Milan erases doubts with victory
AC Milan and Olympique Marseille punched their tickets tonight to the knockout round while Arsenal crashed and burned in one of the great upsets of the group stage, losing two players in the process as Sporting Braga took them apart 2-0.
Five teams are now home free -- Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Chelsea were already safely through but tonight’s results stir the pot a little bit, particularly for one London team.
But we start in France where AC Milan technically qualified thanks to a magisterial goal by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and some insurance by Ronaldinho. In reality, Milan ran Auxerre off the pitch in a far more lopsided game than a 2-0 scoreline allows.
It was only the second win for Milan in group play, and it came against a team that had been unbeaten in its last eight matches, but the fact is, stats lie. Milan were clearly dominant on the night, with Gianluca Zambrotta and Thiago Silva playing outsize roles, winning more tackles, clearing more balls, and strangling a French side that never really looked able to get into gear. Every attempt by Auxerre was met by a red wall, and every 50/50 ball was houked safely away.
Ibrahimovic started and finished his goal brilliantly, finding Seedorf, then taking the return to power the ball past a helpless Olivier Sorin to the top near corner of the net just past the hour mark. Ronaldinho took a ball from the flank courtesy of Robinho to dance the insult home in stoppage time.
Just three days after collapsing at home to Tottenham Hotspur, a tentative Arsenal came into Estadio Municipal needing just a draw to qualify. Instead, they lost captain and talisman Cesc Fabregas to a hamstring injury; then Emmanuel Eboue to a knee injury after they’d used all their subs to reduce the Gunners to ten men -- then lost 2-0 to late goals from Matheus.
In Group E, there was great drama in Rome where Claudio Ranieri's side stunned previously-perfect Bayern Munich 3-2.
Bayern's Mario Gomez, the hottest striker in Europe at the moment, ran his scoring string to six straight games and might have believed he had buried Roma in the first half. But the venerable Francesco Totti had the last word as the Serie A club scored three in the second half to complete a remarkable revival both on the night and in their current Euro campaign.
Bayern settled quickly in Rome and were 2-0 up at the interval after Gomez twice finished with precision from close range. His across-the-body strike in the 34th minute came from a Franck Ribery cross into space; his one-touch control and quick right-foot finish to a Thomas Mueller slip-pass was equally as good in the 39th. It appeared to be another easy European night for the Germans.
Then it all changed.
Marco Borriello reignited Roma hopes with a goal immediately after the restart, beating young Thomas Kraft while lying down in front of the net. It was now Roma on the attack and Kraft was absolutely brilliant with two reaction saves in the space of 30 seconds around the 55th minute as the Serie A team battled back into the match with a vengeance.
Totti came on to provide the late inspiration. First came an equalizer come from Daniele DeRossi, unmarked to tap home in the 81st minute from a John Arne Riise cross. Then it was Totti from the penalty spot, just getting his drive under Kraft's correctly-judged dive.
In the group’s other game, Federico Almerares gave FC Basel the 15th minute goal and a 1-0 victory against Cluj, which might be good enough for a Europa League slot. Basel close things out against Bayern in Munich, while Roma travel to Cluj.
In Group F, It was far too easy for Olympique Marseille in Moscow where the home side started tentatively, gave away goals and eventually exited with a whimper, 3-0, at cold Luzhniki Stadium.
Mathieu Valbuena's opener for the French was a thing of beauty, a shot on the turn in the 18th minute. It put Marseille on top before Spartak could gather itself and set the stage for a very long evening for Valery Karpin's side.
Spartak had its best spell late in the first half, but Steve Mandanda, hardly bothered much of the night, palmed away a 44th-minute cross that might have brought the Russians back into the match. When Spartak allowed Loic Remy and Brandao far too much space to shoot home in the first 23 minutes of the second half the match was over.
Strangely, it was Spartak that once again looked the uncomfortable side on the artificial turf, over-passing and failing to exert any physical pressure on the French.
Having already qualified, Chelsea appeared only mildly interested early so it was not a shock when MSK Zilina actually carried a 1-0 lead into the interval. Babatounde Bello got the goal in the 19th minute after a through ball split the defense for the scorer.
That changed in the second half. Daniel Sturridge was completely unmarked at the far post to collect a cross that cut straight through an absent Zilina defense in the 51st minute and Florent Malouda gave the Blues their fifth straight victory when he tallied in the 85th.
In Group G, Real Madrid started sharply, then turned the screw against Ajax in Amsterdam. The Dutch giants simply could not handle the speed of play or the individual challenges offered by Cristiano Ronaldo and his running mates, losing 4-0. It was a superb performance from Jose Mourinho's team, who could have been forgiven had they been thinking a bit about Monday's La Liga derby against Barcelona.
Ajax got no such benefit, however, and was under the cosh almost immediately. It was 36 minutes before Karim Benzema put Real ahead on the scoreboard, but they had been on top in every other way well before that. When it came, the goal defined football at its best: Xabi Alonso put a long pass into space, Mesut Ozil ran it down deep in the box, then back-heeled for Benzema to hit the top corner with his shot.
The second, just before the interval, was even better, Alvaro Arbeloa latching onto the rebound of a Ronaldo free kick and lashing a long-range drive into the net. The curling shot may have taken a deflection, but it was none the less in value for that.
Ajax had no way back and Ronaldo made it 3-0 when he finished in the 74th minute after the Dutch defense had been cut apart by a three-pass movement. He added another from the penalty spot as the Amsterdam club was eliminated from the knockout round by a side you would fancy to show up in next May's final.
There was a slight whiff of controversy at the end of the match as two players, Xabi and Sergio Ramos, took yellow cards deliberately to get their suspensions over with in Madrid’s meaningless match against Auxerre.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League.