Bayern Munich ruthless, group stage MVP, plus dark horse teams

The 2022-23 Champions League group stage is complete and there was no shortage of drama, goals and mayhem. FC Bayern Munich had a perfect record, Tottenham Hotspur narrowly reached the knockout stage and Club Brugge made it through 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 straight season.

Our writers James Olley, Julien Laurens and Alex Kirkland answer some of the big questions arising from this week’s games.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (USA)

What did you notice on matchday six?

Oley: Bayern Munich’s ruthless group stage record. The Bundesliga giants became the first team to win all six group games three times in a row this week. They have done that in the past four seasons with an overall result of 64:10 – and not against minnows either: Bayern have been dealing with Barcelona (twice), Inter Milan, Tottenham and Benfica during this time. In contrast, a special mention for Rangers, who emerged as the worst team in Champions League group stage history, posting the all-time worst goal difference (-20) of any team to lose all six games.

Laurens: Benfica’s incredible away win at Maccabi Haifa pushes Paris Saint-Germain to the top of the group. The Portuguese club was one of the best teams of this round but they started the night in second place with the same points total as PSG but +4 goal difference to Paris’ +8. 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, closing the goal difference and beating PSG on away goals . Benfica manager Roger Schmidt and his players celebrated on the pitch when it was confirmed they finished first, meaning they will not play any of the other group winners in the round of 16 draw.

Kirk Country: Celtic had nothing to play at the Bernabeu on Wednesday – they were already certain they would finish bottom of Group F – but that didn’t stop 8,000 fans from traveling to Real Madrid to enjoy the occasion. Officially had just over 2,000 tickets, but there were many more at the stadium. Their vociferous enthusiasm was only slightly dampened when Luka Modric fell behind early in the sixth minute as a reckless Madrid scored five goals – the outstanding Fede Valverde contributed a goal from distance and an assist reminiscent of the one he had delivered last season’s Champions League final – before Jota rewarded the away fans with a late free-kick to end the game 5-1.



Janusz Michallik reacts to Real Madrid’s comfortable win over Celtic to top Champions League Group F

Which team is the dark horse in this year’s knockout stages?

Laurens: Eintracht Frankfurt are the surprise contenders in the round of 16 and it’s an amazing story. They are the right dark horses with nothing to lose. Everything is now a bonus for the 2022 Europa League winners. They have a great unit, great team spirit, are hard to beat tactically and have great talents like Randal Kolo Muani, Evan N’Dicka or Jesper Lindstrom, experienced players like Mario Götze or Kevin Trapp. They play intensely and could cause problems for many clubs with their quick changes in attack.

– Ogden: Shakhtar’s Champions League dream is over, but their resilience makes them winners

Kirk Country: Does a team that tops Serie A – and led Group A ahead of last season’s beaten finalists Liverpool – count as a dark horse? Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli have already garnered so many admirers this season and the likes of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Giacomo Raspadori and Stanislav Lobotka are among the most watchable players in Europe. No one will want to meet them in the round of 16. Otherwise, Porto looked good and managed a remarkable turnaround in Group B, recovering from back-to-back defeats in their first two games and winning four in a row, scoring 11 goals and conceding just one.

Oley: It might seem strange to label AC Milan as ‘dark horses’ having won the competition seven times, but this is their first knockout stage appearance since 2014. They managed to do so in a group with Chelsea winners – Finishing second in 2021 – despite battling a serious injury list for much of the group stage. Winger Rafael Leao understandably draws keen interest from some of Europe’s powerhouses, but they have plenty of talent and Stefano Pioli’s young group has room for further improvement as the tournament progresses.



Craig Burley slams Atletico Madrid’s ‘archaic’ football after they fell out of the Champions League and also missed out on a Europa League spot.

Atletico finished bottom of the table for the first time in their history. Is the Diego Simeone era coming to an end?

Kirk Country: Isn’t it always? Midseason crises have become a regular occurrence at Atletico. The team collapses, Simeone comes under pressure, they bounce back, finish top four in LaLiga and qualify for the Champions League, and so on. But despite having had European disappointments before – in 2017 they were eliminated in the group stage – it has never been so bad. That year they won the Europa League. Now there is no European football at all. Rock-solid, supremely cynical Atletico, having contested two Champions League finals, feels like ancient history. This latest version is fragile on defense and not clear enough on offense. Rebuilding a successful team could be Simeone’s greatest test yet.

Oley: Atlético are in the midst of an identity crisis that is now being exacerbated by leaving Europe in this humiliating manner. A team built on tenacious, relentless defensive discipline has scored nine goals in the group stage and 12 in as many LaLiga games so far. Simeone has previously spoken about making Atletico a more expansive team but they seem caught between who they were and who they want to be, a situation unsupported by Joao Felix, who has his price tag largely unfair. It doesn’t have to be the end of an era, but Simeone must either drive a real evolution or bring this Atletico team back to the principles that have allowed them to beat their weight for so long.

Laurens: The cycle has been over for some time. The league title two years ago was only thanks to the magic of Luis Suarez in the first half of the season and Jan Oblak in the second half. Simeone’s tactics are from another era and with the current squad he has available it’s a shame they only won one game in a group with Brugge, Bayer Leverkusen and Porto. It’s also humiliating to finish bottom of the table and miss out on the Europa League spot. The end of the season would be the perfect time to start a new chapter and part ways with Simeone, who is under contract until June 2024. Instead, a contract extension is being discussed.

Who is your MVP in the group stage?

Oley: Napoli has exceeded all expectations at home and abroad this season, and Kvaratskhelia is fast becoming one of the hottest hotels in Europe. The Serie A side reportedly paid just €10m to land the 21-year-old from Dinamo Batuni this summer, but he has excelled on the Champions League stage, making five appearances in a string of dynamic and exciting ones Accomplishments Scored two goals and three assists. Real Madrid, Liverpool and Chelsea are just three of the clubs eyeing the Georgian winger ahead of a potential move next summer.

Laurens: Even though PSG finished second behind Benfica, Kylian Mbappe excelled. He scored seven goals (his best tally in a group stage), including some beauties like the first against Juventus in Paris, and he also provided three assists. At 23 and 317 days, he became the youngest player ever to score 40 goals in the competition, beating Lionel Messi’s record. And despite all the excitement about him and his future in recent weeks, he played at the top level in this group stage.

Kirk Country: Forgive the lack of originality, but: Messi. Four goals, four assists and a thriving, lethal partnership with Mbappe. Messi is back playing with the best footballers of his career and now looks calm and perfectly comfortable at Paris Saint-Germain. This could finally be her year. Bayern Munich ruthless, group stage MVP, plus dark horse teams

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