The 2022-23 Champions League group stage is all wrapped up, and there was no shortage of drama, goals and chaos. Bayern Munich achieved a perfect record, Tottenham Hotspur narrowly clinched qualification into the knockouts and Club Brugge made it out of the group stage for the first time in their history.
Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid were embarrassed after finishing last in their group, Rangers ended with the worst record in a group stage, and Barcelona are back in the Europa League for the second consecutive season.
Our writers James Olley, Julien Laurens and Alex Kirkland answer some of the big questions arising from this week’s games.
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Bayern Munich finished the group stage with a perfect record for the third time in four years. S. Mellar/FC Bayern via Getty Images
What caught your attention from matchday six?
Olley: Bayern Munich’s remorseless group stage record. The Bundesliga giants this week became the first team to win all six group matches on three separate occasions. They’ve done it in the past four seasons, too, with an aggregate score of 64-10 — and not against minnows either: Bayern have faced Barcelona (twice), Inter Milan, Tottenham and Benfica among others in that time. By contrast, a special mention for Rangers making a strong case as the worst team in Champions League group stage history, racking up the worst-ever goal difference (-20) of any team to lose all six matches.
Laurens: Benfica’s incredible win away at Maccabi Haifa to pip Paris Saint-Germain to top spot in the group. The Portuguese club have been one of the best teams of this round, but they started the night in second place with the same amount of points as PSG but +4 of goal difference against Paris’ +8. At 1-1 at half-time in Israel, it didn’t look like they could do it but they had an amazing second half to win 6-1, bridging the goal-difference gap and beating PSG on away goals scored. Benfica coach Roger Schmidt and his players celebrated in style on the pitch when it was confirmed that they had finished top, meaning they will avoid facing any of the other group winners in the draw for the round of 16.
Kirkland: Celtic had nothing to play for at the Bernabeu on Wednesday — they were already certain to finish bottom of Group F — but that didn’t stop 8,000 fans from traveling to Real Madrid to enjoy the occasion. Officially, just over 2,000 had tickets, but there were many more dotted around the stadium. Their noisy enthusiasm was only slightly dampened by going behind early to Luka Modric’s sixth-minute penalty, as a ruthless Madrid scored five times — the outstanding Fede Valverde contributing a long-range goal and an assist that was reminiscent of the one he provided in last season’s Champions League final — before Jota rewarded the away fans with a late free kick to see the game end 5-1.
Janusz Michallik reacts to Real Madrid’s comfortable win over Celtic to top Group F in the Champions League.
Which team is the dark horse in this year’s knockout stages?
Laurens: Eintracht Frankfurt are the surprise entrants in the round of 16, and it is an amazing story. They are the proper dark horses with nothing to lose. Everything is a bonus now for the 2022 Europa League winners. They have a great unit, amazing team spirit, are tactically hard to beat and have great talents like Randal Kolo Muani, Evan N’Dicka or Jesper Lindstrom, experienced players like Mario Gotze or Kevin Trapp. They play with intensity and could cause problems for many clubs with their quick attacking transitions.
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Kirkland: Does a team that’s top of Serie A — and topped Group A ahead of last season’s beaten finalists Liverpool — count as a dark horse? Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli have won so many admirers already this season, and players such as Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Giacomo Raspadori and Stanislav Lobotka are among the most fun to watch in Europe. Nobody will want to meet them in the round of 16. Otherwise, Porto looked good pulling off a remarkable turnaround in Group B, recovering from back-to-back losses in their first two games to win four in a row, scoring 11 goals and conceding just one.
Olley: It may seem odd to describe AC Milan as “dark horses” given they have won the competition on seven occasions, but this is their first appearance in the knockout stages since 2014. They managed to finish second in a group containing Chelsea — winners in 2021 — despite battling a severe injury list for much of the group stage. Winger Rafael Leao is understandably attracting major interest from some of Europe’s powerhouses, but they possess talent in abundance and Stefano Pioli’s young group have room for further improvement as the tournament progresses.
Craig Burley slams Atletico Madrid’s ‘archaic’ brand of football after they crashed out of the Champions League and also missed out on a Europa League spot.
Atletico finished bottom of their group for the first time in their history. Is the Diego Simeone era coming to an end?
Kirkland: Isn’t it always? Midseason crises have become a regular event at Atletico. The team slump, Simeone comes under pressure, they bounce back to finish in the top four in LaLiga and qualify for the Champions League, and on it goes. But while they’ve had European disappointments before — dropping out at the group stage in 2017 — it’s never been this bad. That year they won the Europa League. Now there’s no European football at all. The rock-solid, supremely cynical Atletico that played two Champions League finals feels like ancient history. This latest version is fragile in defence and lacks clarity in attack. Building a winning team again might be Simeone’s biggest test yet.
Olley: Atletico are in the midst of an identity crisis, now exacerbated by exiting Europe in this humiliating fashion. A team founded on dogged, tireless defensive discipline shipped nine goals in the group stage and 12 so far in as many LaLiga games. Simeone has previously spoken about trying to make Atletico a more expansive team but they seem caught between what they were and what they want to be, a situation not aided by Joao Felix largely failing to live up to his price tag. It doesn’t have to be the end of an era but Simeone either has to drive genuine evolution or return this Atletico team to the principles that enabled them to punch above their weight for so long.
Laurens: The cycle has been over for a while. The league title two years ago was only due to the magic of Luis Suarez from the first half of the season and that of Jan Oblak in the second half of that campaign. Simeone’s tactics are of another time and with the current squad he has at his disposal, it is a disgrace that they only won one game in a group featuring Brugge, Bayer Leverkusen and Porto. To finish bottom of the table and miss out on the Europa League place is humiliating, too. The end of the season would be the perfect time to start a new chapter and for the club to part ways with Simeone who is under contract until June 2024. But instead, they are talking about extending his deal.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia is turning heads with his performances this season, attracting attention from Europe’s top clubs. (Photo by ANP via Getty Images)
Who is your group stage MVP?
Olley: Napoli have exceeded all expectations at home and abroad this season, and Kvaratskhelia is rapidly becoming one of Europe’s hottest properties. The Serie A side reportedly paid just €10m to acquire the 21-year-old from Dinamo Batuni this summer but he has excelled on the Champions League stage, registering two goals and three assists from five appearances in a series of dynamic and exhilarating performances. Real Madrid, Liverpool and Chelsea are just three of the clubs tracking the Georgian winger ahead of a possible big-money move next summer.
Laurens: Even if PSG finished second behind Benfica, Kylian Mbappe has been outstanding. He scored seven goals (his best record in a group stage) including some beauties like the first one against Juventus in Paris and he gave three assists as well. At 23 and 317 days, he became the youngest player ever to reach 40 goals in the competition, beating Lionel Messi’s record. And despite all the agitation around him and his future in the last few weeks, he has been playing at a top level throughout this group stages.
Kirkland: Forgive the lack of originality, but: Messi. Four goals, four assists and a blossoming, deadly partnership with Mbappe. Messi is back to playing some of the best football of his career, and now looks settled and entirely comfortable at Paris Saint-Germain. This could finally be their year.