PARIS, Dec 10 – Holders Barcelona and Inter Milan secured their places in the Champions League knock out stages at the last throw of the dice on Wednesday.Joining this pair on the final batch of group games were Stuttgart and Olympiakos to complete the 16-team cast-list for the second round starting in February.
Barca had the luxury of travelling to Dynamo Kiev knowing that even a defeat would not necessarily spell a premature end to their pursuit of a fourth European crown.
In the end they won 2-1 with goals coming from Xavi and European Footballer of the year Lionel Messi to top Group F.
"It was a match of unique importance for us and I’m happy that all my players showed true understanding of that fact," Barcelona manager Josep Guardiola said.
"We did our best to take our group’s top spot and I’m happy we finished in pole position. It was really hard but our next matches will definitely be even tougher. But we are all ready for it."
Inter faced a must-win game at home to Russia’s Rubin Kazan, and duly completed the mission with former Barcelona star Samuel Eto’o producing the opener in their 2-0 win.
That sealed Inter the runners-up spot and potentially shored up Jose Mourinho’s position as manager with rumours before kick-off that he could be out at the end of the season if Inter didn’t go througth.
Mourinho downplayed the pre-match speculation about his job saying: "No-one at Inter has said anything to me, not before the game and not after it."
Elsewhere Arsenal, already confirmed as Group H winners which theoretically means a more favourable second round draw, lost 1-0 at Olympiakos with the Greeks grabbing the runners-up spot.
"We had a positive attitude – they tried to catch us on the break but it was down to a lack of experience not quality," the Gunners’ manager Arsene Wenger reflected.
"I am happy with the performance," he insisted.
All that was left to decide in Group E was which of Fiorentina and Lyon would emerge as table toppers.
The French ended their first round campaign on a high, routing Debrecen 4-0 but lost out on the number one place after Fiorentina grabbed a late goal to beat Liverpool 2-1 at Anfield.
Yossi Benayoun’s first half header had given the hosts a 43rd-minute lead against the run of play before Martin Jorgensen levelled for the Italians after half time.
Alberto Gilardino’s stoppage time winner then ensured Liverpool ended a disastrous Champions League campaign with only the Europa League to keep their minds off domestic battles.
Reds skipper Steven Gerrard admitted Liverpool only had themselves to blame for their plight.
"If you look at the whole campaign, it was not good enough from our point of view but now we need to try to qualify for the same competition next year," the England midfielder said.
"It wasn’t our strongest team tonight but we gave a good account of ourselves. We were a bit unlucky to lose in the end."
In Group G already qualified Sevilla took top spot and were joined in the next round by Stuttgart.
The Germans responded to a change of manager – with former Tottenham boss Christian Gross replacing Markus Babbel this week – in suitably positive fashion, racing to the quickest 3-0 lead in Champions League history.
Six first 11 minutes was all it took for Stuttgart to kill off their tie against Romanians Unirea Urziceni, who got one back for a 3-1 defeat.
"That was a fantastic start and it was great to take a 3-0 lead so quickly," said goalkeeper Jens Lehmann.
"It is a paradox that we are the 16th best side in the Bundesliga and we are also amongst the best 16 teams in Europe."
Tuesday’s programme saw Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, AC Milan and CSKA Moscow seal their second round passage.
The second round draw is scheduled for December 18.