By Paul Wilkes
Liverpool’s want-away stars not sulking on the pitch
The rumours circulating around the potential transfers of Philippe Coutinho and Emre Can haven’t gone away, with both players likely to depart in the next six months. However, there’s no questioning the two players commitment to the current cause.
Can was included ahead of captain Jordan Henderson and was pivotal to breaking up the counter attacks from Spartak Moscow. The German worked tirelessly to close the opposition down and recycled the ball in-front of the defence.
Liverpool were slightly fortunate to get a penalty inside three minutes, after Mohamed Salah was judged to have been pulled to the ground. Coutinho coolly slotted the resulting spot kick into the bottom corner before getting his second in a fantastic team move.
Firmino added a third with the outside of his right foot and Sadio Mane made it four with a side-footed volley, with Coutinho netting his hat-trick with still 40 minutes remaining. Mane and Salah made it 7-0 for the Reds, whilst the clean sheet will be just as welcome to Jurgen Klopp as the movement going forward.
AS IT HAPPENED: Shakhtar Donetsk v Man City
AS IT HAPPENED: Liverpool v Spartak Moscow
AS IT HAPPENED: Tottenham v APOEL Nicosia
United need to be more clinical in Europe
Manchester United have had no problems swotting aside the lesser teams in the Premier League this season, but they have struggled in recent games in the Champions League. It was a problem in their previous match against Basel and it almost cost them once again.
CSKA Moscow needed to better Basel’s result if they were to progress or beat United by four goals, although they lacked the intensity to chase the latter possibility. They were extremely open defensively which allowed United plenty of opportunities.
Marcus Rashford hit the post after only three minutes, with Romelu Lukaku providing the through ball. The Belgian forward then missed a chance from point-blank range after Luke Shaw had volleyed the ball straight at CSKA goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev.
CSKA scored a dubious goal immediately before the half-time interval, with Vitinho prodding the ball off the back of Alan Dzagoev who appeared to be offside position. However, as Daley Blind had slid off the pitch, he was deemed to be involved according to Rule 11.
Two goals in three minutes turned the game around, with Lukaku getting only his second goal in 13 matches when he latched onto an excellent diagonal ball from Paul Pogba. Rashford added the second with a well taken finish and ended his own drought of nine appearances without a goal.
United have to be more ruthless in the latter stages and against greater opposition. They certainly won’t create as much and it could be the difference between advancing further.
Conte piles more pressure on himself
Chelsea may have already qualified for the knockout stage before they faced Atletico Madrid, but a positive result would have seen them top the group. With Roman Abramovich in attendance at Stamford Bridge, it was important that they put in a decent performance given the uncertainty around Antonio Conte’s future in recent months.
Jan Oblak showed why he is amongst the most highly rated goalkeepers in Europe, with two excellent saves to deny Alvaro Morata and Davide Zappacosta in the first half. Filipe Luis hit the post against his former side in the 53rd minute.
Atletico did take the lead through Saul Niguez after a flick-on from another former Chelsea boy Fernando Torres. Eden Hazard’s dangerous cross was then turned onto his own net by Stefan Savic.
The 1-1 draw ensured that Atleti dropped into the Europa League, but also that Roma finished above Chelsea in the table. It might not ultimately make the difference in the long-term, although it won’t have pleased the Russian owner.
City not taking any chances ahead of the derby
Manchester City made seven changes to the weekend and it can be difficult for fringe players to impose themselves when given these types of circumstances. City were in the luxurious position of topping their group before the last game, but Pep Guardiola will have still demanded more application from his men.
They shied away from one-on-one challenges and didn’t have the energy out of possession which we have been accustomed to seeing. It’s 227 days since City lost a football match, although Shakhtar Donestk should get credit for two excellently taken goals from Bernard and Ismaily in the 2-1 win.
Son deserves more prominent role
Tottenham Hotspur’s recent poor form was always unlikely to continue against APOEL, even though Mauricio Pochettino rested a number of key performers. The Cypriot club hadn’t won in their last 13 games in the Champions League and failed to score in nine of them.
Fernando Llorente scored his first goal for Spurs and Heung-Min Son got the second with another outstanding finish in the 3-0 victory. The South Korean got the equaliser against Watford on Saturday and now has five goals and two assists in his last eight starts in all competitions.
He didn’t feature from the beginning in either the defeat to Leicester City or Arsenal, although the switches in formation have contributed to that factor. The 25-year-old can be an important component in rediscovering their form and will surely be one of the first names on the team sheet through the winter period.
AS IT HAPPENED: Manchester United 2-1 CSKA Moscow
Europa League will illustrate Celtic’s capability better
No one realistically expected Celtic to overcome Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, with manager Brendan Rodgers admitting that their “ultimate aim” was qualification for the Europa League. However, it’s not unfair to assume that they can beat sides from lesser European leagues.
Celtic lost 1-0 to Anderlecht, as the Belgium club won their first away game in the competition in eight years. Rodgers’ team still managed to qualify for the Europa League due to a better head-to-head record, but their supporters will expect better in that tournament.
The domestic unbeaten run of 67 games has lifted the anticipation at Parkhead. They can’t compete with the top tier, though they can still provide some memorial evenings next year on Thursday nights.