Big Midweek: Liverpool, Man United, Bruce, England Women

Date published: Tuesday 19th September 2017 1:42

Game to watch – Leicester City vs Liverpool
The EFL Cup may not be anyone’s idea of a lovely evening, but if you are going to watch then it might as well be a match stuffed with shots, potential defensive collapse and more questions over a top-six manager.

There are two ways to look at Liverpool, depending on your personal preference. Jurgen Klopp is either a man under pressure after a failure to solve the club’s defensive problems and a failure to land top transfer targets. Or he is the manager of a team that surprisingly achieved Champions League football last season and has lost two games in six months.

As ever, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Klopp merits patience in his methods given his intention to stick around and the uncertainty over Philippe Coutinho’s future at the club. Yet there are also valid questions about his defensive blind spot. Klopp spends press conferences insisting that there was no better defender available than the ones he had, yet Liverpool face better central defenders in almost every match. Leicester and Harry Maguire are this Tuesday’s example.

The EFL Cup might be Liverpool’s fourth priority this season, but Tuesday really should matter to Klopp. Having overcome the sticky patch of one win (vs Plymouth) in ten games over January and February, Liverpool looked to have turned a corner. Before the defeat to Manchester City, Liverpool had lost once in 17 matches.

Now they haven’t won in three since. Lose to Leicester, and the suspicion will be that the 5-0 defeat at the Etihad caused a greater psychological blow than Klopp would dare to admit.


Player to watch – Michy Batshuayi
It was halfway through the second half of Sunday’s game against Arsenal that I realised how much I miss the glorious shithousery of Diego Costa. Alvaro Morata certainly rolled around on the floor plenty of times and was booked for dissent, but it just wasn’t the same. Where was the flicking of Granit Xhaka’s ear or raking of Laurent Koscielny’s Achilles tendon with his studs before jumping to the ground and alleging grievous assault?

Anyway, with Costa still sunning it up in Brazil, Spain or somewhere else that isn’t Cobham or Stamford Bridge and Morata presumably rested for the EFL Cup, we get to watch the latest instalment of Michy Batshuayi’s very weird Chelsea career.

In his programme notes on Sunday, Antonio Conte made the point of congratulating his Belgian striker for his two goals against Qarabag on Tuesday. Yet there is a degree of futility about such encouragement. By Sunday, Batshuayi stayed on the bench throughout the league game against Arsenal. Nothing will change.

Still, that gives Batshuayi the chance to play 90 minutes against Nottingham Forest, a team who allow the opposition more chances to score than is usually advisable. A year ago, Lucas Perez scored twice against Forest in the EFL Cup to provoke talk of him being given a chance in the league. Expect equally futile reaction on Thursday morning.


Team to watch – Manchester United
I know, I know; it’s only Burton Albion. But while the Gods of television continue to rule in Manchester United’s favour, we can only deal with the hand we’re dealt. The EFL Cup’s reigning holders make their 2017/18 bow at Old Trafford. Let’s face it: you’ll probably watch it.

Jose Mourinho’s team selection was one of the more intriguing elements of Manchester United’s 2016/17. Even against lower-league opposition in the second round (Northampton Town), Mourinho gave appearances to Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Michael Carrick. The manager decided that the priority for his first season was silverware in any and every form. Manchester United’s players followed through on that request.

Now United’s and Mourinho’s priorities have surely changed. No longer does the manager need the EFL Cup to boost his own ego, and his team selection will surely reflect that. With Champions League participation alongside a required Premier League title challenge, key players must be rested.

That creates an opportunity for the players Mourinho has cast to the fringes of his squad to impress their manager, if that horse has not already bolted. Carrick, Smalling, Herrera, Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial are six players not included in the team to face Everton who should be champing at the bit.


Manager to watch – Steve Bruce
Steve Bruce is a man with an axe to grind. After Aston Villa’s sluggish start to the season brought questions over his own appointment, every victory has been accompanied by a post-match press conference metaphorical two-fingered salute.

“I’ve heard I’m a dinosaur. But I’ve been promoted twice in the five years,” Bruce told BBC West Midlands last week. “If I go, who are they going to get who’s any better? Is that the fix? Off with my head, then someone else comes in and changes everything again?”

Bruce’s problem is that there has been an awful lot of money spent on Villa’s squad, particularly in attacking areas. The 3-0 win over Barnsley on Saturday was emphatic, but followed three straight league draws and one goal scored in 270 minutes. Bruce can feign surprise at the criticism of his management, but he was tasked with promotion and has won 19 of his 46 matches in charge.

One way to alleviate supporter frustration would be to take Villa on a cup run, and Bruce has a chance to do exactly that. On Tuesday they face fellow Championship promotion hopefuls Middlesbrough for the second time in a fortnight at Villa Park. Forget the cliche about concentrating on the league; Bruce needs quick wins.


One-on-one battle to watch – Old Everton vs New Everton
All might not be well at Everton after three straight defeats without scoring, but on Wednesday they get the chance to remind themselves that it could be an awful lot worse.

That’s because Everton host Sunderland in the EFL Cup, where they can reacquaint themselves with Tyias Browning, Bryan Oviedo, Brendan Galloway, Jack Rodwell, Aiden McGeady, Darron Gibson and James Vaughan. Somehow, that collection of talent played 383 times for Everton. This truly is the David Moyes derby.


International game to watch – England Women vs Russia Women
No Football League game on television this midweek thanks to the EFL Cup, but England Women play their first World Cup qualifier on Tuesday evening live on BBC Two. They host Russia, knowing that victory even in their first match would rubber-stamp qualification. Russia, who were eliminated after the group stage of Euro 2017, are the highest-ranked opponent in their group, at 25th; England are ranked fourth.

For all the interest on the pitch, the game will be rightly overshadowed by the controversy surrounding manager Mark Sampson, still in position despite the storm over his alleged racist comments and accusations of bullying.

Sampson was forced to further deny allegations from both Eni Aluko and Drew Spence about his conduct, but the storm clouds will not go away. Sampson may face a new Football Association inquiry, despite the governing body describing their initial investigation as “an incredibly thorough process”.

With Sampson caught out for changing his story during last week’s press conference from England’s training camp, the issue is dominating the agenda of the national team. The suspicion is that there is more information on Sampson to be unearthed, and that the FA have swept the controversy under the rug.


European game to watch – Lazio vs Napoli
This midweek brings full league programmes in Germany, Spain and Italy, with UK viewers able to watch a wonderful 20 live matches from those three countries alone on Tuesday and Wednesday. Take the phone off the hook, set up eight different screens, get hold of at least six different log-ins for Sky Sports and BT Sport and have what I’d call a two-day legends escapade. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Roma, Bayern Munich, RB Leipzig and Valencia; you can tick off each one.

The pick of the bunch is probably Lazio vs Napoli on BT Sport Extra 5, if only because Maurizio Sarri’s team have been the best team to watch in Europe over the last year. Napoli have scored 15 goals in four league games to date, including a 6-0 defeat of Benevento on Sunday.

If Napoli are the team of the moment, Dries Mertens is their star. The Belgian has scored 33 league goals from attacking midfield and assisted a further ten since the beginning of last season, and yet remained largely free of rumours linking him a move away from Naples this summer. Mertens scored a hat-trick against Benevento.

Lazio are a more pragmatic outfit under Simone Inzaghi, having lost key players over the summer. Lucas Biglia joined Milan and Wesley Hoedt left for Southampton, but it is the loss of Keita Balde Diao to Monaco that most threatens Lazio’s hope of kicking on following their fifth-placed finish last season.

Daniel Storey

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