A wildly entertaining group stage of the 2021-22 UEFA Champions League continued this week, and it went right down to the wire with four of the last five knockout round berths claimed on the final matchday.
Wednesday’s tilt between Atalanta and Villarreal was postponed to Thursday due to heavy snow in northern Italy and will determine the last team to advance, but the stage is essentially set for next Monday’s draw at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland where the round-of-16 match-ups will be determined.
Here are some of the highlights from Matchday 6.
Barcelona bows out
FC Barcelona’s nightmarish season continued on Wednesday with a 3-0 defeat away to Bayern Munich. The loss, combined with Benfica’s 2-0 win on the road vs. Dynamo Kiev, meant the Blaugrana bowed out of the tournament in disgrace – it’s only the fourth time that Barca failed to advance out of the group stage, and the first since the 2000-01 Champions League. The odds were stacked against the Spanish giants, who are now winless in five road matches (four losses) against Bayern in the Champions League. They also had the misfortune of coming up against the hosts in a must-win game, considering the Bavarians romped to first place in Group E with six wins, outscoring their opponents 22-3 along the way.
New coach Xavi, who recently replaced Ronald Koeman, must surely be scratching his head over the current state of affairs at Barca and the mess he has inherited. Barcelona’s early elimination is yet another setback for a struggling side that has never fully recovered from the off-season departure of Lionel Messi, and currently languishes in seventh place in the Spanish league and is a whopping 16 points behind bitter rivals Real Madrid who top the table.
Canadians Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies come up big
Two Canadians will compete in the knockout round of the Champions League after Jonathan David helped Lille OSC qualify via their 3-1 road victory over German outfit Wolfsburg VfL on Wednesday. David’s slick goal in the 72nd minute stood up as the winner, and sealed first place in Group G for the reigning French league champions. David, a 21-year-old native of Ottawa, marked his Champions League debut by finishing the group stage with three goals, playing a pivotal role in helping Lille qualify for the round of 16 for only the second time in their history.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 8, 2021
David will represent Canada in the next round alongside Alphonso Davies, who was outstanding in Bayern Munich’s toppling of FC Barcelona. The Spanish side struggled to contain Davies, as the 21-year-old native of Edmonton regularly carved open the visitors’ defence with his pace and sublime dribbling ability down the flanks. It was Davies who helped deliver the knockout blow in the 62nd minute when he blazed down the left wing before expertly cutting the ball back from the end line to teammate Jamal Musiala, who scored to make it 3-0 while being surrounded by a crowd of Barcelona players.
— Tim and Friends (@timandfriends) December 8, 2021
Liverpool the class of Premier League teams
All four English clubs advanced to the knockout round of the Champions League but it was Liverpool who established itself as the class of the Premier League teams in the group stage. Drawn into a difficult group with AC Milan, Spanish Atletico Madrid and FC Porto, Liverpool topped the table with a perfect 6-0 record, capping things off with a convincing 2-1 win in Italy on Tuesday.
In doing so, Liverpool became the first English club in the competition’s history to win all six of its group stage matches in a single season. Of course, Egyptian international Mohamed Salah was the star for Liverpool in the group stage with seven goals. But it was a balanced team effort over the course of the six games from the Reds, who also received contributions from unlikely sources. Belgian forward Divock Origi scored in the win over Milan, marking his first Champions League goal in 15 games – a streak that dated back to the 2019 final.
Ajax’s Sébastien Haller makes history in group stage
Ivory Coast striker Sébastien Haller has proven to be the surprise story of this year’s Champions League, as he sits atop the scoring charts at the end of the group stage with 10 goals. By scoring from the penalty spot in Ajax’s 4-2 home win over Sporting Lisbon, Haller became only the second player in Champions League history to score in all six matches of a single group stage. The other person to do it? None other than Cristiano Ronaldo, in 2017-18 with Real Madrid.
The group stage was a huge coming out party for the 27-year-old Haller, who was making his Champions League debut this season, and who was sold to Ajax in January of 2020 after two uneventful years with West Ham United. Haller accounted for half of his team’s 20 goals in the first round, playing a major role in Ajax winning all six of its games and advancing to the knockout round after suffering back-to-back group stage exits the last two seasons.
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, click here.