Champions League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 7th March 2019 1:43


Johan Cruyff and Ajax
Top of the winners list, even with a piece of their own. Keep me in Winty’s good books by giving it a read. Also, if this column turns out to be shorter than normal (Ed. – lol) then please note that 628 words were turned into an extra piece so please don’t ask for your money (Ed. – lol) back.


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United
Let’s get the admin out of the way, because of course Solskjaer has now guaranteed that he will get the job on a full-time basis. I’m still not entirely convinced he’s the right man for the long-term plan (and I’m sure I’m not alone there), but Manchester United simply have no choice. How can you allow this goodwill to drip away by changing tack? Supporters waking up with sore heads that immediately gave way to broad smiles will gladly tell you: they haven’t felt like this since Fergie left.

Solskjaer insisted in his pre-match press conference that Manchester United could “climb the mountain”, and climb it they did. United required plenty of good fortune – they had five shots all night; three were goals and two were shots that directly led to the second goal and the penalty – but Solskjaer will believe that they earned their luck with gumption and guts.

Under Jose Mourinho, United felt like a team beating itself (Ed. – lol). Under Solskjaer, they are never beaten.

This was also the perfect platform for Solskjaer’s ‘go out there and play’ mentality. There have been tactical shifts, not least in Paris, but they feel emphatically secondary to the general mindset that the interim manager has instilled. Solskjaer talks in motivational buzzphrases, of the Stretford End sucking the ball in and of belief taking you further than ability. In defeat, those soundbites can seem a little twee. In victory, they cannot be criticised.

Finishing in the top four remains the priority. If it seems a little backwards to concentrate on getting into the Champions League when you’re still in the Champions League, participation next season will define where United’s transfer ceiling lies.

But they must also make the most of the now as well as planning for the future. It is incredibly rare for a manager of an elite club to have nothing to lose, but that is exactly the situation Solskjaer can enjoy in Europe. By beating Paris Saint-Germain, he has already exceeded expectation. By coming back from first-leg defeat, he has already secured United’s best standalone European result at least since winning the competition in 2008, the 3-0 win against Juventus in Turin in 2003, and maybe since winning the treble in 1999.

Tottenham, Ajax, Porto, Bayern Munich/Liverpool, Atletico, Manchester City, Barcelona: which of those sides will scare an opponent with its tail up?

A year ago, after miserable Champions League exit to Sevilla at Old Trafford, Mourinho sought to excuse defeat by referring to United’s lack of recent European “heritage”. Solkajer has succeeded through the opposite strategy: Don’t worry about what you have been; concentrate on what you can be.

We’ll end on a piece of delicious irony. When Mourinho joins a club, he demands that everyone (players, supporters, staff) buy into the ‘cult of Mourinho’. But watch United’s players chanting Solskjaer’s name after the win, listen to Lukaku saying that his interim manager is getting the job full-time and witness thousands of supporters enjoying watching their club again. There is a cult of Solskjaer too. It was just created organically rather than by an iron first.


Romelu Lukaku
I won’t go on about him for too long, because I’ve got to order another three boxes of pin badges for the fan club after this week. But when United really needed Lukaku to rediscover his confidence and form after the dismal last weeks of Mourinho, their centre-forward has come good. Six goals in three matches, and his Old Trafford career is booming again.

Despite his extensive experience, it is easy to forget that Wednesday was only the third time in his career that Lukaku has started in a Champions League knockout tie. Three goals from those three games is an excellent start. For those keeping count (me), that’s now 233 senior career goals at the age of 25.


Marcus Rashford
The absolute bottle of the kid. Prior to Wednesday, Rashford had not taken a single non-shootout penalty in his senior career. The sum total of his competitive experience was two penalties during Manchester United’s UEFA Youth League campaign in 2015/16 and for England Under-21s against Norway in September 2016. But when United were awarded a (ridiculous) spot kick in the dying embers of a pulsating game, it was Rashford who stepped up.

Just take a few moments and imagine how nervous you would feel. I’m writing this on the way to interviewing Tim Flowers and I’m incredibly anxious about getting that right. I’m 13 years older than Rashford and I’m not in a one-on-one situation against the greatest goalkeeper of the last decade (sorry, Tim). I’m also not being jeered by 60,000 people and watched by millions around the world. However good this interview is, I cannot claim to have the weight of a global fanbase on my shoulders. I think I’d probably cry or wet myself.

Not Rashford, a young man who has taken peak and trough in his majestic stride with the maturity of a veteran. Not Rashford, who sometimes seems immune to nerves and pressure. Not Rashford, who thrashed the ball high into the net and left the sprawling Gianluigi Buffon without hope. Not Rashford, who leads this team as a proud academy graduate and a proud Mancunian.


Dusan Tadic
Proof that, at the highest level, a player’s environment is as important as his ability. At Southampton, Tadic’s career was coasting. He didn’t particularly enjoy life in England (or at least not as much as he might elsewhere), his personality didn’t fit with a struggling side, he didn’t see eye to eye with Mark Hughes and he was often picked in different positions.

On Tuesday evening, that same player dismantled Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. Tadic’s run and pass to assist David Neres was the mark of a player at the very top of his game.


Much, much better. Fatigue still haunts their Premier League present and near future, but Tottenham have added Champions League knowhow and have clearly learnt from their Juventus experience at the same stage last season.

Jan Vertonghen and Harry Kane were the two pillars that bookended a thoroughly professional performance. Vertonghen marshalled the defence like a military captain, while Kane took his only clear chance brilliantly to extinguish all doubt.

But it feels gauche to pick out individuals after a night when you could so easily see the power of Tottenham’s togetherness. Mauricio Pochettino’s brilliance lies in making a team perform at a higher level than the sum of its parts and provoking a response to on and off-pitch setback. Here it was for all of Europe to see.

Tottenham can pray for a gentle draw that gives them genuine hope of making the final four of Europe’s premier club competition (at which point they are knocked out so people can label them as bottlers for not reaching the final), or embrace a tougher test that allows Pochettino to punch upwards once again. But, for now, their supporters will revel in going further in the competition than Arsenal have in any of their previous seven Champions League campaigns.


Into the last eight of the Champions League for the fourth time in the last 16 years. Having gone four years without a league title between 2013 and 2017, Porto are back punching above their weight. They will be the team that every quarter-finalist dreams of facing, but they’re happy to keep being underrated.


Moussa Sissoko
He’s not just playing well, he’s leading Tottenham when they need him most. Sissoko’s run of excellent form has gone on so long that he now merits a complete reevaluation. No longer is he a disaster signing clawing back some goodwill, but a player who struggled badly before showing his real game. Fair bloody play.


Zinedine Zidane
For all the importance of motivational ability, man management and tactical knowledge, the key to a successful managerial career comes down to decision-making. Choosing which job to take and when, which job to leave and when: it’s all about continuing your forward momentum.

Zidane is therefore a very shrewd operator. He climbed aboard the Real Madrid train when his potential was high and Cristiano Ronaldo was entering his Champions League peak, and jumped off onto a waiting platform just before everything careered towards a nadir. Smart cookie.


Manchester City
Winning without even playing. Liverpool’s draw on Sunday and Real Madrid’s exit on Tuesday means that the best odds you can now get on Manchester City completing the quadruple is 10/1. Given the strength of competition they face at home and abroad, that’s pretty mad.



Real Madrid and the end of their era
“In one week, we’ve lost everything. We have to be professional, we have to stand up, we can’t hide, we know we have had a shit season and that’s it.”

We have become so accustomed to footballers talking in bland, media-trained platitudes that the brutal honesty of Dani Carvajal’s post-match assessment caught us off guard. You might have expected ‘We are low. We are hurting. But we will fight to win every game and prove that we can grow stronger’, but not a bit of it. This was too humiliating to think about what comes next. Real Madrid are broken.

Having lost two Clasicos and been eliminated from the Champions League by a team from a non-Big Five European league for the first time since 1999, there is a strong case to be made for this being the worst week in Real Madrid’s illustrious history.

There has been an interesting pattern that follows Real’s La Liga underperformance: in five of the last six seasons they have finished outside the top two in the league, they have won the European Cup. The last time they finished third or lower in La Liga and failed to reach the European Cup quarter-finals was 1994. At a time when the financial disparity between La Liga’s best and rest has never been greater, it is a distinct possibility.

But speak to Real Madrid supporters and they will tell you that this has been coming for some time. Repeated Champions League success – extraordinary even for a club of their size – placed a facade over their inconsistent domestic form and an ageing squad. Now their great distraction technique has gone.

Selling Cristiano Ronaldo was always likely to cause a rut as Real learned to acclimatise without a forward who dominated their attacking plans like no other in world football – even Lionel Messi. It is no exaggeration to say that all roads ended at Ronaldo. It was a perfect plan given that he scored 21 goals in the knockout stages alone across Real’s magnificent three seasons, but it sure leaves a gaping hole.

But if Real were faced with a problem, they exacerbated it. You might call it brave to embark upon a squad cleanse that involved spending the Ronaldo money on young players who had little hope of peaking this season (Alvaro Odriozola at 22, Vinicius Jr at 17 and Mariano Diaz at 24), but others might label it foolhardy. Those left have proven themselves incapable of filling Ronaldo’s shoes. Santiago Solari has become the sacrificial lamb.

Real can afford to suffer one season of ignominy, but this summer is now crucial. They have to land their top targets on and off the field, with Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen likely to be the top two on the transfer list. They must also clear out those players who the club believes have been tarnished by this season’s decline: Isco, Marco Asensio and a certain Welshman…


Gareth Bale
Bale is the most successful British football export since John Charles. Nine months ago, he won the European Cup for the fourth time, a total bettered by only 11 players in history and only one player in the Champions League era. Bale scored one of the greatest goals in final history as the man of the match.

But he has always endured a fractured relationship with Real Madrid supporters. He is viewed as an outsider, a reputation at least partly fuelled by a lack of integration with some of his teammates and an inability to speak Spanish fluently.

If that seems a little petty (after all, Sergio Aguero has become a club legend at Manchester City without grasping the English language), it matters here. These issues don’t matter when Real Madrid and Bale are in rude health, but they mean – rightly or wrongly – that he has not accrued the goodwill that takes players through hard times.

And these are certainly hard times. Bale’s form this season has been generally wretched, albeit punctured by the odd moment and match of excellence. The Welshman was asked to take on Ronaldo’s mantle, but has dropped it on the floor, watched it smash and injured his ankle trying to pick up the pieces.

Times can change quickly. A new Real Madrid manager, now a guarantee before next season begins, may cherish Bale and build an attack with him as its fulcrum. Real fans are fickle even by football’s high standards, so the relationship there is not irrevocably broken.

But that is the long-shot, optimistic option. A move away from the Bernabeu is difficult thanks to his monstrous wages and advancing years (he turns 30 in July – where did our youth die?), yet a return to the Premier League cannot be discounted. The dream has turned sour.


Luka Modric
What a dreadfully short reign.


Paris St Germain
Money can’t buy you love, and brilliant individual players cannot guarantee a resilience against capitulation.

There are all manner of theories as to why PSG have repeatedly stumbled in the Champions League: difficult draws, second-tier managers, a cult of individualism, misfortune and a lack of domestic competition. The answer is probably a mix of all five.

But this cannot keep happening if PSG are to avoid being the tasteless joke of Europe’s elite. In seven Champions League campaigns since Qatari money rolled in, they have still failed to progress beyond the quarter-finals. Who had money on Qatar winning a major continental trophy before the club they own?


Sergio Ramos
A moment of pure karma. Ramos missed Tuesday’s second leg after he engineered a booking to deliberately time his suspension and be in the clear for some more shithousery in the quarter-finals. If pride comes before a fall, Ramos just broke Felix Baumgartner’s world record.


Last season’s great Champions League overachievers fall, and with it probably ends their season in the sun. Eusebio Di Francesco lost the Rome derby 3-0 at the weekend and his side were unable to protect their first-leg lead in Porto. With 12 games left in Serie A, Roma are outside the Champions League places. Do not be surprised by a sacking announcement in the next week.


Edin Dzeko
No mate.


Borussia Dortmund, fighting the tide
The comeback was always unlikely, but Lucien Favre could really have done without the home defeat. Dortmund’s best hope might lie in Bayern Munich progressing past Liverpool and taking their eye off the ball in the Bundesliga. Even so, Dortmund have to get their own sh*t together. They have now won one of their last eight matches in all competitions.

Daniel Storey


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