Champions League Takeaways: Giroud’s brace puts AC Milan into the round of 16  

AC Milan's Junior Messias, left, celebrates with AC Milan's Olivier Giroud after scoring his side's fourth goal during the Champions League, Group E soccer match between AC Milan and FC Salzburg. (Luca Bruno/AP)

The group stage of the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League wrapped up this week, with the final few teams booking their spot in the round of 16.  

Among the highlights from Matchday 6 were Bayern Munich winning its sixth consecutive game and Rangers losing its sixth in a row in the Champions League, Benfica edging PSG for first place in Group H, and Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti overtaking Alex Ferguson to become the manager with the most wins (103) in the competition’s history. 

Here’s what else stood out from this week’s round of matches. 

Giroud’s brace puts AC Milan into the round of 16  

AC Milan’s long wait to get back to the knockout stage of the Champions League ended on Wednesday with an emphatic 4-0 home win over Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg to clinch second place in Group E. 

Veteran French striker Olivier Giroud was the hero of the day, scoring two goals and setting up two others to send the Rossoneri through to the round of 16 for the first time since 2013-14. According to Opta, Giroud (at 36 years and 33 days) is the oldest player to be involved in three or more goals in a Champions League match since the sports analytics company started collecting data in 2003. 

A draw at San Siro would’ve been enough to see Milan advance ahead of Salzburg, but the Italians never let up after taking an early lead through Giroud. The Frenchman was at the heart of Milan’s best moments, serving as the main reference point of an attack that gave the visitors all it could handle. With his physical strength and penchant for being in the right place at the right time, Giroud was a constant thorn in the side of Salzburg. 

Wednesday’s victory was another small step towards redemption for an AC Milan side that is truly one of the historical giants of the game, but who’ve fallen on hard times in recent years. The Serie A club was once synonymous with this competition, winning it seven times (only Real Madrid, with 13, have been crowned champions of Europe more often) while worldwide stars Marco van Basten and Paolo Maldini wore their famous red and black striped jerseys. 

Now, after nearly a decade, AC Milan finds itself back where it belongs, among the European elite contending for the richest prize in club soccer.  

“We started this project four years ago; this is the year we need to push hard. We want to be protagonists in Italy to then return to having the European dimension that Milan has always enjoyed historically,” Maldini said after Wednesday’s win. 

Canadian content: Eustáquio scores again for FC Porto 

Last week, Canadian Stephen Eustáquio scored his first career Champions League goal in FC Porto’s comprehensive 4-0 win away to Belgium’s Club Brugge in Group B. 

On Tuesday, Eustáquio, a 25-year-old from Leamington, Ont., struck again with a goal in the 24th minute that stood up as the winner in Porto’s 2-1 victory over visitors Atletico Madrid. With the three points, Porto finished first place in Group B.  

Porto’s Brazilian winger Galeno scampered down the left wing before sending a low cross across the box for Eustaquio to fire into the corner of the net just as he was being tackled by an Atletico player. 

Eustáquio is a key starter for the Canadian men’s team, with three goals and three assists in 26 appearances since he made his international debut in 2019. He’s playing with a great deal of confidence at the moment and has been more involved in Porto’s attacking play as of late, which bodes well for Canada as it prepares to kick off its World Cup campaign later this month. 

Elsewhere on Tuesday in Group B action, Cyle Larin made his Champions League debut for Brugge by coming off the bench in the 79th minute of the Belgian club’s 0-0 draw away to Bayer Leverkusen. Larin, a 27-year-old from Brampton, Ont., hasn’t featured much for Brugge this season due to injury, but the fact he was able to get some minutes on Tuesday suggests he’s turned the corner. Tajon Buchanan, another member of Canada’s World Cup squad, started and played the full 90 minutes for Brugge against Bayer Leverkusen.  

Also on Tuesday, Edmonton native Alphonso Davies came on at the start of the second half and collected an assist in Bayern Munich’s 2-0 win over visiting Inter Milan in Group C. 

FC Porto, Club Brugge and Bayern Munich all advanced to the knockout round, which means the round of 16 will feature four members of the Canadian men’s team. 

“Alphonso looks like he’s really enjoying his football this season, seems to be getting a bit more freedom. … Stephen scoring goals against big teams, he’s really evolving in his profile as a midfielder at Porto,” Canadian coach John Herdman said on Wednesday. 

Eintracht Frankfurt survives to fight another day 

The final matchday in Group D had to be one of the most memorable in recent memory in the Champions League. Both berths for the knockout round were still up for grabs with all four teams still in contention with just two points separating first and fourth place.  

Portuguese side Sporting looked to be in the clear after opening the scoring in the first half against Eintracht Frankfurt. Sporting would have advanced with a draw and Frankfurt would have been eliminated. But the German outfit scored two goals in a 10-minute span in the second half en route to a 2-1 win on Tuesday. In doing so it finished second in the group and advanced to the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in history. 

Frankfurt finished the group stage with 10 points, the best showing of any side in their first appearance in the competition since Leicester City tallied 13 points in 2016-17. It’s a remarkable achievement for Frankfurt, who have been transformed from a mid-table German team to a side earning big wins in Europe. 

The German club knocked off Real Betis, FC Barcelona, West Ham United and Rangers in succession to win last season’s UEFA Europa League. They followed that up with wins over Olympique Marseille and Sporting in the group stage of this season’s Champions League, and they will enter the round of 16 as one of the sides that opponents will hope to avoid. 

Tottenham booked its place in the next round and topped Group D with a memorable 2-1 win away to Marseille. Spurs looked to be headed out of the tournament after trailing 1-0 at halftime. Making matters worse was the fact that manager Antonio Conte was serving a suspension in the stands and star attacker Son Heung-min was subbed off after 29 minutes due to a head injury. 

But the English side valiantly fought back and levelled the score before Pierre-Emile Højbjerg scored with the last kick of the game at Stade Velodrome to seal the victory for the London-based club. 

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. TFC Republic can be found here. 

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