Big Midweek: Man Utd v Atletico, Everton, Ramsdale, West Ham

Ian Watson
Frank Lampard, Cristiano Ronaldo, Aaron Ramsdale.

It’s a huge midweek in Europe for Manchester United and West Ham, and a biggie in the Premier League for Everton and ‘England’s best keeper’.

 

Game to watch – Man Utd v Atletico Madrid
A week ago, Ralf Rangnick was left thinking Manchester United were “the worst team I ever coached”. It wasn’t hyperbole; the Red Devils were so bad, so spineless in the derby. But here we are now pondering their Champions League quarter-final prospects.

The feeling is considerably more optimistic after the 3-2 win over Tottenham on Saturday. It wasn’t a perfect performance. At times it wasn’t even competent. But for home supporters it was exhilarating and offered some encouragement that perhaps this lot shouldn’t be completely written off just yet.

The same goes for their hopes of playing in the Champions League next season but their more immediate priority is extending their involvement in this year’s competition. To achieve that, another improvement is required.

United cannot be as poor as they were in the first leg at the Wanda Metropolitana. In the first half especially, it was one of the most listless performances in a season chock-full of them. Mercifully for United, Atletico failed to seize their opportunity to get the tie won before taking flight to Manchester.

Prior to that first leg, Atletico had been as inconsistent as United but Simeone’s side appear to have hit their straps at the right time. They’ve won three La Liga games, scoring seven goals since being pegged back by Anthony Elanga’s leveller.

So United cannot allow themselves to once again let their standards slip if they hope to reach the last eight for only the third time in the post-Ferguson era. The win over Tottenham warranted celebration but Rangnick will be left feeling “funereal” once more without further improvement, especially defensively.

 

Team to watch – Everton
The only positive for Frank Lampard right now is that Everton have games in hand over their relegation rivals. And one of those opportunities to arrest a desperate slide towards the drop zone comes on Thursday night when the Toffees host Newcastle.

The problem for Lampard, though, is that Everton look woefully ill-equipped to capitalise on the one advantage they hold in the relegation scrap. The defeat to Wolves on Sunday was their fourth on the bounce and, like his players, Lampard seems to have little idea how to change their fortunes.

Only Norwich have picked up fewer points than the three Lampard has gathered since he was appointed and though he has been all too keen to point out that he took over a side on a losing run, the new manager has done little to change the mood.

He tried a back-three on Sunday which looked more solid than the shambolic four they played at Tottenham last week but going forward, they offered very little, despite Lampard claiming Everton were the better side in the first half. They wilted once more, prompting the ex-Chelsea boss to urge his new players to “remain positive”.

But what have they got to be positive about right now? They currently have their lowest ever points tally at this stage of any league campaign. Everton players and supporters need reasons to be positive and before they face a buoyant Newcastle side, those are far too few and far between.

Everton versus Wolves

 

Player to watch – Aaron Ramsdale
While Everton keeper Jordan Pickford’s stock continued to fall on Sunday, Ramsdale was being labelled as “the best English goalkeeper” after another clean sheet for Arsenal.

That was the verdict of Brendan Rodgers after Leicester had been shut out at the Emirates. Ramsdale will have to justify Rodgers’ assessment when Liverpool arrive in north London on Wednesday to offer the Gunners the most stringent test of their recent winning run.

Arsenal have won five on the spin to establish themselves as favourites for fourth place but Liverpool can boast an eight-match winning streak which has put the title in their hands. If they win every remaining game, they win the crown.

Mikel Arteta admits Liverpool are on “a different level” but they will have to beat the Premier League’s most in-form keeper on Wednesday night. Should Ramsdale dent the Reds’ title hopes, Gareth Southgate will have a very hard time justifying the selection of Pickford over the Arsenal No.1 during next week’s international break.

 

Manager to watch – Thomas Tuchel
Chelsea’s players might want to savour the luxury of Wednesday’s Champions League trip to Lille, with arrangements for the jaunt across the channel made and paid for before the government sanctioned Roman Abramovich and imposed upon the Blues a £20,000 travel budget. So there is no need for Tuchel to turn the ignition on his seven-seater. Yet.

The German is emerging with great credit from the chaos that has descended upon Chelsea in the last week, insisting that he will see out the season at Stamford Bridge – assuming the Blues can finish the campaign, which isn’t to be taken for granted.

With Abramovich out of the picture, Tuchel has become the most important figure at the club and the manager recognises his role in bringing some hope and positivity for fans and employees at the club desperately worried about its future and their own.

Since sanctions were imposed, Tuchel has kept his squad focused enough to earn two wins and a couple of clean sheets. Another of either on Wednesday will see Chelsea continue the defence of their Champions League title into the last eight.

Given the form Chelsea are in – they’ve won their last five games – it would be a huge shock if they surrendered their first-leg advantage to Lille, even amid the current distractions. But Tuchel will continue to be peppered with questions over Chelsea’s predicament regardless. Other managers could watch and learn from his approach in desperate circumstances way beyond his control.

 

EFL game to watch – Nottingham Forest v QPR
Rangers’ trip to the City Ground on Wednesday is the latest stage in the twice-weekly whacky races around the play-off zone in the Championship and Benjamin Bloom’s game to watch in a packed midweek programme in the Championship.

Check out BB’s full Champo preview…


Champo Big Midweek: Forest v QPR, Blackpool streak, Asbaghi, O’Hare


 

Europa League game to watch – West Ham v Sevilla
This is West Ham’s biggest game in how many years? Since the play-off final in 2012?

Regardless of the answer, the Hammers’ preparation for their last-16 second leg against the Europa League’s most-decorated side has been less than ideal. David Moyes’ side might have to go in search of the goals required to cancel out the Spaniards’ 1-0 advantage from last week’s first tie without their best two attackers.

Michail Antonio was injured in the win over Aston Villa on Sunday and it remains unclear if and for how long the striker will be missing. Jarrod Bowen has already spent a couple of games on the sidelines with a foot injury and the winger could miss out again – on the second leg and a potential England debut next week.

West Ham face a difficult job already with Sevilla having never lost a Europa League tie to an English side. Their last three have seen Liverpool, Manchester United and Wolves sunk since 2016. But they have only won once in eight games on English soil.

The Irons held their own last week in their first European knockout tie since 1981 against the side second in La Liga but now the initiative is on Moyes’ men to take the game to Sevilla. Antonio and Bowen’s recovery will certainly enhance their prospects of doing that and reaching the quarter-finals.