CHAMPIONS LEAGUE REVIEW

Liga completes European sweep

All four Spanish Champions League teams through to knockout stage

Valencia’s Ever Banega battles with (l to r) Javi Martínez, Dante and Holger Badstuber. / F. HERNÁNDEZ (AP)

All four Spanish Champions League participants sealed their passage to the knockout stages of this season’s tournament during midweek action across Europe. Perhaps the most valiant effort to achieve this goal was made by Valencia, which snuffed out the potent attacking force of Bayern Munich at Mestalla despite playing with 10 men for an hour after Antonio Barragán was deservedly dismissed for a wild lunge on David Alaba.

Nevertheless, Valencia proved that old footballing maxim that sides sometimes play better with a man fewer. Mauricio Pellegrino’s team defended doggedly, taming Frank Ribéry, Claudio Pizarro and Thomas Müller, who were constantly sought out by the probing of Toni Kroos. Ricardo Costa had an especially good game and every Valencia tackle was cheered to the rafters by a packed house appreciative of their players’ determination. The home side occasionally threatened on the break and was rewarded when Sofiane Feghouli skipped through the opposition defense and hit a deflected shot past Manuel Neuer.

Such was the Valencia’s resistance at the back that Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes was forced to play his hand in the second half and throw on a new strike force of Mario Gómez, Xherdan Shaqiri and Mario Mandzucic. But it was the intervention of Feghouli again that leveled the affair, Müller’s goalkeeper-bound strike being deflected past Vicente Guaita by the Frenchman’s attempted block.

No matter. Valencia is through to the knockout stages and can still top the group if it betters Bayern’s result against BATE Borisov in its final group match away at French club Lille.

Barcelona also secured the group leadership with a no-frills 3-0 win at Spartak Moscow. The azulgrana can now field the kids for its final group game at home to Benfica — which will not please Glasgow Celtic, which is level on points with the Portuguese club and hosts Spartak in Scotland.

Málaga has also ensured it will roll into the knockout phase as group winner — ahead of AC Milan — following a 2-2 tie a little north of Barcelona’s destination, against Zenit St Petersburg. The big-spending Russians, who raided Portugal’s top division for Hulk and Alex Witsel in the summer, have failed to make an impact in the competition and will have to content themselves with the Europa League, provided Anderlecht’s result against Málaga is bettered when Zenit visits the San Siro.

It is quite the coup for Manuel Pellegrini’s side, which has suffered a touch domestically as a result of its European exertions. “I am delighted for the players who were given the opportunity to play for guaranteeing top spot in the group and for keeping our squad more or less rested,” the Chilean said. “I don’t know if you can say we are going through a bad spell, but we have to look for more points in La Liga between now and December.”

Real Madrid completed the quartet of Spanish challengers for old big ears with a 1-1 tie at Manchester City, which was sufficient to secure second place in Group D behind the frankly terrifying Borussia Dortmund. Bayern president Franz Beckenbauer said he saw no reason why the German outfit cannot win the title and on the evidence of its 4-1 destruction of Ajax, he could well be right.

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