It was a moment worth savoring, even for those without a direct connection to any of the clubs involved. Much of the criticism of the Champions League group phase is warranted. It does, largely, simply confirm what we already know: a prolonged and dispiriting trudge to a conclusion that is essentially predetermined by the game’s financial imbalances.
This year was no different. In the final week, the handful of traditional favorites who had left it late pulled through. Real Madrid, despite losing home and away to Shakhtar, finished on top of its group. Atlético Madrid eased past RB Salzburg. Paris St.-Germain swept aside Istanbul Basaksehir, though by the time it did so the sport itself felt very much like an afterthought.
Of the superpowers in peril, only Manchester United fell by the wayside, and even that felt like a special case. Historically and financially, United might be far superior to RB Leipzig, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of the way the clubs came by their current managers — one after years of learning a craft and honing his skills, one because he scored a very important goal 21 years ago — would have realized that did not quite paint the whole picture.
But while those five minutes in Milan and Madrid should not invalidate that criticism, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge it. That the fate of three teams rested on whether a single goal could be scored in injury time of the last of 96 games to finish — that the group phase, essentially, was live until its very last kick — is no mean feat.
Quite what all of that means for the remainder of the competition is unclear. The group stage, of course, is never an especially reliable barometer. In some years, the team that shines brightest in the early exchanges maintains that form: Bayern Munich’s victory, for example, was preceded by the most imperious group stage in the competition’s history.
But that is more of an exception than a rule. In 2019, Liverpool lost three games in the group phase, finished second to P.S.G., and then went and won it. The previous year, Real Madrid failed to beat Tottenham Hotspur, home or away, and ended up as champion. The season before that, Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid tied three games — including one against Legia Warsaw — and qualified second in its pool. It finished the season in rather better form.