Game to watch – Liverpool v Sevilla
Oh, magical European nights, how Anfield has missed you.
Liverpool’s Europa League sojourn two seasons ago was delightful, and almost ended in silverware, but it was not quite the same away from the glaring lights of football’s biggest stage. One cannot perfectly recall the jaunty, uplifting tune of Europe’s secondary competition, but we are all powerless to resist bellowing ‘THE CHAMPIOOOOOOOONS’ at the top of our lungs when Tuesday and Wednesday evenings roll around.
It was on December 9, 2014, when Liverpool last played a Champions League game. Steven Gerrard could not rescue Brendan Rodgers’ side from a 1-1 home draw with Basel that consigned them to third place in their group and an early exit. Mario Balotelli scored in their last victory in the competition: a 2-1 win over Ludogorets that September thanks to a stoppage-time Gerrard penalty.
In the intervening years, Liverpool have parted company with Rodgers, changed their playing style, finished sixth, eighth and fourth in the Premier League, and reached two cup finals. The first was a League Cup defeat to Manchester City in February 2016; the second came that May in the Europa League against Sevilla.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and a full 16 months later. Maribor and Spartak Moscow provide interesting and eminently beatable group stage opponents, but Jurgen Klopp had only one team in mind when the draw was made. His claim that Liverpool have “an open bill” with Sevilla suggests that the Reds have a point to prove.
Liverpool have made considerable strides since that disappointing final in Switzerland, but the need to make a statement on Wednesday was intensified further at the weekend. Even with Sadio Mane’s contentious red card against Manchester City, they surrendered meekly at the Etihad.
Klopp will not stand for anything less than three points and a barnstorming performance. Hoffenheim, victors over Bayern Munich at the weekend, were crushed at Anfield last month. Germany’s fourth best team were no match for England’s. Might Spain’s fare any better?
Player to watch – Harry Kane
“In the skin of Tottenham, I would be more worried,” said Manchester City director Txiki Begiristain last month, echoing the sentiments expressed by most in the immediate aftermath of the draw. Of all the English clubs, Tottenham were dealt the most difficult hand.
The more measured response was one of anticipation. Tottenham fought to qualify for the Champions League not to play FK Qarabag or APOEL, but to test themselves against the very best the continent has to offer.
“We’ve got to learn from last year’s campaign,” Harry Kane said in midweek. “I think the fact we’re playing teams like Real Madrid and Dortmund will help us because it will be a big motivation to try to beat those teams.
“Are we at that level now? I think we have to prove it,” the striker added, and that stands as much for him as an individual as it does for Tottenham as a team. Kane has established himself as the Premier League’s most consistently brilliant forward over the past three years, but has to show that, behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, there are few better marksmen in the world.
He has a Champions League track record, however limited. In Tottenham’s failed Champions League campaign last season, Kane played only half of their games. The striker scored as many goals in three matches as his club managed in the three without him (2).
With August now a distant memory and his account for the season opened, the pressure will be on Kane to deliver at Wembley against Dortmund on Wednesday. As he often does, he will have to lead by example.
Team to watch – Manchester United
If Rickie Lambert starting in Liverpool’s last Champions League game emphasises just how they have been transformed during their three-year hiatus, Manchester United’s most recent fixture in the competition tells a similar story. They too finished third in their group after a disappointing last result: a 3-2 home defeat to Wolfsburg.
Guillermo Varela started on that fateful evening alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger, while Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was one of the substitutes. Another, brought on with 21 minutes remaining at 2-1 down, was Nick Powell.
Fast forward little under two years, and this is a United squad that belongs on this stage. There are still flaws, and both Charlie Adam and Xherdan Shaqiri claimed that Stoke targeted them on Saturday, but Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford can wreak havoc on any defence.
Jose Mourinho spoke of there being “four or five teams” capable of winning the Champions League this season, with United falling outside of the select few. They are certainly not on the same level as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Paris Saint-Germain, but topping a group containing Basel, CSKA Moscow and Benfica is a must.
First on the agenda is a meeting with Basel, with Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof confirmed for their first appearances of the season. Keep Ricky van Wolfswinkel quiet like it’s the 2013/14 Premier League season, and that forward line should do the rest.
Manager to watch – Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger stands at a crossroads with two possible avenues. His keeper knows only too well where one path can lead.
“You make your decision,” Petr Cech said in midweek, having experienced the same demotion from the Champions League to its ginger stepchild in the 2012/13 season. “At Chelsea, we were really disappointed to have been knocked of the group stage but we decided that for the first time and the last time, hopefully, we play in the Europa League so we want to win.”
Of course, the Blues entered the tournament at the last-16 stage in February 2013, 16 points behind the Premier League leaders. The choice was more or less made for them. But for Arsenal, top-four hopes still burn bright in September. There is a feeling that they cannot divide their eggs between European and domestic baskets; at a certain point, one competition must be prioritised.
For now, a balance can be struck, but Wenger’s mind is already made up. “For us it is a good opportunity to focus completely on the Premier League,” he said before the start of the season, yet the Frenchman knows the importance of momentum. Three days after hosting Koln, Arsenal travel to Chelsea in a game they can ill afford to lose. The win over Bournemouth aided the post-Liverpool recovery, but a disappointing result on Thursday would set them back once more.
One-on-one battle to watch – John Terry v Adama Traore
You know how John Terry was practising yoga in Aston Villa’s media room last week? It was part of his preparation ahead of meeting Middlesbrough and Adama Traore.
Adama Traore vs Bolton Wanderers 2017
RT's Appreciated pic.twitter.com/phcuObSoMQ
— Michael (@MikeyyyBoro) September 10, 2017
Football League game to watch – Oxford v Bradford
Sixth meets fourth as two League One promotion hopefuls clash at the Kassam Stadium on Tuesday. Stuart McCall, in the midst of his third spell as Bradford manager, will pit his wits against former Swansea and Leeds assistant manager Pep Clotet.
Bradford will be confident that their firepower can cause the hosts issues. Only Charlton and Peterborough (13) have scored more league goals than the Bantams (12) so far this season.
Had one combined Bradford’s attack with Oxford’s defence, the result would be a title-winning machine. Leeds and Preston (2) are the only two clubs in the Football League to concede fewer goals than the U’s after the first six games (3). What happens when a barely resistible force meets an almost immovable object?
European game to watch – Barcelona v Juventus
If nothing else, Tuesday’s clash between two of Europe’s heavyweights, and a repeat of the 2015 final, is a chance for Gianluigi Buffon to fulfil one of his final footballing wishes. It really is the sort of game you would only miss if you were stupid enough to spend five hours at work before realising you left your keys in the door when you set off in the morning, before having to rush back home in the desperate hope that all your belongings are still there, and that you didn’t have to subsequently explain the scenario to your partner while she threw sharp things at you for being such an idiot. And no-one could possibly be that stupid.
Idiot to watch – Matt Stead