Big Midweek: Liverpool, Pogba, Bayern, Antonio Conte…

Date published: Tuesday 5th December 2017 8:15

Game to watch – Liverpool v Spartak Moscow
The good news for Liverpool is that Spartak Moscow have not won an away Champions League game since December 2010, when they triumphed in Zilina with a side boasting the questionable talents of Aiden McGeady. The bad news for Liverpool is that a) McGeady is no longer playing and b) Spartak come to Anfield knowing that victory will earn them a place in the knock-out stages for the first time in 22 years. They will fancy this.

Liverpool are unbeaten in six in the Premier League, but their last Champions League game remains that 3-3 draw with Sevilla that left them needing this result in a week in which they would prefer to be brainstorming ways to get past Sam Allardyce’s nine-man defence. As much as not throwing away a 3-0 lead against Brighton will exorcise some demons, Jurgen Klopp will not rest until they have not thrown away a lead in the Champions League.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t think ‘yeah…’,” said Klopp when asked whether Brighton bringing the game back to 3-1 brought on The Fear. And if Klopp felt it, you know his players felt it too. They – and by extension, the fans – may only be able to truly relax at 4-0.

 

Player to watch – Paul Pogba
Having been robbed of the chance to go toe to toe with Kevin de Bruyne after going stud to calf with Hector Bellerin, Pogba will definitely be in Manchester United’s team to face CSKA Moscow even if Jose Mourinho chooses to rest key, overworked players like Nemanja Matic, Antonio Valencia and new hero Jesse Lingard. After playing only 85 minutes of United’s European campaign, it’s definitely time that Pogba played his part in their likely qualification. And this is a game Pogba really should bestride like a colossus.

It will be worth keeping an eye on Pogba’s interactions with Mourinho on Tuesday night. The pair exchanged heated words prior to the Frenchman’s red card and a watching Frank Lampard suggested Pogba had “lost his head”, leading to a lack of control in the Bellerin challenge. With lingering talk of tension between the pair, it’s an interesting sideshow in what should be a cruise for United.

 

Team to watch – Bayern Munich
It was a 3-0 defeat to PSG that cost Carlo Ancelotti his job at Bayern Munich, and it the same opposition who will provide the first real European test of the Jupp Heynckes era. Have Bayern really fallen behind Europe’s elite despite being six points clear at the top of the Bundesliga? Or was that 3-0 humiliation an Ancelotti problem solved by the return of Heynckes and his iron fist?

Bayern have an “unlikely dream” (says Mats Hummels) of beating PSG 4-0 and finishing top of the group, but the manager has a far more realistic aim: the return of dignity. Bayern have not yet been beaten at home this season and they are not about to lose that record to French upstarts; this is no dead rubber.

“We want to beat them and show off what we are capable of. Everything else is far from realistic,” says Heynckes. Presumably included in the ‘everything else’ is the notion that Bayern can thrive on two fronts while their only real striking option is 19-goal Robert Lewandowski. That no other player has scored more than four goals in all competitions is a problem even Heynkes is powerless to solve, but for now he will take one more winning goal from the Pole.

 

Manager to watch – Antonio Conte
Possible opposition should Chelsea finish first in their group (assuming groups remain the same): FC Basle, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Sevilla, Shakhtar Donetsk, Porto, Real Madrid.

Possible opposition should Chelsea finish second in their group (assuming groups remain the same): PSG, Barcelona, Besiktas.

Even with the threat of drawing Bayern, Juventus or Real Madrid, you can see why Chelsea would still be motivated to beat Atletico Madrid, even though they have already qualified. The 33.33% chance of drawing Besiktas is really not worth the risk of resting Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata. And it really is a risk when the next option is Michy Batshuayi.

“The most important thing is to reach the next stage, but for our mission and our confidence, it would be right to win and arrive first,” says the Italian, who has once again rebuilt Chelsea confidence with a six-game unbeaten run following the 3-0 defeat to Roma. Unfortunately for Mrs Conte, you get the feeling that Mr Conte always thinks it is right to arrive first.

 

One-on-one battle to watch – Quincy Promes v Trent Alexander-Arnold
We were robbed of the chance to watch Quincy Promes when Liverpool travelled to Moscow but the man with 13 goals already this season will be appearing at Anfield in the role of Spartak Player Most Likely. It is thanks to his brace of both goals and assists in an unlikely 5-1 win over Sevilla that Spartak Moscow come to Merseyside with any hope at all, and the majority of that hope has been placed squarely on the shoulders of a Dutchman we are duty-bound to call ‘mercurial’.

Promes can play anywhere anywhere across the 3 of a 4-2-3-1 but he is most likely to be found on the left wing, licking his lips at the chance to take on Trent Alexander-Arnold and knowing that even if victory eludes his team, there is half a chance of a January transfer and escape from the bitter cold of Moscow to the slightly less bitter cold of Merseyside.

 

European game to watch – Barcelona v Sporting
Because who doesn’t want to see 2017’s most prolific goalscorers go head to head? Especially when Sporting have a sliver of a chance of making it through to the Champions League knock-out stages for the first time since 2009. When the two met in Portugal, only a Sebastian Coates own goal separated the two teams so it is not an entirely unrealistic notion.

“Not even the most confident believed Sporting would make it to the final round of qualifying,” says Sporting coach Jorge Jesus. “I think we can win, especially if the short one [Lionel Messi] does not play. I hope that Barcelona rests players.”

Now we’re torn.

 

Writer to watch – Sarah Winterburn


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