BBC Sport).

    The Russian giants—who make for more than interesting reading—had hoped that their new signings would give the club enough muscle in attack to make them competitive in Europe and give the Russian Premier League some further credibility and notoriety.

    Yet things didn't quite go according to plan for Zenit.

    Their team flopped; they couldn't buy a win if they tried (which I'm sure they did). And whilst they did manage some late points to give them a more respectable total this year, they were left eliminated from the group stages of the Champions League and sent packing for the Europa League.

    Oh, and now their best player wants out of the club (per Eurosport).

6. Malaga Through Undefeated

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    With Malaga viewed as the team most likely to beat up the Barcelona and Real Madrid duopoly in La Liga this season, there was little doubt that the Spanish club could indeed make a move on the Champions League in much the same manner.

    They had lost star playmaker Santi Cazorla to Arsenal over the summer transfer window, but their squad was still vastly talented and would be tough to break down throughout midfield.

    What we got was a Malaga side that went undefeated through their six group-stage matches despite resting several players for their remaining two fixtures against Zenit St. Petersburg and Anderlecht, topping their group in the process.

    Malaga are just one of four teams undefeated in the Champions League, something that few would have predicted at the start of the tournament.

5. Manchester City Eliminated and Winless

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    We all knew that English champions Manchester City would have a tough time in the Champions League when they were drawn into the same group as three other champions. But even then, it wasn't completely unreasonable to suggest that Roberto Mancini's men could still progress in the tournament.

    Ajax weren't going to be ridiculously difficult, and whilst Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid were strong, City always play well at the Etihad Stadium and had improved on last season's team, which clinched the Premier League title.

    So progression wasn't completely out of the equation—that is, not until the Citizens actually took to the field and showed us just how far off the pace they really are.

    They lost all three matches away from home and didn't pick up a single victory in their six group-stage matches, finishing with fewer points than Ajax for the tournament.

4. Celtic Beat Barcelona

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    Celtic's victory over Barcelona is easily the most incredible individual team performance in the Champions League group stage this season, and it will no doubt go down as one of the most remarkable upsets in European football history.

    After all, it was lowly Celtic against the might of Barcelona, who had won 23 of their past 27 matches across all competitions and were undefeated in La Liga.

    The might of the Blaugrana was in full force when the pair met in Scotland, with the Spanish giants playing for a spot in the final 16 of the competition—dominating nearly every statistic imaginable, according to WhoScored.

    Everything except goals scored, that is. The numbers below don't do justice to just how incredible a victory this was. Perhaps this is a better representation of it all.

    Celtic Barcelona
    Time in possession 16 percent 84 percent
    Pass completion 61 percent 91 percent
    Total shots 5 25
    Shots on target 3 8
    Hit woodwork 0 2
    Blocked shots 1 7
    Attacking corners 2 7

3. Borussia Dortmund Top Group D

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    Borussia Dortmund announced themselves as genuine threats in the Champions League last season with a German double over Bayern Munich, winning both the Bundesliga and German Cup with a strong squad of players and one of the toughest venues in world football.

    The likes of Robert Lewandowski, Mario Gotze and Marco Reus had the German side poised for a strong year this season, and whilst we didn't quite understand how strong they were with a 1-0 win at home over Ajax, we were about to find out just how good Dortmund truly are.

    Wins over Real Madrid and Manchester City and away draws to both clubs had the German giants fitting in first place after the group stage, undefeated in that time and victorious over every "champion" team that they played in their group.

    Are they the favorites for the title? Maybe not outright, but they're definitely in the discussion as one of the teams to beat, having already beaten a group of champions.

2. Celtic Qualify

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    As amazing as it is to see Borussia Dortmund qualify atop Group D, it is even more surprising to see lowly Celtic book their spot in the final 16 of the competition.

    After progressing through the third qualifying round and the tournament playoffs, Celtic won their way through a difficult group—notably featuring Spanish giants Barcelona—and showed tremendous courage and self-belief to reach the knockout rounds of the European competition.

    Hoops manager Neil Lennon was obviously ecstatic with their progression through to the final 16, as evidenced in comments he made after their 2-1 victory over Spartak Moscow (per UEFA.com).

    It means a hell of a lot to the club. It is a monumental effort on our behalf. To be at the big table in the New Year is a phenomenal effort.

    Now we are more than just the team who beat Barcelona—we are the team who beat them and qualified [for the final 16]. This is the premier event, the toughest of the tough. No one gave us a prayer going into this group.

    This is the best night of my career as manager of this club.

1. Chelsea Eliminated

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    The biggest surprise has to be that Chelsea were eliminated from their group, not making it to the final 16 of the competition.

    The Blues have one of the most talented rosters in world football but were unable to find goals and defensive solidity when they needed it most, finishing in third place behind the likes of Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk in their group.

    Their elimination comes as an even bigger shock considering that only six months ago, they were holding high the Champions League trophy in Munich. 

    Chelsea become the first defending champion to be eliminated in the group stages the following year—a record that nobody involved with the club will want to mention.

    Especially not Roberto Di Matteo.

    What did you think was the biggest surprise of the UCL group stage?

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