The Champions League and Europa League made welcome returns this week. The first set of fixtures in the first knockout ties in both competitions contained their fair share of shocks and results were certainly mixed for the four Premier League teams involved.
Of course, as every manager worth their salt at this level knows, things can change very quickly in European competition. It’s very much still only half time in the ties that took place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, whilst Liverpool and Manchester City still have to get their knockout campaigns underway.
We’ve summarised the way things stand for all six Premier League clubs still involved in continental competition below and picked out a couple of tempting betting options for punters.
Tottenham Not So Spursy
There is only one place to start – Tottenham’s 3-0 win over Borussia Dortmund. The build up to the match was all about how well or otherwise Tottenham could cope with the threat of the Bundesliga leaders without the injured pair of Harry Kane and Dele Alli. Less attention was paid to the important players that Dortmund were missing.
Injuries are part and parcel of football. It’s never easy to lose your top scorer as was the case for both Mauricio Pochettino and Lucien Favre but there is nothing to be gained from complaining. Top class managers have to adapt and make the most of the resources at their disposal and there is no question that Pochettino came out on top of his opposite number in that regard at Wembley.
After a slightly shaky start, Dortmund grew into the match and created a string of chances in the first half. With Jadon Sancho – passport hopefully safely tucked away with a grown-up – causing all sorts of problems, the visitors were slightly unfortunate not to go into the break in the lead but those Spurs fans who were worrying about the pattern of the match had only a couple of second half minutes to wait before being reminded of the world class manager sat in the home dugout.
Pochettino made a couple of tactical tweaks at half time. The most notable was turning the Tottenham left hand side from a weakness to a strength. He spotted that Sancho was not getting back and gave Jan Vertonghen the freedom to attack in his unfamiliar wing back role. The Dutchman was exceptional and put Dortmund on the back foot and even grabbed a goal whilst Heung-min Son and Fernando Llorente were clinical enough to take their chances.
A 3-0 lead flattered the north London side somewhat but it certainly leaves Tottenham as the overwhelming favourites to book their place in the quarter finals in three weeks’ time. It’s never easy facing Dortmund away from home though and Favre’s men will certainly have their chances but it’s tough to see Spurs throwing this tie away. If they can get a draw in Germany it might even give them belief they can go all the way and once Kane and Alli return, who knows?
Solskjaer’s Honeymoon Comes to an End
On the week of Valentine’s Day it was very much a case of broken hearts for the majority of the fans who turned up to Old Trafford on Tuesday night. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done an excellent job since taking over control from Jose Mourinho but both his limitations as a manager and those of the Manchester United squad were laid bare against a Paris Saint-Germain side more accustomed to this level of European competition.
The task looked very tough for PSG who arrived in Manchester without either Neymar or Edinson Cavani. That forced other big players to step up, most notably Marco Verratti who was excellent in the heart of midfield and Kylian Mbappe who grabbed his chance to be the main man from an attacking perspective. Angel Di Maria is also worthy of note for a high class performance despite being booed, barracked and almost bottled by sections of the Old Trafford crowd. Di Maria was a major flop at Old Trafford but has thrived at PSG and had two assists here.
PSG are one of the favourites to win the Champions League thanks to the number of world class players in their ranks but, to a man, they all heaped the praise for Tuesday night’s win on their manager, Thomas Tuchel.
The former Borussia Dortmund manager has found managing in the circus of PSG challenging at times since taking over in the summer but there is no question that he is an astute tactician. The German was able to limit Man Utd to a paltry single shot on target whilst taking advantage of their weakness in defence.
The red card shown to Paul Pogba for two yellow cards almost literally put the stamp on a very poor night for Man Utd who would become the first team in Champions League history to qualify from a knockout tie having lost their home leg should they secure a miracle at the Parc des Princes.
Following the defeat United’s boss made all the right noises, saying ‘Mountains are there to be climbed’ and that “There is a determination in the dressing room to put this right … We will give it a go. If we get to half-time with a one-goal lead, that is what we have to aim for.” If United score first it will indeed be game on but that remains a big “if” and equally they would still have to go on from there.
Emery With It All to Do
Arsenal fans were told repeatedly over the summer that they would need to show patience with Unai Emery. The repeated nature of those sort of comments from pundits and journalists felt a little patronising and Gooners were wondering what all the fuss was about when their team went on a long unbeaten run in both the Premier League and Europa League. Things have taken a turn for the worse in the last couple of months and the positive atmosphere has been chipped away.
The number of Arsenal fans calling for Emery to be sacked is relatively small but many more are starting to wonder whether he is the man for the long term. The Gunners have turned in some frankly terrible performances away from home in the Premier League and were toothless in their first leg defeat against BATE Borisov on Thursday night.
Emery fielded a very strong team in Belarus but was badly let down by experienced pros, especially in attack. Alexandre Lacazette was sent off late on in what was nothing but a lack of professionalism and the rest of the attacking unit repeatedly fluffed their lines.
The bookies don’t believe that it is all over. In fact, Arsenal are the overwhelming favourites to win the return leg at the Emirates and can be backed at meagre odds of just 1/3 with bet365 to qualify. They should make it through to the round of 16 but Thursday will be a red flag for Emery who, as a three time Europa League winner, knows that the level of performance he witnessed in Belarus is miles below the standard needed to progress in the latter stages.
Chelsea Put an End to Away Day Blues
Chelsea went into their first leg match against Malmo having failed to score a single away goal in 2019. Much like their London rivals, Chelsea fans have had cause to seriously question their new manager lately despite his strong start and Maurizio Sarri has done little to convince them that he has the tools to turn things around at Stamford Bridge.
Not only is Sarri being criticised for being far too predictable and unwilling to change his approach, he has publicly criticised his players. That’s a move which has backfired spectacularly on previous Chelsea managers and also for Jose Mourinho at Man United this season, and it will take much more than a 2-1 win against Swedish opposition to turn the tide.
Winning the Europa League should be enough for Sarri to call his first season in English football a success, especially with the Champions League place it would earn regardless of league position. When you look at the teams in the competition it’s obvious that would be a real achievement but it’s also obvious that Chelsea have the players to go all the way.
Sarri will need to make tweaks to his tactical approach during the remainder of the tournament and keep his players on board but the Blues should have no problem booking their place in the round of 16 when they host Malmo next Thursday, where they are attractive 31/40 shots with BetVictor to win to nil.
Liverpool Can Put Bundesliga Team to the Sword
The Liverpool players who watched the Champions League action unfold from their training camp in Marbella must have been itching to get their own knockout campaign underway. The Reds thrived on the special atmosphere created at Anfield during their journey to last year’s Champions League final and will be more than ready for another huge match when they host Bayern Munich on Tuesday night. These two met in the semi final of the European Cup back in 1981 and this is certainly a high profile and glamourous tie between teams who share 10 tournament successes between them.
Of course, current Reds boss Jurgen Klopp has a lot of history with Bayern. He broke their dominance in the Bundesliga whilst with Borussia Dortmund and they are the team who stopped him from winning the Champions League (with Dortmund) in the 2013 final at Wembley Stadium. A lot of water has passed under the bridge but Klopp is always especially motivated to beat Bayern and the bookmakers have Liverpool as the narrow favourites to win on Tuesday night.
Liverpool have certainly had plenty of time to prepare for the match. They could get some very good tactical work under their belts in Marbella due to the lack of a FA Cup action on the weekend and will be very well drilled in how to beat Niko Kovac’s team. Bayern have had less time but Kovac won’t mind as he’s hoping that his team can build some momentum from now until the end of the season to help them progress in Europe and catch Dortmund at the top of the Bundesliga.
There’s no question that this is a tie which could go either way. Liverpool will be desperate to give themselves a lead to defend for the second leg and will attack Bayern with their usual gusto. Bayern’s own attacking quality suggests those with tickets to Anfield and watching on at home could be in store for a classic and Liverpool to win and BTTS certainly seems like a very probably outcome.
Schalke in Big Trouble Against the Citizens
If ever there was a team who got a generous draw in the group stage of the Champions League it was Schalke. They’ve been nothing short of terrible in the Bundesliga this season but were at least able to take advantage of a being drawn alongside Porto, Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow to book their place in the knockout stages.
Schalke’s luck very much ran out during the draw for the round of 16 though. They’ve been paired against a Manchester City side who have really found their stride of late. Pep Guardiola’s men have regained top spot in the Premier League and have shown in both the FA Cup and Carabao Cup that they are in no mood for messing about.
Some believed the relentlessness of Man City’s performances against Rotherham and Burton in the domestic cups lacked class but Guardiola saw things very differently. He wants his players to constantly push for more goals in individual matches in the belief that will drive them on to achieve more on a macro level.
Clearly, Schalke are many rungs above the sort of competition Man City have faced in the domestic cups but then so are Chelsea and City hammered them 6-0. The Citizens will travel to north west Germany full of confidence and ready to hand out another drubbing. Winning big will see City able to take things a little easier in the return leg so expect them to beat the two goal handicap against a Schalke team who are bang out of form at odds of 9/4 with Coral.