Is ter Stegen now as good as Buffon and other key questions as Barca take on Juventus

Alex Rea 21/11/2017
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Barcelona and Juventus occupy first and second in Champions League Group D respectively and the two European giants clash at the Juventus Stadium on Wednesday.

Here we look at three key questions ahead of the fixture in Turin.

WILL BARCA FINALLY PAY FOR THEIR CARELESSNESS?

There is an antithesis between Barca’s performances and results but despite the unremarkable nature of their campaign so far, they stand top of La Liga and a point away from progression to the Champions League knockouts.

Indeed, Ernesto Valverde’s side have been regularly outplayed by smaller opposition this season and yet they are unbeaten in their last 17 games with 12 clean sheets in that run.

Valverde has certainly added an edge of defensive rigour while Lionel Messi‘s genius has unlocked opposition backlines but in between the two lines the midfield has been vapid.

Careless in possession, Barca have lacked their usual stranglehold and against more elite sides like Juve they will be punished properly.

What was once a clear source of strength has become a weakness for the Blaugrana and their creation of high-value chances has dipped.

Given their record in Turin – they’ve lost three and drawn twice – Valverde will need the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta to step up.

Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic

Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic

IS TER STEGEN RIVALlING BUFFON AS WORLD’S BEST?

It was apt Barcelona tweeted a picture this week of both Lionel Messi and Marc-Andre ter Stegen with the accompanying message: “The two biggest reasons we are where we are right now.”

Messi’s brilliance needs no mention but Ter Stegen certainly deserves to be considered alongside the Argentine in rank of importance.

The German has staggeringly saved 87 percent of the shots he’s faced in La Liga this season, stopping 34 of 39 shots Barca have conceded on target.

Suffice to say without Ter Stegen’s superb form, the complexion of Barca’s campaign would take on an entirely different look.

He made some fine stops in the weekend win over Leganes and is fast establishing himself as one of the world’s premier goalkeepers.

With Gigi Buffon set to retire at the end of this season, the locking of horns between these two keepers could actually pave way for a passing of torch with Ter Stegen among those ready to assume the role of the world’s best stopper.

Barca stopper Marc-Andre ter Stegen

Barca stopper Marc-Andre ter Stegen

ARE JUVE DUO OVER WORLD CUP HEARTACHE?

Buffon and Andrea Barzagli were both dropped by Max Allegri for the weekend defeat trip to Sampdoria after the heartbreak of Italy’s World Cup exit.

The veteran goalkeeper retired from international duty following the Azzurri’s sorry defeat to Sweden and the emotional scenes full-time carried through the week with Italian media beginning their brutal autopsy.

But in the week which marked 22 years since Buffon made his professional debut there is no doubt he’ll be itching to return to the starting XI against Barca.

Winning the Champions League is perhaps the only antidote to his World Cup disappointment but given the Bianconeri’s performances so far this season, vast improvement is required.

Juve’s usual defensive solidity has seemingly dissolved and the 3-2 loss to Sampdoria saw them drop to third in Serie A, four points off leaders Napoli.

With questions around the squad’s mentality after the success of last season, Buffon and Barzagli are two characters Juve need now more than ever.

Andrea Barzagli (L), Gianluigi Buffon and Medhi Benatia

Andrea Barzagli (L), Gianluigi Buffon and Medhi Benatia

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Man United are rediscovering their swagger with Paul Pogba back in the side

David Cooper 21/11/2017
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He does not yet share team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s cult status, but Paul Pogba’s display on his comeback from injury showed his importance to Manchester United is second to none.

Having toiled in Pogba’s absence, recently taking four points from a possible 12 in the Premier League, United rediscovered their swagger against Newcastle United on Saturday when the Frenchman made his return.

With a goal and an assist in a 4-1 comeback win, Pogba was the man of the match and his overall display helped United find a level they have struggled to reach during his two-month absence.

“He affects our football,” summarised United manager Jose Mourinho.

“We all know, myself and the fellow players, that certain players influence the levels of the team. With him we have much more creation.”

Though he has often dazzled with his long-legged technical artistry, the recognition of Pogba’s influence on United’s play has been slow in coming.

His then world-record £89.3million transfer from Juventus last year created huge expectations and although his first season was successful, there were few fireworks.

Pogba finished the season with nine goals in 51 appearances and winner’s medals in both the League Cup and Europa League, his goal in the final of the latter setting United en route to victory over Ajax.

But he could not compete with Ibrahimovic, whose goal-scoring feats and larger-than-life persona immediately made him a favourite with the Old Trafford faithful. United’s fans had invented a song for Ibrahimovic – their “Swedish hero” – before he had even made his official debut.

Anthony Martial, too, is regularly serenaded, but Pogba is still waiting for an ode in his honour to take root.

With Ibrahimovic sidelined by an injury of his own, Pogba took centre-stage in the opening weeks of the current campaign as United made an impressive start to the season.

– ‘Confidence and arrogance’ –

Yet it was only during the period of absence brought on by the hamstring injury Pogba sustained against Basel on September 12 that his importance began to be truly acknowledged.

“I think Pogba is a big miss because of his confidence and arrogance,” said former United captain Gary Neville after Mourinho’s men succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at Chelsea.

“He takes the ball into tight areas, holds the ball, beats a man.”

Paul Scholes, meanwhile, said Pogba’s unavailability explained why Romelu Lukaku had suddenly gone off the boil.

“He (Pogba) links the team together,” said the former United midfielder.

“I don’t think they have a good enough number 10 at the moment and that doesn’t help Lukaku either. Lukaku is having to do a lot for himself, but Pogba will make the difference.”

With Pogba in the team, United have scored 16 goals in five Premier League games this season, at an average of 3.2 per game. When Pogba is not playing, the average goals figure halves.

The 24-year-old has been directly responsible for eight goals in his last six league appearances – four goals, four assists – and with him and Ibrahimovic back on the scene, confidence is flooding back.

Manchester City opened up an eight-point lead over United while Pogba was convalescing, but both he and Ibrahimovic spoke optimistically about reeling in Pep Guardiola’s side after Saturday’s game.

While United have lost ground in the league, they have not missed a beat in the Champions League and visit Basel on Wednesday needing just a point to reach the knockout phase as group winners.

Mourinho has indicated Pogba could be rested, but whether he plays or not, his return to fitness has given United a major lift.

Provided by AFP Sport

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Man City to battle Liverpool for Virgil van Dijk in January while David De Gea is still a target for Real Madrid

David Cooper 21/11/2017
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Red or blue? Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk

The transfer window may not open again until January 1 2018 but that hasn’t put an end to plenty of speculation throughout Europe.

Here, we take a look at three big stories dominating the headlines on Tuesday.

Will any of the following deals happen?

Let us know your thoughts.

Get in touch via Twitter and Facebook.

VIRGIL VAN DIJK

Manchester City will lock horns with Liverpool for the signature of Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk, according to the Mirror.

Pep Guardiola is looking to reinforce his backline in January as City look to maintain pace at the top of the Premier League and could target the Dutch defender.

RATING: 6/10

VERDICT

City were one of a trio of Premier League sides in contention to sign Van Dijk in the summer alongside Chelsea and Liverpool but the Reds still appear to be the frontrunners.

The 26-year-old is likely to exit in January with the Netherlands international Jurgen Klopp’s top target but Guardiola could mount a serious bid with the injury record of Vincent Kompany hardly bringing any confidence.

DAVID DE GEA 

Real Madrid are set to return for Manchester United’s David Gea with Cadena SER reporting he is still Los Blancos’ No1 goalkeeping target.

The reigning European and Spanish champions have been linked with moves for a myriad of stoppers, including Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrizabalaga but are said to prefer spending €70million on De Gea rather than €50m for the latter.

RATING: 7/10

VERDICT

Arguably the best keeper in Europe, it’s no surprise Real remain interested but whether or not they can actually prise De Gea away from Old Trafford is a different story.

Any bid won’t arrive until the summer but if rumours begin to surface of United targeting replacements then it’s a sure sign the conversation between the clubs has already started.

Man United's Spanish stopper David De Gea

Man United’s Spanish stopper David De Gea

LUKE SHAW

Tottenham are exploring the possibility of signing Manchester United left-back Luke Shaw in January, reports the Irish Independent.

The move would see Shaw link back up with the manager he worked with at Southampton and could see Danny Rose go in the opposite direction.

RATING: 7/10

VERDICT

Shaw has been cast aside by United boss Jose Mourinho and a switch to Spurs to return working with a coach who is said to be a mentor to him could be the reboot he needs.

With United interested in Rose it’s a deal which could well come to fruition.

Shaw has made just two appearances this season, both in the League Cup

Shaw has made just two appearances this season, both in the League Cup

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