Romelu Lukaku v Simon Kjaer and other key battles that could decide Man United v Sevilla

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Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku will face a different test against Sevilla with the return of Simon Kjaer.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho will hope home comforts are key when he welcomes Sevilla on Tuesday night for a Champions League round-of-16 decider.

Nothing could separate the teams on the pitch in Spain three weeks ago as a goalless draw was recorded. United played defensively that day, but now know a win is required to make the quarter-finals for the first time since 2013/14.

For Sevilla, they will be desperate to improve a record of three defeats from three ties at this stage of the competition. They have not won on six trips to England, yet a score draw will be enough to send them through without penalties.

With much at stake, here we take a look at three key battles which could go a long way in deciding the outcome.

ROMELU LUKAKU V SIMON KJAER

It was not only the Liverpool fans who would have been left wincing when watching United’s weekend win.

Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku did not get on the score sheet, but the bullying treatment he handed out to Croatia centre-back Dejan Lovren was key to Mourinho’s monster gameplan.

Denmark’s Simon Kjaer should be tasked with handling United’s bulldozing No9 in midweek. The 28-year-old missed the scoreless opening leg through injury, but returned for the 1-0 La Liga victory at lowly Malaga.

Including this fixture, Sevilla have kept two clean sheets from three since his comeback.

Lukaku also failed to trouble Clement Lenglet and Gabriel Mercado in the opener. He had two off-target shots, was dispossessed twice and had only 38 touches – the second lowest of any starter from his side.

Yet since that day, the £75 million summer buy scored twice and been terrific in victories against former club Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Liverpool.

If this form continues, Kjaer could crack.

Simon Kjaer training for Sevilla.

Simon Kjaer training for Sevilla.

SCOTT McTOMINAY V EVER BANEGA

The selection of the now Scotland call-up was the big talking point ahead of the first leg.

France superstar Paul Pogba was dropped to the bench, with Mourinho putting faith in his callow 21-year-old defensive midfielder. The Portuguese said this was with a view to lessening the influence of Argentina creator Ever Banega.

A lack of goals from either side seems to show this task was completed successfully. Yet Banega led the way for Sevilla with 10 key passes, 105 passes, 13 crosses, five accurate crosses, 12 long balls and 135 touches.

It was only profligate finishing from team-mates such as Colombia forward Luis Muriel which prevented this display being labelled as a masterclass.

In the shows of character that have defined McTominay’s nascent United career, he’s not been chastened by that night in Andalusia.

He was superb on Saturday against Liverpool, helping dominate the likes of Germany’s Emre Can. A respectable pass accuracy of 85.7 per cent was recorded, he was fouled a joint-high three times plus he made four tackles and two interceptions.

Reaching this standard is a must for McTominay once again. Banega cannot be afforded so much space a second time.

Manchester United's midfielder Scott McTominay (l) fights for the ball with the Sevilla players.

Manchester United’s midfielder Scott McTominay (l) fights for the ball with the Sevilla players.

ERIC BAILLY V LUIS MURIEL

The fact that the opener contained no goals owed much to the woeful finishing of Muriel.

The 26-year-old ex-Udinese and Sampdoria attacker had six of Sevilla’s 25 attempts on goal. In particular, a header in first-half injury time was acrobatically saved by David De Gea – but the Spain No1 should have been given no chance to utilise his incredible reflexes.

A subsequent first start since November handed out to outstanding Ivory Coast centre-back Bailly should make Muriel further rue this moment of weakness.

Bailly scored an ungainly own goal against Liverpool. Otherwise, you’d never have known he’d been out for so long.

He led the way with six interceptions and supported partner Chris Smalling with seven clearances.

His all-action style and experience of La Liga with Villarreal should mean he relishes this tie.

Also, eight clean sheets have been kept this term during his 12 appearances.

Bailly provides even more backbone to Mourinho’s mean machine.

Luis Muriel after David De Gea's first leg wonder save.

Luis Muriel after David De Gea’s first-leg wonder save.

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Chris Smalling is a figure of fun but Manchester United defender will have last laugh if form earns him World Cup spot

Matt Jones 12/03/2018
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Chris Smalling was excellent in Saturday's 2-1 defeat of Liverpool.

Chris Smalling is often seen as a comedic figure around Old Trafford, a subject for derision and fodder for bar room bickering.

This criticism is not without merit, with Manchester United fans right to feel they are sometimes watching a comedy of errors when Smalling is in the side.

Defeat to Newcastle a few weeks ago and the 2-2 draw with Leicester at the end of 2017 stand out for Red Devils fans.

Smalling was booked for diving against the Magpies a month ago which in turn led to Matt Ritchie’s winner.

The 28-year-old injured his groin towards the end of the 2-2 draw with the Foxes two days before Christmas but was sent back on as Jose Mourinho had made all three of his substitutions – he was subsequently at fault as Harry Maguire ghosted in to equalise for the 10-man hosts.

Smalling was slammed. In fact, whenever he makes a mistake, he receives significant abuse – most of it from his own fans.

Ironically, his more impressive displays are buried, while his consistency this season has gone almost totally unnoticed.

After suffering the ignominy of that yellow card against Newcastle, he remained in the spotlight rather than being withdrawn to the sanctuary of the shadows by Mourinho. And he’s been excellent in a subsequent unbeaten five match run, including four wins, against Huddersfield, Sevilla, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Liverpool.

Smalling has been superb since being singled out for scorn in a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle.

Smalling has been superb since being singled out for scorn in a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle.

In that sequence, a crucial period of the season, United have reached the FA Cup quarter-finals, are favourites to reach the last eight of the Champions League and have beaten two of their biggest rivals to all but guarantee a top-four Premier League finish.

Smalling has been the Red Devils’ only ever present centre-back during this vital run. He’s gone from sinner to saint, yet he’s unlikely to ever get the credit he deserves.

Much of that is down to the fact he’s struggled for consistency throughout his United career, while he’ll never be remembered as one of the elite players at his position.

But you only have to look at his stats this season to see how much he stands out.

Smalling ranks first among Premier League top six sides’ centre-backs for clearances (21st overall), second in shots blocked (13th overall), third for interceptions (10th overall), fourth in aerial duels won (16th overall) and seventh in tackles (18th overall).

In a United defence that has lacked a true identity and a cohesive central partnership all season, and relied heavily upon David De Gea’s brilliance, Smalling has been the standout.

He may never be revered among the ilk of Franco Baresi or Franz Beckenbauer. He’s won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as celebrated club heroes Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic.

Yet when you consider Smalling rose from the non-league ranks with Maidstone United to England’s elite, can he really be condemned for the fact he’s never realistically going to be part of a discussion about world-class defenders?

It seems he will be in the discussion, however, between England manager Gareth Southgate and his coaching staff when they come to select a squad for upcoming friendlies with the Netherlands and Italy.

It’s been suggested Southgate will recall Smalling after a commanding display in victory against Liverpool on Saturday and silencing an attack that has cut teams to shreds this season – and particularly keeping Player of the Year in waiting Mohamed Salah deathly quiet.

He’s a continuous source of hilarity for fans of other clubs, even his own.

Yet if Smalling’s form continues and is deservedly rewarded with a place in England’s 23-man squad for this summer’s World Cup, it will be he who laughs last.

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Man United v Sevilla talking points as defining tests start now for Jose Mourinho

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Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho preparing for the visit of Sevilla.

Buoyed by remarkable victories in the Premier League, Manchester United now turn their attentions to European matters.

On Tuesday, La Liga’s Sevilla stand in the way of progression to the Champions League’s quarter-finals. There was nothing to separate the teams three weeks ago during a goalless opening leg in Andalusia, in which the hosts did all the running.

Here are the talking points:

CUPS ARE NOW KEY

With the battle for second spot in the Premier League sewn up in memorable fashion by Mourinho since the stalemate at Sevilla, the serious business of adding silverware awaits.

A trio of epic victories have seen the ‘Special One’ live up to his storied billing in the meantime. Substitute Jesse Lingard earned the 2-1 win triumph against Chelsea, a change of shape saw United come from 2-0 down to beat Crystal Palace 3-2 and he outwitted ‘gegenpressing’ opposite number Jurgen Klopp and ruthlessly exposed Liverpool’s weaknesses in Saturday’s commanding 2-1 victory.

Defining ties will be played in the next five days.

Overcome Sevilla and United are back in the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time since 2013/14. Beat Brighton on Saturday and a run to a record-equalling 13th FA Cup for the Red Devils opens up.

A Europa League and League Cup double salvaged a disappointing debut campaign. These upcoming games will help define 2017/18’s ultimate success.

Jose Mourinho in buoyant mood after May's Europa League triumph.

Jose Mourinho in buoyant mood after May’s Europa League triumph.

ALL GUNS MUST FIRE

The totems of the Red Devils’ present and future continue to endure contrasting fortunes.

Local boy Marcus Rashford reinforced his ‘wunderkind’ reputation with a fantastic brace in the weekend’s defeat of bitter rivals Liverpool. This continues the 20-year-old’s renaissance since a lively cameo at Sevilla.

He transformed the match at Selhurst Park. A double at the weekend came upon his first top-flight start since December 30.

Yet in the same game, superstar January addition Alexis Sanchez’s struggles to find his spot continued.

Utilised behind the excellent Romelu Lukaku, the Chile forward had zero shots and just two key passes. It is now 523 minutes since his last – and only – United goal.

A grandstand performance is long delayed.

STATS ARE NO SOLACE

Sevilla fans have ridden a rollercoaster this season.

It is almost impossible to predict how Vincenzo Montella’s men will fare at Old Trafford. Their form guide in La Liga since performing so well in the scoreless first leg reads; a 5-2 hammering at home by Atletico Madrid, a forgettable 1-0 home win at bottom-placed Malaga, a 2-0 victory against mid-table Athletic Bilbao and then being put to the sword by a Geoffrey Kondogbia-inspired Valencia by the reverse scoreline.

For a man who dislikes nuance, this unpredictability will unsettle Mourinho. So will United’s record of just two wins from their last 12 games against Spanish opposition.

Sevilla have not won on six trips to England, or previously progressed past the Champions League’s round of 16.

Yet a repeat of September’s 2-2 draw at Liverpool will send them through, plus they’ve lost only two of their last 11 away matches in Europe. A tricky test awaits.

Sevilla's Argentinian midfielder Joaquin Correa celebrates with team-mates after scoring in September's 2-2 draw at Liverpool.

Sevilla’s Argentinian midfielder Joaquin Correa celebrates with team-mates after scoring in September’s 2-2 draw at Liverpool.

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