May 14, 2021

Man Utd

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Champions League and Europa League – THINGS WE LEARNED

9 min read

We’ve reached the end of another eye-opening week of European football and it’s time to recharge and reflect for teams seeking a place in the semi-finals of the Champions League and Europa League.

The first legs dished up some surprises as Liverpool were soundly beaten by Real Madrid while Paris Saint-Germain managed to rally to claim an impressive 3-2 away victory at Bayern Munich.

In the Europa League, Arsenal – whose season depends on winning this trophy – were stunned by Slavia Prague as the Czechs netted a stoppage time equaliser to take a 1-1 draw for the second leg. But given the Gunners’ poor season, this was probably less of a surprise for many fans.

Chelsea's victory over Porto was just one of the highlights from an action-packed Euro week

Chelsea’s victory over Porto was just one of the highlights from an action-packed Euro week

There was also a comfortable win for Man United against Granada as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sets his sights on his first trophy as a boss. 

Sportsmail looks back on eight things we learned from all the European action.

CHILWELL EDGING AHEAD OF ALONSO

When Thomas Tuchel first arrived at Chelsea, he made it clear where his priorities lay – experience comes first. 

What do you do to revitalise an under-performing side lacking confidence? Bring in the senior heads. So in came the likes of Olivier Giroud, Antonio Rudiger and Marcos Alonso, who had been outcasted under predecessor Frank Lampard.

The Spaniard missed Tuchel’s first game in charge against Wolves, but was brought in for the next game – a 2-0 win over Burnley, and had an immediate impact as he scored the opening goal and put in a solid display at the back.

Ben Chilwell was superb against Porto and is showing Thomas Tuchel he should be first choice

Tuchel initially favoured Marcos Alonso as he sought to bring more experience to Chelsea

Ben Chilwell was superb against Porto and is showing Thomas Tuchel he should be first choice instead of Marcos Alonso

He has started seven games under the German altogether, but Chilwell was given the nod in their 2-0 win over Porto, with the England star netting the second late in the game to take a solid advantage back to Stamford Bridge.

Tuchel has flipped between the pair since taking over as he works out who is the stronger left-back, but Chilwell’s display on the European stage showed why his boss should trust in him over Alonso, who was in defence for Chelsea’s 5-2 humbling against lowly West Brom. 

Alonso found it much easier to adapt to Tuchel’s 3-4-3 system, but with Chilwell adapting his game and performing consistently, he appears to have the manager’s trust going forward. 

BAYERN RELY TOO MUCH ON LEWANDOWSKI AND GNABRY

Losing your talisman is a worry for any team, but how much would it affect a team missing a player as good as Robert Lewandowski? 

That was the question we were asking ahead of Bayern’s clash with PSG, with Europe’s top marksman nursing a knee injury, and while the Bavarians still have bags of quality, they really did miss the Pole in their 3-2 defeat – as well as star winger Serge Gnabry, who tested positive for Covid. 

Bayern struggled against PSG without Robert Lewandowski, with Erik Choupo-Moting (left) unable to have the same impact

Bayern struggled against PSG without Robert Lewandowski, with Erik Choupo-Moting (left) unable to have the same impact

The Pole (L) has scored nearly half of Bayern's goals, while Serge Gnabry (R) was also missed

The Pole (L) has scored nearly half of Bayern’s goals, while Serge Gnabry (R) was also missed

To be fair to Bayern, they still managed to take the Parisians close without a player who had netted 42 times this season (nearly half of their entire tally), and Eric Choupo-Moting and Thomas Muller stepped up in his absence, but how they needed their two star men.

It was Kylian Mbappe who stole the headlines instead, bagging a brace to gift his side a priceless first leg win, with Pochettino’s men securing three away goals.

Ultimately Bayern lose that X-Factor when Lewandowski isn’t around, and former Stoke man Choupo-Moting doesn’t have enough quality to put away chances like Lewandowski can. Thomas Muller is having a superb season, but the connection Gnabry has with the Pole is undeniable, so he was a big miss too.   

HAALAND SHOWS HE IS WHAT CITY NEED

Looking at how good Man City have been this season only becomes more impressive when you realise most of it has been played without a recognised striker up front. 

Instead, Pep Guardiola’s midfielders have stepped up to the plate, and that trend continued against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday night. Kevin de Bruyne and Phil Foden found the net to claim a late 2-1 win over the Germans, with Bernardo Silva being deployed as their attacking threat with Riyad Mahrez in support.

Erling Haaland was a handful for Man City in midweek and is exactly the forward they need

Erling Haaland was a handful for Man City in midweek and is exactly the forward they need 

Kevin de Bruyne inspired a victory over Dortmund but with Haaland they could be even better

Kevin de Bruyne inspired a victory over Dortmund but with Haaland they could be even better

But how much better would City be if they had a world class forward putting away all the chances they create? It seems like the entire world is after Erling Haaland right now, and based on his performance against City, Guardiola must be asking the club’s owners to get the cheque book out. 

The Norwegian didn’t score, but proved a nightmare for City with his superb link-up play, with Pep calling him a ‘b*****d’ after running his side ragged. He also provided the assist for Marco Reus’ equaliser. 

With Sergio Aguero leaving on a free this summer and Gabriel Jesus failing to do the business, City must be tempted by the £154m move after having a front row seat to watch him play against them.

KROOS AND MODRIC BRING BACK REAL’S MOJO

For so long, Real Madrid reigned supreme in Europe. Winning four Champions League titles is no easy feat, and Los Blancos were blessed with top players like Cristiano Ronaldo and a Gareth Bale playing at the top of his game.

But two consistents remain now – their star midfield pairing of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who look like they could play at the highest level for years to come.

The midfield presence of Toni Kroos (left) and Luka Modric will be crucial for Real Madrid and their hopes of another Champions League crown

The midfield presence of Toni Kroos (left) and Luka Modric will be crucial for Real Madrid and their hopes of another Champions League crown

They were influential once again against Liverpool as they kept the team ticking and picked up an assist each to help Vinicius Jnr score a double and take a 3-1 win to Anfield next week. Modric’s contract expires at the end of the season, but why would he want to leave given his standing with Kroos, and why would Real want him to?

Zinedine Zidane’s side are enjoying a resurgence of late – they’ve still got a serious shot of winning LaLiga but they have a special relationship with this competition, and the trusted heads of Kroos and Modric will be key to them lifting the trophy again this summer. 

POCH COULD CONVINCE MBAPPE TO STAY

Of all the big names linked with a huge move away this summer, Mbappe has to be up there as doubt continues to be poured on his future at PSG. His contract is up at the end of next season and he has the upper-hand over negotiations.

The French giants will be desperate not to lose him for nothing given he is one of the best footballers on earth, and despite contract talks ongoing the player himself admitted he could soon depart amid criticism from the French press.

Kylian Mbappe was the star man as his double helped PSG overcome Bayern 3-2 in Germany

Kylian Mbappe was the star man as his double helped PSG overcome Bayern 3-2 in Germany

Reports claim PSG could cash in on Mbappe for at least £100m this summer after losing patience in negotiations, but could his manager Mauricio Pochettino play a big part in convincing him to commit his future?

Mbappe’s starring role against Bayern inspired a 3-2 win at the Allianz Arena, and after the game the French World Cup winner paid tribute to his Argentine boss for giving him and the team confidence to express themselves. 

‘After the first goal, we stayed back and Bayern Munich put a lot of pressure [on us] but at half-time, the coach said to keep the confidence and don’t be scared to play and that’s what we did,’ he said. ‘In the second half, it was so much better. 

Mbappe's future at PSG is uncertain, but his respect for Mauricio Pochettino could sway him

Mbappe’s future at PSG is uncertain, but his respect for Mauricio Pochettino could sway him

‘The coach wanted me to close the passing lines on Kimmich with Neymar and that I run deep to overcome the Bayern block and make them run because they don’t like that. It worked well today.’ 

The likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool have been linked with Mbappe, but if he continues to excel under Pochettino, he may decide Paris is the best place for him. 

LIVERPOOL NEED MORE THAN AN ANFIELD MIRACLE

The Reds were simply exposed by Los Blancos in midweek, with Trent-Alexander Arnold looking particularly vulnerable at the back – as Liverpool’s inexperienced defence were opened up. 

On Liverpool’s day, they would be very confident of turning that deficit around – just as they did when facing an even harsher scoreline of 3-0 against Barcelona two years ago. But with no Jordan Henderson, Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez or Joel Matip, it’s hard to predict any sort of comeback for Jurgen Klopp’s men.

Liverpool were exposed by Real Madrid - there is unlikely to be a miraculous Anfield comeback

Liverpool were exposed by Real Madrid – there is unlikely to be a miraculous Anfield comeback

That spine is so crucial for Liverpool, and losing their best centre-back pairing this season has been integral to their struggles in retaining the Premier League title.

This simply isn’t the menacing side that tore teams to shreds last year, and despite having their preferred attackers, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah look short on confidence while the signing of Thiago Alcantara is yet to pay off.

Real Madrid will be pretty confident of turning up at Anfield and putting in a professional shift – knowing one goal should be enough to see it through. 

RASHFORD FORM COMING AT JUST THE RIGHT TIME

Marcus Rashford hasn’t been at his most prolific this season, but he has continued to do what he has long done for United – stepping up when it matters most. 

He did it against Granada, putting them ahead in the first half – following up on his vital equaliser against Brighton on the weekend en route to a 2-1 victory. 

Marcus Rashford continued his excellent goal-scoring run in the Europa League vs Granada

Marcus Rashford continued his excellent goal-scoring run in the Europa League vs Granada

With the Red Devils pushing for their first trophy since 2017, Rashford’s contributions will be crucial, and his form in the Europa League makes for encouraging reading as far as United fans are concerned. He’s netted eight times in the competition, the first player to do so in a European tournament since Bobby Charlton in 1964-65.

The England star also notched his 20th goal of the campaign against the LaLiga side, joining Wayne Rooney in hitting the landmark back-to-back. Good omens for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his hopes of a maiden piece of silverware. 

AUBAMEYANG HAS HIT WORK CUT OUT OVER CRITICS

Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang’s slide down the Arsenal pecking order might have served as motivation for the Gabon striker to up his game, and Mikel Arteta clearly wanted to send a message to the rest of the squad by benching him against Slavia Prague.

Aubameyang was given a chance to prove himself against Liverpool on the weekend but turned in an anonymous display, with Gunners legend Martin Keown calling it his worst display under the Spaniard.

Time is running out for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to show he should be Arsenal's main man

Time is running out for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to show he should be Arsenal’s main man

The tide has now turned in favour of Alexandre Lacazette at the Emirates, and Aubmeyang will find it difficult to prove he should be Arsenal’s main man up front after his lacklustre recent displays. 

He did come on and provide an assist for what Arsenal thought was a late winner from Nicolas Pepe, but we need to see a much hungrier player to the one we’re seeing now. 

The 31-year-old has been outscored by the Frenchman and is not giving the club any satisfaction that he deserved a new £60m deal last summer. The Gunners will need his firepower for the second leg next week as they bid to ensure their season does not fizzle out – but they will need him to finally deliver on the big stage.

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