Coming up to 10.30pm CET on Wednesday night and something rather unusual was about to occur.
For the first time in who knows how long, none of the four English teams would have won their respective Champions League matches. What is more, neither would either of the two Spanish heavyweights, Real Madrid or Barcelona.
As it happened, Chelsea scraped an enormously lucky win (again), whilst Manchester United were helped by a floodlight failure and dug out of a hole by their big names, most prominently Robin van Persie. Regardless, this was a week that saw Europe’s traditional elite challenged like never before.
Barcelona’s defeat to Celtic was the most eye catching result of the night. The Scottish side had no right to win. Sixteen per cent of possession, and the team in total produced fewer passes between them than Xavi. Yet they somehow clung on and hit Barcelona on the break twice, to secure a famous, famous win. It was a remarkable achievement for Neil Lennon’s side.
Real Madrid were also feeling humble, after they struggled to cope once again with the energy and skill of Borussia Dortmund. The German champions eventually had to settle for a point after a late equaliser by former Schalke man Mesut Ozil, but they had come mightily close to doing the double over Real – a feat only ever reserved usually for Barcelona.
Arsenal are another used to having things their own way at this part of the competition, yet they have had to concede control of their group to another German side, Schalke, who not only won the two games between the sides but looked very much the better team whilst doing so. AC Milan are having to get used to second place too, after failing to overcome Malaga over their two encounters. The Spanish upstarts lead the section, with Milan hoping to edge past Zenit and Anderlecht to the last 16. The holders, Chelsea, may well be going out. They absolutely must draw or win in Turin against Juventus, a rare achievement for any team, if they are to keep their progress in their own hands. If Juventus beat Chelsea, Shakhtar win their game as expected, then a draw between their two rivals in the last match would knock Chelsea out regardless of their result in their final match.
Even those teams who have enjoyed more serene progress are not unscathed. Manchester United are the only side with a perfect record still, but they were given a real game by Braga both home and away. Bayern Munich top their group but have been humbled by BATE Borisov already. And Barcelona remain top of the pile in their section, even with a bloody nose.
Porto are the only one of the traditional giants enjoying calm passage through after booking their last 16 spot, but they may well still finish behind Paris St Germain in their group.
This is probably the Champions League Michel Platini envisaged when he took over as the head of UEFA. He has spread the wealth around to some extent and Europe’s aristocracy are being challenged more than ever. A levelling of the playing field can only be a good thing. A group stage usually little more than a procession has never been so exciting.