Football Features

Ranked: Every Champions League manager left standing

By Steve Jennings

Published: 11:00, 16 April 2019

Only eight teams are left standing in the Champions League, and their progression to this point has in part been down to the men in charge.

Indeed, the final eight are coached by some of the continent’s leading managers, some of whom have been in this situation plenty of times before.

For others it is a relatively new experience, one in which they can showcase their ability and potential to consistently reach the latter stages of Europe’s elite competition.

But who of the eight remaining managers is the cream of the crop? We’ve had a go at ranking them below.

8. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – Man Utd

Teams managed: Molde, Cardiff City, Molde (2nd time), Man Utd
Trophies: 3 (Tippeligaen x2, Norwegian Football Cup)

After cutting his teeth as manager of Manchester United’s reserve team, Solskjaer returned to Norway and won two league titles with Molde. He was then ready for the Premier League, but his short-lived spell at Cardiff City, with whom he was relegated, was a disaster.

Solskjaer went back to Molde but couldn’t turn down the caretaker job at Manchester United last year. It turned out to be the best decision the former Red Devil would ever make. After a hugely impressive interim stint, Solskjaer is now United’s full-time manager.

Like Ten Hag, it is too early to really have a grip on Solskjaer’s credentials. He clearly excels in man management having given Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba the confidence to reach a higher level at Old Trafford, and the belief he gave his players to come back against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 was extraordinary.

It’s been a tough start to life as United’s permanent boss for Solskjaer, who may end up failing to lead his side to a top-four finish. But the fans are fully on board and Solskjaer has done enough to suggest he could have a major future in management.

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7. Erik ten Hag – Ajax

Teams managed: Go Ahead Eagles, Bayern Munich II, Utrecht, Ajax
Trophies: 0

Taking over midway through the 2017/18 season, Ten Hag led Ajax to a second-place finish in the Eredivisie. The club had already been knocked out of the Dutch Cup and Ten Hag didn’t get the chance to show his European credentials with Ajax having been eliminated in the qualifiers for both the Champions League and the Europa League.

He has made up for that lost time this term, leading Ajax on incredible journey in the Champions League. Spectacularly beating Real Madrid over two legs, including a 4-1 victory at the Bernabeu, was undoubtedly the highlight of their campaign so far.Ten Hag has also done a remarkable job nurturing talents like Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt into two of Europe’s very best young players.

That said, it’s far too early to say whether the Ajax boss belongs among the elite. He is yet to win a trophy, although that could end soon with the Amsterdam outfit currently joint-top of the Eredivisie. The 49-year-old did brilliantly to lead previous club Utrecht to a fourth place finish, but silverware has eluded him to date.

It will be intriguing to see where Ten Hag goes from here, but we should perhaps hold fire on allowing our expectations to soar too high for now.

6. Sergio Conceicao – Porto

Teams managed: Olhanense, Academica, Braga, Vitoria Guimaraes, Nantes, Porto
Trophies: 2 (Primeira Liga, Portuguese Super Cup)

Conceicao flitted around Portugal before eventually leaving his home country for France with Ligue 1 side Nantes. He led the club to a seventh-place finish in 2016/17 but left at the end of the campaign to replace now-Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo at Porto.

His first season at Porto couldn’t have gone much better. Despite capitulating against Liverpool in the Champions League Round of 16, Canceicao led Porto to their first league title for five years. He followed that up with the Portuguese Super Cup this term and has been given a chance enact revenge on Liverpool in Europe.

Porto’s first leg display against the Merseysiders – this time in the quarter-finals of the Champions League – exemplified Canceicao’s growing nous; the visitors were unfortunate not to grab an away goal at Anfield but could get at Jurgen Klopp’s side in the reverse fixture back in Portugal.

If they do manage to turn the tie around, Conceicao’s reputation will receive yet another huge boost. Like the names above, however, it would be wise to keep expectations in check.

5. Ernesto Valverde – Barcelona

Teams managed: Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol, Olympiacos, Villarreal, Olympiacos (2nd time), Valencia, Athletic Bilbao (2nd time), Barcelona
Trophies: 9 (Super League Greece x3, Greek Football Cup x2, Spanish Super Cup x 2, La Liga, Copa del Rey)

For a manager who brought the league and cup double to Barcelona last season, Valverde is far from universally loved at Camp Nou. There have been a few drawbacks during his tenure despite the silverware he has managed to attain.

In fact, Barcelona are set to seal a second successive La Liga title in the coming weeks, but there is an overriding feeling Lionel Messi has bailed Valverde out on a number of occasions this term, case in point being Barcelona’s recent 4-4 draw with Villarreal.

What’s more, Valverde has failed to get the best out of record signing Philippe Coutinho. In fairness to Valverde, losing Neymar in the summer of 2017 broke up Europe’s finest attacking trident, and the current coach has been forced to find a way to retain Barcelona’s offensive proficiency with less than perfect tools at his disposal.

For all of that, he has delivered success, just like he did at Athletic Bilbao and Olympiacos. The drawbacks above in no way suggest Valverde is a sub-par coach, but they do perhaps justify him being ranked below a manager with no trophies to his name…

4. Mauricio Pochettino – Tottenham

Teams managed: Espanyol, Southampton, Tottenham
Trophies: 0

What Pochettino has achieved at Tottenham shouldn’t be undervalued. Before the Argentinian arrived, Spurs dreamed of finishing fourth in the Premier League. He has led them to three successive top three finishes and could make it four in a row this season.

That’s all with next to no investment. In fact, Tottenham haven’t bought a new player in over a year. Pochettino has essentially had to work with a stagnating squad, albeit a group including some hugely talented players. Regardless, he has prevailed with minimal complaints and overseen yet another progression this term in Europe.

Even if Spurs end up being eliminated by Manchester City, their first leg victory at the club’s new stadium demonstrated Pochettino’s capacity to tactically outmanoeuvre one of the world’s best teams. He was already showcasing that ability at his former club, Southampton, where he brought through a number of young English players.

The absence of silverware is of course a sticking point. Tottenham have come close, reaching two FA Cup semi-finals and being involved in two Premier League title races, lacking that bit of experience to see out tough games in both competitions. We will never truly know what Pochettino would have achieved in north London to date with a bit of investment, but his credentials are clear for all to see.

3. Massimiliano Allegri – Juventus

Teams managed: Aglianese, SPAL, Grosseto, Sassuolo, Cagliari, AC Milan, Juventus
Trophies: 12 (Serie A x5, Italian Super Cup x3, Coppa Italia x4)

There is no arguing with Max Allegri’s record at Juventus. He has never failed to win the Serie A title at the Allianz Stadium, lifting the trophy four times – soon to be five – to add to his one title with AC Milan. On top of that, he has made the Coppa Italia his own, too.

Losing big players hasn’t been an issue for Allegri. Juventus remain dominant without Paul Pogba, reinvesting wisely since the Frenchman’s exit. And last summer, Allegri’s line-up reached a new level of quality with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has improved Juventus all the more.

Allegri has led the Turin giants to two Champions League finals, losing to peak Barcelona and Real Madrid sides respectively. He will be desperate to lift the the one prize that has eluded him this time around, and Ronaldo could help to make that happen.

If Juventus do win the Champions League this season, Allegri will go down as one of the club’s greatest ever managers, if he hasn’t already. The 51-year-old is often linked with other European superpowers when there are vacancies, and it will be interesting to see if he fancies testing himself elsewhere when his spell at Juventus comes to an end.

2. Jurgen Klopp – Liverpool

Teams managed: Mainz 05, Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool
Trophies: 5 (Bundesliga x 2, German Cup, German Super Cup x 2)

Like Pochettino at Spurs, Klopp’s time at Liverpool has been a spell of transformation rather than tangible achievement. But there are parallels to Tottenham in that Liverpool are essentially unrecognisable to the team that was floundering under previous management.

Klopp has completely changed the outlook at Liverpool, both tactically and in terms of confidence. Reaching the Champions League final last season was indicative of the quality and drive the Merseysiders possess, and their falling at the final hurdle was down to personnel issues rather than any failing on Klopp’s part.

This season, with a couple of additions, Liverpool have stepped up another level and could still end the campaign with two major trophies. Klopp won two Bundesliga titles at Dortmund – something that is often forgotten by his detractors – but success in the Premier League and Champions League with Liverpool would trump that.

The German is responsible for bringing together one of Europe’s most fearsome attacks and aiding the development of perhaps now the world’s best centre-back in Virgil van Dijk. With all of that in mind, silverware feels like only a matter of time for Klopp and Liverpool.

1. Pep Guardiola – Man City

Teams managed: Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Man City
Trophies: 25 (La Liga x3, Copa del Rey x2, Spanish Super Cup x3, Champions League x2, UEFA Super Cup x3, FIFA Club World Cup x3, Bundesliga x3, German Cup x2, Premier League, EFL Cup x2, FA Community Shield)

A glance at the achievements above is enough to justify Guardiola’s place in top spot. The Spaniard has won just about everything he has tried his hand at, but he’ll be desperate to win his first Champions League title for eight years with Manchester City this term.

Indeed, City are still on course to win a famous quadruple despite their first leg defeat at Spurs. Guardiola has created one of the most tactically proficient sides in the history of English football at the Etihad – just as he did with Barcelona in Spain – but conquering Europe has been a tough ask so far.

It would surprise nobody, however, to see them achieve what they’ve set out to in Europe either this year or next. Champions League glory eluded Guardiola at Bayern Munich, too, where he won three Bundesliga title with little fanfare because of the team’s strength in depth compared to the rest of the division.

But having high-quality players doesn’t automatically equate to success. At all three of his clubs, Guardiola has taken individuals to another level while cultivating a cohesive team unit, all of which combines into something special in a completely unique way. Guardiola’s genius is beyond any doubt.