Group F’s Final Matchday Was A Chaotic Grindhouse
8:52 AM EST on December 14, 2023
Looking at the make-up of Group F of this year's Champions League is like looking at every elite varietal of soccer club at once. Here's Borussia Dortmund, the cool kid's pick for a second favorite European club, one that relies on savvy scouting and its reputation as Europe's preeminent finishing school to lure in and win with the stars of tomorrow. Here's AC Milan, the former powerhouse that has rebuilt itself into a league winner on similar grounds as Dortmund, albeit with a few past-their-prime players helping the cause. And then there are two vintages of cash-rich clubs in Paris Saint-Germain and the newest state-owned apparatus of sport to crash into Europe's top tier, Newcastle United.
These four clubs combined to make theirs a veritable group of death, and the first five matchdays bore that out. PSG has the best team, and the best recent form and success, but it is no longer the team of Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, the one that went to the 2020 final in this tournament. (Lionel Messi is also not there anymore, as you might have heard.) That made the Parisians the expected group-winners. A funny thing happened along the way, though: PSG lost. Twice. First, Newcastle obliterated them at St. James Park back in October, winning 4-1 in what would be (spoiler) the Magpies' only win of the group stage. Then, Milan took a crack at the supposed favorite of Group F, avenging a 3-0 away loss in matchday 3 with a 2-1 comeback win in Italy on matchday 4.
Those results, plus Dortmund's bounce-back from its first match loss to PSG, led to a final group matchday laden with contingencies. Heading into Wednesday's finale, Dortmund was the only team that was safe. The German side had clinched a spot in the knockout rounds with its 3-1 win over Milan in the previous match, and was a draw or win away from winning the group outright. For the other three, results in the opposite match mattered as much as their own. Newcastle needed to win against Milan at home, and hope that PSG didn't beat Dortmund in Germany. For PSG, a win would see them through no matter what, while a draw would be enough if the other match ended in a draw as well, or a Milan win. As for Milan, the Rossoneri needed to beat Newcastle and hope that Dortmund did the same to PSG.
Newcastle was the first team to stake its claim for a spot in the knockout round on Wednesday: In the 31st minute of its match, Joelinton scored a screamer that gave his side a 1-0 lead and, crucially, sent them into second place on the live table.
The situation stayed like that heading into halftime in both games, with PSG and Dortmund locked at 0-0. There would be a goal soon after the break, but it wasn't the one that PSG needed: Dortmund opened the tally in the 51st via Karim Adeyemi's capitalizing on some sloppy clearance work by the PSG defense:
Not only did that Dortmund goal give Newcastle breathing room—it would take two goals, one each from Milan and PSG, to knock them back down the group standings—but it also gave Milan hope. Two goals of its own, and Milan would leap into second. Unfortunately for both clubs, the next goal came from PSG. In the 56th minute, 17-year-old Warren Zaïre-Emery received a ricochet at the top of the box and drove in just enough to get a clear view for a laser beam of a finish:
And then three minutes later, Christian Pulisic found himself open in the box from an Olivier Giroud cutback pass, and the American smashed home Milan's equalizer:
From there, chaos broke out for the final half an hour in each game. To update the permutations, at this point it would be Dortmund first, PSG second, Newcastle third and into the Europa League, and Milan out of Europe entirely. One more goal from Newcastle or PSG would shift the standings again, while Milan still needed Dortmund's help plus one of its own. The Italians did their part in a truly back-and-forth whirlwind of a second half. Following a Newcastle attack in the 84th minute, the visiting Milan counterattack sprung to life, with a series of passes into open space eventually landing the ball at Samuel Chukwueze's feet. The Nigerian had just subbed on a minute earlier, but he showed no need for a warm-up, blasting a curler past Newcastle keeper Martin Dubravka. Just like that, Milan was up 2-1.
It was at this point that PSG realized its situation. The Parisians could push for a goal to win the group over Dortmund, thereby securing an easier pool of opponents in the knockout round and also protecting themselves in case of a Newcastle comeback, but that would risk getting scored on the other end and seeing their Champions League campaign end in third. PSG could also hunker down and see out the draw in hopes that nothing too crazy happened in the other game; the 1-1 suited it just fine.
PSG chose to, somehow, do both. First, the Parisians pushed forward pretty hard for the winner, and had some chances with Mbappé in the box. (Mbappé also had a shot go in the back of the net in the 76th minute, but VAR ruled him offside.) No goals came, though, and Dortmund had a couple of half-chances on the other end to scare PSG. Meanwhile, Newcastle bombed forward to save its fate, but that dream was not meant to be; Milan quite happily saw out the 2-1 win that sent them to the Europa League after starting the day in last place.
For those 10 second-half minutes when the goals came fast and furious across both games, Group F was the very best of Champions League group play. Wherever your allegiances might lie, there's no denying that it made for enthralling viewing. I was watching the Golazo Show, and this was yet another instance of its usefulness. Even the Dortmund fans were getting into it, booing PSG for passing the ball around the back in the dying minutes; the home crowd wanted to see more action and, maybe, another goal by their club that would eliminate one of the title hopefuls. At the end of a head-turning second half, the clubs that advanced to the knockout round were perhaps not surprising; PSG and Dortmund have both been here plenty of times. The order, though, was less expected, and the road that PSG had to take to survival was the most shocking of all. This was the group stage ending that this competition always deserves, and these four teams delivered right up until the final whistles blew out in England and Germany.