The pen-ultimate round of Champions League group games threw together a number of choice ties across Europe, as the champions of England and Germany clashed and two former finalists faced off against each other in Leverkusen.
First up for Offside was Manchester City’s Group E showdown with table toppers Bayern Munich, who had already secured their passage to the Round of 16 with two games to spare.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side sat rooted to the bottom of the group after failing to win in four attempts, and drawing twice to pick up just two points from twice as many games.
Fortunately for the Premier League title-holders, Bayern were missing their captain, right-back and part-time midfield mastermind, Philipp Lahm, along with a few other personnel to offer hope to the Sky Blues. They themselves were without the suspended pair of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho however.
City’s chances of pulling off a miraculous turn around in their European fortunes appeared to be bolstered when Mehdi Benatia was sent off for bringing down Sergio Aguero in the penalty area. The Argentinian converted to resulting spot kick to make it 1-0 to the hosts after just 21 minutes.
Bayern had around 70 minutes of game left to play with only 10 men on the field, and set about putting together a performance that their coach Pep Guardiola later described as making him incredibly proud.
Even with an extra man, City couldn’t hold onto their lead. Come the 40 minute mark, Liverpool and Real Madrid old boy Xabi Alonso fired home a freekick to level the score.
Only five minutes later, Bayern went ahead through a Robert Lewandowski header to turn the game on its head with the German champions heading into the break a man down but ahead, 2-1.
In the second half, Guardiola’s men stood firm and defended well against their numerically superior hosts, and held out well until the very end of the game.
With just five minutes of regular time left to play, Aguero again was the decisive figure to find the net for City. Alonso, the veteran pass master who has garnered so many plaudits this season for his conversion into becoming a sweeper in Munich, misplayed an uncharacteristically sloppy pass, which allowed the Argentinian in.
Racing free from the visitors’ defence, Aguero honed in on Manuel Neuer, who had denied him and his countrymen World Cup glory in the summer, to slot home a late equaliser for City.
He then repeated his feat to put the hosts ahead on the 94th minute, with the score settled at 3-2 in injury time.
The hat-trick hero was then substituted for Martin Demichelis as Pellegrini looked to hold on, but almost as quickly as the defender stepped onto the field, the referee blew his whistle for full-time. City’s impossible task now looked a touch more doable.
With the three teams behind Bayern now all level on five points from five games, a potentially season-defining game against Roma now awaits.
Over in Paris, another European glamour tie was also under-way as Paris Saint-Germain hosted four-time winners Ajax of Amsterdam. L’Equipe provided the images.
The Qatar-backed Parisians made their superior budgets and individuals count against the Dutch champions, who increasingly look out-gunned in Europe regardless of their best and most noble efforts at player development and positive football.
Edinson Cavani opened the scoring on the 33 minute mark to put PSG ahead but his overall performance marked him out as the man of the match with the Uruguayan working hard to unsettle Ajax’s defenders and block off their attackers.
Frank de Boer’s team pulled one back half-way through the second half through Davy Klaassen, but the hosts again showed their class with Zlatan Ibrahimovic snatching the lead again after 78 minutes.
The Swede rolled back the years with a wonderfully taken chest down, turn and finish hard and low into the bottom corner to make it 2-1. Cavani book-ended the match with another strike on the 83 minute mark to finish things off.
It’s now between PSG and Barcelona to decide who will finish first and second in the group, with both teams having secured qualification to the knockout rounds. Enjoyably, they will decide who goes top by facing off against each other in a Group F grand finale in the final batch of games.
Chelsea were also in action away in Gelsenkirchen to face Schalke, again captured by L’Equipe.
Jose Mourinho is hoping to finally win his third Champions League title, and his first with Chelsea, this season, but in Germany he faced off against Roberto Di Matteo in the hosts’ dug out – the man who broke the Blues’ duck in this competition back in 2012.
His past record with the Londoners did little to help his situation with his present club however, with the Premier League leaders putting five past Die Knappen, The Miners, who weren’t able to dig themselves out.
Goals came first from captain John Terry, who needed just 86 seconds to score the club’s fastest ever Champions League goal with a header.
Willian then finished off a wonderfully slick team move to double their lead just before the half hour mark. Chelsea’s third came from the opposition, with Jan Kirchhoff heading into his own net a minute ahead of half-time.
Things quietened down early in the second half until Didier Drogba found the goal after 76 minutes to make it 4-0, with the Ivorian having arrived on the field 10 minutes earlier in place of Diego Costa.
The Brazil-born Spaniard, who is currently lighting up the Premier League, is still yet to score in the Champions League.
A couple of minutes after Drogba’s strike, Ramires added a flourishing fifth to confirm the result as an away day route for The Blues, which consigned Schalke to third. They must hope Chelsea have a similarly successful night versus Sporting in the next round of fixtures for the Germans to have any chance of making the Final 16.
On Wednesday night, Arsenal hosted Borussia Dortmund at the Emirates, with Marc Atkins on hand to capture the game and the occasion.
Given the Gunners recent run of form, expectations seemed low even if emotions remained high over some fans’ views on the future of manager Arsene Wenger.
Within two minutes however, Arsenal were ahead thanks to Yaya Sanogo; a player who has also come under fire from some sections of the support due to this youthfulness and relatively incomplete set of skills.
Having previously featured in 19 games without a goal, perhaps some of those complaints were justified, but his aim was true in front of the Dortmund goal this time, finishing off a one-two with Santi Cazorla before rushing to celebrate with fans.
Unlike against teams such as Anderlecht and United, Arsenal did well to stem the threat of their opponents on the counter, and appeared more prepared to keep players back rather than rush forwards.
Alexis Sanchez doubled their lead in the second half after 57 minutes with a wonderful curling shot that created many a gasp in the Emirates prior to the bursts of celebration over it hitting the back of the net.
Dortmund never quite looked themselves, especially going forward, with key personnel either missing through injury or looking out of sorts and out of form.
Some other individuals such as Shinji Kagawa were kept on the bench until later, seemingly in order to keep him fresh for the weekend’s match in the Bundesliga, where Jurgen Klopp’s team are struggling this season.
The game at the Emirates ended 2-0 come the final whistle, and as the teams left the field, Dortmund’s players moved over the advertisement hoardings to speak to and thank their away supporters.
A fantastic gesture from a side who have depended on their fans for so much during this difficult season.
In Germany, former finalists in 2004 AS Monaco travelled to face 2002 runners-up Bayer Leverkusen at the BayArena. L’Equipe were at the stadium shooting the game.
The Bundesliga outfit headed into the game at the top of Group C ahead of the Ligue 1 side by four points, and five ahead of Andre Villas Boas’ Zenit St Petersburg.
Roger Schmidt’s team were expected to continue their domination of the Group with a home win against the Monacans given their record both in Europe and their domestic league this season.
Yet that wasn’t how the match unfolded. Though the Germans looked the most likely to score, especially in the first half, Monaco were the team to score the vital, decisive goal to win it.
Substitute Lucas Ocampos had barely been on the field when Dimitar Berbatov shrugged off a couple of defenders down the right to run the ball brilliantly up the flank before laying it off to Nabil Dirar.
The Moroccan then delivered the perfect cross for Ocampos to get a foot onto for a tidy tap-in.
Monaco had the lead, and were able to hold it. Come the final whistle, the fate of Group C had been blown wide open with any of the top three able to make the knock out rounds. At least Leverkusen can be happy that they’re through to the next round, whether as group leader or runners-up once more.
Somewhere between the Principality of Moncao and the industrial centre of Leverkusen lies the Swiss city of Basel, where Real Madrid journeyed on Wednesday night.
The reigning European champions had already confirmed themselves for the Last 16 by winning four out of four in Group B, and headed to face FC Basel intent on making it five.
Marca took the pictures in Switzerland as Carlo Ancelotti’s team sought to ensure they would finish first to gain the resulting benefits in the knockout draw.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored the only goal of the game on the 35 minute mark to take him up to 71 career goals in the Champions League, putting him level with former Real striker Raul.
Basel were without giant-killing specialist Marco Streller, but they still tested Keylor Navas in the visitors’ goal, who stood firm and soaked up the few efforts that got through.
With their clean sheet secured, Ronaldo’s sole strike was enough to secure the three points and make sure that the top spot in Group B.
Offside’s final game of the week in the Champions League took place in the city where those points would be heading back to, with Atletico Madrid’s match up against Olympiakos in Group A.
Marca were again on the sidelines providing the pictures from the La Liga side’s European showdown.
Diego Simeone’s team were top ahead of the match, three points ahead of Juventus and their Greek opponents. A win would secure them qualification, but not necessarily the top spot.
Last season’s beaten Champions League finalists were almost gifted all the result by some dreadful defending by Olympiakos, who practically gave up the first two goals on a silver platter for their hosts.
A howler from the visitors’ goalkeeper left Raul Garcia with a simple tap in just nine minutes in to get the scoring under-way for the characteristically robust Spaniards who started the game well.
Mario Mandzukic then doubled their lead before the break when Alberto Botia’s mistake provided the Croatian with an easy, close-range finish. The ex-Bayern striker added another two goals in the second half to swell Atletico’s lead to 4-0 and bag himself a hat trick.
Both came in the space of three minutes just after the hour mark. First he nodded home an Arda Turan cross to make it 3-0 before securing the match ball, and Atletico’s place at the top of the table, with another header from a Gabi freekick.
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