Champions League winners and losers

Ian Watson


Mauricio Pochettino
If Tuesday was an audition for the Real Madrid job, then Pochettino aced it. Tottenham fans might not appreciate the negative ramifications of such a positive evening for the club at the Nou Camp, but even his players are thinking it. “It’s no coincidence that every day you read Real Madrid want him or United want him,” Danny Rose said after the draw. “It’s exactly what he deserves.”

Indeed. Pochettino absolutely merits one of the very biggest jobs. What he has done and what he continues to do with Spurs with comparatively little – or even no – investment makes a mockery of the suggestion that any manager’s influence is largely dependent on the circumstances around him. Despite being given no money to spend on his squad, coupled with the fact Spurs are still living out of suitcases at Wembley, Pochettino’s team continue to defy expectations.

While guiding Spurs to the knockout stages, Pochettino even managed to dispel a couple of the few doubts anyone could still have about his leadership credentials. At times he has been uncharacteristically indecisive with his substitutions but against Barca, who ceded supremacy in possession in a Champions League group game for the first time in 12 years and 72 matches, Pochettino was proactive.

After conceding four goals in the final five minutes of their first three Group B matches, Tottenham have been anything but ‘Spursy’ during the second half of their campaign. With 12 minutes to go in their fourth group match at home to PSV, Spurs were done. With 10 minutes to go against Inter at Wembley, they were heading out. Until Lucas Moura’s leveller in the final five minutes, Tottenham were toast. Each time, Pochettino’s men have demonstrated the will and ability and pull themselves back from the brink.


“I am not sure a manager could be prouder of a team than I am,” beamed Jurgen Klopp after Liverpool scraped through. Just when it seemed Klopp was developing a taste for a more serene life, his players gave their manager the adrenaline hit he buzzes off.

Klopp spoke of filling bottles of the stuff after a third home win made up for the three away defeats that left last season’s finalists in perilous danger of crashing out at the group stage. As they so often do in Europe, Liverpool made life as difficult as possible for themselves, a trait that pre-dates Klopp’s arrival, and even though much of this victory was achieved in relative comfort, the manner of their eventual qualification could mean so much more going forward.

Mo Salah scored the crucial goal but the Egypt star provided a wider body of evidence to suggest that he is approaching top form after a suspect start to the season. At Bournemouth he was magnificent in bagging his hat-trick, and once again he was Liverpool’s biggest threat, with his team-mates looking right as often as possible, almost to the point of ignoring Sadio Mane on the opposite side.

There isn’t a single part of this Liverpool team that isn’t pulling its weight while they remain unbeaten in the Premier League this term. Klopp’s defence is the best in Europe; his midfielders are responding to the competition for places just as he would have hoped; while Salah appears to be moving through the gears just in time for Man Utd’s visit and a crucial Christmas period during which the Reds can focus all their energy on a title tilt.


One of the biggest upgrades made by a Premier League club during a single window. The wretchedness of his predecessors perhaps put Alisson in an even more flattering light, and the late save to deny Arkadiusz Milik that spared Liverpool a Champions League exit wasn’t the most difficult of his fledgling Anfield career. But the Brazilian’s timing was key – world-class keepers save their best work for the most crucial moments. Liverpool had become used to theirs dropping the biggest bollocks at the most inappropriate times.


Leroy Sane
The Man City winger has had a weird season. It began on a sour note after being omitted from Germany’s World Cup squad before Toni Kroos stuck the boot in. Sane could find little solace at City, where he played only 30 minutes in the Premier League during the first month of the season while Bernardo Silva hogged the limelight.

But his two goals to turn the game for City against Hoffenheim caps an impressive return to form. That’s now seven goals and four assists in his last 10 games in all competitions. Suddenly, his body language doesn’t seem that much of a problem.


Phil Foden
There were questions asked over his omission from the trip to Lyon and further inactivity this week, especially when City were down to the bare bones against Hoffenheim, would have raised serious doubts over where the City prodigy stands in Pep Guardiola’s thinking.

But fresh from signing a six-year contract the 18-year-old started and he didn’t waste his opportunity. “He was incredible,” said Guardiola, over-egging the point somewhat, with Foden settling into the game after the break. There was a slight sting in the tail, however: “He has to compete with David Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin de Bruyne etc…” added Pep, who is under no obligation to play the brightest star to emerge from City’s academy. But the manager is showing sporadic signs that the midfielder will get his chances.


On the final day there was only one place in the last 16 up for grabs and it was Lyon who snatched it.

You can spin the French side’s campaign however you wish: Lyon haven’t won since the opening game at Man City, nor have they lost. Their fifth successive draw was enough to secure progression, with Nabil Fekir’s second-half equaliser getting the job done in snowy Kiev against Shakhtar Donetsk.


Lucien Favre
“It’s a perfect evening.” That was Favre’s assessment after he was able to make nine changes from the derby win over Schalke at the weekend but still Borussia Dortmund stole top spot in Group A after beating Monaco thanks to Raphael Guerreiro’s brace. They needed a little help from Club Brugge, and the fact they received it sums up the positive momentum Dortmund are building up under the manager.


“Now the beautiful part of the Champions League starts and I’m confident we will be fully ready for it,” said Cristiano Ronaldo, presumably somewhat relieved that Man Utd are crap. The Old Lady served up top spot in Group H but Ronaldo’s former side were incapable of seizing it and, consequently, “the beautiful part” of the tournament will have an easier start for the Serie A leaders.


Jasper Cillessen
Perhaps Europe’s best back-up keeper reminded us of his existence with a man-of-the-match performance for Barca, the Holland keeper making great saves to thwart Heung-min Son, Christian Eriksen and Lucas Moura before Spurs finally made the breakthrough.

Cillessen has a cushy gig at the Nou Camp. The 29-year-old retains his Holland place while sat on the bench for Barca and Cillessen’s attributes make him ideally suited to the Spanish leaders. But he is too good to be kept in reserve for all but the odd cup game. This is his third season at Barca and Tuesday night brought only his fifth appearance in either La Liga or the Champions League.


It has been 12 years since Ajax were last seen in the knockout stages and though they didn’t manage to top the group, the 3-3 draw with Bayern offers plenty of positives to take into the next phase. Nicolas Tagliafico recovered from Thomas Muller’s attempted decapitation to score a 95th-minute equaliser after Kingsley Coman seemed to secure a last-gasp win for Niko Kovac’s side at the end of a frankly mental second half. Bayern were still chuckling to themselves as the unbeaten Dutch side let out the last laugh.



Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku
That Manchester United’s two most expensive signings were included in Jose Mourinho’s second string for the trip to Valencia tells you all about the pair’s form and their standing in the manager’s mind. Their performances spoke similar volumes.

Mourinho probably had a different motivation for each selection. Lukaku it was hoped might play his way into some form, or at least spend 90 minutes sweating off some timber. He managed neither.

In Pogba’s case, Mourinho presented the rope and the record signing tied his own noose. The midfielder was said to be ‘shocked’ at being benched in United’s last two league games which, if true, only serves to highlight a woeful lack of self-awareness. Pogba has phoned it in for too much of the season since becoming a World Cup winner and upon being given the opportunity to prove Mourinho wrong, his performance at the Mestalla only did the opposite.

Pogba was auditioning for a place in the United side for the trip to Liverpool on Sunday but he blew it. If the £89million man is one of the players knocking on Mourinho’s door, then even he must realise that his case to start is looking flimsier with each passing week. Presumably the manager would relish the opportunity to welcome Pogba into his office and tell him exactly why his arse will be sat on the Anfield bench on Sunday.

Mourinho may be more willing to start Lukaku in a game in which the United boss will demand discipline and selflessness. Lukaku, ‘a grown-ass man’, will offer that, but his current form suggests they will get little else. At least Lukaku can be relied upon to get in Liverpool’s way – Pogba cannot be trusted even to do that.

Lukaku’s descent from the top of Mourinho’s list of favourites is concerning but shedding some weight will help him climb again. Pogba’s inclusion in Valencia and his subsequent performance further reinforces the suspicion that he is finished at United under the current regime.


Phil Jones
We’re starting to think that the defender might not make good on Sir Alex Ferguson’s prediction that he could become one of the club’s greatest ever players…

Jones is perhaps unfairly painted as a figure of fun and Ferguson’s assertion didn’t help him. But, Christ, he doesn’t help himself sometimes either.


Man Utd
The Red Devils looked a gift horse in the mouth…


Serie A
The Champions League called. It wants its fourth slot back. 


Joel Matip 
The Liverpool defender had only just regained his place from Dejan Lovren as first-choice back-up and with Joe Gomez’s injury, three consecutive starts could have been the platform to cement his place in the XI long-term. But at the end of an impressive performance against Napoli, Matip fractured his collarbone at the most inconvenient time, putting the centre-half back on the sidelines at least until the end of next month. At this time, that means missing about eight matches.


Napoli’s ‘arseholes’

“If we don’t qualify, instead we can call ourselves… arseholes.”

That was a desperately tough group, as Napoli have whined over before. But Ancelotti was in no doubt how any failure should be viewed as they went into the final matchday at the top of the table.  ‘Arseholes’ it is.


Santiago Solari
The defending champions qualified as group G winners but still they managed to close out the first stage on a morale-sapping, negative note.

Solari fielded a much-changed line-up featuring seven players aged 23 or under including Vinicius Junior, Federico Valverde and Javier Sanchez. Their lack of experience told as they crumbled after falling behind to Fedor Chalov’s opener. CSKA Moscow went on to inflict upon Real their worst ever European home defeat amid jeers at the Bernabeu, with Isco baring the brunt of them.

A day after Pochettino had masterminded a triumph of sorts at the Nou Camp, it is a terrible look for Real’s interim coach.


CSKA Moscow
Inflicting a 3-0 record home defeat upon Real, completing a double against the holders this season, still wasn’t enough to keep the Russians in Europe, with Viktoria Plzen snatching the Europa League place after beating Roma. How on earth did they manage to f*** all that up so impressively?


Atletico Madrid
Matchday six was a minger for both Madrid sides, not that Diego Simeone would admit it.

“I’m happy because we have reached the last 16 and that is very important for the club,” he said after a 0-0 draw with Club Brugge allowed Borussia Dortmund to steal top spot. “The club needed to be in the second round so we have to be happy that we are.”

Simeone, as with the other group runners up, will be praying for Porto in the next round. But it seems highly likely that Atletico will pay for passing up the chance to finish top.


Thomas Muller
Ajax right-back Tagliafico was the immediate loser, certainly in terms of blood, but this karate kick means Bayern Munich will be missing their striker for perhaps both legs of the first knock-out round.

Ian Watson