The Ending to the Champions League's Most Difficult Group Descends Into Disorder

Man United is out, and PSG and RB Leipzig are through, but there's plenty more than just those surface facts to sift through after allegations of racial abuse marred the Group of Death's final day.
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The basic facts are that Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig are through to the last 16 of the Champions League, with Manchester United slipping into the Europa League knockout stage after a third-place group finish, but such details were secondary on a day when PSG’s game against Istanbul Basaksehir suspended after the alleged use of a racist term by the fourth official. 

Both teams left the pitch 14 minutes into the first half at the Parc des Princes with the score at 0-0 in protest of a word apparently used by Romanian fourth official Sebastian Coltescu. The incident flared when Coltescu drew the referee’s attention to dissent by Basaksehir’s Cameroonian assistant coach Pierre Webo. 

Basaksehir’s bench reacted furiously after overhearing Coltescu telling the referee Ovidiu Hategan who was at fault, with former Chelsea striker Demba Ba asking repeatedly, “Why did you say ‘negro?'” One of the officials claimed it was a misunderstanding relating to the Romanian language (the phrase used appeared to be “ala negru,” which means, “that black guy”), to which Ba responded, "You never say, ‘this white guy’; you say, ‘this guy.’ Why when you mention a black guy, you have to say, ‘this black guy?'” Players from both sides left the pitch in protest. 

UEFA proposed restarting with Coltescu swapping places with one of the video assistant referees, but Basaksehir refused to play in with him taking any role. UEFA "has–after discussion with both clubs–decided on an exceptional basis to have the remaining minutes of the match played [Wednesday] with a new team of match officials," the governing body said.

Of far less significance, as it turns out, was United’s exit. Quite how it has gone out after having won away in Paris and then having beaten Leipzig 5-0 in its first two games would be mystifying were inconsistency not characteristic of the club under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It has some excellent players, but often game intelligence and structure is missing. 

The game could hardly have begun worse for United. It may be that, only needing a draw, it was unsure how to start, but that issue was soon settled. It took less than two minutes for Angeliño, on loan at Leipzig from Manchester City, to drive home the opener with a swerving first-time shot from Marcel Sabitzer’s cross. But United didn’t settle. Leipzig continued to stretch it through midfield. Angeliño, tearing forward from his fullback position, repeatedly found space on the Leipzig left. Eleven minutes after the opener, he was given space to cross, and Amadou Haidara was left unmarked to volley past David De Gea. 

What was most baffling was that this was United in a back three. It had three fullbacks on the pitch–Alex Telles, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka–and yet seemed weirdly vulnerable to attacks from wide. It could easily have been worse before halftime. Emil Forsberg wasted a fine chance, and then Ibrahima Konate headed against the inside of the post (Willi Orban was offside as he poked in the rebound). United was dreadful. But that is not an unusual position for the club this season. Although it has won five out of five matches away from home in the Premier League, it has gone behind in all of them. 

Telles was removed at halftime for Donny van der Beek as United went to a back four and improved dramatically. But Leipzig, having been exposed on the break again and again in losing 5-0 at Old Trafford as it chased the game, was in the opposite position here, able to sit deep and look to hit the space behind United. Solskjaer had insisted that the decision to start Paul Pogba in the bench was tactical, and unrelated to his agent Mino Raiola’s insistence on Monday that the midfielder wanted to leave the club in January. 

Solskjaer did bring Pogba on just after the hour mark, and United in the final minutes created a string of chances, but by then the damage was done. Bruno Fernandes hit the bar at the midpoint of the second half, but within a minute, Justin Kluivert capitalized as Harry Maguire and De Gea hesitated, and touched in a third for Leipzig. 

That seemed to be game over, but United was gifted a soft penalty awarded by Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, as Mason Greenwood collapsed following a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge with Konate. Fernandes converted, and, two minutes later, Pogba rose highest at the back post and headed in a corner via deflections off Maguire and Konate. Leipzig appealed for handball, but no angle showed conclusive it had flicked Maguire’s arm. 

Including injury time, Leipzig had 12 minutes to survive, and, in the end, did so with relative comfort. Whether it will top the group depends on the eventual result from Paris (a loss would provide no lifeline for United, given that PSG holds the head-to-head tiebreaker)–but the repercussions of what happened there on Tuesday are likely to reverberate far longer than the result in Leipzig.