Big Midweek has a manager and a striker in need of a change of fortune, Barcelona need a big win and a totally unpredictable EFL game.
Match to watch – Barcelona vs Inter
After a summer of spending like the end of the world was near – we’ll tell you about that – Barcelona started their La Liga season looking a lot like the Barcelona of old.
After a goalless draw against Rayo Vallecano on the opening matchday of the season, they have won seven in a row and have conceded just one league goal all season. This solid defense put them ahead of Real Madrid at the top of the table on goal difference.
But in the Champions League, it’s another story. Back-to-back defeats to Bayern Munich and Inter left them languishing in third place in the group, and a defeat in their second leg against Inter would force them to win in their next game against Bayern Munich to have a realistic chance of progressing, and that’s always a tall order.
This group had written “Group of Death” everywhere from the beginning. Losing it and qualifying for the Europa League can have financial consequences for a club whose desire for a European Super League strongly implies that even the final stages of Champions League money aren’t enough to keep them on the financial straight path.
The good news for them is that Inter have been blowing hot and cold in Serie A this season, having won five and lost four of their first nine matches of the season. Two goals from Edin Dzeko at the weekend gave them a narrow win at Sassuolo to leave them in 7th place in the table. Their form in the league has been uneven, but they will arrive at the Camp Nou knowing that a win will leave them with just one point from their last two games to guarantee qualification for the next round.
Team to watch – Chelsea
Less than a week before Chelsea took to the San Siro pitch for their second leg against Milan, the task ahead of them just to stay in the Champions League this year seemed somewhat daunting. A point from their opening two matches had left them needing a win to have a realistic chance of finishing in the top two of their group.
A week later, the picture couldn’t have changed much more. Chelsea picked up a hugely comfortable 3-0 victory which lifted them into second place in the group above their next opponents, meaning it’s also a critical night for Milan. They picked up a comfortable 2-0 win over Juventus at the weekend while Chelsea barely had to jog to see a managerless Wolves side in the Premier League.
The effects of Potterball become evident, and they do so quickly. With Reece James excelling they are already starting to look a lot like what Todd Boehly would have wanted when he signed Graham Potter in the first place and a win at the San Siro, one of European football’s truly iconic homes, would be a cherry on the cake. cake for what has been a successful first month for the new manager.
Manager to watch – Massimiliano Allegri
Liverpool aren’t the only big beast in European club football to go through a tough time. Following their 2-0 defeat at Milan on Saturday night, Juventus are in eighth place in Serie A with just three wins from nine league matches. They are already seven points away from a Champions League spot for next season and ten points off the top of the table, which means problem for head coach Massimiliano Allegri.
When Allegri left Juventus in 2019, he did so after five successive league titles, but things haven’t really worked out so successfully since his return. Last season Juve could only manage fourth place in Serie A (16 points behind champions Milan), while their Champions League ambitions – a bogeyman of Allegri during his previous stint with the club – went up in smoke during the round of 16 stage against Villareal. .
But this season hasn’t been better for The Old Lady. They’ve only lost twice, but one of those defeats was a first-ever Serie A win for newly-promoted Monza, and their Champions League form has been equally patchy. They lost their first two games against PSG and Benfica, but kept their qualification hopes alive with a victory against Maccabi Haifa last week.
Now comes the rematch in Israel, and the stakes are high. PSG and Benfica are tied seven points at the top of the group, and Juventus are already four points behind those two, so they desperately need a win against a Haifa side who have lost all three of their group games. so far and, as expected, remain anchored at the bottom of the group.
A failure to win this game would not be a disaster in the mathematical sense. PSG will face Benfica in Paris on the same evening, so at least one of those two points will drop points, and Juventus travel to Lisbon for their second leg against Benfica in two weeks. It would be an overstatement to say that their chances of making it through the group stages would be vastly improved with a win in Haifa (that four-point gap means they should get a result in Paris in their last match), the psychological effects of not winning could be huge.
And all of that is problematic for Allegri, who may already wish he’d paid more attention to that old adage that ‘you can’t go home anymore’ before returning to the club. The fans are already deeply unhappy with him. A failure to record what by any reasonable measure should be a routine Champions League win over Maccabi Haifa would surely make his contract termination little more than a foregone conclusion.
Player to Watch – Mo Salah
Mo Salah’s form has fallen off a cliff since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations in February. Luis Diaz’s arrival has pushed him further and the chances aren’t as great as before. Bear in mind this situation was unfolding when he was in the process of signing a new contract worth £400,000 a week, and it’s starting to look like the problem runs a bit deeper than the player himself. -same.
Nothing has changed in regards to Salah being forced into wider positions with Sadio Mane being replaced by Darwin Nunez, so how consistent was the thinking at the time Salah’s contract extension was agreed this summer? Has all of this been taken into account? Because more and more, it doesn’t look like it.
Salah has scored five goals this season, but one of them was in the Community Shield. He hasn’t scored in the Premier League since August 22 and has managed just two in this competition all season. There will come a time when Jurgen Klopp will have to reconsider whether he should be in the starting XI.
A ‘Battle of Britain’ game against Rangers, who have lost all three of their group games so far, is Salah’s chance to get back on the scoresheet (and his form has been such lately that it should probably be followed by ‘if selected’), but there is a lingering concern; What if this decline was irreversible? With that plump new contract still relatively freshly signed, all at Liverpool are hoping amid hopes that is not the case, but there has been a distinct lack of evidence to the contrary.
At his best, Salah can be a one-player whirling dervish, a perpetual motion machine with an unerring eye for goal. Stuck on the right side, he doesn’t have the kind of chances but that shortfall doesn’t really seem to have been picked up by anyone else, apart from that one chance against Bournemouth. But when things have become extremely difficult for him, he must start delivering again.
The transformative effect Erling Haaland has had on Manchester City has only made this all the more urgent, but whether Salah can even walk away is increasingly debatable.
EFL match to watch – Wigan Athletic vs Blackburn Rovers
For those of us who remain oblivious to the glitz and glamor of the Champions League, there are some pretty thin selections this week, with the EFL apparently taking advantage to iron out a few loose ends with their schedule. But Sky Sports cannot tolerate an evening of football live on BT Sport without offering anything in return, so their cameras will be at the DW Stadium for a Lancashire derby between Wigan Athletic and newly promoted Blackburn Rovers in the EFL Championship.
Ten years ago this season Wigan Athletic were a Premier League club. They ended that season winning the FA Cup and being relegated, and in the ten years since they have been knocked out of the Championship three times and promoted as League One champions three times as well. It’s no surprise to take a look at the league table and see that they have won four, drawn four and lost four this time around. Wigan have more than occasionally over the last ten years been guilty of not knowing which division they belong to.
Blackburn Rovers have been a slightly different form of inconsistency to Wigan so far this season, so much so that their inconsistency is itself starting to become, well, consistent. They won their first three games of the season, taking them to the top of the standings, but then lost three in a row, and their league record since then is WLWLWLW.
Blackburn are currently in 7th place but the nature of the Championship this season is such that a six-goal win in this game would put them in second place despite losing six of their opening 14 games. There are obviously more glamorous matches across Europe this week, but few others are harder to predict than this one.
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