Big Midweek: Marseille v Spurs, Man Utd on the attack, Klopp on the ropes, Mendy’s chance…

Man Utd forward Cristiano Ronaldo, Tottenham striker Harry Kane, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Credit: Alamy
Man Utd forward Cristiano Ronaldo, Tottenham striker Harry Kane, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Credit: Alamy

Three-quarters of the last 16 qualifiers are already known, but Tottenham go to Marseille desperate to join them. And Man Utd need to score goals in Spain…

 

Game to watch – Marseille v Tottenham
With a dozen teams already through to the Champions League knockout stages, eight teams are vying to join them on the final matchday of the group stage. Four of them are in Tottenham’s group.

Spurs currently top Group D but Antonio Conte’s men could finish the day in third and bundled into the Europa League knockout round play-offs if they lose at Marseille. OM are currently bottom, but could finish top if they turn over Tottenham and Sporting draw with Eintracht Frankfurt.

It could be an anxious night for Spurs to wrap up a fraught week. They could have enjoyed a serene trip to the south of France had Harry Kane’s last-gasp goal against Sporting last week not been ruled out, causing Conte to lose his sh*t. As a consequence, the Italian boss will be confined to the stands at Stade Velodrome. Thoughts and prayers go out to the poor sod allocated the seat next to him.

Because Kane’s strike was chalked off, Spurs are left needing to avoid defeat to progress. A draw would be enough to go through; a win would guarantee top spot and earn seeding for the last-16 draw.

At least Conte and his men go to France in better mood than they travelled to Bournemouth, where they scored another injury-time winner which, this time, was allowed to stand after coming from 2-0 down. Marseille, in contrast, were 2-0 up against Strasbourg at the weekend, before they caved and conceded a leveller in the 93rd minute.

“This win has to give us enthusiasm and passion to go to Marseille and play a final,” said Conte on Saturday, like all of us, unaware which Spurs will show up on the Mediterranean coast. The significance isn’t lost on Marseille either – they also view it as ‘a final’ – and a bit more. “It’s going to be a war,” said Chancel Mbemba after they lost in Frankfurt.

 

Team to watch – Manchester United
In the Europa League, Arsenal and Manchester United could each finish first or second in their respective groups, with the Gunners heavy favourites to finish the Group A campaign at the summit, despite dropping points to PSV last week.

In Group E, however, United are playing catch-up. They go to Real Sociedad on Thursday needing to win while scoring twice to overturn the Spaniards’ head-to-head advantage after they won 1-0 at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign. If United win 1-0, then Sociedad progress as group winners by a single goal on overall goal difference, while United will go into the play-offs against Champions League cast-offs such as Barcelona, Atletico or Ajax.

Breaching Sociedad’s defence twice will be no mean feat, especially given United’s undeniable goalscoring problems. Erik ten Hag has firmed the Red Devils up at the back, which was his primary objective upon taking over. Now he has to tease some creativity and ruthlessness from his men.

United haven’t achieved an xG of two or higher in the Premier League this season, the only times they have succeeded in doing so coming in the Europa League against Sheriff Tiraspol and Omonia twice. Fortunately, Sociedad aren’t watertight at the back. They sit fifth in La Liga but have conceded more goals than anyone else in the top half.

At least United can go to Spain with one clear objective: attack, attack, attack.

 

Manager to watch – Jurgen Klopp
During a season in which we’re having to reassess everything we thought we knew about Liverpool, at least one certainty for the Reds is a place in the Champions League last 16. They could even qualify as Group A winners if they beat Napoli by four or more tonight. Klopp, though, won’t be thinking about an unlikely seat at the summit. No doubt the Liverpool boss would settle just for a serene night at Anfield without his players soiling their sheets again.

One of the lowest points of a miserable campaign so far was the trip to Naples to face Luciano Spalletti’s Serie A leaders, who ripped the Reds to shreds with astonishing ease. Napoli have looked a lot like the Liverpool of old this season, so far unbeaten domestically and in Europe while playing an expansive, thrilling style, with Victor Oshimhen scoring for fun and Khvicha Kvaratskheila catching everyone’s eye, not only because of his eight goals and 10 assists in 16 games.

Klopp could be forgiven for hoping that, with progress secure and top spot all but locked in, Spalletti opts to keep some of his biggest performers in reserve or leave them out completely. But the Liverpool boss has enough to worry about with his own side before he frets about Spalletti’s.

Klopp somewhat contradicted himself in his pre-match press conference by suggesting that he wants to see ‘fight’ above all else from his side, before then suggesting that fight hasn’t been lacking this season. The German perhaps tied himself up by trying to offer a simple answer where there isn’t one. Liverpool’s problems – ‘massive’ in scale, according to Jamie Carragher – are multifaceted and too grand to be solved in one night. But we wait to see how Klopp implements some much-needed quick fixes.

Read more: Can Klopp be arsed with dragging Liverpool back up the mountain? They need the next Van Dijk…

 

Player to watch – Edouard Mendy
Like Liverpool, Chelsea are already secure of their place in the last 16. The Blues host Dinamo Zagreb under no threat at the top of Group E, which means Graham Potter could rotate his squad, especially in the wake of their battering at Brighton.

Mendy played a part in that miserable return to the AmEx for Potter, with the keeper coming on for the second half, his first appearance under the new-ish Blues boss. The Senegal stopper has been benched for Kepa, who came in for Thomas Tuchel’s final game in charge and hadn’t relinquished the gloves prior to a foot injury at the weekend.

Mendy might feel hard-done-by for the manner in which he’s been replaced, but his form prior to Tuchel’s sacking warranted scrutiny. Unfortunately for him, Kepa has made a decent fist of his opportunity, with Potter describing the world’s most expensive keeper as being ‘in a really good moment’ prior to his injury.

Neither keeper was directly at fault for the goals conceded to Brighton but Mendy didn’t cover himself in glory when parrying a long-distance drive straight back into play to give the Seagulls the chance to score their fourth. Potter said he doesn’t have a set first-choice just yet but Kepa was certainly closer to achieving that status than last year’s FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year. This is a chance Mendy might not have been given had Kepa not been crocked and he has to seize it by showing a safer pair of hands than he displayed prior to his demotion.

Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and Kepa Arrizabalaga Credit: Alamy
Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and Kepa Arrizabalaga Credit: Alamy


EFL game to watch – Hull v Middlesbrough
There’s another full Championship programme split over the midweek, with fifth-placed Norwich hosting third-placed QPR on Wednesday when the Canaries will look to leapfrog Rangers after returning to winning ways at the weekend.

But we’re just as interested in Tuesday night’s 18th v 21st at the MKM Stadium, where Michael Carrick takes his Middlesbrough side to face still-managerless Hull.

Carrick’s first game as Boro boss ended in disappointment after the Teessiders blew a one-goal lead to lose 2-1 in injury-time at Preston. In the unlikely event that it had to be spelled out to Carrick, the defeat served to illustrate the size of the task ahead of the former Manchester United assistant boss in his first senior management gig.

One of Carrick’s first priorities is to firm his side up at set-pieces. That should be easier to fix than another of their major flaws: a lack of creativity.

For Hull, this could be their final game under caretaker management, with Liam Rosenior apparently expected to be in place before the trip to Millwall at the weekend. But the Tigers have been this close to appointment before only for the Pedro Martins deal to fall through. Since sacking Shota Arveladze, Hull have lost three out of their four home games.

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