Game to watch: Liverpool v Manchester City
Barely two and a half months after these two sides served up the game of the season, the Champions League is spoiling us with an Anfield repeat in a mouthwatering quarter-final that wasn’t wanted by either team. Both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp would probably have preferred to draw almost anyone else left in the last eight, but now they’re meeting again, both managers are almost certain to deliver a treat.
For us neutrals, the only ‘hair in the soup’, as Klopp might put it, is that both managers will be well aware that it is highly unlikely anything will be settled on Wednesday night. At stake here is nothing more than the belief that they can approach the second leg with a realistic chance of reaching the last four. But the beauty, if you choose to look at it that way, of both teams is that neither know how to play with the handbrake on. So strap in.
In Klopp, Guardiola faces a rare foe who has demonstrated that he knows how to get the better of him. After Wednesday, the City boss will have faced only two managers – Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger – more often in all competitions. Unlike the Man Utd and Arsenal bosses, Klopp has come out on top against Guardiola more often he’s lost, with Liverpool’s 4-3 win in January seeing the German coach edge ahead in the head-to-head over 12 meetings.
Whereas at times Klopp’s unswerving commitment to attacking football has been used as a stick to beat him with, against Guardiola, it is most certainly a strength. When discussing the prospect of facing City, Klopp insisted he had “no alternative”, describing a defensive approach against the Premier League leaders being akin to “standing on the edge of the box hoping to win the lottery”.
Mourinho may be hoping his numbers come up next week at the Etihad to stop City winning the title right under his nose, but Klopp has no intention of crossing his fingers and relying on fate. Conveniently for Klopp, the best form of defence against City is to attack and hassle a back line that has been known to crack on the rare occasions anyone can get close enough to attack and hassle. It worked at Anfield in January with Klopp’s three-pronged forward line, a fortnight after a Wilfried Zaha-led Crystal Palace attack almost took City’s unbeaten record before the Reds completed the job. Almost every other opponent has tried to shut up shop against City, which only led to the majority having their windows put through before being ransacked. But Liverpool’s front three are more cunning than most on the continent.
Even if other teams follow Klopp’s blueprint, the vast majority do not have an attacking unit like Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, who work relentlessly in perfect coordination while being capable of killing City with their own weapon. At Anfield in January, that trio helped the Reds win the ball six times in City’s attacking third during a 30-minute second-half period in which they scored three times.
Of course, when City do get through Liverpool’s press – and they certainly will – then Klopp is relying on a defence that wilted at 4-1 in that last meeting. Had City not left it until the last 10 minutes to turn the screw then they would likely have retained their unbeaten record.
Still, why are we trying to sell it? Regardless of stats or tactical spin, this is one of those rare encounters that, like a Clasico, doesn’t need any hype to get the senses tingling. It’s the first of a two-parter, and both threaten to be as thrilling as each other. as Klopp himself put it: “If I would have had the choice to watch a Champions League game I would watch this one.”
Team to watch: Arsenal
Arsene Wenger needs to hope his players have developed the knack of turning up as and when they choose, just like their supporters. Because for the majority of the win over Stoke on Sunday, the Gunners were bereft of any spark, or even the aptitude to pass to the same colour shirt.
The visit of the struggling Potters held almost no significance in terms of the overall picture of their season. Wenger’s team selection showed it and so did the players’ approach. The arrival of CSKA Moscow on Thursday night is a vastly different scenario – Arsenal’s season hinges on their first European quarter-final in eight years and whatever progress they make beyond. But at least the Gunners have momentum in terms of results, if not performances, given it is now four consecutive victories and a month without a defeat.
But better teams than Arsenal have found it difficult to pick and choose their intensity levels depending on the opponent and what is at stake. Wenger will believe the final 15 minutes at Stoke offers a platform for his side to perform, which is in the nick of time because Champions League dropouts CSKA, third in the Russian Premier League, will do a better job of punishing any sloppiness than Stoke.
Manager to watch: Pep Guardiola
So Klopp has had the edge over the Man City boss. What does Guardiola do about it?
The answer, as we all know, is likely to be ‘absolutely nothing’. Klopp pinpointed City’s greatest strength as ‘tactical discipline’ but unlike so many other managers, those tactics usually remain the same, regardless of whoever stands in their way.
But having been bitten at least once too often by Klopp, perhaps Guardiola might spend a little more time than usual trying to pick apart his opponent’s plan rather than focus all his energy on his own. Having been told by Klopp that City are “not completely unpredictable”, perhaps Guardiola would like to prepare a surprise for his rival.
He also identified after the Premier League defeat that City “lost a bit of control, we were involved in the environment of Anfield”. Given this is the first of two legs, perhaps Pep might be willing to sacrifice some of City’s usual exhilaration in exchange for more composure and calm amid the chaos created by the hosts.
Guardiola should by now recognise the importance of controlling the overall tie. In 19 Champions League knock-out round first-leg ties played away from home with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City, the Spanish coach has won only four, losing seven and drawing eight. Guardiola has only ever been knocked out when his side have lost the first leg, whereas he has won every tie in which the first leg was a draw.
If they know how, then Guardiola’s City could take a more pragmatic approach than their previous trip to Anfield. Not that they will park the bus, mind.
One v one battle to watch: Andrew Robertson v Raheem Sterling
Many might think that Guardiola would turn his nose up at any pointers offered by Mourinho or Roy Hodgson, but the City boss cannot have failed to notice that the inside channel between Trent Alexander-Arnold and his centre-half has caused Liverpool all kinds of grief in recent games against United and Palace. A long ball for the big man to flick on, allowing a jet-heeled wide player to burst inside – it’s a simple road through Liverpool’s defence but not one Klopp has managed yet to block off. Perhaps City lack the big man, but you can bet Leroy Sane will be looking at that area as one where he can get some joy.
That’s one emotion Raheem Sterling never felt at Anfield in January, or in fact on any of his return trips since joining City. Three matches played in a blue shirt on his old stomping ground have all ended in defeat. The last was particularly forgettable for the England star.
Andrew Robertson saw to that. Keeping Sterling quiet, coupled with an impressive all-round performance epitomised by THAT 70-yard cross-pitch press, was enough to silence the many doubters that had questioned why Klopp had bothered to bring him from Hull last summer. That performance came a week after being arguably the best player in Liverpool’s FA Cup derby win over Everton during which Yannick Bolasie’s threat was nullified.
“I thought he was more of the same as Alberto Moreno – better going forward, not quite good defensively,” said Gary Neville after Robertson’s recent consistency forced him to re-evaluate his assertion that the newest Liverpool left-back might not be up to the job. Even Robertson admits the win over City “did big things for my confidence”. Wednesday offers the Scotland international another chance to take yet another step forward.
When Sterling and Robertson last faced each other, the City winger was put out of his misery and hooked after 70 minutes. He had the lowest pass completion rate of any outfield player having attempted the second fewest passes of any starter. Despite going to Anfield with 14 Premier League goals behind him, Robertson denied him a single shot. Sterling might be thinking that his performance could not be any worse, but the bad news is that Robertson is still getting better.
Player to watch: Alisson Becker
This week also sees the Messi of goalkeeping face THE Messi, offering the Roma stopper the perfect opportunity to show us exactly what all the fuss is about.
Alisson has been linked with seemingly every European big-hitter, including Barcelona. Real Madrid’s interest appears to have caught the 25-year-old’s imagination, but PSG, Liverpool and Napoli are among the other suitors for a keeper described by ex-Brazil star Claudio Tafferel as better than Gianluigi Buffon.
Since taking over from Wojciech Szczesny in the Roma goal, Alisson has appeared flawless. He has had to adapt to the European game and there has been a noticeable improvement away from his line since he became No.1. His calming presence has been priceless to Roma, while the fact that only Hugo Lloris and Ederson have acted as sweeper keeper more often than Alisson suggests he would slot into any of the top teams who prefer a modern, more pro-active keeper.
Against Messi and co, though, it will surely be what he does in his goal that will catch the eye. The Brazil keeper, who is keeping Ederson on the bench, has made the most saves of any stopper still left in the competition, but he is unlikely to have been busier than he will be at the Nou Camp. If Roma are to remain in with a realistic hope by the time the second leg kicks off at the Stadio Olimpico, then Alisson will have to demonstrate why there is a lengthy queue forming for his signature.
Football League game to watch: Fulham v Leeds
Leeds United, seemingly televised more often than Emmerdale these days, grace our screens for the 20th time this Championship season when they travel to promotion-chasing Fulham on Tuesday. But you wouldn’t blame some United fans if they decided to switch channels and catch up with the Dingles instead.
After a terrific start to the season, Leeds have descended from the summit, through the play-off spots to where they are now – clinging on to the final place in the top half. That’s thanks in no small part to form since the turn of the year that would have them in the bottom three if the season kicked off on January 1.
When asked how he planned to motivate his side with seemingly nothing tangible to play for, Paul Heckingbottom clutched at the nearest straws: “We’re playing against teams now who are all fighting for things, points for different reasons. We can use that to our advantage and our motivation, we can go and upset teams, we can demoralise teams, give teams heartache.”
That’s an almost refreshingly Leeds mindset but it will take some effort to demoralise Fulham given their form. In contrast to Heckingbottom’s men, no Championship team has collected more points than the Cottagers in 2018. With a run of 13 wins and four draws, Slavisa Jokanovic’s side have climbed to third place, having sat where Leeds are now on New Year’s Day. Cardiff retain an eight-point cushion, but that doesn’t mean Fulham won’t enjoy chipping away at it.
European game to watch – AC Milan v Inter Milan
Gianluigi Donnarumma suggested Wednesday evening’s Derby della Madonnina is “effectively a Champions League play-off” between the Milan sides, though that would suggest both go into the San Siro clash on equal terms. Defeat would not be the hammer blow to Inter that it would be for the Rossoneri.
Gennaro Gattuso’s side are eight points behind their fourth-placed city rivals, who can move into third ahead of Roma with victory. Milan saw their 10-game unbeaten run ended by Juventus on Saturday, and while Donnarumma took consolation from “a great performance”, Gattuso was rather less enthused: “It burns, I can’t stand here and smile or pretend I’m happy with just playing well. It burns me and it has to burn everyone.”
Many managers might choose to emphasise how unlikely an assault on the top four seemed prior to Christmas, but Gattuso isn’t one of them. Milan certainly won’t be found wanting for motivation with Gattuso snarling at them up to kick-off at 5:30pm.
Inter find themselves in a more comfortable position, but perhaps more is at stake. The Nerazzurri’s planning for next season hinges largely on securing a Champions League spot, and while defeat does not end that possibility, three points in the derby certainly sets a more positive tone for the final eight games.
Let the moped chucking commence…