Big Midweek: PSG v Man Utd, Liverpool, Lampard, Partey

Ian Watson

Game to watch – PSG v Manchester United

In other Champions League groups, this meeting might be viewed as an exhibition showcasing the two teams destined to qualify for the last 16. But with RB Leipzig lurking as an added danger to two clubs familiar with shooting themselves in the foot, this Parc des Princes clash of European heavyweights could go a long way to deciding the outcome of the Group H.

As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returns to the scene of where he secured his permanent position, it could also go some way to determining for how much longer he keeps it. This fixture is one of five devilish assignments in the coming two-and-a-half weeks, a period which many suggested might spell the end for the Norwegian.

That was while United were stewing on the 6-1 humping by Tottenham and some confidence will have been regained from the 4-1 win at Newcastle at the weekend. But that was Newcastle, a side playing to avoid defeat even when they led. PSG will be an entirely different proposition, as will Chelsea, Arsenal, RB Leipzig and Everton in the coming period. So it doesn’t help that United have taken a squad to Paris that is ‘a little bit depleted’.

Though they pose probably the biggest attacking threat, perhaps PSG are more ideal opponents for United than the other approaching foes. Solskjaer has got the most joy with his team when they have been made to sit back and break, rather than being tasked with breaking down massed ranks. PSG, at home, will be expected to give United both barrels, as they did that fateful night in March last year when the Red Devils pulled off one of their greatest – and luckiest – comebacks.

The fact Solskjaer has left some of his big names in Manchester spares him some decisions even if it prompts others. Instead of trying to find the least worst partner for Harry Maguire, he must form an entirely new central defensive partnership with neither the captain nor Eric Bailly in France. Victor Lindelof and Axel Tuanzebe will probably get the nod on the basis they are the only two specialists to have travelled – here is another chance for Tuanzebe to stake a real claim for the starting spot alongside Maguire. Ahead of them, can Solskjaer afford to recall Paul Pogba when his defence needs the best protection he can muster? Should Juan Mata keep his place?

The Anthony Martial or Edinson Cavani question was rendered moot when the new signing stayed in Manchester while his new team-mates took off for Paris. Cavani was said to be desperate to face his former side but Covid restrictions have left him short of training in the build-up. So Martial, eligible to play on his return to France amid a domestic suspension, will get a chance to quieten the sceptics who are finding their voices once more.

The ridiculous red card against Spurs was just another stick with which to beat Martial. The ever-changing consensus on the 24-year-old seems to be that, in fact, he is not the long-term answer to United’s lack of a centre-forward. Paul Scholes reckons Martial had United fans ‘conned’ towards the back end of last season. Now would be a perfect time for Martial to show again what he can do, on home soil, with Cavani watching on expectantly. That’s assuming he really wants this, which remains up for debate.

Likewise, Solskjaer has more concerns than just Martial. Having earned a huge show of faith in Paris before – in the form of a permanent job contract – Solskjaer must do it again to strengthen his slipping grip on the position he made his own almost 600 days ago.


Team to watch – Liverpool

It is unlikely that Liverpool’s piss will have cooled by the time they land in Amsterdam after a weekend which saw them lose their best player for the season and two more points courtesy of a cat’s c*ck hair offside call. But the Reds have to refocus because waiting for them is an Ajax side which, along with Atalanta, could cause Jurgen Klopp further misery.

Liverpool have wobbled in the group stage before – they were a last-gasp Alisson save against Napoli from not seeing the knockout stages before they won the Champions League in 2019. Atalanta are no longer novices at this level and they are expected to challenge for the Serie A title, and while Ajax have lost Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech, the Dutch side never sell before they are ready to backfill from the academy alongside savvy recruitment.

So with the likes of Perr Schuurs, Ryan Gravenberch and Antony coming in, this Ajax team may be a little less familiar but no less threatening. Especially with Liverpool reeling at the back.

The Reds have conceded nine goals in their last two games, with seven of those shipped on Virgil van Dijk’s watch. The trip to Ajax marks the start of Klopp’s ‘long wait’ for his most influential player.

With only Joel Matip and Joe Gomez left as recognised central defenders, Klopp is also without Alisson and Thiago on Wednesday night with Liverpool looking fragile for the first time in three years. Anything less than a victory will only exacerbate the fear on Merseyside that the Reds’ air of invincibility has vanished with Van Dijk.


Manager to watch – Frank Lampard

Klopp is not the only manager with defensive concerns. But Frank Lampard cannot mitigate for Chelsea’s woeful record by pointing to absences, aside from a goalkeeper who may or may not be up to the task.

We know Kepa isn’t but it will be the Spaniard who keeps goal again on Tuesday against Sevilla. The world’s most expensive keeper can’t say he hasn’t had the opportunities to demonstrate why he should not be dropped but each time he has been handed back the gloves, in this instance because of Edouard Mendy’s injury, Kepa has promptly dropped them and everything else thrown his way. It has become quite hard to watch. Yet still funny…

But the solution to fixing Chelsea’s rearguard, which has leaked an average of 1.5 goals per game since the start of last season under Lampard, cannot be found simply by ousting Kepa. All but two of the nine goals Chelsea have conceded this season have come from individual mistakes, and those in front of Kepa have certainly made their fair share.

Lampard may claim that while the mistakes are being made individually rather than collectively, there is only so much he can do. But this number of individual errors must point to a systemic failure. And simply pointing out the problem goes no way to fixing it, which is what Lampard must do, and quick. Ideally before Sevilla arrive at Stamford Bridge, and certainly before he faces Solskjaer on Sunday to decide which of the two will spend the following week justifying their position.


Read: System of a clown: Lampard is bigger Chelsea problem than Kepa


Player to watch – Thomas Partey

Mikel Arteta found it easy to justify leaving Arsenal’s new signing on the bench for the trip to the Etihad on Saturday but Thursday’s trip to Rapid Vienna offers the Gunners boss the perfect opportunity to begin bedding in the £45million midfielder.

Arteta explained why he instructed Arsenal to spend such a sum on the Ghana star: “I think he allows us to play different formations,” the manager said. “He is going to give us a little bit more adaptability.”

Which is something they lacked at City on Saturday. Pep Guardiola offered his former assistant maximum respect with his game-plan but Arteta repaid it with interest. Arsenal never seized the initiative, even with City backing off or content to see out a one-goal win with possession in the second period. Arteta’s changes, when they came, were all like-for-like and at no point with the game in the balance did Arsenal alter their shape to at least give Pep a problem to ponder.

Partey’s presence, certainly once he is settled in, should give Arteta more scope for those types of tweaks. That settling-in period should begin on Thursday when Arsenal face perhaps the toughest assignment of their Europa League group campaign.


Football League game to watch: Nottingham Forest v Rotherham

There aren’t many midweek Championship fixtures that really grab you by the balls. Which is what Chris Hughton appears to have done at Forest…

The former Brighton boss is back in the game after being appointed at the City Ground prior to the international break. Sabri Lamouchi was axed after losing all four of their Championship fixtures but the Hughton era got off to the best possible start with an injury-time win at Blackburn on Saturday.

Joe Lolley’s late winner after Hughton’s arrival has prompted some sudden optimism by the Trent, even though this Forest squad continues to come up with new ways to burst their own bubble. Another win, which would take them above their 17th-placed opponents, would set Forest perfectly for the biggest Championship game of the week: the east Midlands derby on Friday.


Ian Watson