Editor’s note: these grades are for teams’ performances in this week’s round of matches rather than their chances of winning the competition as a whole.
Completing the job of qualifying from a difficult group by beating Galatasaray 1-0 represented a huge achievement. Despite Galatasaray and Manchester United’s many faults, the Danish club were still not expected to make their way through but did so after completing the job with a disciplined win. Copenhagen take their place in the last 16 for the first time since 2010-11, an achievement well ahead of their Uefa coefficient ranking. Lukas Lerager scored the goal but later, through ill-discipline, might have cost his team with two yellow cards only for his teammates to see it through. Jacob Neestrup, their coach, 35, has announced himself as a major talent.
The northern French club took their place in the Europa League in their first European season for 15 years, and it was secured the hard way against Sevilla. It required an injury-time goal from Angelo Fulgini to beat opposition of serious previous European pedigree, with Sergio Ramos at his provocative best/worst. Florian Sotoca’s pass sent away Fulgini to score the winner, and he took his chance coolly as the home crowd went understandably wild. PSV’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal, who stepped off the gas having already qualified, stopped Lens making the last 16 of the Champions League.
Milan, Celtic, Antwerp, Atlético
Both Celtic and Antwerp ended their losing runs and while Milan join them in exiting the Champions League after Dortmund failed to do them a favour they enter the Europa League looking one of the more capable teams in the secondary competition. Having soaked up Newcastle’s pressure, energy and the St James’ Park atmosphere, Milan saved their best result and performance yet of their Champions League campaign. They might have won by more than 2-1, Christian Pulisic starting it with his sharp finish before Samuel Chukwueze, off the bench to replace Pulisic, was sent away to score the winner on the breakaway. Had Rafael Leão taken his chances, Milan would have been far more comfortable.
Real Sociedad, PSV
Back in the competition for the first time in 10 seasons, La Real completed progress to the knockouts for the first time in 20 years with a careful performance in San Siro to draw 0-0 and take their place at the top of the group. They even managed to dominate possession over Internazionale, particularly in the first half, but settled for keeping out last season’s finalists, who failed to score for the first time this season. Take Kubo looked to have won a 75th minute penalty, only for VAR to correctly decide he had dived to win it. His team held on without it, with goalkeeper Álex Remiro given relatively little to do.
Bayern Münich, Real Madrid, Benfica, Porto
Considering the shock and awe of their 5-1 weekend hammering by Eintracht Frankfurt, winning at Manchester United was an important win for Thomas Tuchel’s regime. Speculation over the former Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund manager is heating up, but thanks to the vision of Harry Kane, winning the Champions League group provided some respite from their Bundesliga campaign. Bayern have two more games to play before a vital winter break, and Tuchel must hope that the likes of Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala finish better than they did at Old Trafford. That said, Kane’s reverse pass for Kingsley Coman’s well-taken goal was an absolute beauty.
Internazionale, Napoli, Union Berlin, RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund
Farewell, then, Union Berlin, who have enjoyed their first ever Champions League season, despite exiting European football in total by failing to make the Europa League. It took a late Dani Ceballos winner to deny Union and their partisan fans after what had been probably their best showing in the competition against a strong Real Madrid team. Alex Král looked to have secured a point only for reality to descend. Union return to their battle against Bundesliga relegation from which the Champions League has been a welcome distraction.
Manchester City, Arsenal, Red Star Belgrade
An understrength Manchester City lineup made relatively heavy weather of Red Star Belgrade, though excellent goals from Micah Hamilton and Oscar Bobb were good signs for the next generation of City players. Kalvin Phillips, probably headed for the January departure lounge, scored the penalty that proved the decider, his first goal in 30 matches for City, though his celebration suggested a tad of embarrassment over being handed the chance by Phil Foden. An evening of pleasing experimentation for Pep Guardiola – which is probably his favorite kind.
PSG, Galatasaray, Shakhtar, Feyenoord, Lazio
PSG are back in the last 16 of the competition that has brought them such heartache. In Dortmund, they seemed likely to inflict their annual pain on themselves, with the same series of missed chances that had damaged their campaign so far. Warren Zaïre-Emery added to his burgeoning reputation with the equaliser and the man of the match award but his team failed to find the winner that would have kept destiny in their own hands. Kylian Mbappé was especially off-key and few teams will fear the Parisians in the knockout rounds. For all their talent, they continue to be flaky and self-destructive.
Newcastle, Red Bull Salzburg, Braga, Young Boys
Fatigue and injuries have caught up with Eddie Howe’s team, and questions may be raised over his squad management and perhaps training methods. The added workload was always likely to test Newcastle but their riotous 4-1 win over PSG in October now seems a considerable distance away. That they exited at the hands of a Milan team that was far from vintage, and having taken the lead through Joelinton’s wonderful strike, will be a huge disappointment. A losing double-header with Dortmund was the true key to their failure to be playing European football next season. As was their failure to score more than two goals beyond that PSG win. A learning experience perhaps, but a painful one.
There will be no Sevilla in the Europa League, which just about leaves that competition open for the rest, such has been their usual dominance. Sergio Ramos’s prodigal return hasn’t made his boyhood club any more of a competitor in the big daddy trophy. Instead, he got himself a 250th career yellow card for smashing into Lens goalkeeper Brice Samba after scoring a panenka penalty. Ramos could then do little to stop Angelo Fulgini scoring a winner that proved happy consolation for Lens.
Sure, they had already won their group but losing to Antwerp was rather endemic of Barca’s sloppy season. Conceding in the second minute and then in time added on beyond full-time betrayed their habitual lack of defensive concentration. Marc Guiu looked to have denied the Belgians’ their first win and yet, almost straight from the kick-off, George Ilenikhena was able to go down the other end and score the winner. After the weekend’s La Liga defeat to Girona, Xavi may soon be coming under a modicum of pressure.
Oh dear. The Champions League this season had previously seen United play their better attacking football with the caveat that the defending was correspondingly terrible. Tuesday’s must-win affair at Old Trafford never looked likely to be anything like a famous European night. The return of Raphaël Varane to defence after a period of exile added some defensive quality but United were hopeless going forward. Rasmus Højlund was unable to add to his five Champions League goals – he has yet to score in the Premier League – through a sincere lack of service. Erik Ten Hag talked afterwards of having “no regrets” but his stewardship surely grows more shaky after being so easily picked off by Bayern. Perhaps a lack of Thursday night Europa League football might make their domestic season easier but United continue to be European football’s fastest falling star.