Big Midweek: Mourinho, Man Utd, Ronaldo, Liverpool, Arsenal

Date published: Tuesday 23rd October 2018 7:06

Game to watch – Manchester United v Juventus
When Manchester United sleepwalked to a 0-0 draw with Valencia in their last Champions League game, it felt like the final throes of their relationship with Jose Mourinho were being played out.

It felt like Mourinho’s farewell tour was in a theatre near you. All the classics were being played: a game against Mr. Pellegrini, a meeting with Rafael Benitez, a return visit to Stamford Bridge. A poor run of results in those games would have given Juventus a chance to end the misery on Tuesday.

Yet from the embers of crisis, a stronger United and more determined Mourinho have emerged. If the 3-2 comeback victory at home to Newcastle served only to paper over the cracks, a 2-2 draw away to Chelsea was rather more promising. The Premier League’s fallen giant came within a stoppage-time equaliser of conquering one of its remaining unbeaten sides.

Mourinho’s approach against his former side was brave, and almost fully rewarded. Two centre-halves, two central midfielders and three attackers behind one centre forward meant no player was out of position, as United set up to play to their own strengths instead of thwarting those of their opponent. It was a statement of intent, and the tactical masterclass almost came off.

The result was not forthcoming, but the performance was full of promise that can be carried forward into Tuesday’s game. “For the moment, we have the most points of any English team in the Champions League,” Mourinho was at pains to point out earlier this month. “It is a big responsibility for us to maintain that in our next group match against the super team, Juventus.”

That will be far easier said than done. While United have dropped ten points in nine Premier League games, Juventus’ 11-game winning run was halted with a 1-1 draw against Genoa on Saturday. Massimiliano Allegri’s side have lost just one of their last 20 games, and have scored in every match this season.

United have conceded in all but two of their matches, and so are cast in the unfamiliar role of slight underdogs at Old Trafford. But if they have learned anything from their last two games, it is that attack is their best form of defence. They might just spring a surprise.

 

Player to watch – Cristiano Ronaldo
This is not the fairytale return Cristiano Ronaldo had planned. The Portuguese has already been back to Old Trafford since his 2009 departure, scoring in a 1-1 draw in February 2013. But this felt different. United were then heading towards a 20th top-flight title, so the prodigal son was welcomed as a rival, an opponent first and an icon second. Ronaldo and United had both won two trophies since parting ways. How could they idolise someone on their own level?

In the five-and-a-half years since, a gap has formed, and that soon became a chasm. United have won one Premier League, one Europa League, one FA Cup and one League Cup since that February 2013 meeting; Ronaldo won five trophies in 2017 alone. He has found happiness since their amicable split, but United are still searching.

Their recent difficulties potentially made this homecoming a more painful reminder of their former glories, and immediately cast Ronaldo in the role of hero. At least that was the idea. He was supposed to return to Old Trafford, prove his everlasting brilliance and humbly accept the adulation. Instead, a dark cloud follows him on his journey back to Manchester.

The rape allegation hanging over Ronaldo’s head makes this an uncomfortable reunion. Even with the legal presumption of innocence, and evidence still to come to light in an ongoing case, those same United supporters who so worshipped the forward five years ago would be forgiven for being rather more subdued. The narrative takes a backseat when accusations are this serious.

The Portuguese has done his absolute best to dismiss Kathryn Mayorga’s claims both through his improving form and his insistence of a “clear conscience” earlier this month. But much of the reaction has been completely tone-deaf, such as Juventus’ laughably damaging statement of support.

There has been a complete lack of tact and sensitivity from The Old Lady, whose president Andrea Agnelli referred to Ronaldo as a “superhero” for “children all over the world” just two weeks ago. This is a matter too grave for sides to be taken purely based on sporting allegiance.

Ronaldo himself claimed that the allegations have been not been a distraction during his pre-match press conference, but not even the most elite athlete can possibly boast such laser focus. It will be tested as thoroughly as possible on Tuesday, where the atmosphere will be more strange than celebratory.

 

Manager to watch – Julen Lopetegui
There has not been a greater collapse in stock since the Wall Street crash of 1929. Julen Lopetegui stood on the precipice of glory in the summer, unbeaten in his first 20 matches as Spain manager and preparing for a World Cup as favourites. Two days before they kicked off their tournament against Portugal, he was unceremoniously cast out for drunkenly leching after the newly single Real Madrid.

If that was the sliding doors moment of Lopetegui’s entire managerial career, he is still picking glass from his scalp after jumping head first through it. An inauspicious start at the Bernabeu is turning rather more sour with each passing game, with a fourth defeat in five coming against Levante at the weekend. They are seventh in La Liga, have not won in any competition in over a month, and have even let their European crown slip.

The surprise defeat away at CSKA Moscow three weeks ago was only Real’s fourth loss in their last 32 Champions League games. Setbacks against Atletico Madrid, Tottenham and Juventus were understandable, if not unavoidable, over the course of two-and-a-half years. But this is not a side that takes defeats to such lesser opponents so lightly. This Goliath expects – nay, demands – to crush the numerous Davids in their path.

But this is a Real Madrid whose lack of hunger after three consecutive titles is compounded with a lack of bite. The sale of Ronaldo has clearly affected them, with no teammate stepping up to shoulder that considerable goalscoring burden, and no adequate replacement signed in the summer. The result is the second-longest goal drought of their entire history, set at 481 minutes before Marcelo’s weekend consolation strike.

A victory at home to Viktoria Plzeň on Tuesday will not restore Lopetegui’s aura, confidence or reputation, nor will it solve all of Real’s problems in one fell swoop. But failure to beat the team currently propping up Group G would do irreparable damage to both club and manager. There has to be some sort of response, for the point of no return is painfully close.

 

Team to watch – Liverpool
The irony for Jurgen Klopp is that Liverpool, victorious in eight of their 12 games so far this season, cannot win. When they were leaving a trail of teams in their counter-pressing wake last season, their susceptibility in defence was questioned. That weakness was ruthlessly and impressively corrected, but their attacking is now being put under the microscope.

“We want to be stronger defensively but we didn’t say that means we don’t have that much interest in offensive things,” the manager said at the weekend, Huddersfield unconvincingly beaten 1-0. “You put the focus a bit more on something and immediately you lose a bit of the fluency in something else.”

It is a difficult balance to strike. After letting the dog off the leash every time it went for a walk, Klopp is now trying to curb those same instincts and keep it from roaming free. Rafael Benitez once noted that “if you cover your head, you have your feet cold, but if you cover your feet, you have your head cold”, and he was absolutely right.

“Sometimes, when you attack so much, you are exposed in defence,” the Spaniard added, but Liverpool are now experiencing the reverse. Manchester City are the only club to concede as few goals in the Premier League this season (3), but the champions have scored ten more. There is plenty of work to be done to reach that level.

Europe can be used as a platform for Liverpool to rediscover what made them so imperious last season. They set a Champions League record for goals scored in a single campaign in 2017/18 (47) through explosive, overwhelming waves of attacking, and a home game with Red Star is the perfect opportunity to reconnect with that sort of form.

Red Star have won 11 and drawn one of their opening 12 Serbian SuperLiga games, scoring 33 goals and conceding just seven. But they let in almost as many in their previous Champions League away game against PSG (6), who themselves were beaten 3-2 by Liverpool at Anfield last month. The Napoli defeat was sloppy, a poor representation of Klopp’s Liverpool. This is a chance to atone for those numerous mistakes.

 

One-on-one battle to watch – Hirving Lozano v Ben Davies
Erik Lamela v Angelino might be just as important a battle down the opposite side, but matters in the Netherlands could be settled by who comes out on top on Tottenham’s left-hand side. Ben Davies has impressed in the Premier League, and will come up against a player courted by such clubs in Hirving Lozano.

If 2017/18 was Lozano’s breakout season, he has proved since that he is no flash in the pan. After 19 goals in 34 games came one memorable strike in the World Cup, and this campaign has opened with ten goals in 14 matches.

It is that sort of form that Davies cannot afford to overlook as he aims to benefit from Danny Rose’s injury. Lozano is fast, skilful and powerful, and tends to switch wings to confuse his opponents. This will be a huge test.

And that stands for Tottenham, too. PSV are one of just three clubs in all of Europe to have won each of their league games so far this season. Both sides have lost their opening two Champions League matches, and so there is barely any more room for error.

 

Football League game to watch – West Brom v Derby
The last time Darren Moore and Frank Lampard were pitted against one another, it was as one-sided a contest as you can imagine. Moore was partnered first with Alan Stubbs, then with Dean Leacock, at the heart of a Derby defence that Lampard breached four times in a 6-1 Chelsea win in March 2008. It was Moore’s fifth defeat in as many appearances against the England international.

Over a decade later, the playing fields are rather more level – although one of the clubs involved remains the same. Lampard is Derby manager instead of former tormentor, and Moore has swapped the Rams for the Baggies. As West Brom manager, he is in the unfamiliar position of favourite for Wednesday’s meeting with an old foe.

It promises to be entertaining. West Brom are third in the Championship table, and have scored the most goals of any side. Derby are fifth, and conquered former leaders Sheffield United on Saturday. West Brom have the second best home record in the division this season, and while Derby have struggled away in the league, they emerged unscathed from a visit to Old Trafford in September.

But the most intriguing aspect is that the tables have turned since their playing careers ended. Moore has only actually managed six more games than Lampard, yet feels much longer in the managerial tooth. It is a charming redress of the balance, and should result in a much more fascinating meeting than both have become accustomed to.

 

European game to watch – Barcelona v Inter Milan
Eight years is a long time to hold a grudge, to allow it to fester. Yet Barcelona have had no choice. On Wednesday, they will host Inter Milan for the first time since their infamous Champions League semi-final defeat in 2010.

A 1-0 victory in the Nou Camp was not enough for Barcelona then. Inter’s 3-1 win in the first leg at the San Siro gave Jose Mourinho the sort of grip on a game that he so often refused to relinquish at his absolute best, and so it proved. He would make the most of his moment in the sun, racing onto the pitch to celebrate beating a club that had given him the unflattering moniker of ‘the translator’ years prior. He and Inter stood on the brink of a historic Treble, and had beaten one of football’s greatest ever teams on their way.

‘The best display of defence from Inter coincided with the worst attack from Barcelona,’ read one line from El Pais, Spain’s most-read newspaper. ‘Lacking their usual game they failed to find the figure of Lionel Messi.’

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Try as they might, Barcelona will once again fail to find the figure of Lionel Messi, ruled out of both this and the weekend’s Clasico with a broken arm. It rather humanises the hosts at a time when the visitors could not feel more invincible.

Barca are top of La Liga by a single point, and have won their two previous Champions League games, but must not underestimate Inter. Mauro Icardi’s stoppage-time winner in the Derby della Madonnina means Luciano Spalletti’s side have won their last seven games, and are finally finding their feet again after years in the wilderness.

Such fine form will only fuel Barca’s quest for revenge, while also strengthening Inter’s belief that they can get one over on their rivals again. Both sides have won their opening two games in Group B; it is time for something to give.

 

Europa League game to watch – Sporting v Arsenal
Manchester City (October 2017) and Chelsea (December 2016) both managed it in their most recent dominant Premier League title-winning seasons. Manchester United last achieved it in February 2009. Liverpool have not won ten games in a row in all competitions since October 1990, while Tottenham have not done the same since September 1960.

So watching a minority desperately try and discredit Arsenal’s current run is awfully fun. Yes, their opponents have not always been as challenging as possible. Yes, the majority of the games have come at home. Yes, they are yet to look wholly convincing. But they have tripped up against such teams before, the Emirates Stadium has not been the most welcoming home of late, and this is Unai Emery’s fifth month in charge.

The win over Leicester makes this the manager’s best ever run too, and both he and Arsenal will be eager to maintain this momentum ahead of next month’s visit of Liverpool. Sporting, Crystal Palace and Blackpool come before that game, and none are better than the teams the Gunners have already swept to one side. Time for lucky No. 11?

Matt Stead

 

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