The Short Fuse | Arsenal (2nd place, 10 pts)
Arsenal's group stage this year was a bit up and down, and actually paralleled their form in the Premier League. Steve Bould had to take the reins for the first three matches, and things didn't go spectacularly well when Schalke came to town for round 2. One would've expected them to drop points away in Athens and Gelsenkirchen, but instead they lost--badly--to Schalke at the Emirates. However, they were able to turn things around and nearly win at the Veltins. Good performances at home against Olympiakos and Montpellier, coupled with a resilient win away in Montpellier, saw them through, and as it turned out, the now-traditional reserves loss in Athens would have seen them claim the top spot in the group had they won. Overall, though, given the way the League has started, everyone should be satisfied with progressing, as there isn't a huge gulf in quality between the top seeds and the second seeds this year. Hopefully the Gunners will be in good form come February.
AC Milan Offside | Milan (2nd place, 8 pts)
I have to admit I am pleasantly surprised by Milan’s group stage performance. While I do in fact believe we had a fairly manageable group, it ended up being a bit tale of haves and have nots. Two big spenders in Malaga and Zenit proved that money doesn’t buy success. While a rebuilding cash strapped Milan, with little to no expectation for success this season, did what was needed to see themselves through to the knockout rounds. Two wins, two losses, two draws, and a plus one goal differential will certainly not strike fear in the hearts of opponents but the collective experience gained by the team as well as the cash from progressing will be welcome plus. Now bring me PSG, because everyone knows UEFA won’t let this opportunity slip away…Ancelotti, Silva, and Zlatan all back at the San Siro!? You can cut the tension with a knife and you can almost see Platini swimming in the pile of advertising money for that match!
Managing Madrid | Real Madrid (2nd place, 11 pts)
Real Madrid is in crisis--staring at an undefeated Barcelona side with an insurmountable Liga lead, a team that has fallen off substantially in their ability to create goals, and a president that is foaming at the mouth to fire the coach--and it has begun to show in fans' reaction. While the group stage wasn't a disappointment, Madrid fans have latched on to the competition as the last hope for a floundering team--the only light in the closing darkness. And with unpleasant results against Dortmund, the fanbase is beginning to despair. Sure, this was the group of death; sure, the team survived and outplayed a tough opponent in Manchester City. But ultimately, the air of invincibility that surrounded this team last year has disappeared; it has been replaced by a cloud of uncertainty, a dim reality of unfulfilled promise and fading hope.
Black, White and Read All Over | Juventus(1st place, 12 pts)
For Juventus, the group stages started with anxiety and ended the same way. Three draws to begin things made way for three victories and Juve shot their way up the table and won the group. And all of this with Antonio Conte up in a sky box during the match. Regardless of how they did it, it's impossible to not feel good about the end result for Juventus. Now with Conte returning from his touchline ban this weekend, the Old Lady has her No. 1 man back to lead them forward once more.
We Ain't Got No History | Chelsea (3rd place, 10 pts)
It's tempting to argue that earning ten points from a difficult group was an acceptable performance and one that would, in general, see the defending champions through to the knockout rounds. But that would be deflecting the simple fact that the Blues weren't good enough against the two teams that eventually moved on from Group E. A pair of poor performances against eventual winners Juventus, including a 3-0 embarrassment in Turin, essentially sealed Chelsea's fate, and the club got exactly what they deserved by dropping into the Europa League.
(tl;dr version: oh fiddlesticks)
Bavarian Football Works | Bayern Munich (1st place, 13 pts)
FC Bayern's Champions League Group Stage campaign has taken a few nasty twists and turns, but ended up right about as it might have been expected: with Bayern winning a group that was solid but not especially dangerous. Valencia CF and BATE Borisov both fought hard and accorded themselves well; both managed to take points from Bayern on one occasion apiece, which made us sweat it out until the final match to make sure we took first place. Lille OSC, meanwhile, put up no resistance whatsoever, and also failed at the one thing everyone wanted them to do: bring a big, cuddly dog mascot to hang out on their bench. So what are you good for, Lille? Nothing. That's what.
First place in the group is a good result, and was probably deserved for Bayern: 15 goals in 6 matches played, 4 of which were wins (all of them fairly decisive). Of course, how valuable that first-place finish is won't be seen until we find out what opponent we draw next. With several top clubs finishing as runners-up in their respective groups, things could still take an ugly turn in the Round of 16 if Bayern doesn't show up ready to play from the opening whistle.
This probably isn't the time or place, but I'd also like to weigh in and say that UEFA's tie-breaking procedure (which renders overall goal differential, the most even-handed measure of strength within a group, essentially meaningless) needs to be re-examined. I know Chelsea supporters don't want to hear it at this point, but leaving them home on 10 points and 16 goals scored is ridiculous, and probably bad for the competition. We'll see you next year, Blues. We know who you are.
Barca Blaugranes | Barcelona (1st place, 13 pts)
As expected, Barcelona managed to secure their passage into the last sixteen without too much trouble, although in what appears to be a new yearly tradition, they did encounter a little trouble along the way. With three wins from their opening three group games, I harboured hope of a rare clean sweep, but it wasn't to be as Celtic shocked the Blaugrana by emerging victorious in Matchday Four. Naturally, the reaction to the defeat was one of panic from some Culés, especially as the match was a virtual carbon copy of last season's semi-final defeat to Chelsea, but the loss spurred Tito Vilanova's side into a six-game winning streak - which included Matchday Five's impressive 3-0 victory in Russia. Provided Barcelona continue to impress away from home and that Lionel Messi stays healthy, Tito will be quietly confident of his team's chances, although it's also clear that the best is yet to come.
The Busby Babe | Manchester United (1st place, 12 pts)
It was a favorable group-stage draw for Manchester United and in general, they took care of business as top spot in the group was calmly clinched after Matchday 4. This was very much appreciated after their debacle and failure to advance last season from a group most expected them to top. The results were pleasing, even if the performances weren't entirely convincing -- this pretty much sums up United's current Premier League campaign as well. Sir Alex Ferguson has two months to dissect the reasons for his side's defensive frailties -- or perhaps just a lack of systemic balance between the attack and defense -- because if a cure is not found for this ailment, the Red Devils will be another English club to exit earlier than expected from the Champions League. There are six possible draws for United in the first-round of the knock-out stages (FC Porto, Milan, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donestk, Valencia, or Celtic) and a few of those side are capable of shredding apart the United defense if things aren't sorted out. Overall though, United fans should be mostly pleased as they've positioned themselves well in both Europe (assuming the 1 in 6 chance of drawing Madrid doesn't occur) and on the domestic front.