The group stages of the 2020-21 Champions League took the feel of a decent romantic comedy: there were just enough unexpected plot twists to make you doubt how things might end, but then it all wrapped up how you expected it to all along. (As always in rom-coms, the supporting cast -- from Marcus Rashford's counter-attacking to Neymar's nutmegs, to Weston McKennie's incredible karate kick goal -- drove the film. They were the Aubrey Plaza and Mary Steenburgen to UEFA's Happiest Season. But I quickly digress.)
At different points in recent weeks, it looked as if both PSG and Real Madrid might not make it to the knockout stages. A unique twist! But in the end, we saw mostly chalk: if you look back at FiveThirtyEight's odds of advancement back before group play began, the two most likely teams to advance did so in six of eight groups. The only minor surprises: Lazio (36% of advancing before group play began) and Borussia Monchengladbach (35%) made it instead of Zenit (56%) and Inter Milan (59%), respectively.
The destination was familiar, but the journey was an interesting one. Let's look back.
The 10 most consequential matches of the group stage
Looking at FiveThirtyEight's advancement odds before and after a given matchday, we see that there were quite a few matches that flipped the odds around pretty considerably. Here are the 10 biggest swings:
Matchday 1: Zenit St. Petersburg 1, Club Brugge 2
Impact: Brugge's odds went from 28% to 51%, Zenit's from 58% to 28%
The Russian champion has struggled in the Champions League for a while now -- we'll come back to this -- and Brugge set an early tone with 19-year old Charles De Ketelaere's stoppage time winner in St. Petersburg. Zenit would never recover.
Shakhtar was the early darling of Group B, upsetting Real Madrid 3-2 in Matchday 1 and drawing with Inter a week later. But Gladbach, which had led both of its first two matches before giving up late equalizers, absolutely unloaded. Alassane Plea whipped in a hat-trick, and the group had a new underdog darling.
Matchday 3: RB Leipzig 2, PSG 1
Impact: RBL's odds went from 39% to 72%, PSG's from 67% to 48%
Few Champions League groups have ever seen the volume of plot twists that Group H put together. A 5-0 loss to Manchester United laid waste to RBL's odds of advancement, and the Red Bulls almost immediately fell behind to PSG via Angel Di Maria's sixth-minute score. But Christopher Nkunku equalized near halftime, and Emil Forsberg's 57th-minute penalty turned their Champions League campaign around.
Matchday 5: Manchester United 1, PSG 3
Impact: PSG's odds went from 62% to 99%, United's from 85% to 53%
United's odds of advancement reached 94% after wins over PSG and RBL in the first two matchdays, but a stunning away loss to Basaksehir added a little bit of doubt to the proceedings. Then, Marquinhos' go-ahead shot in the 69th minute both rescued PSG and made it so that United needed at least a point at RB Leipzig to advance. (Narrator: They didn't get the point.)
Matchday 5: Borussia Monchengladbach 2, Inter Milan 3
Impact: Inter's odds went from 14% to 47%, Gladbach's from 86% to 55%
Doubt came to both Manchester and Monchengladbach. Inter needed a win in Borussia-Park to have any hope, and got it via a Romelu Lukaku brace. The Nerazzurri had new life.
Matchday 6: Lazio 2, Club Brugge 2; RB Salzburg 0, Atletico Madrid 2
Impact: Lazio's odds went from 72% to 100%, Brugge's from 28% to 0%; Atletico's odds went from 67% to 100%, Salzburg's from 33% to 0%
As you would expect, Matchday 6 featured the largest collection of high-leverage matches even if some groups had long since been decided. All either Lazio or Atletico needed was a point in their respective final matches to advance, and while Salzburg added some intrigue by hitting the post early on and Brugge equalized in the 76th minute against Lazio, the favorites indeed advanced.
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Matchday 6: Inter Milan 0, Shakhtar Donetsk 0
Impact: Inter Milan's odds went from 47% to 0%, Borussia Monchengladbach's from 55% to 100%
Shakhtar appeared to have mixed intentions in this one. If either Inter or Shakhtar had won, they would have advanced, which provided motivation to press forward. But a draw would also assure that Shakhtar qualified for the Europa League, where it made the semifinals last year. Inter took 20 shots to Shakhtar's seven, but only four were on goal. Gladbach celebrated at the buzzer... as did Gladbach, via iPad, in Madrid.
Matchday 6: Ajax 0, Atalanta 1
Impact: Atalanta's odds went from 50% to 100%, Ajax's from 50% to 0%
Ajax needed a win to advance, and Atalanta needed only a draw. Ajax dominated the ball but managed only 12 shots on target; Ajax's Ryan Gravenberch picked up a red card in the 79th minute, and just six minutes later Luis Muriel put the match, and the bid, away.
Matchday 6: RB Leipzig 3, Manchester United 2 Impact: RBL's odds went from 48% to 100%, United's from 53% to 0%
Maybe the most tense match of the entire group stage. RBL scored twice off following some gorgeous passing in the first 15 minutes, and it appeared that Justin Kluivert's 69th-minute goal had put the match away. But United nearly pulled a Fergie special, scoring twice in three minutes and damn near equalizing with a stoppage time own goal. RBL just barely held its nerve, and United is back in the Europa League.
In terms of drama, this was good, but last year might have been better. While Groups B and H were pretty wild, last year saw Groups H (Ajax goes from 86% to 0%, and Valencia goes from 26% to 100% in the last day), C (Shakhtar and Dinamo Zagreb jockey for second place before Atalanta zooms in from out of nowhere) and G (RBL, Lyon, Benfica and Zenit were all between six and eight points heading into the final day) all seeing massive late shifts.
Man United and the front foot
The Atletico Madrid 'of years past' prevail past Salzburg
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There's not enough space here for a full United post-mortem, but it's amazing what an early goal can do for the tenor of a match. In their three group-stage wins, one against each opponent, United went ahead in the seventh, 21st and 23rd minutes; in their three losses, they fell behind in the second, sixth and 13th.
United's desired identity under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a bit of a mystery at times, but they are excellent in counterattacking situations. Once ahead, they were generally able to back in and create strong counter chances -- they averaged 0.18 xG per shot in their wins, and 0.22 in the big, Marcus Rashford-driven win over Leipzig. When they didn't have that option, though -- and they were possessing the ball against a packed defense -- they just didn't have any answers. They averaged just 0.10 xG per shot in their three losses, compared to 0.18 for their opponents (0.32 for Basaksehir). They enjoyed a higher pass completion rate and better duel and aerial success rate in their losses, and their expected assist and shot totals were similar, but they simply couldn't figure out how to crack open teams that defended deep and in numbers.
It's a similar story in Premier League play, by the way. While teams average 0.14 xG per shot when ahead, 0.13 when tied and 0.12 when behind, United's averages are more pronounced: 0.15, 0.13 and 0.09, respectively. These might not seem like big differences, but they add up significantly over time. Put another way, if United couldn't crack Crystal Palace's defense open when behind, they probably weren't going to have a ton of success doing it against PSG.
La Liga is laboring
Were Lazio lucky to qualify for the knockout stage?
Mina Rzouki explains how Lazio nearly missed out on qualification in their match against Club Brugge.
Both La Liga and the Bundesliga advanced all four of their teams to the Champions League knockouts, but the mood seems pretty different among the two. In the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund both won their groups as they were favored to do -- Bayern hasn't lost a Champions League match in 21 months and counting -- while RBL came back to pass United, and underdogs 'Gladbach advanced for the first time since group play came into existence.
Fair or not, the achievement was a bit muted for La Liga. Barcelona advanced in an impossibly easy group, but got rocked by Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus in Matchday 6 to finish an unexpected second. Sevilla advanced from a surprisingly easy Group E, but were outscored 4-0 in two matches with group winner Chelsea. Real Madrid won Group B, but had only a 70% chance of advancing, per FiveThirtyEight, heading into the final matchday. This was unheard-of uncertainty for a club that has never failed to advance; in the past four seasons, their odds of advancing after Matchday 5 were 100%, 100%, 100% and 100%.
Finally, Atletico had to sweat out a comeback win over RB Salzburg in Matchday 2 and could only manage a draw against what amounted to Bayern's B team in Matchday 5. (They got stomped by Bayern's A-team, 4-0, in the opening match.) They, too, are mostly unaccustomed to advancement struggle -- their odds heading into the final matchday were 100% in 2016-17 and 2018-19 and 93% in 2019-20 -- but held on for a bid.
The league that produced seven Champions League finalists and five winners from 2014-18 (and none of either since) could still technically see a run or two in the knockouts. But combined with Europa League performances -- Villarreal and Granada have advanced, but league leader Real Sociedad has only a 49% chance of joining them -- it appears that with Barca and Real Madrid currently well off from their peak form, the cast of characters looking to usurp them isn't necessarily clicking on all cylinders either.
Lazio and the (literal) luck of the draw
In the 2015-16 Champions League, defending Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg blazed through Group H, racking up 15 of a possible 18 points behind the efforts of Hulk, Axel Witsel and Artem Dzyuba. They fell unexpectedly to Benfica in the Round of 16, but they certainly backed up the notion that the Russian champ should get a spot in Pot 1 of the draw (the top eight seeds, basically) each year.
Since then, the Russian Pot 1 qualifier has finished fourth (CSKA in 2016-17), third (Spartak in 2017-18), fourth (Lokomotiv in 2018-19), fourth (Zenit in 2019-20) and fourth (Zenit in 2020-21) in group stages. The best way to position yourself to advance if you're a lower-pot team is to draw the Russian champion's group.
This year's beneficiary: Lazio. Since the summer restart, the Biancocelesti have managed just 1.5 points per match in league play, with a minus-1 overall goal differential. They are seventh in Serie A, and they rank 48th in FiveThirtyEight's club soccer rankings, 25th at EloFootball.com. But they drew Zenit's group and thanks in part to four points in two matches with the Russians, they finished second in Group F behind Borussia Dortmund.
To be sure, Lazio has saved some of its best recent play for the Champions League -- they did, after all, take four points from BVB as well. But they benefited from not having a true top seed to face, just as Lyon did last year and Schalke 044 did the year before that.
There are generally enough "Champions League format changes!" rumors in a given year that if Gazprom could figure out how to get them to combust, it could light half the stoves in Russia. But if something like the supposed "Swiss Model" -- in which you play 10 group games, all against different teams, and teams are ranked in one giant table -- came to pass, then the issue of Pot 1 status wouldn't matter much anymore. Until then, though, it seems like a pretty big flaw in the system that one of the top eight seeds goes to a team likely to be one of the bottom eight finishers each year.
That said, if Lazio takes advantage of this like Lyon did last year -- Les Gones famously shocked Juventus and Manchester City on their way to the semifinals -- you won't hear many complaints coming from south of the Alps.