Brilliant Barcelona not unbeatable and time Paul Pogba stepped up for Man United

Matt Jones 9/04/2019
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Manchester United welcome Barcelona for the first-leg of the glamour tie of the Champions League’s quarter-final on Wednesday night.

After their heroics in the last 16 as Paris Saint-Germain were conquered, an event more mammoth test awaits the Red Devils as Lionel Messi looks to weave his magic wand over Manchester and conjure a route to the last four.

Ahead of the last eight’s opening stanza, we look forward to a mouthwatering tie.

BARCA NOT UNBEATABLE

Barcelona are brilliant, bit not unbeatable.

Barcelona are brilliant, bit not unbeatable.

Barcelona are brilliant. But they’re also not unbeatable. As good as they’ve been in recent seasons – and there’s always the Messi factor – they have showed a soft underbelly on more than one occasion.

They’re arguably the best team left in the competition – even on the planet. But their dominance domestically this season is tempered significantly by the strength – or lack thereof – of their rivals.

Real Madrid resemble a gelded stallion while city rivals Atletico are a little limited and too rigid in their reliance on being a tough team to break down rather than being a rampant attacking force.

The Blaugrana haven’t been beyond this stage of the Champions League since they last won it in 2014/15. In defence of their trophy a year later they were beaten 3-2 by Atletico who went on to meet Real in the final. Two years ago they were humbled 3-0 by Juventus. Twelve months ago they surrendered a commanding 4-1 first-leg lead to lose 3-0 in Rome.

Considering who they are and the strength of their opponents, it was arguably more embarrassing than their own stunning 6-5 triumph against PSG in the last 16 the previous year.

As good as they are in an attacking sense, there’s also more than a suspicion that you can get at them at the back. Gerard Pique remains a colossus and has formed a solid partnership with Clement Lenglet. But, as a unit, they lack cohesion and are often susceptible to the counter-attack with Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto, who are not the most diligent, getting caught up the field as they play integral roles in Barca’s attacks.

Thirty one goals have been conceded in La Liga this season in 31 games – last year they let in 29 in 38 and there are seven games remaining this term. Atletico, as well as fourth-placed Getafe and Valencia, in sixth, have all conceded fewer goals.

They’ve been involved in some high-scoring games this season; 4-4 v Villareal, they lost 4-3 to Real Betis and have earned 4-2 wins against Tottenham, Sevilla (twice) and a 3-2 victory over Rayo Vallecano – keeping just 19 clean sheets in 48 games in all competitions.

An improved United, playing with guile, craft and pace, should be encouraged.

TIME FOR POGBA TO STEP UP

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has called on Paul Pogba to turn it on.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has called on Paul Pogba to turn it on.

After a sublime start under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United talisman Paul Pogba is regretfully slipping into old ways that frustrated fans – and manager – in the Jose Mourinho days.

After nine goals and six assists in the first 12 games under the Norwegian, Pogba has scored zero goals and contributed to just one in the following seven matches.

Rather than driving forward with powerful runs, getting in the box and using his varied passing range to spark United attacks, he has become a pedestrian. That lackadaisical tendency to dwell a fraction of a second too long in possession as well as the frustrating gesticulating of limbs has become far too apparent in games that have passed him by.

He has allowed himself to become bogged down by limited opponents rather than dominating and presiding over games like he once did – threatening to become the world-class leader that his club so desperately crave.

Barcelona, in the quarter-final of the Champions League, could be just the stage he needs to reboot and reassert himself.

“At Paul’s best, he can run a game like this and that’s what you expect from him: that he really puts his stamp on a game like this,” said Solskjaer in his pre-match press conference. “Paul’s job is to be the creator, and when we win the ball that he drives forward, so I expect him to perform.”

The ball’s in your court, Mr Pogba.

A HISTORIC RIVALRY

Paul Scholes scored the only goal when the two sides met in the last eight of the 2008 tournament.

Paul Scholes scored the only goal when the two sides met in the last eight of the 2008 tournament.

Barcelona have never been away, but it’s good to have United back in this stage of the competition – their presence has been sorely missed.

From marvellous Messi and the magic in the boots of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford that we hopefully get to see on Wednesday, to Ronald Koeman’s rocket in Rotterdam and a Paul Scholes pulveriser that put the Red Devils in the 2008 final; this is a special European fixture that has produced some classics down the years.

To think it’s been nearly 11 years since a tense and tight two-legged semi-final tie was settled by that Scholes scorcher at Old Trafford – on a night when an emerging Messi had threatened to tear United apart single-handedly.

Of course, the two sides have met since then – twice – but over one game, in the finals of the 2009 and 2011 competition. United were good back then but perfect Barcelona were at their peak. Pep Guardiola’s side purred in an era where they had no equal.

United must evoke memories of 2008 – that Scholes goal paved the way to the final, which they won so memorably in Moscow against Chelsea. They might also look back further into the annals of history and to 1991 and another final – the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup, where a Mark Hughes brace effectively kick-started the gluttonous success under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Seven years earlier, Bryan Robson – who pretty much dragged insipid United through the 1980s – scored two as United overturned a 2-0 first-leg defeat at the Camp Nou to progress to the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals at the expense of Diego Maradona’s Barca.

All those involved say the cavernous atmosphere – United’s home support was revered throughout the decade – has never been repeated at Old Trafford since.

In an era where they once again are not among the elite, perhaps they can summon something extraordinary.

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Champions League quarter-final v Man City biggest game of my career, says Mauricio Pochettino

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Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino has labelled his side’s Champions League quarter-final first leg against Manchester City as the biggest of his managerial career.

Spurs were faced with arguably the toughest draw possible when they were paired with Pep Guardiola’s side, who are still in the hunt for the quadruple this season.

They play the first of three matches in 11 days against City on Tuesday in what is only the second game at their new stadium.

The Argentinian, who has overseen wins against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund and draws against Juventus and Barcelona in this competition over the last two years, accepts that City are the better team.

Asked if this was the biggest moment of his career, he replied: “Yes, as a coach.

“Yes, it’s going to be one of the most important games. For us, it’s a bonus to have the opportunity to play in the quarter-finals with all the circumstances.

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“We respect Manchester City a lot, we know very well it’s going to be tough. It’s so easy to play and prepare and the problem is after delivering.

“City have unbelievable players. It’s going to be tough. We’re playing in the quarter-finals and the big players, the big teams love to play this type of game.

“We need to be sure to match their motivation and desire. The thing we cannot match is talent inside the pitch.

“And then it’s 11 v 11 players and we hope my team is going to be better than them.

“I know, and he (Guardiola) knows, we’re brave, we like to go forward, be aggressive, be protagonists.

“The quality of the players on the pitch is going to put the victory on Guardiola’s side but we’re going to try to be protagonists and beat them.”

Son Heung-min believes Kevin De Bruyne does not understand what it means for Spurs to play at home again after the City midfielder said he “does not care” about their new stadium.

De Bruyne suggested that Spurs will gain no advantage from playing there, saying: “Everybody talks about the stadium like it’s something special. Everybody has a stadium, everybody has supporters.”

But Spurs’ return to N17 has been long-awaited, ending a near two-year commute to play at Wembley while their new home was built.

The noise levels were extraordinary during the opening game against Crystal Palace last week and Son has vowed to ensure City see that it will not be like a game at the national stadium.

“Of course (the atmosphere can help),” he said. “Maybe the City players don’t realise, they always play at home.

“We’ve been nearly two years away from our home stadium and what we did was very positive.

“We missed home a lot and we can show them tomorrow night it’s different from Wembley at our new stadium.”

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Liverpool v Porto key match-ups as Real Madrid bound Eder Militao faces Sadio Mane test

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Sadio Mane

After a near month-long hiatus,  the Champions League returns on Tuesday for the quarter-finals.

In the night’s first legs, Manchester City travel to Tottenham’s new stadium and Liverpool host Porto.

The Merseyside team and Portuguese giants share some recent history in the competition. The two teams were pitted against each other in the round of 16 of the Champions League last season, with the former earning a 5-0 aggregate triumph.

We take a look at the key match-ups for this week’s clash between them:

Sadio Mane v Eder Militao

Eder Militao

Eder Militao

While Mohamed Salah has always been the talk of the town, Senegal attacker Sadio Mane has put on a commendable show to prevent the Egyptian’s dry spell from hurting Liverpool’s chances in the Premier League and in Europe.

The winger has scored 11 goals across all competitions in 2019 and has performed consistently. Against Bayern Munich, he hoodwinked Manuel Neuer with a cheeky attempt and later doubled his tally to give Liverpool the insurance goal.

He will be up against young centre-back Eder Militao, whose confident performances have earned a summer move to Spanish giants Real Madrid.

he 21-year-old Brazil international is very good in the air and is favourite to win the aerial duels. But will he be able to overcome Mane’s pace and provide security to goalkeeper Iker Casillas?

Moussa Marega v Virgil van Dijk

Virgil van Dijk will be tasked to stop Moussa Marega

Virgil van Dijk will be tasked to stop Moussa Marega

Moussa Marega has earned a place in the top tier of Champions League performers this season.

With six goals, the Malian is only behind Robert Lewandowski (eight) and Lionel Messi (eight) in the goal-scoring charts.

Marega has scored against every opponent he has faced in the Champions League this term. He led Porto’s comeback against Roma with a goal and an assist and will be keen to pick up at Anfield from where he left at Estadio do Dragao.

The 27-year-old poses a threat whenever he cuts inside to have a go at goal himself and is equally capable of setting a team-mate through on goal. It will be interesting to assess his performance when he faces one of the best centre-backs in Europe this season – Virgil van Dijk.

The former Southampton man has been an absolute tank at the back for Liverpool this season. The captain without an armband has led the defensive line by example and will be looking to do the same against Porto.

It’s not easy to get past the Dutchman relying on dribbling skills alone. It’s not easy to beat Van Dijk in the air either.

Marega running with intent into Van Dijk will be an interesting battle to keep an eye on.

Alisson v Iker Casillas

Goalkeeping legend: Iker Casillas.

Goalkeeping legend: Iker Casillas.

When Casillas won his first Champions League title, Alisson was just seven-years old.

Now they stand at opposite ends, guarding their posts in a crucial quarter-final game.

Marega has been a surprise package who can cause a lot of threat on the Liverpool goal and Alisson will have to stay on his toes at all times to keep a clean-sheet. But it does not stop there for the Brazilian.

Liverpool were defeated by Madrid in the final last season, with goalkeeper Lloris Karius coming out as the villain. Alisson was roped in to provide Liverpool a chance to better their run from last year and there will be pressure on him to perform.

At the other end, Casillas – who found second wind to his career at Porto – will be looking to take one step closer to winning his fourth Champions League trophy 19 years after he won his first.

The Spaniard is past his peak, but there could just be enough for one last hurrah as he looks to win a Champions League with a team that is not Madrid. Casillas will be the busier of the two keepers, with one of the best attacks in Mane, Roberto Firmino and Salah coming at him with everything they have.

This battle between a veteran and a goalkeeper who is slowly hitting peak at 26 years of age could prove influential.

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