Farewell, Champions League group stage: Remembering the great goals, games and performances

Michael Cox, Oliver Kay and more

For more than three decades, the Champions League has featured groups of four teams battling it out to reach the competition’s latter stages. But after this week’s round of matches, the format as we know it will be gone, to be replaced by a completely different structure.

The setup of 32 clubs divided into eight groups of four (with the top two advancing to the knockout phase) will be replaced by one single league system containing all 36 qualifying sides. Teams will play eight group games rather than six, meaning they will not play everyone in the league. Half of their eight matches will be at home, half will be away.

It is all part of UEFA’s expansion of its elite club competition.

So, as this week’s slate draws one era to a close, we asked seasoned European watchers Michael Cox, Oliver Kay, Daniel Taylor, James Horncastle, Dermot Corrigan and Raphael Honigstein to reflect on some of their favourite memories since the Champions League rebrand for the 1992-93 campaign.

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Best game

Michael Cox: Barcelona 3-3 Manchester United, November 1998. Oddly, the two sides had drawn 3-3 at Old Trafford two months earlier, and the talk before this reverse fixture was along the lines of, ‘If this game is half as good, it will be a cracker…’.

But it was even better.

Sonny Anderson opened the scoring in the first minute, but United led 2-1 and 3-2 before twice being pegged back by goals from Rivaldo, the best player in the world at the time. The pick of the goals is a personal favourite — David Beckham’s forward pass was dummied by Dwight Yorke, who ran forward into attack. Andy Cole collected the ball, played it into Yorke, who played a return pass for Cole, who finished smartly. It was the perfect strike-partnership goal.

Of course, it turned out it wasn’t even United’s most famous game at the Camp Nou that season.

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Oliver Kay: I would have gone for Michael’s choice, Barcelona 3-3 Manchester United, but, for variety’s sake, I’ll switch to… Barcelona 2-2 Chelsea in October 2006, which I watched bleary-eyed in the middle of the night while on honeymoon in Australia. I was intending to steer clear of football for the whole trip, but on this one night I couldn’t sleep and I turned it on and… wow.

It was an epic game, a grudge match, high on drama, controversy and quality, including some magical moments from Ronaldinho and a brilliant Frank Lampard goal.

Daniel Taylor: Leeds United 3-3 Lazio, March 2001. In making this choice, I do acknowledge that a visit to Elland Road isn’t quite as exciting as breathing in that heady mix of cigar smoke and strong perfume at Camp Nou, San Siro, the Bernabeu and quite a few others. But this was my first season of covering Champions League nights and, as a personal memory, this was one of the standout games from a rather epic season on and off the field with Leeds.

They made it to the semi-finals and decided it would be a good idea to shave their heads before facing Valencia in that tie. The report in Spanish newspaper Marca read: “Leeds reminded me of the poor Englishmen who invented football 15 centuries ago when they cut off a Viking’s head, put it in a bag and started to kick it around… as awkward and primitive as that.”

Before that, however, there was plenty to like — a 1-0 defeat of AC Milan also comes to mind — but this draw with Lazio in the second group stage (which was ditched two years later) was the pick of the bunch. Leeds were losing twice, came back twice, went ahead through Mark Viduka just past the hour and were denied a victory by a 90th-minute free kick from Sinisa Mihajlovic.

Dermot Corrigan: The early 2000s was the really golden era for the Champions League group stages (plural), as shown by many of the above choices. In my memory at least, back then there were often three or four top-class teams with a real chance of beating each other, and always the possibility of a trophy contender being eliminated early.

For some reason, Deportivo La Coruna feature heavily in these memories, and (unfortunately for them) the men from Galicia in north-west Spain often gave their best performances of the tournament early on. The 3-2 away victory against Bayern Munich in September 2002 was particularly memorable, with Dutch striker Roy Makaay scoring a superb hat-trick.

James Horncastle: Let’s go niche. Hamburg have been in 2. Bundesliga — the second tier of German football — since 2018. But at the turn of the century, they were making their debut in the Champions League.

Their first group game in that 2000-01 season was against Juventus — the club Hamburg upset to win the 1983 European Cup final.

The match got very drunk very quickly.

It featured Zinedine Zidane and… Tony Yeboah. The Hamburg goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt put a penalty past Edwin van der Sar, establishing his reputation for scoring spot kicks in this competition (as he would do again in the future with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich). Juventus were 3-1 up, then 4-3 down going into the final couple of minutes only for Filippo Inzaghi to win a penalty, score it and complete a hat-trick.

Bizarrely, Juventus would finish bottom of an eclectic group, as Deportivo and Panathinaikos qualified for the second phase at their and Hamburg’s expense. Who would have thought Juventus’ manager that night, Carlo Ancelotti, would go on to become the most successful coach this competition has seen?

Raphael Honigstein: Chelsea 4-4 Ajax, November 2019. A bonkers encounter at Stamford Bridge managed by Frank Lampard and Erik ten Hag featured two Ajax red cards, two penalties scored by Jorginho, Kurt Zouma turning into 1986 Diego Maradona (minus the finish), a Kepa Arrizabalaga own goal (via a free kick from Hakim Ziyech), Donny van de Beek scoring (!), fantastic saves from Andre Onana (!) and a frantic equaliser from Reece James.


Best goal

Cox: Mauro Bressan’s bicycle kick from 30 yards, in off the bar, for Fiorentina against Barcelona in November 1999. It’s not simply the technique, but the fact it was scored by a midfield workhorse who otherwise enjoyed a somewhat unremarkable career.

Kay: Not necessarily the greatest goal, but it was the one that came to my mind immediately so I’m going to stick with it.

This was November 2004 and I was in A Coruna to report on Liverpool’s game the following evening, craning my neck to see the screen in a restaurant, when Ronaldinho scored an outrageous late winner for Barcelona against a great Milan team at Camp Nou, twisting away from Alessandro Nesta and then unleashing a stunning left-foot shot.

Taylor: More people should be aware of this goal. Daniel Prodan, for Steaua Bucharest, on the volley against Rangers in September 1995.

Corrigan: Sebastien Thill’s 89th-minute thunderbolt to give Sheriff Tiraspol a 2-1 win at Real Madrid in September 2021 — for the absolute joy it brought one side, and the complete silence it prompted in the stadium.

Moldovan league minnows Tiraspol were making their first (and quite possibly last) visit to the Bernabeu. The game obviously mattered more to their lesser-known players than Madrid’s team full of high-profile stars, and a 1-1 draw would probably have been a fair result.

But then Luxembourg international midfielder Thill smacked a loose ball from 25 yards past Thibaut Courtois into the far top corner. A technically fantastic goal, and a (probably) once-in-a-lifetime moment for the player and his club.

Horncastle: Does the short-lived second group stage count? If so then I’m going for Fiorentina’s Gabriel Batistuta rolling Manchester United’s Jaap Stam and powering a shot from range down Mark Bosnich’s throat in 1999-2000.

While not as spectacular, if we’re just talking about the first group stage then I’d go for the one he scored against Arsenal, at their temporary home of Wembley Stadium, that season — leaving Nigel Winterburn for dust, pushing the ball past him with his left and then hammering home from an acute angle with his right. It’s the purple headband. It’s the power. There have been better goals and wilder strikes, like Alessandro Florenzi’s for Roma against Barcelona in 2015, but I just wanted to relive some Batigol.

Honigstein: How do you say “recency bias” in Norwegian?

Erling Haaland’s acrobatic jump-stab volley against Borussia Dortmund last season is easier to remember than old gems from Raul or Rivaldo 20 years ago, granted. But don’t let that count against it. Joao Cancelo’s wonderful outside-of-the-boot cross and the Manchester City forward’s finish, at a height where eagles don’t dare fly, is an all-time classic.

 


Standout team performance

Cox: Arsenal may have been invincible in the Premier League in 2003-04, but they started their Champions League campaign with two defeats and a draw, then needed an 88th-minute Ashley Cole winner to get past Dynamo Kyiv at home.

So there wasn’t too much expectation ahead of a must-win trip to Inter Milan in the fourth group game three weeks later, especially given Arsene Wenger was without his first-choice central midfield pairing of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva, plus Lauren and Dennis Bergkamp too.

But Ray Parlour and Edu commanded the midfield zone. Nwankwo Kanu led the line superbly. Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires broke forward with tremendous pace and precision and, more than anything else, Thierry Henry produced probably his best performance in an Arsenal shirt, memorably outfoxing Javier Zanetti on the break to score a brilliant solo goal.

They won 5-1, and even the goal Inter scored took a hugely fortunate deflection. Arsenal’s best performance of their most famous season.

Kay: Again, I’m inclined to agree with Michael and again, I’m going to have to go for my second choice.

The games that come to mind all involve Barcelona — and not just Guardiola’s sides but Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ destroying Manchester United 4-0 in November 1994, Louis van Gaal’s versions thrashing Arsenal 4-2 in October 1999 and Leeds United 4-0 in September 2000, a Lionel Messi-inspired 4-0 demolition of Manchester City under Luis Enrique in October 2016, a 4-2 away win over Tottenham Hotspur under Ernesto Valverde three years later (see below).

I’ll say the 4-0 against United. It felt like watching football from another dimension.

Taylor: Barcelona 4-0 Manchester City 0, 2016-17. People tend to remember the last-16 second leg in March 2015 when Joe Hart put in the performance of his lifetime in the Camp Nou to keep the score at 1-0 and Messi subjected James Milner to the nutmeg of nutmegs.

But this follow-up 18 months on was another jarring, Messi-led reminder for City that they had a long way to go before they could hope to catch and overhaul the elite. Messi scored a hat-trick, Neymar got the other one, Luis Suarez was a constant menace and City’s goalkeeper, Claudio Bravo, suffered the ignominy of being sent off against his former club.

Pep Guardiola had been asked on the evening before the match how he, returning to the familiar territory of the Camp Nou, intended to stop Messi. He just laughed, as if it was the funniest question he had heard for some time.

Horncastle: Whatever Juventus did to make Gary Neville react like this…

Manchester United used to measure themselves against that team.

But one of the most mesmerising performances I look back on with fondness is Valencia’s 2-0 win against Liverpool in September 2002. The opening goal features some of the slickest, most penetrative one-touch passing you’ll ever see, finished by Pablo Aimar, whose euphoric celebration is that of a football aesthete high on the adrenaline of pulling off something as intricate as that.

No wonder Liverpool decided a couple of years later to appoint the man in the home dugout that night at the Mestalla — Rafa Benitez.

Corrigan: Dynamo Kyiv winning 4-0 at Camp Nou in November 1997 could be (mis)remembered as just a strange anomaly, perhaps more to do with how Van Gaal’s Barcelona were going through a bad patch.

But Kyiv were actually an outstanding side then, superbly organised and packed with excellent players (including Andriy Shevchenko, who scored a hat-trick, and Sergei Rebrov, who added the late fourth). The scoreline was no fluke, Kyiv were real tournament contenders that year.

The result and performance made sense at the time, but just seem unthinkable these days.

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Honigstein: Guardiola’s first Champions League season with Bayern (2013-14) ended with a 5–0 semi-final defeat by Madrid (4-0 at home in the second leg!) that had the Munich hierarchy doubting the Catalan’s methods. But the following season, Guardiola doubled down to produce a performance of unsurpassed quality away to Roma in the October.

Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm controlled things in the centre, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben did their thing on the flanks and Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski excelled up top. Manuel Neuer was also superb in goal. But David Alaba shone perhaps the brightest in the 7-1 win at the Olimpico, playing a novel, inverted full-back role that would become Guardiola’s second major tactical innovation after devising the ‘false nine’ for Messi at Barcelona.

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Standout individual performance

Cox: Gareth Bale for Tottenham Hotspur at home to then-European champions Inter in November 2010.

The Welshman had scored a hat-trick in the reverse fixture a couple of weeks earlier, albeit when the game was already over as a contest, so Inter knew what to expect. But they, and in particular Maicon, simply couldn’t handle him: the speed, the directness, the precision of his low crosses.

Bale became a more prolific goalscorer when playing from the right, and would score three goals in Champions League finals, one of them an all-time classic. But this version of Bale was the most exciting.

Kay: I was there for Bale’s ‘Taxi for Maicon!’ performance, Wayne Rooney’s hat-trick on his Manchester United debut, Steven Gerrard’s one-man crusade against Olympiacos and many other great games, but I really can’t look beyond Messi’s masterclass against Spurs at Wembley (while the new White Hart Lane was being built) in 2018-19.

He scored twice, hit the post twice and showed the combination of menace and creative flair that, to my mind, puts him far beyond any other living footballer.

I don’t know if it would go down in his top 10 or top 20 performances, but for anyone else, it would be number one.

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Taylor: Also Messi away against Tottenham in 2018. Like Oli says, it was just routine stuff for him at that point in his career. Even so, it was still quite something to see the way he took Spurs apart in every department, from A to Z. It was a masterclass and, crushing as it must have been, I can distinctly remember the sense of awe among Spurs fans at Wembley that night to come up against the man at the peak of his powers.

I just looked back at my match report from the time to remind myself of the details. “Spurs have been playing football since 1882,” it ended, “and in all that time, all those thousands of games, they may never have come up against anyone better.”

Horncastle: I wrote an entire section on the original Ronaldo dancing through the Spartak Moscow defence on the worst pitch I’ve seen, only to realise it came not in the Champions League but the semi-finals of the 1997-98 UEFA Cup…

But staying in the same year, it has to be Roberto Baggio coming on for Inter and turning a November game against Champions League holders Real Madrid on its head in the final five minutes. He has no ponytail. He is in this billowing, oversized Inter kit. It’s a season in which Inter go through four coaches.

Baggio enters the fray and gives Inter the lead with a scruffy goal by his standards and gets mobbed by his team-mates. He then stops a Madrid cross near his own penalty area, which is celebrated like a goal. Shortly afterwards, Ivan Campo clumsily brings him down in the box and the referee inexplicably waves play on.

But Baggio isn’t done.

Diego Simeone puts him through one-on-one with Bodo Illgner, Baggio goes around him with his right and finishes with his left. Gorgeous.

Corrigan: Juventus’ 2-0 win at Real Madrid in November 2008 might not seem so significant, given both teams easily qualified from the group, then exited in the last 16.

But Alessandro Del Piero’s magical individual display made a huge impact on everyone present. He opened the scoring with a low 25-yard drive, and sealed the victory with an unstoppable free kick over the wall and out of reach of Iker Casillas. But just as meaningful were the regular touches of class that led Madrid defenders Sergio Ramos and Fabio Cannavaro a merry dance, and made a major impression on the home crowd.

After being inches away from completing a hat-trick, Del Piero was substituted in stoppage time. The Bernabeu crowd, including a visiting Diego Maradona, rose to its collective feet to salute the beauty of his performance.

“It was unique, like winning a trophy,” Del Piero later said of the ovation.

Honigstein: It’s got to be the ‘Taxi for Maicon!’ game. Bale scored a superb hat-trick in Tottenham’s visit to Inter in October 2010, turning poor Maicon, at the time rated one of the best full-backs in the world, inside out like the finest uramaki roll.

Non-supporters might sneer that Bale’s fantastic solo effort was slightly overshadowed by the 4-3 to Inter scoreline but the result was largely immaterial. They still qualified for the knockouts, while the match went down as the night Bale announced himself to the rest of the world.


What I think about the format change

Cox: I can’t immediately see how the Swiss model will change anything for the better. It will be ‘fairer’ in terms of not drawing teams into overwhelmingly difficult groups, but then a ‘group of death’ makes for great viewing, as Newcastle United, Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint-Germain and Milan are demonstrating.

Things will be harder to follow, and some teams will have an advantage over others when playing their final game later.

Kay: Absolutely dreadful. Still not as dreadful as a ‘super league’ but a big step in that direction. More matches but less jeopardy, less excitement, less drama, less meaning — and it’s all going to compound a) the fixture congestion issue which the sport’s leading coaches are constantly highlighting and club owners are happy to ignore and b) the financial inequality between the small number of elite clubs who will make huge amounts of money from this and the large number of non-elite teams and leagues who will be left even further behind.

I love the European competitions, but this is going to be too much. The novelty will wear off. To use a tried-and-trusted analogy, I love fillet steak, but I wouldn’t want to eat it every night.

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Taylor: It’s all just part of the same old churn: more games being added, no real sense that to many people we are already at saturation point. I guess it’s something new and maybe for a while there will be a novelty value to it. Overall, though, it’s a shame the decision-makers don’t understand the principle that sometimes less is more.

Horncastle: The Champions League can tinker around with whatever format it likes. It doesn’t change the fundamental problem, which is the threat of a super league. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin believes he has fought it off and the Swiss model is a compromise.

But the super league already exists. It’s called the Premier League. The wealth gap is so large between English clubs and the rest that, over time, the competitive balance of the Champions League will be undermined. It will start to mean less.

Understanding this requires stepping outside of the English or Premier League bubble, something few people in England or the English-speaking world seem inclined to do.

Let’s see what verdict the European Court of Justice reaches on competition law. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the continent’s biggest clubs joining forces to start a new competition. My prediction is that when it comes it’ll be to rival the Premier League, not the Champions League.

Corrigan: This is clearly an attempt by UEFA to retain control of the competition, providing more money for the biggest clubs, to ward off the threat from Florentino Perez’s Super League project. That does not in itself mean it must be a bad thing, although it remains to be seen whether the new model really will bring about more meaningfully competitive games before the last 16.

The change is part of a process that makes it less likely for teams such as Deportivo, Dynamo Kyiv and Sheriff to be involved in any future standout Champions League moments.

Honigstein: A mixed bag. The biggest argument against it is the extra workload. Two more first-stage games — plus an additional play-off round before the last 16 for just under half of the teams — will put more pressure on tired legs and minds. It also remains to be seen whether the incentive of getting seeded in said play-off draw (and beyond) will be enough to maintain a sense of jeopardy and competitive tension for middling sides on matchdays six, seven or eight. It appears doubtful. More travel for clubs and supporters will also increase football’s carbon footprint.

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But playing eight sides will also be fun for audiences and fans — if they can afford to go — and the idea of seeding teams for the entire knockout stage is undoubtedly a good one. It avoids previous flaws such as the draw being lopsided and big guns meeting too early.

(Top photos: Getty Images)





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