Champions League preview: 5 talking points ahead of Tuesday night’s action across Europe
The Champions League’s Gazprom-fuelled second round of group stage fixtures kick off on Tuesday night, with three English sides in action.
Manchester City, fresh from another five goal haul against Crystal Palace at the weekend will look to really take charge of Group F and make a statement when they host Shakhtar Donetsk at the Etihad. Pep Guardiola’s side thrashed Feyenoord in their opener and will put themselves in a commanding position with victory over the Ukrainian side.
Similar to City, Tottenham look to build on their win over Borussia Dortmund when they take on APOEL in Cyprus.However, while Spurs are expected to take three points, Mauricio Pochettino’s side must do without their most creative stars.
Liverpool are in Moscow, taking on Spartak, with all four sides in Group E level on one point. Jurgen Klopp’s side returned to winning ways at the weekend after a four-game winless run – can they claim another success?
Elsewhere, Napoli look to bounce back from an opening night defeat when they entertain Feyenoord in Naples, RB Leipzig head to Besiktas, Monaco meet Porto and there’s the little matter of defending champions Real Madrid heading to Germany for a mouthwatering clash with Borussia Dortmund.
Here’s a look at some of the key story lines from tonight’s fixtures…
1. Time for Liverpool’s fab four to shine again
When Liverpool destroyed Bayern Munich in pre-season (alright, it was only pre-season, but still), Reds fans were licking the lips at what the season could hold for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
That night in the Allianz Arena, Klopp fielded Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah as a front trio, with Philippe Coutinho dropping deeper into midfield, allowing him to get on the ball and exert more influence on the game. Liverpool ran amok, the attack too quick and Coutinho’s intelligent passes too good for Bayern to deal with.
Klopp hasn’t been able to put out a starting XI featuring all four since, thanks to Mane’s suspension and Coutinho’s dalliance with Barcelona/back injury.
Now, after snapping a four game winless streak in Saturday’s roller-coaster win at Leicester – when the Brazilian No.10 was back at something like his best – the Otkrytiye Arena looks the perfect place to unleash the fab four once more, with last year’s player of the year Mane available.
Spartak needed a 92nd minute equaliser at home to draw with Anzhi on Saturday and Massimo Carrera’s Russian champions are well off the pace back home, sitting eighth with 14 points – 13 off leaders Zenit. Quincy Promes should test the Reds’ defence with his pace and trickery, but if Klopp’s side are anything like their best, they should have more than enough to take three points and give their qualification chances a major boost.
2. Can Tottenham flourish without creative axis?
When Mauricio Pochettino switched his go-to formation from a back four to a back three, it was largely predicated on getting the best out of Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen.
Moving from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-2-1 formation allows the Argentine to use the duo both as No.10s, in support of lone striker Harry Kane, rather than one having to operate from a wide area. The design of the shape allows both to operate between the lines, finding space in positions where they can hurt opponents; Eriksen by receiving possession to play a killer pass, Alli by running off Kane to find scoring opportunities.
Against APOEL in Cyprus, Spurs must do without both. Alli is serving the second of his three-match ban for his red card against Gent in last season’s Europa League, while Eriksen – outstanding thus far this season – is ill.
Hyeung-min Son will take one of those places, having scored and impressed in the 3-1 win over Dortmund. His pace, movement and underrated finishing will replace Alli, but how does Pochettino replace Eriksen, the side’s creator-in-chief?
With Mousa Dembele also sidelined, as well as long-term absentee Erik Lamela, Harry Winks may come into midfield with Moussa Sissoko pushing forward, but while he impressed at West Ham at the weekend, he is a very different type of player to Eriksen.
3. Aubameyang aims to show Madrid what they’re missing
Borussia Dortmund were prepared to sell Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the summer. The German side had readied themselves for the exit of their star striker, who has long angled for a big-money contract elsewhere.
The Gabonese striker wants Real Madrid, his dream club. Unfortunately, the European champions have not reciprocated those feelings, even after selling Alvaro Morata to Chelsea, leaving Zinedine Zidane a striker short.
Indeed, the only real offers put to either BVB or the player in the last nine months have come from China, where the 28-year-old isn’t keen to go. Premier League clubs splashed the cash on forwards in the summer, but none looked to test Dortmund’s £70million valuation either despite his 40 goals haul last season.
Tuesday night represents Aubameyang’s 199th game for Borussia Dortmund, and the ex-AC Milan youngster has 132 goals to his name. Already this term he has managed 12 in nine, with Peter Bosz’s side flying high in the Bundesliga, leading the way with 16 points from six games, having scored 19 times and conceded only once.
The arrival of Madrid is their toughest test yet. Dortmund are perhaps even more gung-ho under Bosz than his predecessor, Thomas Tuchel, and create lots of chances. Against Madrid, Aubameyang must take them and show the Spanish champs what they’re missing; failure to do so will no doubt see them punished, and leave them well off the pace in Group H.
4. Manchester City to prove their credentials
Shakhtar Donetsk are Champions League regulars and over the last six years they have faced Europe’s best, travelling to Barcelona, Munich and Madrid at times when each of those sides were at what you would call their peak, with Barca and Bayern both under the stewardship of Pep Guardiola.
In 2011, en route to winning the trophy, Pep’s Barca thrashed Shakhtar 5-1 in the quarter-final first leg at Camp Nou. Two years ago in the second round, Pep’s Bayern romped to a 7-0 win at the Allianz Arena.
The point is that Shakhtar are Champions League regulars, but they have their place. And when they play the bona-fide elite, they are often disposed of, comfortably. City, receiving plaudits from across the Continent after a goal-laden start to the season, now need to offer a statement display if they are to be taken as genuine contenders this term.
City come into the game bang in form, with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling looking irresistible at the moment. However, as Guardiola said at the weekend, City looked good 12 months ago too, before their challenges at home and in Europe both went up in smoke.
Are they now the real deal? Can they claim the trophy this season? Only time will tell. Destroying the visitors from Donetsk in the manner of Pep’s former sides, will go some way to answering those questions.
5. In-form Falcao faces old friends
He’s the most handsome striker in Europe (probably), and right now Radamel Falcao is arguably its most fearsome finisher once more.
While you can question whether the 31-year-old will ever fully recover from the cruciate ligament injury that wrecked his 2014 World Cup and Premier League hopes, what can’t be denied is the Colombian’s outstanding displays as Monaco stormed to the French title last term.
Now, on top of last year’s 30 goal haul, Falcao has started this season with 11 in nine, despite Monaco losing key stars in the summer, many of whom – Bernardo Silva, Kylian Mbappe, Benjamin Mendy – were his supply line. Having looked finished at Manchester United and Chelsea, it’s been some re-emergence and Falcao deserves a hell of a lot of credit for that.
On Tuesday night he faces off against old friends in the shape of Porto, his first European club, for whom he scored 72 goals in 87 games during a two-year spell. In the second of those seasons they finished unbeaten in the Primeira Liga, won the Taca de Portugal and Europa League as well.
But the current Porto side aren’t as strong and a 3-1 home defeat to Besiktas was far from the ideal start to their European campaign; Falcao and Monaco could make it disastrous at the Stade Louis II.