Game to watch – Juventus vs Tottenham
It is rare that you see Mauricio Pochettino in abrasive, bullish mood, but Tottenham’s manager certainly picks the right moments.
“After United, Liverpool and now Arsenal, this was a very tough period. I think we showed great maturity, great character and the performance was so good. For me, it has been one of the best periods since I’ve been at Tottenham,” he said after the north London derby win. “When you beat Arsenal or United it means you have the quality to beat big teams in Europe too.”
Pochettino is right to play up the morale within this club. Their success over the last three years has been achieved with a crop of excellent young players, but just as important is the intangible feeling that everyone is pulling in the same direction for the cause. Instilling that communal spirit is the key in creating a team greater than the sum of its component parts.
Yet Pochettino knows that his Tottenham team still have an obvious flaw, and knows too that it will be one tested this week. Their home form has been outstanding after early accusations of a Wembley curse, but their away results tell a far different story. Since the start of last season, games away at Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have returned no victories, three draws and nine defeats.
The Champions League has been the port in that particular storm. Four points from two group games in Madrid and Dortmund precipitated Tottenham finishing top of their group, but the last-16 draw was not kind. Juventus have won eight Serie A games on the spin, and haven’t conceded a goal at home in any competition since November 5. This will be a mighty test of how far Spurs have come.
In that same interview, Pochettino alluded to Juventus’ Champions League knowhow and defensive might. Yet he also knows that Juventus will not relish facing Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli et al. If you can humble Manchester United so emphatically and look so dominant against your greatest rivals, why can’t you upset the Italian champions?
Player to watch – Kevin de Bruyne
Because in eight years’ time, when De Bruyne starts to slow down, you will curse yourself for any missed opportunity to watch such magnificence in its pomp. Because Manchester City have wrapped up the Premier League but the Champions League at least provides a challenge between February and May. And because James Milner is the current assist leader in the Champions League this season, and that should be seen by De Bruyne as a personal affront.
Manager to watch – Graham Potter
The man of a thousand long reads, but each of them deserved.
If Lincoln City were the underdog story of 2016/17, reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals while still a non-league team, Potter and Ostersunds are the story of 2017/18. Coincidence dictates that Arsenal will surely end the fabulous runs of both.
That’s hardly the point, though. Like Lincoln, it is important that Ostersunds’ run (probably) ends with a glamour tie, for it gives them the exposure that their over-achievement deserves. Most know the name and the story by now, but few know the face. This week, Potter will become a montage star. And yes, I know that I’m being dreadfully patronising.
For those who aren’t aware, Potter is a former England Under-21 player who retired at Macclesfield at the age of 30 before taking coaching jobs within university football. In December 2010, he was appointed by Ostersunds, then in the Swedish fourth tier.
In the space of seven years, Potter has led Ostersunds to three promotions and won the Swedish Cup last season. They subsequently eliminated Galatasaray in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League. They are the only team that entered the competition in the first two qualifying rounds to even make it to the knockout stage.
The general narrative is that Potter has been unfairly overlooked for jobs in England, but actually he is in the perfect position. The Football League can easily chew up reputations and spit them out, and patience is notoriously unusual. Having been given the time to build a project away from the limelight, Potter can afford to wait for the right club rather than the first one. For all the deserved praise, we do not yet know whether Potter can sink or swim in English football. It is a very different proposition.
For now, Potter can ignore the speculation and instead focus on enjoying the two biggest matches in his and his club’s history. It’s rare in sport that someone has a genuine shot to nothing. From Leeds Metropolitan University to the Emirates in eight years.
Team to watch – Liverpool
Jurgen Klopp might consider qualification for next season’s Champions League to be more important than progress in this year’s competition – modern football is funny sometimes – but there are plenty of supporters who would not agree. Cliches are established for a reason; they really do love their ‘European nights at Anfield’. Liverpool are now officially a European dark horse.
This is one of the more intriguing fixtures in the Champions League, because it pitches together two teams with very similar philosophies. Both score hatfuls of goals but retain the tendency to implode just as as everyone believes that they are onto a good thing. If you don’t think that makes for a good spectacle, go and trade that heart for one with more joy.
Porto have gone through the mill in recent years, flummoxed by the rules changes of third-party ownership. Having gone through their longest drought without a league title since 1984, they now lead the Primeira Liga with a game in hand and squeezed out RB Leipzig on the final day in Group G.
Liverpool should have enough. Mohamed Salah already has five goals in the competition, and Klopp’s side seem to have taken the departure of Philippe Coutinho in their stride thanks to the improvement of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and return of Adam Lallana. Virgil van Dijk is settling in, and Andrew Robertson has made left-back his own.
Yet Porto are a dangerous underdog. Only Liverpool, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea scored more goals in the group stage, and Group G had no whipping boy. Expect Sergio Conceicao’s team to play expansive, carefree football that aims to exploit any defensive weakness. Advice for Liverpool: test out Iker Casillas. San Iker has lost his galero.
One-on-one battle to watch – Harry Kane vs Giorgio Chiellini
The easiest pick of the lot this week. There can be no doubts about Kane’s ability to score against Premier League defenders, but his record against the best international defenders remains the final box to tick. Of his eight competitive goals for England (yes, it is still just eight), only one was against a country currently ranked in FIFA’s top 60. The two games against Real Madrid also failed to produce a goal.
Of course I’m being picky, but Tuesday is a chance for Kane to test himself against one of the best. In their top 100 footballers of 2017, the Guardian ranked Sergio Ramos, Leonardo Bonucci and Cesar Azpilicueta ahead of Chiellini, while the Daily Telegraph placed Bonucci, Diego Godin, Jerome Boateng and Gerard Pique above him. It’s a game of opinions, but Chiellini has strong arguments against those two lists. He is Juventus’ Rolls Royce centre-back.
“Harry Kane is a fantastic player,” Chiellini told the Daily Mail last week. “He played against us [Italy] three years ago and he has really improved. Now he scores more than (Lionel) Messi in a calendar year, and that’s very different to scoring more than Chiellini!”
The ageing king of European central defending against the centre forward prince regent. You’d be a bloody fool to miss it.
Football League game to watch – None
None of the 26 Football League matches this week are on television, because they don’t want you to have nice things.
European game to watch – Real Madrid vs Paris Saint-Germain
It is the only thing that will save Zinedine Zidane. Real Madrid’s La Liga title defence was over before it had begun, but he knows more than anyone about the power of the Champions League. Become the first team for more than 40 years to win this trophy three years in succession and he will have achieved something most believed was impossible in the modern age. He will also keep his job.
Yet Zidane must be cursing his misfortune, even if Lady Luck was guided by Real’s own incompetence. In finishing second behind Tottenham, they risked landing Paris Saint-Germain, the pre-draw favourites for the competition. Now the holders must put the champions elect in their place.
Forget patriotic loyalty, this is the stand-out match of this European midweek. Unai Emery must have wondered if his own job was in jeopardy 12 months ago, but has since embarked on a ruthless run of form and been heavily backed by his bosses in the transfer market. If you think elite club management is easy, try managing the egos in PSG’s squad whilst knowing that every league victory is meaningless without European success.
Real Madrid’s task is unenviable. PSG have played 16 home games this season and scored 65 goals in those games at a rate of 4.1 per match. Zidane will know that only a two-goal lead (or one and a clean sheet) puts his team in a commanding position. Real have finally found form at the Bernabeu – 12 goals in two games – but have conceded 11 times in their last six at home and haven’t kept a home clean sheet since December 9.
And what of Neymar, supposedly playing against his future club despite the constant insistence from player and club that he is happy in Paris. With him and Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch, this feels like one of those big-budget Hollywood films that I won’t watch where two superheroes are thrust into the same script to make money out of nerds.
Writer to watch – Daniel Storey