It seems that English clubs like taking the tough route in the Champions League, don’t they?
In 2002/03, Newcastle lost their first three games in the first group stage, then rallied to win their last three matches and qualify for the second group stage.
The very next year, Arsenal picked up only one point from their first three group matches, then won the last three to not only qualify for the round of 16, but win the group.
In 2004/05, Liverpool went into Matchday 6 needing a comprehensive victory over Olympiakos to reach the round of 16. The Reds were behind 1-0 at halftime and even though they equalized quickly after the restart, were set to miss out until goals in the last ten minutes from Neil Mellor and Steven Gerrard.
This time around, Rafa’s Reds found themselves in the same position, needing a win on Matchday 6 to move on to the knockout round. After Matchday 3, Liverpool looked dead, but two wins kept their qualifying hopes alive heading into Tuesday night’s match with Group A foe Marseille.
But, as opposed to doing it the hard way as they did against Olympiakos, Liverpool thought they’d put the result beyond doubt early on to get a headstart on their celebrations. Just over three minutes in, it was 1-0 in favor of the visitors, after Steven Gerrard bundled home the rebound after his penalty was saved. Less than eight minutes later, it was 2-0, after Fernando Torres found the back of the net for his third Champions League goal and 12th overall of the campaign. A shell-shocked Marseille had no reply for Liverpool’s dominance, and a 4-0 victory for Rafa’s Reds was more than enough to send them through to the round of 16.
After finding the net twice in their first three group matches, Liverpool scored 16 goals in defeating Besiktas, Porto, and Marseille to advance. Manchester United are next in a big league encounter on Sunday, and it was important for Liverpool to put in the performance they did in France, as it kicks the biggest stretch of the early season off on the right foot. And, with the Reds safely through in the CL, maybe some of the pressure can finally start to come off of Rafa Benitez, after all of the recent speculation about his future.
In the other match in the group, Porto sealed qualification and the group’s top spot with a 2-0 win over Besiktas.
In the end, you could say that things went as they should have in Group A, with the two best sides in the group advancing, though potentially in reverse order.
In Group B, Schalke sent Rosenborg home disappointed, as a 3-1 victory sent the German side through to the round of 16 and relegated the Norwegians to the UEFA Cup.
Rosenborg were in pole position to qualify for the knockout round with Chelsea after being on seven points following wins over Valencia on Matchdays 3 and 4, but lost their final two group matches by a count of 7-1 to miss out.
All four goals were scored in the first 36 minutes, as Schalke went out to a 2-0 lead inside the first 20 minutes, and after Rosenborg pulled one back, Kevin Kuranyi scored in the 36th to put a comeback beyond the visitors’ reach.
Chelsea and Valencia played out to a 0-0 draw in a match that was rendered meaningless, both by Chelsea already having clinched the group, and because Schalke’s triumph over Rosenborg, Valencia’s faint hopes of making the UEFA Cup went up in smoke.
In Group C, all four sides entered Tuesday with a chance to qualify, but it would be the two sides who entered Matchday 6 on top of the group that would book their places in the round of 16.
Lazio still had a glimmer of hope, but it was completely dashed inside the first 15 minutes at the Bernabeu, as goals from Julio Baptista and the revitalized Raul put Real Madrid up 2-0, and the nine-time champions cruised to the knockout round with a 3-1 victory, thereby also sending Lazio crashing out of European competition.
In the other tie in the group, Olympiakos were intent on overturning their heartbreak from three years ago, as they needed only a point from their home tie with Werder Bremen to reach the round of 16.
And, they would get more than they needed, as Lady Luck shone on the Greek side, and especially on Ieroklis Stoltidis, who opened the scoring in the 12th minute, and then, after Darko Kovacevic put Olympiakos 2-0 up in the 70th minute, put the polish on with a goal less than four minutes later. Werder threw all they could, sending a flurry of shots at Antonios Nikopolidis, but none past him, and when the final whistle blew, the Greek champions had a 3-0 victory and a ticket to the knockout round, while Werder were left with the consolation of the UEFA Cup.
Group D was already decided last week, as Celtic qualified for the knockout round with group winners AC Milan by virtue of Benfica’s 2-1 away win against Shakhtar.
On Wednesday night, the focus will be on Groups E and G, where the only two remaining places in the round of 16 are to be decided. Rangers and Lyon battle it out in Glasgow to decide second place in Group E, and in Group G, Fenerbahce welcomes CSKA Moscow to Istanbul, with a win assuring their place in the next round, with anything less giving PSV a chance to go through with a victory over group winners Inter.