Every year the UEFA Champions League never seems to provide a shortage of entertainment. With the group stage coming to an end this week, the annual European soccer tournament is must-see for soccer fans across the globe. After tomorrow the field of 32 teams will be sliced in half down to 16. With Groups E, F, G, and H concluding group play today, we now have a pretty good idea of what teams will be participating in the Round of 16 come February. Coming into today there were 8 teams already through to the knockout stage and 6 more of those spots were taken with just 2 more up for grab in tomorrow's matches.
Starting with Group E, Liverpool, Napoli, and Red Bull Salzburg were all in contention for the top two spots. A win for Napoli would get them through and that is exactly what they did dominating Genk and earning a 4-0 win to punch their ticket into the knockout stage. Meanwhile, in the other game in the group between Liverpool and Red Bull Salzburg it was a much closer game. Liverpool needed a draw while Salzburg needed a win to have any chance of advancing. It did not come easy for Liverpool for a while until Naby Keita and Mo Salah both scored in the 57th and 58th minute, respectively. With this 2-0 win Liverpool topped Group E with 13 points. Napoli finished runners-up in the group 1 point behind Liverpool. Red Bull Salzburg will now play in the Europa League with their 3rd place finish.
Shifting to Group F or what many considered the "Group of Death" when the draw came out, Barcelona already clinched 1st but it was still undecided on whether it would be Borussia Dortmund or Inter Milan moving on to the knockout stage. What Inter Milan needed to do to ensure a 2nd place finish was match or better Dortmund's result. Dortmund had to better Inter's result because despite both teams being level on points heading into the final game, Inter had the tiebreaker. Dortmund beat Slavia Prague 2-1 as expected. Inter on the other side, needed a win to go through because of Dortmund's result. Barcelona is a very good team but because they already clinched 1st place in the group, many unfamiliar names were in the lineup and Lionel Messi did not even make the trip to Italy. Due to Barcelona not having their best squad on the field and this game meaning practically nothing for them, it did not seem like too tough of a task for Inter to get a win and book their spot into the Round of 16. This wasn't the case as the ball just couldn't seem to find the back of the net after plenty of great opportunities for them to score. It was an 86th minute game-winning goal from 17 year old Ansu Fati that got Barcelona the win and eliminated Inter Milan from the competition. Inter will now have to play in the Europa League after their 3rd place finish and Dortmund are the ones moving on.
In Group G, RB Leipzig were already through before the day with Zenit and Lyon both having a chance to either finish 1st or 2nd in the group. Leipzig would win the group with just a draw. Zenit needed a win against Benfica and Lyon needed a draw at Leipzig with help elsewhere. Leipzig did indeed draw Lyon 2-2 which meant a 1st place finish for them and a 2nd place finish for Lyon since Zenit lost to Benfica 3-0 in what turned out to be a disappointing night for them. Leipzig and Lyon move on while Zenit will go down to Europa League.
Group H was arguably the most exciting group entering the final game today. Valencia and Chelsea would go through with a win and Ajax would go through with a draw. Chelsea took care of business in their game with a 2-1 win over Lille to advance to the knockout stage. In the other game, Valencia did what they needed to do which was get a win against Ajax with a final score of 1-0. Even though Ajax were in 1st place heading into today's game, the loss dropped them down to 3rd place and knocked them out.
Looking ahead to tomorrow's games, PSG, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Tottenham, Manchester City and Juventus have already clinched their spot into the knockout round. There are now just 2 spots remaining and it will be fun to find out which 2 teams will claim those final spots into the knockout stage. The draw for the Round of 16 will be on Monday and just by looking at the teams who have already advanced, we are guaranteed to be in for some great matchups. The Champions League is once again providing the entertainment that all soccer fans love to see year after year.