Seven clubs get ready for the show
Seven teams punched their tickets to the next stage of the Champions League tonight with a game to spare.
Manchester United, Inter Milan, Tottenham, Barcelona, Schalke, Lyon and Valencia all secured their berths on a night when style carried the day.
Start with Group A and Tottenham Hotspur, the feel-good story of the year. No one expected Spurs to come out of this group given the squad’s inexperience and the demands of the Premiership -- but no one foresaw Gareth Bale becoming the Premiership’s most dominant player, either. And certainly, folks didn’t think Werder Bremen would collapse in the manner that they did.
Tonight, Bremen manager Thomas Schaff -- who, ironically, was involved in an auto accident pregame -- will be icing his wounds and getting busy clogging his fax with resumes. His team has failed to win a game in the group stage and is stinking it up in the Bundesliga to boot, staving off his firing last weekend after a miserable 4-0 loss to Schalke only because they had this quick turnaround.
Younes Kaboul needed only six minutes to put Spurs ahead at White Hart Lane tonight on an evening when Bremen were pushed and pulled like taffy, never allowed to gain any traction in a match that ended far too early for the Germans’ comfort. Goals from Luka Modric and Peter Crouch added to the scoreline, but the game was won in the center, where Modric was stunning; and out wide, where Aaron Lennon and Bale tormented Bremen incessantly.
Another manager counting his days is Rafael Benitez, who pre-game was given the dreaded vote of confidence by his bosses. His under-performing Inter Milan side won tonight against a spirited FC Twente 1-0, but it was hardly stylish, and a far closer shave than will have been comfortable for Inter partisans.
Inter entered with but a lone win in seven league games, and were humbled on the weekend by Chievo. So it’s fair to say that Estaban Cambiasso’s goal in the 55th minute, a bit of poaching after Wesley Sneijder’s free kick glanced off Marc Janko to fall fortuitously, saved Benitez’ job for the night.
In Group B, Schalke shrugged off its mediocre Bundesliga form to qualify for the next round in stunning fashion, 3-0 over Lyon. A whirlwind start left the French defenders chasing shadows and forced goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to perform heroically simply to keep the scoreline respectable. Felix Magath's team could have had four in the first 20 minutes but had to settle for two, Lloris denying Raul and Klaas Jan Huntelaar before Peruvian Jefferson Farfan opened the scoring in the 13th minute.
Huntelaar made it 2-0 seven minutes later after Peer Kluge swept into the area and crossed from the left to wrong-foot the retreating French defenders. Raul, who showed no signs of age in an impressive opening 45 minutes, had a lively part in the first goal, his shot deflecting to Farfan for the finish. Huntelaar's second of the night in the closing minutes made the final scoreline reflect the early gap between the teams.
Lyon had tried to battle back, raising its tempo, but the French lost midfielder Yoann Gourcuff to an apparent leg injury 15 minutes after the restart. As he was carried off, Lyon's hopes of reversing their poor start also departed.
The win lifted Schalke top of Group B, a point ahead of Lyon, and on the night that seemed more than fair enough. It was not a lost night for Lyon, however. They also qualified for next spring when Hapoel Tel Aviv upset Benfica.
It was the Israeli side’s first win in the Champions League group stages, and it came courtesy of a double by the club’s leading scorer, Eran Zahavi and one from Douglas da Silva. The shock 3-0 loss took Benfica out of the running, and was totally deserved on the night. Benfica squandered chance after chance, but will point to a disallowed goal and a penalty not given as the root of their woes. But the fact was the already eliminated Israelis -- who had earned their first ever point against Schalke three weeks ago -- displayed style and abandon.
United had plenty of the ball and dictated the shape of the match, but floundered around the Rangers' box and when they did get close Allan McGregor was sharp in the home side's goal. The match turned into a laborious test of Rangers' ability to stifle United's pressure with a combination of sound positioning and the ability to shut down passing lanes.
It was probably unfortunate, but there was no choice for the ref when Naismith's boot caught Fabio in the face with five minutes left and United had the penalty needed to decide the issue. United stayed top of Group C as they go forward with Valencia.
Not that United didn't deserve the three points. Rangers' attack may be enough to worry SPL sides, but it was decidedly insufficient for a team playing at home and knowing it had to take three points.
Barcelona, while not quite able to impose its authority as Real Madrid had done the night before in Amsterdam, got a spark from striker Adriano to break the deadlock in the first half in Athens and neatly sewed up the Group D top spot with a comfy 3-0 win.
The Brazilian's drive from just outside the box was turned over the net by Alexandros Tzorvas, but from the resulting corner Dani Alves pushed the ball into a ruck of players and Pedro Rodriguez finished the job in the 27th minute.
Lionel Messi, who had dazzled by walking around four defenders just before the half, got his goal after Andres Iniesta and Adriano did the approach work, the latter putting the ball on the sliding scorer's foot from wide on the left in the 63rd minute. Number three also came from Pedro, this one thanks to a neat drop-back pass from Iniesta that let Rodriguez shoot across his body to the far corner in the 69th minute.
Panathinaikos tried the occasional counter with veteran Djibril Cisse once coming close, but his breakaway shot could not beat Victor Valdes late in the opening half and for most of the night the Greeks had to be content with being able to keep Barcelona from getting into its best, fluent game.
Rubin Kazan did just enough to remain alive into the final Group D match day when they rode a Christian Noboa penalty kick past FC Copenhagen in Russia 1-0. The Ecuadorean forward made no mistake from the spot after referee Martin Atkinson spotted a Jesper Gronkjaer handball to award Rubin free kick in the second minute of first half stoppage time.
The Danes threw everything they could at the Russians in the second half but the best chance didn't come until the 93rd minute when 16-year old Kenneth Zohore had a shot beaten down by Rubin keeper Sergei Ryzhikov. That was the only time the Kazan keeper had to be special and he answered the call.
Copenhagen now will need to take points off Panathinaikos on the final night to be sure of playing next spring. Kazan, one point behind the Danes, plays at Barcelona.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League.