Big Midweek: Real Madrid v Liverpool, Man City, Mikel Arteta, Casemiro
We wait to see which Liverpool will turn up at the Bernabeu, while Man City seek to assert their control over RB Leipzig. In the Europa League, it’s a tricky test for Mikel Arteta…
Game to watch – Real Madrid v Liverpool
They wouldn’t, would they? A week ago, there were those who thought they might…
That was after Liverpool stuck seven past Manchester United to secure a win by a margin more unlikely to many than the prospect of the Reds overturning their worst home defeat in European competition. After a wildly inconsistent season, there was hope – if not necessarily belief – on Merseyside that Jurgen Klopp’s men had discovered some solidity and ruthlessness after a run that catapulted them back to being favourites to land a top-four spot.
Then they went to Bournemouth and phoned it in again.
Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Liverpool rattle Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Perhaps not with the four-goal victory they would need to secure the most unlikely place in the quarter-finals, or even the three they need to level things up, but the Reds certainly appear capable of turning it back on when they feel like it.
That’s the frustrating thing for Liverpool fans watching their side fluctuate between excellence and excrement. There have been too many occasions this season when you might reasonably observe a lack of motivation among a group of players, many of whom have won it all under Klopp.
It was evident at Bournemouth but it ought not to be a problem to gee themselves up at the Bernabeu. We should see a Liverpool side seething over what Real did to them on their own patch three weeks ago, and further afield in recent seasons. But who the f*** really knows with this lot anymore?
Read more: Premier League winners and losers: Liverpool, Vieira, Moyes and Lingard get an almighty kicking
Team to watch – Manchester City
City missed their chances to kill off RB Leipzig when their first-half domination wasn’t reflected in the scoreline. Likewise, Leipzig will rue not making the most of their second-half opportunities to at least take a lead to the Etihad.
If either Pep Guardiola or Marco Rose do regrets, it will surely be the Leipzig boss lamenting harder over how the first leg in Germany panned out three weeks ago. City have won 21 and drawn two of their last 23 at home in the Champions League. Is that Leipzig’s chance gone?
Probably. City haven’t exited the Champions League before the quarter-final stage in the last six years and, looking at a Christopher Nkunku-less Leipzig squad, it is hard to make a solid case for the Germans.
But the Champions League does funny things to City. Usually in the later stages, we grant you, Guardiola and his side too often in recent years have found a way to lose and the longer their pursuit of the European Cup goes on, the greater the stigma becomes.
To soothe whatever jitters there might be, Guardiola will seek his snuggliest comfort blanket: control. The City boss spoke after the second leg about how important it is to dominate and manage this Leipzig side, especially in the wake of a basketball-type game against the same opposition – under a different coach – last season that ended 6-3. “Maybe in the second leg, I will decide to be crazy and play with nine strikers and make up-and-downs,” he joked. “But in this game, I felt, because I’ve been in this country and I analyse as much as possible with my people, I need this type of control because otherwise the up-and-downs, when it’s open, in this type of situations they are better, German teams are better than us.”
City probably will grind Leipzig down and make more of the chances their control produces. But Leipzig, even without Nkunku, still have the quality and style to make it a more ‘up-and-down game’ than City might like.
Manager to watch – Mikel Arteta
Arteta would doubtless prefer Arsenal to show more control than they exhibited in Lisbon last Thursday.
In their Europa League last-16 first leg, the Gunners were sloppy and indecisive, which might be expected given the changes Arteta made. Rotation prompted uncertainty and much more chaos than the manager would have liked.
It’s a tricky balance for Arteta in Europe. The Europa League is still desired at the Emirates but the yearning for the Premier League title remains much stronger while Arsenal are in such an authoritative position. The Gunners have reached the summit and stayed there for the most part by relying on the same core of players. Arteta has felt reluctant or unwilling to rotate without risking too greatly the chemistry that has got them where they are.
After ordering some of his busiest players to rest last week, they were back at work at Fulham on Sunday when Arsenal were back at their best. In the middle of an intense month, how obligated will Arteta feel to tinker once more for a tricky second leg ahead of the visit of Palace on Sunday before many of his players disappear out of sight on international duty?
Player to watch – Casemiro
Erik ten Hag might have planned to rest Casemiro for the trip to Real Betis on Thursday evening with Manchester United 4-1 from the first leg. Then the Brazilian got himself sent off against Southampton, making himself unavailable for the next four domestic games, up until the middle of April.
So Casemiro is the one player we know for certain who will start in Betis as United look to complete the job with a minimum of fuss. The midfielder owes the Red Devils one last dominant performance before he disappears off the radar for almost a month, until the Europa League quarter-finals on April 13, assuming nothing catastrophic happens to United in Spain.
With a three-goal cushion, Ten Hag might also be minded to consider how he begins to replace arguably his most important player for a pivotal run with United glancing over their shoulder at their rivals for a top-four spot.
Fred, Marcel Sabitzer and Scott McTominay are sure to be given added responsibility once more, though Ten Hag didn’t make clear which of the midfielders he trusted most during Casemiro’s last absence. Sabitzer may be looking to prove himself worthy of a permanent move in the summer, but McTominay is certainly playing for his United future.
Reports suggested he was the engine room staffer most likely to be laid off this summer, and some of his performances haven’t helped his cause. Against West Ham in the FA Cup, Ten Hag tried to rest Casemiro but found himself having to send him on from the bench at half-time with McTominay lost in midfield.
The Scotland international did a creditable job when dispatched to fill the Casemiro void against Saints and McTominay needs more performances in a similar vein during this unexpected opportunity to prove himself worthy of keeping.
EFL games to watch – Middlesbrough v Stoke, Sunderland v Sheffield United
The Championship promotion race looked anything but when Burnley and Sheffield United were cantering towards the line. Burnley are still out of sight, 17 points clear of third and 13 ahead of United. But the Blades are in severe danger of being pulled back into pack, especially while Middlesbrough continue to gain on them.
Boro will see this midweek as an opportunity to get even closer to Paul Heckingbottom’s men. The Teessiders, rejuvenated under Michael Carrick, host 14th-placed Stoke on Tuesday night with an opportunity to get within a point of the Blades before they head to the north-east themselves on Wednesday.
Sunderland is their destination, just as the Black Cats appear to have arrested a worrying run of form that has seen them slip from the top six. The Wearsiders had lost three on the bounce before winning at Norwich on Sunday and they will feel rather more chipper over their prospects of inflicting a fifth defeat in seven games on the Blades.
Because of their FA Cup exploits and the international break, this will be Sheffield United’s last league for two-and-a-half weeks. When they return to action, it’s entirely possible they will be looking up at Boro from third, a far cry from this time last month when they sat on a 10-point cushion after going 10 unbeaten.
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