Looking at the eight teams who've made it through from the group stage to the quarterfinals of this season's UEFA Women's Champions League, there are in theory, few surprises to be seen. Maybe Roma, in their debut season, have caused an upset finishing above Champions League regulars. Slavia Prague and fellow Serie A side Juventus failing to get out of their groups -- having done so last year -- might be seen as surprising but, given the makeup of those groups, maybe not.
However, if we take a step back from the final group standings and consider all the football played over the group stages, the bigger picture of growth and development at the top end of women's football in Europe can be seen. Just as the frailties can as well, with an increasing number of teams picking up serious injuries after overloading players, which has threatened to derail campaigns -- looking at you, Lyon.
What we've had over the course of the six matchdays, though, is excitement in finely poised games that, even if ended in a predictable manner, have seen less traditionally dominant powers in women's football thriving and new players making names for themselves.
Up against Bayern Munich, Benfica once again showed some of their better football, highlighting the emergence of the Portuguese league, which has taken on a new complexion since their inception with the Eagles supplanting Sporting CP as the preeminent force in the country. At 29, Cloé Lacasse only seems to be getting better and has been putting in strong performances for Benfica as Portuguese international Jéssica Silva has continued to cook since her recovery from an ACL injury.
In the same group, Barcelona proved they're not bulletproof in a loss to Bayern in Munich last month, with the hosts putting on a great show for a new record crowd at the Allianz Arena for a women's match. Conversely, Frauen-Bundesliga rivals VfL Wolfsburg showed, like Barca, they're not infallible after being held by Roma having looked so assured up to that point and bound for the latter stages.
Whereas last season -- the first season of the reformatted competition that has seen the reintroduction of a group stage -- the groups were easier to call with a clear favourite and predictable runner-up, this season has seen an influx of groups packed with three teams vying for the two top spots. Although Juventus, Benfica and Real Madrid all faltered, with a tweak here or there, they could have yet progressed from their respective groups at the cost of another team.
Roma, although they had a kind-enough group draw, showed a wonderful fearlessness in how they attacked the group stage, displaying the classy style that Alessandro Spugna has ingrained in his team. And as such, they are the prime example not just of the benefit of the group stage but of the overriding growth that comes with targeted investment and the vision to build a team in the right way.
As we move forward, especially if UEFA are to keep the group stage at just a 16-team affair with the vast majority of those who qualify for the Champions League being lost before we hit the competition proper, teams will be afforded far fewer errors as the top end continues to grow. As can be seen with how Juventus fared this season, there is little room for mistakes or not taking your chances, but for those like the Bianconere who reach the group phase, there can be a huge amount learned and taken from those six games that can be built upon next season.