The Champions League round of 16 isn't even over yet, but there have been enough fireworks to sustain a post-title celebration. Here are the winners and losers from a chaotic couple of days.
The Champions League round of 16 isn't even over yet, but there have been enough fireworks to sustain a post-title celebration.
Manchester United, Tottenham, Ajax and Porto were the first four to punch their tickets to the quarterfinals, and they'll be joined by four remaining contenders for Europe's top prize next week. Real Madrid's reign after winning three straight titles is over, while PSG's quest to be crowned Europe's best will be dragged out for at least another year following yet another premature exit. Roma and Dortmund also fell by the wayside, as the road to the June 1 final in Madrid narrows.
After an extraordinarily chaotic couple of days, let's distill what transpired into a series of winners and losers, beyond the results themselves:
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Ole's at the wheel, and he figures to be for quite a while after pulling an act of magic in Paris. Without 10 senior team players, including midfield star Paul Pogba, and with the help of unheralded teenage substitutes, Solskjaer's Man United did the unthinkable, overturning a 2-0 first-leg deficit with a 3-1 away win for the ages. It didn't come without some gifts: PSG hand-wrapped a pair of goals for Romelu Lukaku, and Presnel Kimpembe gave the referee enough evidence to make the controversial stoppage-time call that allowed Marcus Rashford to bury the pressure-packed spot kick.
It's still possible that Man United could miss out on the top four in England, and it could max out in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but after everything that's been accomplished since Jose Mourinho's ouster, if the job doesn't go to Solskjaer on a permanent deal, it would be a shock. Lukaku seems to think so, too. The good vibes are back at Man United, and that's a far cry from the feeling just three months ago.
Those who relish in VAR chaos
What most were afraid would happen to the World Cup is instead falling under the Champions League umbrella. Instead of focusing on Man United's grit, the spotlight is on the VAR call that penalized Kimpembe and sent PSG packing. Instead of focusing on Porto's accomplishment, the spotlight is on the Alessandro Florenzi foul that was spotted by VAR and the potential one on Moussa Marega that was let go moments later.
VAR, in an ideal world, is supposed to be seamless and remove all subjectivity from the matter. The video shows clear and obvious evidence, or it doesn't. At the World Cup, for the most part, that was the case, and it wound up being a rousing success. The use of the technology was rushed through so it could be used during the knockout stage of this competition after not being available during the group stage, and the result has been chaos. We've been left with judgment calls based on slow motion replays that don't necessarily have an obvious element to them trying to determine the outcome of a handball rule that already is clouded with gray area. If a game- or series-changing call is going to be made, it must be pristine and with as little room for debate as possible. PSG, especially, would argue that's not what transpired.
Now, on the surface, Tottenham, Ajax and Porto are not "underdog" material. Porto and Ajax are giants in their respective countries, with 28 and 33 domestic titles, respectively, while Tottenham has become a top-four staple under Mauricio Pochettino and was a factor in the Premier League title race as recently as a couple of weeks ago, despite injuries to key players and no incoming signings over the last two transfer windows. But that Tottenham was able to overcome Dortmund on the strength of a dominant first leg without Harry Kane and Dele Alli was impressive. Ajax was given little chance to end Real Madrid's reign, especially after the Spanish power appeared to find its footing and won in Amsterdam in the first leg. Porto had the best draw of the three, but still had to overcome a first-leg deficit.
This week was a big win for all of them, reinforcing that their methods can still work in the modern world of footballing financial superpowers and a widening gap between elite and supposed also-rans.
Big club failure means romanticized history and hope that Mourinho can still bring his "special" qualities to a club in need. That's why you'll see his name back in the headlines as a potential solution for the likes of Real Madrid. Should he return to the Bernabeu, though, it would be in direct contradiction to what he said recently about what he wants for his next job.
“I don’t want an internal conflict,” he told The Telegraph. “I want internal empathy. “I want to work in a club that understands there is a structure in place. I don’t want to work in a structure of no coincidence [unity] in the thinking."
Yeah, that's not exactly Real Madrid.
For every Solskjaer, there's a Solari. Real Madrid's Plan B solution after Julen Lopetegui's unceremonious ouster 14 matches into the season has had his ups and downs. He appeared to turn Real Madrid around, with a strong run of success immediately after taking over. He was fearless in introducing Vinicius Junior as a first-team regular, and he was vindicated by the 18-year-old's performances. But he also just oversaw Real Madrid's nightmare of a week.
In a span of seven days, the club was bounced from the Copa del Rey by Barcelona, fell behind in La Liga by 12 points after a loss to Barcelona and completely capitulated vs. Ajax despite carrying a first-leg advantage–all at home! Solari may have signed a deal through 2021 in November, but there's no shot he stays on for next season, and he could well be axed for the remainder of the current one, with only a top-four berth in Spain left to fight for in an otherwise lost campaign. He was thrust into a brutal situation and did plenty with it, but Real Madrid is a flawed superpower that he alone could not fix.
The schadenfraude police are out for Sergio Ramos.
You know the story by now. The Real Madrid captain, so confident of his side's progression to the quarterfinals, deliberately picked up a yellow card in the first leg vs. Ajax that would suspend him for the second because of accumulation, thus clearing the slate for the latter stages. Arrogantly, he admitted to it and was promptly slapped with a ban of an extra game. That game won't be served until next season, now, as Real Madrid's shambolic defensive unit without him was no match for Dusan Tadic and Ajax's dynamic attack.
Instead of being on the field to help his teammates, he was in a VIP suite, getting filmed for his Amazon Video documentary series.
“I’m excited to be able to show football fans what it takes to be a professional athlete, the responsibility of wearing Real Madrid’s and Spain’s armband and how to juggle that with a normal personal life,” Ramos said upon Amazon's unveiling of the series.
Some might call that false advertising.
Those adverse to Real Madrid transfer rumors
If you were exhausted by the Neymar- and Eden-Hazard-to-Real-Madrid rumors in seasons past, you haven't seen anything yet. Disaster, especially at Real, sparks action, and you can be sure that ever star and manager on–or off–the market will find himself in the tabloid web of linkage with a move to the Bernabeu.
Eusebio Di Francesco
Roma's manager had a version of the Solari Lite this week, following a brutal loss to a rival, Lazio, with a Champions League ouster. He was axed less than 24 hours after his side's elimination, and that it happened over a VAR-aided call will only sharpen the sting. Roma, after its stunning semifinal run last season, now finds itself fighting for its life just to be in position to reach the Champions League next season. It's been a rough campaign in the Italian capital.
PSG has spent into the billions to try and cobble together a Champions League winner, yet it hasn't as much as made a semifinal let alone threaten to win it all in its present era. In fact, it's managed to regress. PSG followed four straight quarterfinal exits with three straight last-16 ousters, the victim of both bad fortune, poor play and the luck of the draw.
Last season it was a group-stage powerhouse, only to have the luck of meeting second-place finisher Real Madrid in the round of 16. The year before, it drew Barcelona, and while it put Messi & Co. on the ropes in the first leg, it then completely collapsed at Camp Nou in one of the greatest turnarounds in European history. Wednesday's implosion vs. Man United was as peculiar as it gets. PSG dominated the match and should have finished off United on multiple occasions. That it was without Neymar and largely without Edinson Cavani is essentially irrelevant given how well it had played in their absence. All PSG had to do was come up with a mature, professional performance at home and not gift its visitor a lifeline. Instead, it gifted it three, and it'll spend the rest of the season on a procession to what amounts to a mostly meaningless Ligue 1 title.