3 Teams To Watch in the Europa League

With the round of 16 only drawn today, it’s now time to look at 3 teams to watch in this year’s competition. While the Champions League is far more popular, and for good reason, the Europa League does deserve some recognition. I wanted to wait for the round of 32 to finish, because the group stages contain a lot of poor opposition, so waiting for good teams to appear seemed like the right thing to do.

Eintracht Frankfurt

Let’s begin with a team that have been very good this season. Frankfurt currently sit 7th in the Bundesliga, only 7 points behind the Champions League places. After their DFB Pokal win over Bayern Munich, they lost their manager and replaced him with Adi Hutter. The Austrian had earned plenty of attention thanks to his success with Salzburg and then beating FC Basel to the League with Young Boys. It was seen as an incredible feet, and meant he was given the chance to manage at a club with promise. He has done an excellent job so far. Frankfurt play a 3-5-2, a formation that gives good width while still given the side plenty of numbers if possession is lost. Thanks to his attackers being so good, it has allowed Frankfurt to build their entire team around creating chances for them. Thanks to having a good distributor in Hasebe, it means they can counter attack very quickly, and it has made them so good to watch in that regard. Only Dortmund have scored more goals on the counter attack than Frankfurt’s 5. They also take 64% of their shots in the 18 yard box, the highest in the league. It’s proof that this is a team that knows how to create good chances, and are very difficult to stop. They’ve carried this form into this year’s Europa League compeition, scoring 13 goals in open play, the joint second in the competition. They’ve also scored the most goals from set pieces, just showing they take advantage of any chance to score a goal. It’s a reason why they are such a threat this year. This side are full of goals and not many defences could deal with them.

To look at their most important players starts and finishes with their attackers. Luka Jovic, Sebastien Haller and Ante Rebic. Let’s begin with by far their most notable player, Serbian forward Luka Jovic. The Benfica forward has been one of the breakout stars of the season, with Jovic already being linked a big move to Barcelona. There are justified reasons why. He has been a monster in front of of goal this season, scoring 14 goals in 15 starts in the Bundesliga this season. What is most impressive is where he’s shooting this season. Per 90, he’s been taking 3.6 shots a game, with 3.1 inside the box. They are numbers similar to Mauro Icardi, a man who lives in the 18 yard box. What is so great about him is just how good he is at scoring. A simple observation yes, but still very true, thanks to his strike partner being so good, it always leaves him with the chance at goal, and he just hits it with so much power. He’s fast, strong and good in the air, and it makes him one of the most wanted players around.

His strike partner, Sebastien Haller, has arguably been better in the Europa League this season than Jovic. The French man has been very good this season, but thanks to Jovic earning all the praise, it has let fly under the radar. Haller has scored 11 and assisted 8, putting him in the top 10 scorers and the top 5 assisters in the League. I mentioned that having him has made Jovic better, and it’s true. It’s similar to the relationship built between Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen. One who is the goal scorer, and the other helps said goal scorer get the opportunities. It’s arguably the reason why Werner hasn’t succeeded at international level. He doesn’t have someone like Poulsen next to him, to allow him to find space as easily, and doesn’t allow him to play as more of a poacher. Haller has done exactly that. He is winning a crazy 7.7 aerial duels in the Bundesliga, the most in the league. His shot numbers aren’t exactly great, but that isn’t the point. His purpose is to allow Frankfurt to transition as quickly as possible, and for a side that isn’t exactly Champions League level, it works really well. He is an incredibly important player, and hopefully gets the credit he deserves.

Finally, let’s touch on Ante Rebic. The most experienced forward out of the trio (he’s only 25) has also been very good this season. While he has played as a winger for Croatia and has a forward for Frankfurt, he has been playing as a number 10 primarily this season, and has been a great addition to the strike force. Rebic is by far the best dribbler out of the trio, completing 2.6 dribbles per 90, comfortably the most for his side He is very importantly in driving the ball and adding an element of unpredictability to his side. It’s what makes him useful to have. Jovic is a great goalscorer and Haller is a great vocal point, and Rebic is great at driving at defences, with power and speed making him a handful for many defences.

This attack is what makes Frankfurt in my opinion, one of the favourites for the tournament. Their attack has the versatility to be able to deal with nearly any defence that comes their way. Their game against Inter Milan is a must watch, because it could truly be an upset and a showing from a side that has performed so well in the Bunesliga this season.

RB Salzburg

While I have definitely gone on way too much on Frankfurt, let’s look at the team that have scored more than one of the best attacks in the compeition, RB Salzburg. Salzburg were a team they I never used to think much of. I just presumed they were a feeder club for many clubs across Europe. They had an eye for talent, which saw players like Sadio Mane and Naby Keita go through their ranks, before moving on to bigger clubs in Europe. But that all changes last season. They were so good in the Europa League last season. They managed to finish above runners up Marseille in the group stages, going unbeaten. Their run in the competition was a difficult one, yet they still managed to reach the semi finals, where they couldn’t pull one over Marseille one last time. They beat Real Sociedad, Lazio and Borussia Dortmund in the competition. They have a talented squad, and most importantly, an amazing coach. Marco Rose has been seen as one of the most exciting young coaches in Europe. The German is another young German coach with a style and philosophy that is seen as the future of the game. After beating Man City, PSG, Benfica, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona to win the UEFA Youth League with Salzburg’s youth side, he was given the job for the senior side. He has a win percentage of 70% for Salzburg, and is looking to win another Austrian Bundesliga . To describe him as a coach, his insperations seems to be Tuchel and Klopp. It’s understandable since he played under Klopp and has worked with Tuchel. If Klopp’s football is heavy metal, then Rose’s should be heavier metal. It takes pressing to another level. They primarily play a 4-3-1-2, but Rose is still very flexible depending on who he plays. Salzburg play directly to their forward Dabbur, thanks to Ramalho a very good passer, averaging 8.7 long balls in the Europa League. They attempt to then play the ball quickly in and around the final third, with Hannes Wolf and Minamino/Gulbrandsen trying to exploit the space that is made. Their full backs are the ones who give the side their width, with Laimer and Ulmer mostly playing as wingers. The first thought when seeing and describing this is usually the risk it involves, with so many players advancing forward. It is risky, but when your side counter presses as well as Rose’s does, it isn’t so bad. The main reason why they play such a narrow formation is for this reason. When they lose the ball, they will have so many numbers, that it makes retrieving the ball much easier. It makes them such a threat, that no wonder they reached the semi finals last season. They have been outstanding in the competition so far. They were in a relatively tough group, with Celtic and RB Leipzig. Yet they managed to win every game. Only previously mentioned Frankfurt and Salzburg managed to do this. It’s why I’ve mentioned first here, because they have been the best sides so far in the Europa League. Salzburg did carry this on into the round of 32, with a comfortable 5-2 aggregate final score against Brugge just showing why they are so high regarded.

The first player that has to be discussed is Munas Dabbur. The Israeli forward has been the stand out player of the tournament so far, scoring 7 and assisting 1 in all 8 games they’ve played. His importance to the side cannot be underestimated. While the striker playing beside him has been changed around, he has stayed an ever present. He takes a team high 3.8 shots per 90, and has created 1.7 chances. He is an all round forward who is able to not only score, but able to bring others into play very effectively. Salzburg will hope that he is able to bring this form into their game against Napoli, if they are to get anything out of that tough tie.

When bringing up the counter press in this side, Diade Samassekou has to be given plenty of praise. While he offers nearly nothing in attack, his defensive work is just out of this world. The Mali midfielder has been putting in 7 tackles and interceptions per game. I don’t think I have ever seen numbers like this on a player, when you realise that no other player in the competition has reached that number, it tells you just how good this guy is at recovering the ball. In a system where doing that is vital to not only keeping the ball, but helping with attacking the opposition.

Salzburg are such a threat because of the way they approach games. These players know the system and have the intelligence and energy to pull it off. Their aggressive and fast style of play makes them a difficult opposition for anyone.

Sevilla

Sevilla, who after having a relatively poor 2017/18 season, bounced back with a bang. While their form has dropped off since the new year, the fact they were top of the league as recent as November. We’ll start with the summer, which saw the arrival of their new coach, Pablo Machin. He did an excellent job at Girona. He ensured that a newly promoted side finished 10th in the league. While they didn’t score many goals from open play, they managed 19 goals from set pieces, with only Madrid scoring more from those situations. For a promoted side, taking advantage of opportunites like that is vital. You will not have much of the ball and need goals. It’s also easier to teach set pieces than it is to teach a different system. Machin did well and was given the chance at a team with more resourses and better players. He turned Sevilla into a counter attacking machine, a side that moved the ball quickly and created great chances for a group of forwards who have shown plenty of talent in their career. They’re also midfielders with an eye for a pass, with Banega and Sarabria both helping transition the ball further up the pitch, and Navas and Escudero giving good width for the side. They are so forward thinking in an attacking sense, that it makes them very vunerable defensively. While they have scored an impressive 40 goals, they have conceded 32, the most out of the top 10 in La Liga. Their approach is very much of Wenger’s Arsenal in its later years, if the opposition scores 2, we’ll score 3. They are a great side to watch, and while the form of some players have dropped (especially Andre Silva), they have had their best season since Sampoali’s top 4 finish.

They have been very good in the Europa League so far this season. They reached the round of 16 by winning 4 games and losing 2 in the group stages. They weren’t at their best in this period, but considering the group stages took place when Sevilla were doing well in La Liga, it makes sense why they didn’t do better. Their tie against Lazio in the round of 32 were Sevilla back at their best. Thanks to heroic performances from Banega and Kjaer, it gave Sevilla an away goal and a clean sheet, giving Sevilla the upper hand. They then went and beat the Italian side 2-0 in Spain to advance to the next round. Now that any hope of a title is out of the water, it leaves them with more focus on this compeition, making it a very important goal for the season.

To look at key players, one must begin with Ben Yedder. The frenchman is a very good forward and now under Machin, is getting the chances to show. He finds great positions in the box and is able get in between defenders, thanks to his small figure, makes him a stiker you have to keep your eye on . He has scored 6 goals in the competition, the most for his side, and is by far their most threatening forward. Another player who will shine in this competition, as he has done in the past, is Ever Banega. The Argentine had already won the competition during his last spell for Sevilla, and hopefully and help his side do the same. He’s been putting in 3 tackles and interceptions, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. He is so important for Sevilla when it comes to transition, with his calmness and experience key in helping move the ball higher up the pitch. He, like Sarabia, is also an excellent creator. It’s what makes their counter attacks so threatening. They are able to find their dynamic forward precise passes, and is why they are so dangerous in the break.

While question marks can be made on how they are defensively (mainly due to personel), they are still a side who are very dangerous. If you do not attack them enough, they will punish you for it.

 

 

Are Juventus Favourites for the Competition? Atletico Madrid vs Juventus – UEFA Champions League Preview

As we come on to the last day of fixtures for the round of 16, let’s look at one of the most interesting games of the group stages. The 2016 finalists Atletico Madrid against the 2017 finalists Juventus. While they were both very good in those respective seasons, a lot has changed since then, so let’s look who will come out of this round victorious.

Let’s start with Atletico Madrid, who have arguably had their worst seasons in recent years. While that may be a strange statement considering they are still in the top 4 and have advanced to the round of 16, but elaboration is needed. Let’s start with the summer. This was arguably one of their biggest summers of the decade. It seemed with Barcelona showing vunerability, Real Madrid losing Ronaldo and Sevilla having a poor season, it meant it could be Simeone’s time to reclaim the title. They brought in Lemar for more than £60m, Rodri, Arias, Kalinic and Gelson Martins. All of these players were hopefully going to improve an already good side, and finally make a title challenge, so why hasn’t it happened? The signings should instantly looked at. While Rodri and Arias have worked out, Lemar and Martins have not worked out. Lemar might go down as one of the worst signings of the season. In 21 games in La Liga, he has only contributed to 3 goals. Considering how good he was for Monaco, especially during their title winning season, it’s just not good enough. His numbers aren’t good to see either. When they declined last season, it was just presumed that his numbers dropped because Monaco lost a lot of their key players, Like Mbappe, Silva and Mendy. A team getting worse is going to make the players look worse too. Soon as he went to Madrid however, me and many others thought he would improve because the team was better, but that’s simply not happened. His chance creation has halved from the title winning Monaco season, going from 2.2 to 1.1. He’s also shooting so much less, from 1.7 to 0.7. While the player does need to be questioned, Simeone is the one who truly needs to be questioned. I think he is an excellent coach, but his handling of some of these huge signings needs to be questioned. Gelson Martins has already left the club, to join Monaco on loan, Kalinic has only started 6 games, Diego Costa has been awful this season and Vitolo has only played 428 minutes. Out of the 18 players that were involved in the 2016 final, 12 of those players are still at the club. My point is that Simeone has a problem with finding replacements for some of these players. Vrsaljko, one of the best players at the 2018 World Cup, was allowed to leave. Carrasco was great for Simeone, yet was still allowed to leave. My point is that the club are spending a lot of money on players, only for their manager to not play them. It’s now getting worse because that solid defence is finally starting to show its cracks, with their 4-0 defeat to Dortmund earlier on in the season being their biggest ever defeat under Simeone. He has to adapt and fit these players in, or all this work he’s done will feel like a waste.

When talking about their key players, there is no one else to mention other than Antoine Griezmann. The World Cup winner is one of my favourite players currently playing, because there is so much to his game. While I think he would easily score more goals in another team, playing in this more defensive side has brought out qualities in him not any other coaches would find. He is just a perfect player to lead the line or play as a second striker. His ability to find space in the box and between the midfield and defence is expectional. He also does plenty of defensive work and is willing to drop deep, because he is still incredibly useful when he does this. He is currently taking 3.2 shots a game, which is solid. What makes this even better is that he’s creating 2.2 chances a game, the highest in the squad. This is what I meant when saying different qualities have appeared. In other sides, he wouldn’t have to create these chances , but playing for Atletico has revealed just how good he is at chance creation. For the first time in his career, he isn’t massively overperforming xG. Last season he scored 19, yet was meant score 14. This season he’s only overperforming by a couple of goals. He plays for a very defensive side so it’s expected that he will always run a little hot. He’s been great in the Champions League too, getting a goal contribution in every game he’s played. He will be the key for dealing with one of the best teams in Europe. With Koke missing for this game, it means there is a lot of pressure for the other midfielders to step up, mainly Rodri. He has been one signing that has worked out so well from their spending spree last summer. He came in to replace their former captain Gabi, and has filled his boots with ease. He is averaging 60 passes a game, making 4.5 tackles and interceptions a game and is even winning 2.2 aerial duels. He is so solid defensively, and is able to distribute the ball so effectively. This is a difficult match for any player, never mind someone who has never played in the Champions League knock out rounds before. Let’s hope he brings all these qualities into this round.

Juventus have been very good this season. After a season that saw them pushed to the very edge by Sarri’s Napoli side, they seemingly wanted to bring back their domiance, and after signing Emre Can, Joao Cancelo, Perrin and of course Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s Juventus in a good position to earn instant success , and it’s meant a lot of pressure for them. What makes this side very lucky is they have one of the Top 5 managers in the world in Max Allegri. The Italian’s ability to change and adapt to whoever he’s playing, and bringing the absolute best out of any player he has, makes his teams so difficult to play against. Serie A this season has went back to its predictable self, thanks to Juventus just walking away with it so far. Ronaldo, Dybala, Manzukic and Pjanic are all performing as good as ever to make sure they win their 8th Scudetto in a row. What I like most about this side is how quickly they have learnt to play to Ronaldo’s strengths. While Dybala and Mandzukic aren’t playing as good as they have in the past, they have been so selfless in making sure Ronaldo gets all the chances like he did in Madrid. The 3 of them are just so flexible. They are all able to play on the flanks, and through the middle. It means Allegri is given so many options in how to approach these big games. I truly do think that this is their chance to take advantage of weaker competition. Juventus have a striker who gets in amazing positions and knows how to turn up on the big stage, and have a defence with incredible full backs and 2 defenders who are some of the best of the modern era. While losing Buffon is a massive blow, Szczesny is more than good to play for this side. Juventus couldn’t have picked a better time to sign the 5x Champions League winner in Cristiano Ronaldo, but it has put a lot of pressure on them to succeed instantly. This squad’s average age is 28.3, with only 2 other sides in Serie A having older teams than the Champions. While Ronaldo still has a couple of years left at the top level, players like Chiellini, Bonucci, Matuidi, Cuadrado, Khedira and Mandzukic are all over 30. This could be the last chance for Allegri to win the Champions League with this set of players, which makes this arguably the most difficult season of his career to date.

Ronaldo is definitely the biggest threat in this game. Atletico is one of his favourite sides to face, a team in which he has scored 21 goals against. It’s a game where he usually able to turn up against, so it’s important to create as many chances as possible for him. He is already taking nearly 7 shots a game in Serie A, which is just outstanding for a 34 year old. The problem is he has had one of his worst Champions League campaigns for a long time. He is the competition’s all time top goal scorer, yet he only managed a single goal. Having that red card early on did not help him, but it puts even more pressure on him now. He came to Juventus for the sole reason of winning this compeition, so he has to go back to his scoring ways. Another who could be a massive threat is Paulo Dybala. With Ronaldo not performing, it put a lot of pressure on the Argentine to carry the side, and he did. He scored 5 goals in the compeition in only 4 starts. While he won’t be as much of goal threat as his teammate, his chance creation and movement in the final third will be key in finding goals against such a solid side.

My money would be on Juventus to advance. I just think Ronaldo’s goal record against Atletico is too good to ignore, and with their defence finally starting to weaken, it has made them arguably the worst they’ve been in a long time.

Why Barcelona Have Been Underwhelming – Lyon vs Barcelona -UEFA Champions League Preview

These previews have been some of the best posts I’ve put out, and judging by the views they are attracting, it seems others agree. With only 3 left, it seems we are finally so close to finishing them. Let’s look at one of the final previews, being Lyon’s huge game against La Liga leaders Barcelona. With both teams having game defining players, it could be a very memorable tie.

Let’s begin with Lyon, who are having a fine enough season so far, but I have had some problems with them. It just bothers me when they drop points against such poor opposition, and with Lille 4 points clear and Marseille and St Etienne not far behind them, it begs the question of why aren’t Lyon doing better? Well defence is a massive problem. While their full backs are actually pretty solid, with Mendy, Tete and Dubois all performing very well, it’s put more pressure on Lyon’s defenders. While I think Marcelo is a solid defender, I don’t think Denayer is not a good player in the slightest. Jeremy Morel is now 34, and is still getting plenty of game time. It worries me that a team with such a good attack, might be held down by a central defence that is old and easy to expose. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of their manager, Bruno Genesio. I can give him sympathy for having deal with a club who aren’t willing to spend much on defenders, which is why Denayer is even at the club. He has also added some impressive flexibility to the side, with Lyon deploying 8 different formations this season. It has mostly worked, but it was more to get the most out of what he has, and he seems to be unsure on what his best team even is. He’s played Aouar, Depay, Fekir and Traore in so many different positions, because he doesn’t know where to fit them all in. He’s tried Fekir and Depay as a striker, mainly due to both lacking a great work rate. However while both have played a lot of games there and can work on the occasion, they are better behind the striker. Depay is an amazing creator, so having him on the left or behind the striker is much more effective. Fekir is similar. He loves to get on the ball and run at defenders, and his shot locations aren’t great, with half of his total shot coming from outside the box. He’s another who shouldn’t lead the line. While Genesio’s masterclass against Manchester City and PSG is very impressive, I just don’t think he has taken advantage of Marseille and Monaco falling off as much as they have, in the same way Lille have capitalised.

What cannot be denied about Lyon is they have some of the most desirable players in Europe, starting with Memphis Depay. The Dutch international is in the form of his life at the moment. It has actually surprised me why a club like Chelsea or Real Madrid have not even considered him. While I did say I do not like him as a sole number 9, he is still an absolutely amazing attacker. He is taking 2.9 shots a game, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. These are all signs of a complete forward. Since Lacazette’s departure, he has been the main man at Lyon. With Fekir having consistent injury problems, Depay has been so important for everything Lyon have been doing. With his versatility, arrogance and ability, he makes for a forward who could fix any attack. It’s just so good to see Depay finally reach that potential we all knew he had. Barcelona might truly struggle to deal with him, because he can just do so much. He is so unpredictable. While Fekir and Traore could all be huge threats in this game, Aouar deserves some praise here. With incredible XGBuildup numbers and a great dribbler, it’s just amazing he’s still only 20. He is one of the best young players in Europe and has continued his amazing form from last season into this one. What has made him more impressive is the drop off of his teammates. Tousart and Ndombele have both not been nearly has good as they were last season, so it’s made Aouar look even better. I just love how good he is on the ball, and how good he is when it comes to transition. Ndombele’s dribble numbers have dropped, so it’s helped massively that Aouar has actually improved. A lot of clubs have been looking at him too, and it’s so easy to see why. He is a guy with a bright future, and is vital to Lyon getting a result in this game.

Let’s look at Barcelona. I have titled this post why Barcelona have been underwhelming, and I’ll explain. This La Liga season has been very confusing. With Villarreal and Valencia all dropping off a cliff this season, one would assume that a team that brought in huge talents like Malcom, Lenglet, Arthur and Arturo Vidal, you’d think they would be so much further ahead than they are. Real Madrid are having their worst season in years, yet they’re only 6 points behind them. While they have been winning and mostly deservingly so, but there have been consistent problems, and it all comes back to Valverde. His time at Barcelona can only be seen as satisfactory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he is a bad manager. He is a very good manager, but isn’t a Barcelona manager. Thanks to Cruyff and Pep, they have such a high standard for the football that is being played, that anything that isn’t at the level, isn’t good enough. He has had a mostly successful time in charge, but he has individual moments that have soured his relationship with the fans. Letting Messi leave early last season for a friendly, which lead to the club losing their unbeaten run on the last day of the season against Levante, losing 5-4 in humiliating fashion. While that was bad, losing a 3 goal advantage against Roma in a truly awful performance in the Italian capital. It’s these moments where the fans and neutrals get frustrated, because he just struggles on the big stage at times. While I can see this as his biggest fault, the biggest problem is definitely his player managment. I do think he has been given players he doesn’t neccessarily want (I’ll get to that) and he has nearly no idea how to use them, and has instead relied heavily on Suarez and Busquets, and playing them even if they are tired. Both are aging and need to be managed carefully. Rakitic is another who is loved by Valverde, but wants to play him so much, that the fans are becoming tired of him. These are all good players, but they are all becoming old, and shouldn’t be relied on as much as they are. He has massively struggled with dealing with some of the bigger signings, starting with Coutinho. His signing in the first place was strange, because there wasn’t neccessarily a place in the squad for him. He was seen as an Iniesta replacement, but I don’t think they are as similar as thought. He cannot play as an 8, because he isn’t good defensively as an 8 should be. He also isn’t and has never been a winger, but can play there. He is a 10, but Messi occupies that area so where does he fit? He is useful to have in the squad, but Valverde seems to have no idea what to do with the £142m player. Malcom is a much worse situation, because Coutinho at least plays. But that blame is more on Malcom that Valverde, because he should be at Roma, but decided to go to Barcelona, when there wasn’t even a place in the squad. Valeverde is struggling in some aspecs in one of the hardest manager job’s in the world.

Talking about Messi as a key player is pointless, because of course he is. He’s the best player in the history of the game, so he’s easily the biggest threat on the pitch. Let’s look at someone else instead, that being Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman’s time in Barcelona has been mixed. Don’t get me wrong, he has been amazing whenever he has played, but because of his issues with Valverde, and the board seemingly not liking him, it’s taken a while for him to establish himself in the side, but he’s been great. His performances in the Champions League have been outstanding. His shot numbers, chance creation and dribbling went supernova. He scored 2 in the group stages, with only Messi scoring more. He adds that creativity from the wide areas and is one of the dribblers in Europe. He is still such a promising player, and it’s good to see him finally showing it for a side that don’t deserve him.

If Lyon wish to win the round, they must deal with Busquets. The Spaniard is the best defensive midfielder in history, but he is 29 now. He is such a smart player but if Lyon attempt to deal with him, it’ll make Barcelona so much easier to deal with. The other is to hope Sergi Roberto is playing. He is good offensively, but is so easy to expose. They have to attack fast and keep hold of the ball. If they fail to do that, Messi and co will punish them.

If Barcelona want to advance, they have to play 2 in the middle. Lyon advanced as one of the few unbeaten teams, but only managing a single win. Those defenders are old, so if they play Messi and Suarez together, it might put a lot of pressure on the players at the back. Denayer and Morel aren’t good defenders, and Barcelona should find it easy to break them down. They need to use their experience. This team still has plenty of the winners from their 2015 Champions League win, and need to beat a side full of young players. Show them how winning is done. It’s why I think they will win. While a shock could definitely happen, I think Barcelona just have so much going for them to lose in the same way as last season.

Is the League More Important? Liverpool vs Bayern Munich – UEFA Champions League Preview

With the first week of fixtures over, let’s start looking at next week’s games, starting with by the most interesting, Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich and title challengers and last year’s finalists Liverpool. It’s a game between 2 European heavyweights, but do they both even want to win this tournament?

We’ll start with Liverpool, who are arguably having their best season in the league since Suarez’s time in Anfield. A combination of a forward line whoj just get each other and defensive improvements have truly made them worthy challengers, but not deserving of a title. If their closest opponents were not this one in a million Manchester City side, I’d say they would definitely earn they praise. When talking about Liverpool, their summer window was one of their highlights. They fixed a majority of the issues I had with their squad. They fixed their hard working midfield by bringing an excellent defensive midfielder in Fabinho and a one in a million in Naby Keita (even if he hasn’t been at his best so far). The best part about bringing in these players is the added competition they’ve given. Wijnaldum and Milner have both improved this season, and have became regulars in the side. While I don’t like Wijnaldum in the slightest (his inconsistency and underwhelming numbers just make him not very useful player to me), it’s hard to deny he has had his best season at Merseyside. Milner is another who is in the form of his career. He is been the best creator in that midfield and balls to the full back have been intrusmental. I do say they haven’t deserved to be how close to city as they have, but they deserve credit for that. Klopp has weakened his press and put Salah as the point man in the team, and it’s been so successful. Firmino still leads the press, but it gives Salah the freedom to lead the line, and he might be in the best form of his career. He leads his team in every category, shots, chance creation and dribbles, and keeps that attack ticking with his pace and movement. The most important element of this side is the new found flexibility. When you move Firmino in a deeper position, it really helps give that midfield an option and doesn’t leave such a gap between the forward line and the midfield. It’s been a success, and now Klopp has even more options on how to set up his side. While their league form has been sensational, their performances in the Champions League have been worrying. Their defeats away to Paris, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade were very worrying, because it highlighted their weaknesses and their occasion to just forget the basics of football. Away games in the Champions League are tough, and Liverpool just dropped off. They were taking less shots and giving away way more big chances than they usually do. Their usual aggression and general effort just seemed to drop off, especially against Napoli. It’s left them with clear weaknesses, that if you deal with the midfield, it makes them so much easier to handle. They are still one of the best sides in the competition, and will be very hard to stop.

With Salah already highlighted. let’s look at 2 other players that will have an influence in this game, starting with Virgil Van Dijk. The Dutchman has single handedly fixed that defence and given them a monsterous aerial prescene and a great distributor. Liverpool were chasing Van Dijk for months, and finally landed their man for £75 million last January. He has arguably been one of Liverpool’s best ever signings in the Premier League era. He is just so reliable and leads that back line and has improved every defender who plays next to him. The best thing to say about Van Dijk is he is yet be dribbled past in the Premier League. That is absolutely incredible. He will be needed in a game against an opponents with true European pedigree, and Liverpool need a leader, especially at the Allianz. While I do like Van Dijk and mostly like Salah (the diving hasn’t helped him recently), I love Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian is the reason why that front 3 click so well. His pressing, creativity and work ethic make him the perfect partner for Mane and Salah. He has been so consistent during his time in Liverpool, He has contibuted to more than 15 goals in every domestic season for the Reds, and is a favourite for Jurgen Klopp. While Salah and Mane were great in the Champions League last season. He played every game and arguably gave his best performances. He contributed to 17 goals in 13 starts. He gave out the highest shot numbers and creative figures, and was the stand out performer for a majority of Liverpool’s games. Whether he is on the ball or off it, Bayern should be worried for what he can do to them.

Moving on to Bayern, who haven’t had as bad of a season as many have attempted to point out. The best way to describe it is unfortunate.  Just looking at thier xPTS, it shows that Bayern should be 8 points clear ahead of Dortmund, but thanks to a few unfortunate results and Favre breaking xG as usual, Bayern are 5 behind Dortmund and just in front of Gladbach. I’ve covered the negatives multiple times in the past so why not look at the more positive side? Well they still top the Bundesliga for shots, possession, pass accuracy and face the least amount of shots. They are still a very good side, but a lack of recruitment has made this squad weak in some areas. Niko Kovac is doing a good job, but has had the problem of relatively poor backing from the board have given Kovac criticism that isn’t entirely his fault. Bayern have an average age of 27,3, the highest in the Bundesliga. It’s worrying when their closest competitors, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund, have average age’s of 23,9 and 24,9 respectively. While signings like Goretzka, Gnabry and Tolisso show that they have thought ahead in some areas, there are still players in this side that should be looking at moving on. Robben and Ribery are leaving in the summer, which is long overdue. Both have been some of the best wingers of the century, but they shouldn’t be relying on these players when they are both in their mid 30s. Some of their defenders also need to be looking at replacing. While I think Boateng and Hummels are still great defenders, one of them should move on, most definitely Boateng. The World Cup winner has struggled with injuries, and has relied on his physicality for years now. Hummels does not, which makes him more useful as he ages. Even with Pavard coming in the summer, they need to start truly future proofing the side, and now with Koman and Gnabry being the only attackers in the side that can be seen as young, their next few summers could possibly be the most important in the club’s recent history. I do think Bayern have been hugely unlucky to not be top of the Bundesliga, but their problems are all their own.

While Lewandowski is by far their biggest threat, with the forward scoring the joint most goals in the group stages, and his shot numbers being very good with 4 per game, it’s too obvious. We’ll instead look at two other players that will cause Liverpool plenty of problems. The first being, as previously mentioned, Kinglsey Coman. The Frenchman has had his difficulties while playing for the champions, with his game time limited thanks to Robben and Ribery’s continued persistence to remain as key players, it has meant he isn’t given as much game time as he so rightly deserves. Why does he deserve it? Well he has confortably been their best wide player. With Robben, Ribery and Gnabry all not being at their best, it has made Coman vital to this side. Even with the winger missing a majority of the season due to an injury he sustained in the first game of the season, Kovac as seen Coman as a player that must remain part of his first team plans. He put in a man of the match display against Augsburg, which saw him score 2 and assist another, which have been his only goal involvments this season, but his numbers have still been very positive. His xG90 and xA90 combined this season is a good 0.64, the highest in his career. He has only made 11 appearances this season, but it shows just how well he has played under Kovac. He has been unbeatable at times, with his pace, dribbling and chance creation all incredible this season. He has to play every game, but it’s a shame his injury record is still a worry. He’s now 22, which means it is about time for him to truly show the potential he’s promised for so long. Finally, let’s discuss Thiago Alcantara. The Spaniard has been one of the best midfielders in Europe for the past 3 years, but like Coman, he has also had his injury problems in the past. This hasn’t stopped the Spaniard in being almost a complete midfielder. He averages 4.2 tackles and interceptions per game, completes 2.2 dribbles and averages 82 passes a game. Without Thiago in the side, they lack a player who isn’t afraid to get on the ball and help transition to attack, while relieving pressure off the defence. He is one of their most important players, and Bayern will need to get him on the ball as much as possible.

If Liverpool want to win this tie, they must attack down the flanks. If Bayern’s 3-1 loss against Leverkusen has taught us anything, it’s that they struggle when dealing with fast wingers, and Liverpool definitely have some of them. Bailey and Bellarabi cause Alaba and Rafinha plenty of problems, with the wingers completing 5 dribbles between them. Even with Kimmich coming back, it doesn’t change the fact that because Bayern advance their full backs so far forward, it leaves so much space for wingers to exploit. When Bayern struggle against teams, it’s against those who have more energy and hit them in the wide areas. Liverpool should deploy their 4-3-3. This kind of game is made for Firmino. His pressing will be key in dealing with an aging back line and a goalkeeper who is having his worst season in the his esteemed career in Neuer. Liverpool have been good this season, but it is time for them to turn on the spark of their incredible run last season, where their forwards that their best performances, and show this Bayern side that they aren’t top dogs anymore in European football.

However if Bayern want to advance to the next round, they must get Thiago on the ball as much as possible. I mentioned this before, but he is an excellent midfielder and if they are to get anything out of this game, Thiago needs to put his mark on this game. Modric and Kroos proved that if you play midfielders with game intelligence and great transitional play, it truly makes it hard for Liverpool. They cannot play anyone who isn’t afraid to run the length of the pitch. Coman. Gnabry, Rodriguez and even Goretzka have to play. Kovac might have to sacrifice everything that Pep has built and established, if they want to advance.

I’m going for Liverpool to advance here, and quite comfortably. This is still a good Bayern side, but this Liverpool side are still favourites. On their day, they can beat anyone, and they have the players and energy to break this Bayern side. The game at Anfield could be a battering, and it could be a massive statement for the Reds. Both want to win their domestic campaigns arguably more than this trophy, so it will be interesting to see how both will set up.

 

Will Madrid Hold On to Their Title? Ajax vs Real Madrid – UEFA Champions League Preview

While I’ve already previewed 3 very exciting games, with 4 other games which haven’t even been mentioned yet, this game does catch my interest. A game including the current Champions League holders, against former champions Ajax, who are currently having a new lease of life.

Let’s start with Ajax, who after having a disappointing 2017/18 season. They finished runners up to PSV Eindhoven, and failed to even qualify for any European compeition. They saw to quickly fix the problems they had last summer, by bringing in Dusan Tadic and Daily Blind for a combined £24m. They needed to improve their league form, while replacing Justin Kluivert in the process. Both have been very good this season, and when you add that with 2 of the best young talents in world football in Frenkie De Jong and Mattijs De Ligt. It gave them this balance of experience and youth, and showed that they had finally learnt from their past mistakes. Ajax have been simply incredible in the league. While their defeat to Feyenoord wasn’t their lowest point of the season, it has still been a very good domestic campaign. It’s just a shame that PSV have been even better. Nevertheless, they have still managed to score 72 goals, 1 more than PSV and 25 more than Feyenoord. Both top sides are in a league of their own at the moment. The difference between the two this season has so far been the Champions League. While PSV were stuck in a group of death, Ajax were given a group that gave them a chance of getting out. The group included Bayern, Benfica and AEK Athens. They came out of the group as one of the few teams to go unbeaten. Their biggest achievement of their campaign so far was their showings against Bayern Munich. The Bundesliga champions were shown up twice by Ajax, thanks to a tactical masterclass by manager Erik ten Hag. He used Tadic as a false nine, and Bayern has absolutely no idea how to handle him. They have shown enough evidence this season to prove that they can pull off anything, and could truly surprise everyone.

Speaking of Tadic, the Serbian must be recognised as one of his sides biggest threats. He has been magnificient since arriving in the capital, and showed this in the Champions League too. He played every minute of Ajax’s Champions League campaign, scoring 5 and assisting 1, while stats dropped from his numbers in the Eredivise, they were still very impressive. He was creating 2 chances a game, completing 1.7 dribbles and making 1.3 tackles a game. While his shot numbers weren’t great, but as a false nine, his role was more to bring others into play, which worked. He is a very talented player, is finally given the chance to show it in an attacking side. While Tadic, De Jong and Huntelaar have all been stand out this season, there is only one player who stands out, Hakim Ziyech. The phrase “too good for their league” has been used many times over the years. Whether it’s Celtic going unbeaten, Neymar getting a goal a game or Giovinco getting a goal contribution a game in MLS, there are different examples, but the one that cannot be argued is that Hakim Ziyech is way too good for the Eredivise. To briefly go over his numbers, he’s been awarded the man of the match 9 times this season, he’s taking 6 shots a game, making 4 key passes a game, completing 2.7 dribbles and even putting 1.8 tackles a game. These numbers are Messi like. He obviously isn’t nearly as good as Messi, but my point is that he is taking this league for a joke. He’s only 25 and it’s amazed how not a single club is looking at him. He should be starting for an elite side, not playing in a sub-par league. He has still shown his incredible ability in the Champions League too. He’s still taking 5 shots a game, and creating 1.8 chances a game and completing 3 dribbles. He is a superb talent and could cause Madrid massive problems.

Now onto the holders Real Madrid. This season has gone as badly as one could have expected. I’ve discussed previously where everything went wrong with Lopetegui, so how is Santiago Solari doing? Well he’s doing okay. They have risen to 2nd in the table and haven’t lost in the league since the 6th of January. They have gained massive ground on Barcelona, and while that is impressive, context is very important. La Liga has arguably been at its worst for a very long time. Villarreal, Valencia and Bilbao have been rather underperforming or just been plain bad all season. Everything bad with Real Madrid this season jut always goes back to last summer. Their failure to replace Cristiano Ronaldo might be the dumbest decisions of the past decade. The argument was made that the goals would spread out more evenly, thanks to Ronaldo being such a vocal point, that players like Benzema and Asensio eneded up sacrificing their game to help him. The problem with this argument at the time and especially now is the goals they were replacing. They weren’t replacing 20-25 goals, they were replacing 50. Madrid needed to bring in a guy with a huge reputation, like Icardi, Kane, Dybala or even Griezmann. A guy who will take that responsibility and embrace it. They didn’t do this however, and now look like so much less of a threat than they were. With Bale failing to have the impact we all thought he would, it has left Los Blancos with the requirement of bringing in a forward this summer. Let’s quickly touch in Solari. Not much blame can be placed on him, because a lot of the problems all go back to Florentino Perez. Solari has done some good things. Thanks to some of the senior players in the squad rather struggling for form or with injuries, it has left Solari with choosing to bring in the fringe players, to see what they can offer. Llorente, Ceballos and Requilon have all played a decent amount of minutes, and some of them have shown they can have a say in this side. He’s got Madrid winning again, but they just don’t look good doing it. This is a huge game and this could define their season.

Let’s look at 2 of Madrid’s biggest threats, starting with Luka Modric. The debate still continues on whether the Croatian deserved the Balon d’or. The quick answer is always Messi and always will be Messi. If Messi is still playing he should win it every single year. Since there have been 6 occasions of the Argentine not winning it then the award shouldn’t be taken seriously. I am happy he has won it. It was about time that Modric got the credit he deserved for being one of the best midfielders of the decade. He is one of the most complete midfielders the game has ever seen, and while Xavi and Pogba will always be my personal favourites, Modric is right up there. Modric did have a slow start to the season, but he cannot be blamed much for that. He wasn’t given much of a break after his Croatia side’s impressive run to the final of the World Cup. At the age of 33, he needs to be used more sparingly, but it shows just how good he is. Without him, their midfield just doesn’t function as well as with him there. Only captain Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema have started more games in La Liga than Modric. Even after his slow start, he has still been very impressive. He never stands out in any statistic, but he is solid in most departments. Out of the Real Madrid squad, only the full backs complete more dribbles than him. Only a handful of players create more chances than him and take more shots. He adds so much to your midfield that he can just fit into any team comfortably. Even with Ajax’s impressive midfield talent, they will find it difficult to deal with him. Vinicious Jr is a player who does need to be highlighted here, with Isco, Bale and Asensio all having arguably their least productive seasons, and it’s given the young Brazilian his chance to shine. he has been good in his 12 appearances in the league, and shown moments of real talent. While he isn’t as exciting as Mbappe, Jovic or even Sancho, there is definitely a talent here. We can go into the crazy decision to spend £40m on a player who has never started a game of football, but it’s had an effect on him. Imagine having your future planned out, without barely having to kick a ball. His game for me needs so much improving, mostly to do with his movement and his decision making. But he has been getting plaudits for his recent performances, and they are justified. His chance creation and shooting have have made him a useful player for Solari. He’s still so raw and adds this aura of unpredictably. It’s something they havent’t had for a long time, since Ronaldo’s winger days. He could be a real problem for Ajax in the wide areas.

If Ajax want to beat the current holders? They must attack them in the wide areas. If Marcelo starts, it will leave Madrid exposed on his side. While his attacking contribution is still solid, he has been caught out defensively a few times this season, and is finally starting his age. If Neres or Ziyech can just commit to staying wide, it will make their chances of getting through. They also have to play their game. They proved against Bayern that they are able to play against the best around, if they just be confident and believe in themselves, they have a huge chance of advancing. This Madrid side isn’t the same possession side as it was. Ajax can beat them. Get De Jong on the ball and he will drive through that aging Madrid side

But if Madrid want to keep their title, they must play the ball in the air. With Ajax having a small side, it makes them easier to push off the pitch. They are also inexperienced, so make sure to use the dark arts of football at their worst. Ramos does this all the time, so hope, like Liverpool, and will be key if Madrid want to get through. Madrid have never been a side that win pretty, but know how to win. Even on an off year, they have the players to get through these huge games. It’s what they do best. I think they will advance to the next round, but Ajax will really give them a tough game.

The Underdogs of the Tournament? Borussia Dortmund vs Tottenham Hotspur – UEFA Champions League Preview

Another tie that is strangely hard to decide, let’s look at two teams that overperforming in their leagues, Spurs and Dortmund. Let’s start with Borussia Dortmund, who are having arguably their best season since their last final in this competition. The German league leaders have been very good this season. After the mess that was Borussia Dortmund last season, with Peter Bosz’s incredible start to last season overshadowed by a poor showing the Champions League and failing to continue on that good start. It left Dortmund wanting to pick a safer choice and go for Lucien Favre, also known as the man who breaks the expected goals metric. Mike Goodman from StatsBomb (a website I highly recommend thanks to their great articles and podcasts) said “The magic of Favre is that his teams muddy up games, and press aggressively in midfield, but also manage to have cover at the back in a manner that seems to trick expected goal models.” This was said at the beginning of the season, and Favre has continued the season with his witchcraft. If you just look at xPTS (expected points), Bayern should be the team that are top of the Bundesliga by 8 points, yet it’s the other way round. So how has Favre done it this time? What helped was Dortmund having an amazing summer window. With Hakimi, Akanji and Diallo arriving to fix the defence on the long term, and Witsel and Delaney adding some needed steel to the midfield, Favre had a team with all of its leaks covered. I could not be more wrong about Witsel and Delaney. I never understood in the summer who these two were signed, but now I get it. Their strength, aggression, pressing ability and overall stature has made this side way less sustainabe to being as open they were last season. Witsel is great at keeping hold of the ball, and just adds a real aerial threat to the side, as shown by the Belgian’s 3 goals this season. They look less like half a Pep side, and now look like a team with a plan.

By far their biggest threat in this tie is their captain, Marco Reus. The German has arguably been one of the most unluckiest players in history. He has missed multiple international competitions and a lot of games for Dortmund. However after having a stellar end the season, and finally going to a World Cup for the first time, he is finally back to his best. With Dortmund having a slight striker problem, Reus has been reliable in carrying the team’s goals, scoring 13 and assisting 6, more goal contributions than any other Dortmund player. While his dribbling has declined, it’s because of how central he is playing now. 23 out of his 29 starts have been been rather in attacking midfield or even as a striker. He doesn’t need to beat players anymore because he’s the one on the end of chances. He’s arguably in the form of his career. The other massive threat are the full backs. Andrek Hakimi and Lukasz Piszczek have been a great blend of experience and youth. Piszczek has been making more than 4 tackles and interceptions a game. While he has barely been contributing in attack, his crazy defensive work does make up with it. Hakimi has been sensational during his 2 year loan spell. In the Champions League, only Marco Reus has created more chances than the Moroccan. They balance each other out and make them a good threat in attack.

Tottenham are in a similar place as Dortmund. They are also performing way better than they arguably should be. The North London side are currently sitting comfortably in 3rd, and have actually not drawn a game yet, which might just be the longest run where team has done that. While Tottenham are in a good position, statistically they have gotten worse. This is understandable. They have dealt with multiple injury problems all over the pitch. Whether it’s being forced to play an inexperienced Foyth, having to play Winks for nearly every game or playing Son when he clearly shouldn’t be. They are doing very well considering the situation they’re in. This does bring it back, as it was bound to do, to their summer dealings, or lack of them. It’s now been more than a year since Tottenham have signed a player, being Lucas Moura in late January. This wasn’t like a situation where they’re team was good enough, because it wasn’t. Their midfield desperately needed fixing, with Dembélé dropping off, Dier and Sissoko being average and Winks still not good enough, it left Spurs with a void to fill. If they just splashed a lot of money on one player in the prime of their career, like Thiago Alcantara or Brozovic, it would have shown some desire and at least a show of wanting to compete. There seemed to be a conflict regarding what players needed to be signed. Pochettino only wanted players who could improve the first team, while Levy only wanted squad players. It’s a problem that this team needs to address. I heard Alex Scott on Sky Sports say that this side is still a very young side, which just isn’t true anymore. Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Trippier, Sissoko, Rose and Llorente are all over 28. They need to be looking at replacing those players in the next year while some still have value. Even Kane, Eriksen and Son are in their prime years. This was a young side, who seemed to have hit their ceiling.

This is arguably the worst spurs side since that first season under Pochettino, but there are still threats in this side. I am still unsure if Alli and Kane are going to be back, so they won’t be discussed. Let’s begin with one of their most important players, Christian Eriksen. The Danish international has been one of the best number 10’s for a long time now. He has the technical ability that can rival any creator, but adds the important addition of defensive work. The number 10 has became a position that is slowly falling out of trend at the moment. A lot of top teams are struggling to find places for these types of players, with James, Coutinho and Isco all arguably having their worsts seasons in terms of game time. A lot of managers do not want to sacrifice a central midfielder due to their better work rate and discipline. The ones that are succeeding are the less creative types of midfielders. Lingard, Alli and Canales are all players who are more attacking midfielders, yet have a skillset that enables them to play as an 8, making them way more favourable to certain managers. Eriksen also fits in this category. This season has arguably been his worst in a Spurs’s since Pochettino’s arrival. His xG and xA are at their lowest since 2014/15. It isn’t all his fault though. With Spurs’s having a weak midfield, he has had to come deep to receive the ball to add an element of creativity. He has still been good this season, but he is much better when he has a player like Dembélé behind him. With Winks and Dier both being quite average players, it’s forced Eriksen to play as more of an 8 than a 10. He will still be a massive threat to Dortmund though. One player must be addressed too, and that is Heung-Min Son. The South Korean international has been the most important player for his side this side. After returning from the World Cup, going to the U23 Asian games and going the Asian games in January, he has had to work himself tirelessly for both club and country, and he hasn’t even shown any signs of complaining. He has been the driving force of an attack that is missing it’s two best players. Tottenham have Son to thank for all of the goals he has scored, to keep Spurs competitive in the league. His pace, ability to stretch defends and beat players in one on ones, makes him a player Dortmund have to be careful of.

If Dortmund wish to advance to the next round, they must take advantage of the weak links I mentioned, starting with the midfield. With the likeliness of Pochettino starting Sissoko and Winks, it leaves plenty of areas to take advantage of. Winks’s defensively is probably the worst player in the side. While he is a very good on the ball, his reading of the game and defensive workrate is just not there, and it’s a problem. It’s why Eriksen has been having to come so deep, to just add an extra number in the middle of the park to add some superiority. Reus is key in this area. He just needs to finds those areas between the midfield and defence and make life incredibly hard for the midfield pair. The wingers are also key. While all of Tottenham’s full backs are decent players, they all of defensive problems in some way. Rose can advance far too much up the pitch, making him easy to catch out. Trippier and Davies are all way too slow and are so easy to beat on the counter attack. Aurier, while physically great, has a massive error in him. Whether it’s Sancho, Pulisic or Bruun Larsen, they have to take advantage of a position that other teams have exposed. Look at how Manchester United beat them at Wembley. They used Martial and Rashford to cause the full backs so much problems, creating the blueprint for how beat this side.

There is one thing that Tottenham must do if they want to book their place, and that is the air. To clarify, countless times Dortmund have shown how easily they can be beaten by a simple ball in the air. During their crazy game against Hoffenheim, they gave away 3 goals due to 3 crosses. While Hoffenheim are one of the best teams in Europe for playing in your face, with strength and speed to frustrate their opponents. Tottenham need to replicate this. It’s a massive shame that Dele Alli is missing this game, because he would have been so important in this game. However since he is missing due to injury, it’s up to Llorente to impose himself in this tie. If Tottenham just use his size and experience to get past that inexperienced back line, it could work. He can be frustrating, but they need a vocal point. It’s why I brought up Eriksen as an important player because of his set piece delivery. They need to play this dirty if they want to advance to the next round.

I am backing Tottenham to advance to the quarter finals. Dortmund must put their league form as a priority, and while the game at the Westfalenstadion will most likely go in Dortmund’s favour, Tottenhem will come out of this tie as the victors. I’m still unsure about whether Favre is an elite manager, but I know for a fact that Pochettino is.

Will Solskjaer Get the Job FULL TIME? Manchester United vs Paris Saint-Germain – UEFA Champions League Preview

By far one of the clashes of the tournament. The french champions go against a high flying Man United side. It’s a tie that could go either way and it’s very difficult to even predict this, but I’ll try my best.

Let’s start with Manchester United, who three months ago, would have made this fixture so easy to predict. Under Mourinho, this side were absolutely awful.There was no clear future and seemed to change how the team set up in every game. In the end, why even blame the players when the manager was doing so much wrong. Now under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they look like a completely different team. They attack much faster and take advantage of the incredibly talented attackers they have. Who knew that playing Martial and Pogba, two of the most talented players in the team, would help win games? Since the Norwegian has taken over, United have closed an 11 point gap, to overtaking Arsenal and only a win away from top 4. They are unbeaten and even beat Asenal and Tottenham in the process. Even looking at xG, only the Tottenham game can be seen as a game where United rode their luck, but you can do that when you have one of the best keepers the game has ever seen. I think what’s most impressive about Solskjaer so far is just how quickly he identified the problems. He brought Herrera back into the team and made Martial and Rashford key players in what he was trying to do. This is the best United have been playing since Sir Alex retired, and is arguably the most likeable United have ever been.

Their key player for this fixture is not even a debate, and that is Paul Pogba. The Frenchman’s form has been next level in recent months. He has more goal contributions than any other Manchester United player, and is performing at the level we all knew he could reach. Pogba has always been incredible for United, but now he’s adding those goals and assists that all of his critics have been craving. His numbers have been absolutely sensational this season. He’s taking 3.5 shots a game, making 1.6 key passes and completing 1.9 dribbles. No other United player ranks higher in these departments. He is essentially carrying the attack and he seems to be loving it. He is especially good when it comes to counter attacks. It’s an approach that the team have been using in the tougher games, and thanks to Pogba’s strength and vision, it’s working. While Pogba as been the best player, Marcus Rashford isn’t far behind. The forward was one of few players who showed a lot of fight even when Mourinho was at the helm. He has been the first choice number 9, since Lukaku just doesn’t look up to it in this system. Rashford’s speed and ability to interchange with the other forwards making an unpredictable threat. His shot numbers since Solskjaer took over have gone to Harry Kane numbers. He’s averaging 5 shots a game, and is really looking like a player I never thought he would be. It’s great to finally see the 21 year old look like a player who truly is deserving of starting for the club.

Let’s look at Paris, who while having a record breaking start to the season, amassing 14 wins in a row, seems to be surrounded by off the pitch problems. The first seems to be Thomas Tuchel’s transfer demands. The former Borussia Dortmund coach seems to have this reputation of having high demands. He fell out with the Borussia Dortmund board because of the issues he was having regarding transfers, and it seems to have continued him into the French capital. Before the season started, Tuchel made it very clear that full backs he had were in his view, not good enough. With Thiago Motta retiring, it left Paris without their best defensive midfielder. What made things even worse was Rabiot’s contract situation. He was refusing to sign a new deal, because he wanted to play for Barcelona. The board did not like this, so Tuchel is now not allowed to play him at all. The problem is none of these issues have been resolved, and it has left Tuchel very frustrated. Juan Bernat was the only full back that was signed in the summer, and only last month the club decided to replace Motta, with Leandro Parades, a player who I really like. The problem is it should have never been left this late. They are still a midfielder short, and with their failed attempt to bring in Idrissa Gueye from Everton, it has left Tuchel wondering if his club really want to win the Champions League. Their performances in the league have been amazing, but you expect that. When you some of the best attackers in Europe playing in the worst out of the top 5 leagues, of course they are going to perform exceptionally. If you just focus on their performances in Europe, there is a significant difference. That is going to happen when playing better opposition, but it’s staggering how much of a difference there is. Mbappe, Neymar and Di Maria have stayed consistent, but the likes of Bernat, Cavani, Kimpembe and Marquinhos all look worse. It does address a problem this side have. Many of their players just aren’t elite. They have these high ambitions of winning the Champions League, but you look at the other top teams, like Juventus, Barcelona and Manchester City, they have talent in every area of the side. Paris’s full backs aren’t good enough, and have a lot of players starting to age out. It isn’t their fault entirely. They play in a league where attracting talent can be difficult, but it begs the question why not focus on their domestic league? Ligue 1 is not as competitive as other leagues, but you can go into every single team and you would be able find one talent that is stand out. Sangare, Thuram, Pepe, Thauvin, Aouar, Atal, Lala. My point is they should be smarter regarding bringing in talent. It has hurt Bayern to an extent, but Juventus and Lyon have all excelled when finding domestic talent. They are the only top club in Paris, so why do they not use that pull to bring the best talent in the country?

Anyways, lets look the players that Manchester United should truly be worried about. There is no other place to start than arguably the best young talent in the history, Kylian Mbappe. The World Cup winner has actually taken his game to a whole new level this season. With Neymar mssing both fixtures thanks to another injury, the pressure is on the young forward to step up on the big stage. While Neymar was comfortably their best player in the group stages, Mbappe was still amazing. He started all 6 games, and finished the group stages with 7 goal contributions, the same as his Brazilian teammate. No other player in this side was taken more than his 3.1 shots per 90. He was thir most lethal player in the box. With Neymar dropping incredibly deep in some games, it left Mbappe as one of the most advanced players. He was also creating 2.3 chances a game, and even completing 2.5 dribbles a game. He will be a massive handful for which ever defenders are selected for the game.

With Neymar out, there was also concern that Marco Verratti would also mix the tie. Thanfully for Paris, he will be available for this game. Verratti has been the best midfielder in France and one of the best in Europe. He has been in the Ligue 1 team of the season every year for the past 4 years (Don’t quote me on that). Even after initial problems with Tuchel, with the German claiming Verratti was overweight, he is back to his best this season. In the Champions League, he was averaging 85 passes a game. No other player in the squad was making more than the Italian international. He also had the highest pass accuracy than any outfield player to start more than 1 game. He was winning the ball back more than any other Paris player, with Verratti making 4 tackles a game, twice more than anyone else. He is the reason why the French champion’s midfield is even functional. His distribution and ball winning ability make him essential in linking the defense and the attack together. Without him, they look so much slower and have less of that drive in the midfield. He is a vital player to PSG.

If Manchester United want to progress to the next round, there is one thing they must do. Play on the counter attack, in a similar fashion to how they did against Arsenal. They play full backs that love to go forward, but don’t have the speed to get back if United move the ball. Rashford, Martial and Lingard have to start this game. If Rashford and Martial split wide, it will make life very difficult for their defense. A lot also rests on Paul Pogba. Their midfield isn’t the strongest. If the Frenchman can use his incredible athletic ability and passing range to find the forwards, it’ll mak United very difficult to deal with. They are missing their best player, so it’s vital that they take advantage of that.

If Paris wish to advance to the quarter finals, they must attack more centrally. While Herrera and Matic have both been good under Solkjaer, Herrera has this habit of going out of position to recover the ball, and Matic is also very slow. You expect intelligent passers like Verratti and Parades to find the holes to get through the wall. It also helps that United’s defense has this habit of making mistakes. Mbappe and Cavani have to make sure whoever is playing with Lindelof is the one receiving the ball. Lindelof is the only one with the confidence to try and break out of the line. If you limit United to goal kicks and long balls into the channels, it makes dealing with their attack much easier. While they have improved, there is definitely still a Mourinho-sized shadow looming over some of these players.

This tie is so hard to predict. Paris can beat anyone on their day, but their inability to deal with sides with good wingers makes them quite easy to beat. Liverpool and Napoli proved that beating this side is not difficult. United have proved that they know how to deal with tough away games and come back with the 3 points, as seen by their wins in North London, but Europe is an entirely different stage. I think I’ll go for a United win. Tuchel still hasn’t got this side as good as it should be, and with their midfield looking worse than the Red Devil’s, it is just the perfect time to play them.

Will Roma Replicate Last Year’s Success? Roma vs Porto – UEFA Champions League Preview

 

Let’s begin with by far the least interesting fixture of the round. This isn’t to say there is nothing to say about this tie, but the other games are by far more interesting. Let’s start with Roma. I was originally going to disucss why Roma are struggling so much in Serie A, and it can quickly be summarized by key players leaving and not being replaced by players of the same level. The giallorossi sold two of their starting midfielders, and brought in an aging Seven N’Zonzi and a very average Bryan Cristante. The positives for them this season is some of their younger talent truly shining and the future does look bright. Monchi seems to be looking in Italy and other less known leagues for reasonably priced talent and it seems to be working to an extent. I am still very unsure on whether Di Francesco is the man to bring this side success. He is managing the side in a very difficult period, with many of the side’s star players beginning to age out. He is still seemingly unsure what is best eleven truly is, and it’s resulted in players constantly in and out of the side. El Shaarrawy and Pellegrini have been two of the best players for Roma this season, yet they have only started a combined 25 games. He’s relying heavily on the older players in the side, and talents like Schick and Kluivert just don’t seem to be flourishing in the same way we all hoped. They are struggling and there isn’t any signs to say they should be higher than where they are.

While they have been very up and down this season, they have actually been very good in the Champions League. It did help that their group was relatively easy, with a struggling Madrid, a Moscow side they comfortably beaten twice and a Plzeñ side they managed to put 5 past. While Edin Dzeko has struggled in the league (he has arguably been very unlucky though), he has been fantastic in the Champions League. In the 4 games he started, he scored 5 and managed 2 assists. He’s had more goal involvements than any other Roma player, and only Messi and Lewandowski have scored more than the Bosnian. He has had some injury problems, but he will be available for this game, which is a huge boost. I mentioned before that Lorenzo Pellegrini has been good, but he’s been even better than he has been in Italy. He has 3 assists to his name in Europe, with only Mbappe, Depay and Mahrez getting more. He has been a creative hub for his side in his 3 starts, with only Toni Kroos making more key passes than his 3.5. He has to play if Roma want anything out of this game. Their wingers, Justin Kluivert and Cengiz Ünder, have both been great whenever they’ve played. Kluivert’s time in Rome has been limited, but he’s still only 19 and has put up solid numbers in the Champions League. Under and Kluivert have completed the most dribbles for Roma in the Champions League, and only Pellegrini is creating more chances the Dutchman. I like Under a lot and think he does have a very promising future, but it’ll only be positive if his shot numbers improve. Kluivert takes a more shots in the box than his turkish teammate, and considering he is also creating more chances too, it is worrying. Under just takes too many shots outside the box and seems to have Coutinho syndrome (a condition where all your positives can be outweighed by awful shot locations. Suso also has this awful condition). He’s still only 21 so this is definitely an area will improve on with time.

Let’s move on to Porto, who have been very good since Sérgio Conceição arrived at the club. Porto won the Liga Nos title last season by scoring the most goals and conceding the least. They only conceded 18 goals too, bettering every other side in the league. They have continued this into the current season, only conceding 11 goals so far this season. It does help that the competition in Portugal, Benfica and Sporting, have droppped off massively in the past couple of years. Benfica have sold a lot of talent in the past few years, with the likes of Lindelof, Ederson, Mitroglou and Semedo all leaving the club for better things. Sporting have had a similar problem but with completely different circumstances. There were claims that the club president sent fans to attack the players, with key figures of the team like Gelson Martins, Rui Patricio, William Carvalho and Piccini all leaving the club because of the dangerous enviroment. They were allowed to leave for low figures too, which meant it was hard to find good replacements. I bring this up because Porto have not had these problems. While selling Ricardo Pereira and Diogo Dalot, leaving 34 year old Maxi Pereira as their only first choice right back, but it seems to not be a problem, thanks to Eder Militão. The Brazilian arrived from his native league for a bargain £3.6 million, and it could be seen as one of the signings of the continent. He has been playing as both a right back and a centre back. and is seemingly unable to put a foot wrong. Porto haven’t had the same transitional period as their rivals, which has allowed them to have an easy running in the league. While I do think they have had more talented squads in the past, but it cannot be argued that the manager is getting the best out of what they have. While they were unbeaten in the group, some of the scorelines have painted the image of a side that is performing well, when in reality, that isn’t the case. Their wins away at Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow were games where they were outshot do show they have been lucky to even finish the groups unbeaten (they scored 3 goals with 3 shots on target against Galatasaray). They were in fact one of only two teams  to have a negative expected goals difference at the end of the group stages. They also scored the most penalties. This isn’t to discredit them, but to show that while what they have done so far is imprsssive, they are a side that have rode their luck.

I discusssed how well Dzeko has done for Roma in the Champions League, so it only seems right to credit Porto’s own striker, Moussa Marega. The Mali forward has been stand out for his side in the competition. He has scored the most goals with his side with 5. While Dzeko was a shot machine Marega was not. He was only taking 2 shots a game, but 1.8 of those were coming in the penalty area. Marega is not a great player in the slightest, but to his credit he does very well in this system. He gives the most fouls away in the side, and that for striker can be seen as a good thing. It’s a sign of a player who knows how to press effectively. Players like Firmino and Lewandowski are great at pressing and usually give away a lot of fouls in an attempt to regain the ball in an aggressive manner. Marega does this in a similar fashion. He leads the line very well for his side, and excels in the 4-3-3 system they have deployed. Another reason why Marega has done so well is because of his teammate, Yacine Brahimi. The Algerian has been insansely good for the past few years, mainly because of his dribbling. In 5 games, he managed 2 assists and is completing 3.6 dribbles per game, double of the player behind him. He is so important for Porto’s attack, and helps massively in transision and can give full backs an absolute nightmare. In a majority of Porto’s attacks, the ball will always go through the Algerian. If he manages to bring his A game, Roma will have a horrid time.

If Roma want to earn their place in the final 8, they will need to take advantage of their home leg. While it is very simple, it seems Serie A might have to take priority. Before their game in Portugal, they have the Rome derby against their biggest rivals, Lazio. Roma haven’t been great in big games this season, losing to Juventus, drawing twice to Atalanta, failing to beat the Milan clubs. Their only win would be against Lazio back in September. If they have any chance of getting top four, they need to beat their closest rivals. Porto are a defensively solid side and are very aggressive. But as mentioned, their right back is a massive weakness. If El Shaarawy or Kluivert can take advantage of a very weak right side, there could be a chance create chances for Dzeko and Under. Under can not be wasteful. It’s something you expect from the wide man, but this side do not give up goals. It’ll be difficult to score against them, but as seen against Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow, their away record is not great and have to hope they aren’t as lucky as they have been.

If Porto have any chance of getting by the giallorossi, they must deal with that weak midfield. When I say weak, I do not mean in lacking ability, I mean in physicality. Danilo Pereira and Hector Herrera are two players who are defensively solid and need to bring their aggressive side. Porto are great at winning the ball higher up the pitch, and with midfield consisting of a slow De Rossi and N’Zonzi and defenisvely poor Pellegrini and Cristante. These are players you can truly get at and it’s so vital to not let them play their game.

With all this considered, I’d put my money on Porto advancing through this stage of the compeition. Di Francesco’s job is truly on the line, and Porto are just in much more comfortable place. Dzeko isn’t firing in the same way as he was last season, and the loss of Strootman and Nainggolan have add a real fragility and lack of leaders in the side. This is arguably the worst side in Roma’s recent history, and this just isn’t the year for Roma to be focusing on Europe, when Champions League qualification is on the line.