Four things we learned from the Champions League group phase


The UEFA Champions League group phase has come to an end with an anthology of extraordinary story lines that set the fans' pulses racing.

Sixteen teams have survived the eight groups and will wait for Monday's draw of the round of 16 with hope and trepidation.

The final round of qualification provided enough spills and thrils to whet the appetite of the fans, maybe even those who might think with a degree of justification that the competition really comes to life in the knockout stage.

Some pressing issues, however, will leave their mark on the current season.

Manchester United at the crossroads

English giants Manchester United would be well advised to go back to the drawing board and 'start again' after being unceremoniously dumped from the competition.

Losing to each of their group rivals is simply not good enough for a club of such stature so United should have no complaints.

It is easy to point the finger at rookie Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who has lost six of the 10 UCL matches he has been involved in as manager but he is not the only one to blame for the capitulation.

The club has too many ordinary players to be a genuine contender for the honours and when it occasionally comes up with the goods and snares a good result it does not back it up with a run of strong form to dispel claims that inconsistency is one of its major flaws.

Needing a point from the last two group matches United got none. They were outclassed 3-1 by Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford and outplayed by RB Leipzig despite the narrow 3-2 result at the Red Bull Arena.

In both matches United huffed and puffed in a bid to keep up with players who were more comfortable on the ball and formed part of a silkier and better organised outfit.

United should use the January transfer window wisely because they need to.

Barcelona woes worsen

One sparrow does not make a summer so one bad home defeat does not mean Barcelona are in trouble.

But they are, despite the fact that they have reached the knockout phase of the competition.

Ronald Koeman's team are playing poorly in La Liga and the way they were taken apart 3-0 by Juventus would suggest that Barca's decline that started two or three seasons ago is in full swing.

And what makes it worse for the club that for years was the epitome of all that is bold and beautiful in European football is the fact that there seems no remedy in sight.

Lionel Messi appears to be fighting a lost cause at a troubled club he cannot wait to leave while the long-term absence of Gerard Pique has made Barca's notoriously inadequate defence even more porous.

Koeman is also accused of having failed to make the best use of under-performing attackers Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho.

This is not going to be a memorable season for Barca.

Atalanta the genuine article

There can be no doubt any more ... Atalanta have become a force to be reckoned with in European football.

Many suspected that Atalanta's achievements in their first sortie in the competition last season - where they were minutes away from reaching the semi-finals - might have been a flash in the pan.

But they proved the sceptics wrong by again qualifying from a group comprising traditional heavyweights Liverpool and Ajax.

They effectively clinched their qualification by beating the English champions 2-0 and the Dutch side 1-0 in consecutive away matches.

'La Dea' are an attacking side whose eye-catching game emanates from the cultured feet of little master Alejandro Gomez.

Coach Gian Piero Gasperini said before the match with Ajax his side would not know how to play for a draw because defending was not in their DNA.

Let no one be fooled, though. Atalanta defended brilliantly in the best Italian tradition at Anfield and the Johan Cruyff Arena and gave Liverpool and Ajax hardly a sniff of goal.

Atalanta are probably not good and experienced enough to win the competition but no team would relish meeting them in the round of 16.

Football may have found an answer to racism

PSG's match with Istanbul Basaksehir showed very clearly that the only effective way to tackle racism is for teams to walk off the field as soon as this nasty scourge rears its ugly head.

Both teams should be highly applauded for their firm and decisive action that forced the game to be suspended for 24 hours.

Hopefully the unsavoury incident, involving Romanian fourth official Sebastian Coltescu and Istanbul's assistant coach Pierre Webo that made headlines worldwide, will be the catalyst for change.

Racism in football is endemic. It has been so for a long time and, with respect, won't go away by the symbolic gesture of players taking the knee.

There is no place for racism in football - and nowhere else, of course - and the extraordinary events of the Parc des Princes will set an example for all the teams in the world to follow and give them the impetus and courage to do the same thing should it become necessary.

This could well be a seminal moment in the fight against racism.

One slur and we're out, should be the game's new slogan.