A resurgent Liverpool face Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16 and it’s not the most eagerly anticipated match this week? Oh, this must be a biggie…
Game to watch – Manchester United v Barcelona
Picking a Europa League play-off tie over a replay of last season’s European Cup final in the Champions League last 16 is likely to boil some Liverpool p*ss – we’ll get to them – but a delicately poised second leg between these two behemoths deserves top billing. Even in a week when, arguably, it is not even United’s biggest game.
You could argue – pointlessly – over which the Red Devils need most: a win over Barca to remain in Europe and demonstrate to those on the continent that United might just be back; or to beat Newcastle on Sunday in the Carabao Cup final to win their first silverware in almost six years.
In Erik ten Hag’s mind, there is no need to choose or to prioritise. United are looking confident and sharp enough to take on both Barca and Newcastle in the coming days. Which, as we must be reminded, is remarkable given the mess Ten Hag found at the start of the season.
Marcus Rashford’s rebirth is the perfect symbol of United’s resurgence under the Dutch manager. The England star had Barca on the back foot at the Nou Camp last week and the Catalans may well be cowering again if they let Rashford get up another head of steam.
United and Barca may be seeing a lot more of each other in the coming seasons – and it won’t be in the Europa League. But it was the Red Devils who slipped furthest before their chance on Thursday night to regain some credibility on the continent having already reasserted themselves at home.
Team to watch – Liverpool
Barely a week ago, prior to the Merseyside derby, Liverpool might have been fearful of facing last season’s Champions League final foes. With good reason. The Reds were being handed their arse by the likes of Brighton, Brentford and Wolves, so it seemed like terrible timing to be taking another meeting with the European Cup winners.
Two games and two 2-0 wins later, tails are up again at Anfield. That’s not to say they are suddenly feeling full of themselves once more, but there is certainly more reason for optimism on Merseyside, with some suddenly making them favourites to nick a top-four spot after successive victories against Everton and Newcastle.
Putting the neighbours in their place will always serve as a shot in the arm but the win at Newcastle was hard to put into context. The Magpies were a man down for all but the first 24 minutes and had at least one eye on their biggest game in over two decades next weekend. Even then, Liverpool were still reliant on their goalkeeper and their hosts’ profligacy for a clean sheet.
Up front, though, there was encouragement to be found. Not least in the identity of their scorers but also the slickness and speed of their combinations, on and off the ball. With Diogo Jota back from injury – Virgil van Dijk at the back crucially too – there is suddenly a drive going forward that has been weirdly absent for the last few months.
They welcome a Real side shorn of Toni Kroos and Aurelien Tchouameni in their midfield, levelling the playing field further, especially now Jordan Henderson and Fabinho appear to have emerged from their recent funk. Stefan Bajcetic is no longer ploughing a lone furrow and the visit of Real promises to be another breakout night for the teenager, with Spain boss Luis de la Fuente apparently due at Anfield primarily to watch the lone bright spark amid the darkness of late around Liverpool.
But that seems to be shifting and Jurgen Klopp’s men suddenly appear to believe again – just in time.
Player to watch – Phil Foden
Manchester City have been something of a head f*** for Pep Guardiola in recent weeks. They were poor in the defeat at Tottenham; saw off Villa with relative ease; triumphed over Arsenal to assert their authority in the title race; then squandered their advantage by drawing at Forest.
Such chaos and inconsistency would generally fry Pep’s hyperactive mind but the City boss left the City Ground in philosophical mood. “It happens in football, sometimes it happens,” he said referring to a generally very positive performance in all areas aside from in front of goal. “After games like that, it’s better not to say anything, go home, have a good sleep and tomorrow think about the other games.”
One of the positives Guardiola could take from a draw that unseated them at the summit was Foden’s return to form. The City star was as culpable as anyone for City’s wastefulness when he had the option of going one-versus-one with Keylor Navas, or rolling in Erling Haaland for a tap-in. He did neither, though Haaland’s finishing against Forest suggests an open goal was by no means a certain goal.
Still, Guardiola singled out Foden for praise after his first start in seven games. “Phil played really good. So aggressive, really good.” So Foden might reasonably expect to build on that against RB Leipzig this week with successive starts, his first since the derby defeat in which he sustained a foot injury that has kept him out for much of the last month.
With Jack Grealish having impressed in that time off the left flank, Foden is left to fight it out with Riyad Mahrez for the starting berth on the right, where he featured against Forest. It might not be his favoured position, but it offers the quickest route back into Guardiola’s starting XI.
Manager to watch – Max Allegri
Many Juventus fans would probably be happy to write the season off and come back in the summer to start afresh after a campaign of turmoil on and off the pitch at the Allianz Stadium. Whether Allegri returns with them next term could hinge on how the Old Lady fares in France on Thursday evening.
Juve go to Nantes looking to squeeze through to the Europa League knockout stages after a 1-1 draw with the Ligue 1 side in Turin last week. The Italians got off to a decent start, with Dusan Vlahovic’s early tap-in giving them a platform they failed to build on. Instead, as they toiled to break down Nantes looking for a second, they were repeatedly hit on the break and paid with the concession of an equaliser.
Juve felt they were wrongly denied a penalty in added time, further feeding the narrative that the authorities have it in for them. Which perhaps they will if UEFA’s investigations result in a European ban in addition to the 15-point penalty they have already faced at home.
All things considered, Allegri might see the sack as sweet release. But the coach will want to go out on his own terms, whenever that may be. If Juve don’t beat Nantes this week, the decision will probably be taken out of his hands.
Football League game to watch – Norwich v Birmingham
Blues’ trip to Carrow Road is the only Football League action available to watch this week, though the Papa John’s Trophy semi-finals – Plymouth v Cheltenham on Tuesday, followed by Accrington v Bolton on Wednesday – offer another EFL fix if the Champions League isn’t your thing. We’re all different…
Norwich need the win on Tuesday night for the sake of their play-off ambitions. An indifferent run of form under David Wagner, with four points taken from their last four matches, leaves the Canaries in ninth, three points off the top six. Only a point separates the five teams above Norwich, but only a point keeps West Brom and Coventry below them.
Birmingham are looking over their shoulder after a couple of defeats to relegation-threatened Cardiff and Huddersfield. Seven points currently separate them from the bottom three, but the gap has closed in recent weeks. Alarm bells might not be ringing just yet but it won’t take much for Blues’ bums to start squeaking if they maintain their recent form.