Big Midweek: Liverpool v Rangers, Erik ten Hag, Tottenham, Rafael Leao, Boro

Date published: Tuesday 4th October 2022 8:47 - Ian Watson

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag, Tottenham's Antonio Conte and Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.

It’s a biggie in Europe for three teams looking to bounce back from weekend sh*tshows. And Chelsea have to stop a striker they reportedly want to sign…

 

Game to watch – Liverpool v Rangers
The big midweeks and weekends will keep coming for Liverpool this month, which makes their false restart after almost a month off Premier League duty all the more concerning.

The Reds were fortunate to take a point after yet another underwhelming performance against Brighton on Saturday. Having had more than enough time to refresh and refocus, Jurgen Klopp watched his side labour in the same way they did prior to the international break.

It’s hard to specify exactly what is wrong with Liverpool but they could find themselves in trouble if they don’t shake it off over the next week. Tonight they host Rangers in the first competitive meeting between the two sides, eight days before the second at Ibrox. In between, they go to north London to host Arsenal, the Premier League leaders showing all the intensity and unity Klopp’s men are renowned for but appear to have lost.

Klopp referenced a couple of times that Liverpool’s confidence is ‘not extraordinarily high’ right now and with good reason. The Reds have dropped points in six of their nine games in all competitions and they were unable to build on the one moment – Joel Matip’s late winner against Ajax – that might have served as a turning point because of their inactivity since. It’s a funk they simply have to pull themselves out of and quick.

Rangers, though, like their hosts, are also struggling with something of an identity crisis. Last season’s Europa League finalists have been similarly haphazard this term, having lost only once in the league, but that was a 4-0 hammering at Celtic that preceded heavy defeats in their first two Champions League matches against Ajax and Napoli.

All things considered, f*** knows what we will get in this Battle of Britain. Goals, probably, judging from the state of both sides’ defending.

 


Winners and losers: Arsenal, Everton pulling together as Lage, Gerrard, Alexander-Arnold stumble


 

Team to watch – Tottenham
However glum Liverpool were feeling after the weekend, at least theirs wasn’t as wretched as Spurs’.

Antonio Conte’s men were second-best in the derby as Arsenal painted north London red once more. But there’s no time for Spurs to mope before a potentially pivotal trip to Germany to face Eintracht Frankfurt.

Frankfurt had a rather more enjoyable weekend, becoming the first team this season to beat Union Berlin, to extend a three-game winning run that began with victory at Marseille that leaves Oliver Glasner’s men level with Spurs in Group D.

Conte urged his side to move on and ‘take some positivity’ from their first league defeat of the season without really specifying where they might find it. Having already lost in the Champions League, last time out at Sporting Lisbon, Spurs need an instant response against the Europa League holders.

Tottenham might take confidence from the fact that the derby could have been much worse. A year ago, it was. The scoreline was the same but an Arsenal side much earlier in their progression under Mikel Arteta, embarrassed their Nuno-led neighbours that day. At the weekend, Spurs were beaten in moments. Structurally they were sound, but lost to a Thomas Partey punt and an individual error, compounded by a red card Conte felt was undeserved.

So the manager is hardly likely to make sweeping changes, in terms of tactics or selection. Conte might tinker with his wing-backs because that’s his thing but with Dejan Kulusevski still missing, Spurs will take on a very similar appearance. But, individually as much as collectively, they have to raise their game to reclaim the high ground in Group D.

 

Manager to watch – Erik ten Hag
The Manchester United boss wasn’t coy over where he felt his side went wrong in the derby. The question now is what will he do about it?

United’s first chance to offer a reaction after being humiliated by the neighbours comes in Cyprus where they face Omonia on Thursday evening. A Europa League tie probably won’t give us great insight into Ten Hag’s thinking since changes were inevitable regardless of the derby outcome. His selection and approach when United face Everton at the weekend ought to be more telling.

But Ten Hag needs to change the tone quickly after yet another big defeat for United. Last time, after the 4-0 battering at Brentford, he took his players on an 13km run to make up for the previous day’s deficit to the Bees. This time, after pinning his side’s performance on a ‘lack of belief’ and ‘bravery’ while criticising the players for being ‘undisciplined at following rules’, a short, sharp shock to jolt his players into performing might not be so easy to find.

Unfortunately for Ten Hag, these performances and results will keep happening until the manager has flushed out the players he wants rid of and recruited others who are more comfortable and willing to follow his instructions. The tie against Omonia ought to give some on the periphery the chance to show they can do just that.

 

Player to watch – Rafael Leao
If Chelsea had it their way, Leao would be lining up for them rather than AC Milan on Wednesday night.

The Blues are said to have had a number of approaches for the Portugal star rejected by the Rossoneri during the summer, all the while Milan hoped to convince the 23-year-old to sign a contract renewal.

That is looking increasingly unlikely with each passing week, goal and assist. Leao is destined to enter the final year of his current terms next summer, by which time Milan may feel they have no choice but to sell.

In the meantime, Leao is continuing to do everything to put himself in the shop window. Last season’s Serie A Player of the Season has scored four goals and offered seven assists in nine Serie A matches. He is yet to get off the mark in the Champions League but that hasn’t stopped him from setting up three in two games – a win and a draw.

Against Chelsea, the potential Blue will be looking to assist an old one, with Olivier Giroud set to line up against his former club as the Rossoneri seek to put six points between themselves and their hosts, who could be with one point from three games unless Graham Potter’s defence gets to grips with Leao.

AC Milan forward Rafael Leao during a match

 

EFL game to watch – Middlesbrough v Birmingham
For those who prefer their midweeks more Championship-y than Champions League, Sky Sports has you covered with a full programme from the second tier.

On Wednesday, Brum go to a Boro side who once more find themselves between managers. Chris Wilder was axed on Monday after the weekend’s defeat at Coventry plunged the Teessiders into the bottom three with only two wins from 11 games.

Everyone expected Wilder to succeed at the Riverside. But the ex-Sheffield United boss departs amid rumours of unrest behind the scenes. So it falls to Leo Percovich, assisted by Craig Liddle, Mark Tinkler and Lee Cattermole, to steer Boro through Wednesday’s clash with 15th-placed Blues and until Steve Gibson finds his 13th permanent manager.

 

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