After 12 enthralling nights of action, the Champions League group stage came to an end on Wednesday night, as the last two places in the round of 16 were decided.
The headline match of the night was in Group E, where Rangers and Lyon squared off at Ibrox to decide who would join group winners Barcelona in the round of 16.
Rangers were the favorites to go through, needing only a draw and coming in with an excellent home record. However, Lyon was looking to maintain a streak of successive trips to the round of 16 that dates back to 2003/04, but their road was a little tougher, as it was three points or bust.
Records and history were thrown out of the window from the opening whistle, as Lyon showed their intent from the outset, and Rangers appeared as if they were already beaten from the word go.
Lyon squandered an early chance, just minutes in, as Sidney Govou missed an absolute sitter with the net beckoning.
But, Govou would make up for it shortly after, when he struck home the rebound of a Karim Benzema shot to put the French champions 1-0 up on 16.
Following that goal, Lyon had numerous chances to increase their advantage, but as the match wound down, the home side were one brilliant or lucky moment away from nicking the precious equalizer they needed.
Rangers had plenty of possession throughout the match, but rarely made anything come of it, and when their best chance came, they were unsurprisingly wasteful with it.
Lyon should have sewn the game up on 80 when Benzema rounded Rangers ‘keeper Alan McGregor in the area and had an open net in front of him, but Carlos Cuellar momentarily saved the day by getting in front of the starlet’s goal-bound shot.
Cuellar’s heroics would have been made legendary moments later when Rangers produced their best chance of the night, as Barry Ferguson sent an excellent cross to the far post to substitute Jean-Claude Darcheville, who was right in front of an open goal, but his nerves must have hit him at the wrong time, as he amazingly fired high instead of low, inexplicably missing what might have been the easiest chance he might ever get in his career.
That moment alone may have been enough to signal that it was not to be Rangers’ night, but Benzema, who had wasted a few chances of his own, drove the dagger through the hearts of the Rangers faithful with goals in the 85th and 88th to put the finishing touches on a deserved win for Lyon.
The 3-0 triumph was the culmination of a great fight back for the Ligue 1 powers, who were on the outside looking in after a poor start to their European campaign. After dropping their first two group matches, Lyon picked up three victories and a draw in their last four to finish second behind Barcelona with 10 points. As for Rangers, they’re left to think about what could’ve been, as they picked up only one point from their last three matches to miss out on joining their Glaswegian rivals in the round of 16.
In the other match in the group, VFB Stuttgart had little to play for besides pride at the Camp Nou, but it looked like the Bundesliga champions might go out of Europe on a high note after taking the lead in the third minute.
However, that lead would not hold, as the home side leveled in the 36th through Giovanni. And, in the end, Barcelona’s class shown through in the end, as Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho scored in the second half to take the 2005/06 champions to a comprehensive 3-1 win.
The only thing up for debate in Group F was whether or not Manchester United would pull off the rare feat of going through group play unbeaten and untied, as the group winners had won their first five matches heading into their curtain closer away to Roma.
And, the chances for a perfect run looked good after Gerard Pique scored shortly after the half-hour, but Alessandro Mancini’s 71st minute equalizer meant that United had to settle for 16 points, which was still the highest total of any side.
At the other end of the spectrum was Dynamo Kiev, who completed the just-as-rare feat of going pointless in the group stage, after Sporting handed the Ukrainian side a 3-0 defeat in Portugal.
The other group where there was something to play for was Group G, where it was down to Fenerbahce and PSV for the second round of 16 place, as Inter had already sealed the top spot in the group.
Fenerbahce went into their home tie with CSKA Moscow knowing a win would seal their place in the round of 16, regardless of the result of the PSV vs. Inter match in Holland.
However, the Turkish champions found themselves 1-0 down on the half-hour, when Edu Dracena put the ball in his own net. But, order was restored within mere moments, as Brazilian midfielder Alex leveled in the 32nd.
The hero of the night would be Ugur Boral, in his first Champions League appearance of the campaign, who put the home side ahead in first-half injury time, and then wrapped up the historic victory with a powerful header in the waning moments, setting off wild celebrations at Sukru Saracoglu Stadium.
As it happens, even if Fenerbahce had gone down in defeat, they still would have advanced, as Julio Cruz’s 64th minute goal gave Inter a 1-0 win over PSV. The last few days haven’t been kind to the reigning Dutch champions, who lost their lead atop the Eredivisie on Friday and then saw their dream of advancing in the Champions League disappear.
In Group H, all was decided with the exception of the group winner. Sevilla went into Matchday 6 on top after their 3-1 win over Arsenal two weeks ago, but needed to win away to Slavia Prague to secure the top spot, with the Londoners two points behind and with an easy home tie against Steaua Bucharest.
Through more than an hour, it appeared as if Sevilla would have to settle for second, as it was 0-0 in Prague and 2-0 in favor of Arsenal at the Emirates.
But, Fredi Kanoute’s 66th minute goal opened the floodgates, and Sevilla sealed a group win with an impressive 3-0 victory. Arsenal finished Steaua off to the tune of a 2-1 scoreline, but they are the ones who have to settle for second, which means a little tougher matchup in the round of 16.
The last three months of group action have been filled excitement, surprises, and goals, goals, and more goals (and a few nice saves).
What will the round of 16 bring? The draw, which will held on the 21st, will be full of must-see matchups between the best sides still standing in Europe. Unfortunately, we’ll all have to twiddle our thumbs and enjoy domestic action for the next few months, but it will certainly be worth it.