Champions League bold predictions: No sudden change for Man United, Barcelona get three crucial points

The business end of the Champions League group stage on Paramount+ is upon us with matchday five. There are still 12 places up for grabs in the knockout stages with some of Europe’s biggest teams — including Manchester United and Barcelona — having work to do in their final group games. Here’s some key issues to keep an eye out for.

Villarreal vs. Man United: No sudden change for Red Devils

In sacking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United have removed the physical embodiment of the cocktail of steadfast belief in their own exceptionalism and utter confusion about how an elite football club operates that has tormented the club for the better part of a decade. But knocking down the figurehead does not change the underlying reality. As the banner in Atalanta’s away end said in the Red Devils’ recent Champions League game “the rot starts from the top”.

This is not the place to debate the credentials of the ruling Glazer family but instead to note that Solskjaer was not the root cause of United’s problems. Take the squad with which he lost his job (and which he was of course complicit in creating). One could not question the talent of many individuals but there is no cohesion to its design.

So, when interim manager Michael Carrick comes to name his side at El Madrigal on Tuesday, he will still face the same issues in possession that bedeviled his predecessor. Who is the player out of Fred, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic or someone else to link up the disparate lines of attack and defense? Is it possible to fit United’s two most talented creators — Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba — into a team that exploits their talents? Is Jadon Sancho allowed to play football now?

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Then there is the great Cristiano Ronaldo question. Can Carrick mask his deficiencies when the ball is not at his feet to such an extent that his team can exploit his finishing qualities? From Real Madrid to Manchester United via Juventus, wherever he goes Ronaldo keeps delivering goals, it is just that in recent years a lot of managers seem to lose their jobs when he is around. He is a player coaches are compelled to indulge, that is not going to change whoever is in the dugout at Old Trafford.

Prior to signing Ronaldo you could gather something akin to a vision for how United might play football even if it was not one Solskjaer always followed: a team that could excel in broken play with dynamic, positionally fluid front men capable of ripping through opponents on the counter. Since mid-September that approach has scarcely ever been seen. It does not seem to click with the most important footballing figure at the club, a player whose crucial goals rightly or wrongly make him undroppable but who poses questions that Carrick’s predecessor could not answer. 

Barcelona vs. Benfica: Further swift progress from Xavi

Carrick is not the only great of yesteryear who will be in the dugout for a first Champions League match this week. New Barcelona boss Xavi did at least get a first go at high stakes management this weekend, a 1-0 win over Espanyol. One game alone cannot tell us whether this team will be a success under one of their greatest ever players nor whether this crop of youngsters is on par with the core that so dominated European football with Xavi at their heart.

But it did at least offer cause for optimism going into one of the most decisive games of Barcelona’s season. Beat Benfica and they are assured of passage to the last 16. Fail to do so and with Bayern Munich to come in the final group stage game it may well be advantage to the Portuguese, who crushed Ronald Koeman’s side at the Estadio da Luz earlier in the campaign.

Benfica will likely be a tougher opponent than Espanyol. After all they even gave Bayern Munich a few headaches in their double header with the Bundesliga champions. They may have let in nine goals in those two games but particularly in the first 70 minutes of the first meeting — before Leroy Sane smashed through the levee — there were flashes of the same team that held PSV Eindhoven goalless with 10 men in the qualifiers, a team that can frustrate opponents and keep finding another body to throw in the way of shots.

Yet the initial signs from the win over Espanyol suggest that this team may be able to break down the most stubborn of defenses. In a challenging fixture Barcelona produced 16 shots, the second most they have registered in a La Liga or Champions League match this season. They hit the target from open play on five occasions, completed their third most attacking third passes of the campaign and played with greater width — indeed according to Opta sequencing data this was the most width they had played with all season.

This particular move, which ended with Xavi’s side quickly switching play for Ilias Akhomach to hang a dangerous cross to the back post, felt like a rather welcome return to what Barcelona were at at their best. Sergio Busquets was looking up to find movement all around him. He could have gone long to Jordi Alba — and for a moment he seemed to feint in that direction — before knocking it short to Gavi. Espanyol looked to get in the passers’ faces but the home team just moved it too accurately and elegantly before allowing Busquets to spread the play. 

With Busquets, Gavi and Alba putting pressure down the left, note how wide Barcelona stretch the pitch with Ilias. It is a familiar sign for those who watched the Barca sides that Xavi played in
Wyscout/beIN Sports

The match winner at the weekend may ultimately have come from a debatable penalty converted by Memphis Depay, but the sheer pressure that Barcelona applied to their opponent’s low block meant that there was a good chance a critical mistake might come.

Perhaps Benfica will not play for the point at the Camp Nou. A defense of Gerard Pique and Eric Garcia, much improved in his first match under new management, could well be there to be got at early on. But eventually, if the game is square, it will surely make sense for them to not gamble with elimination in pursuit of three points. They should be wary of that impulse. First impressions would suggest that sitting deep could play into Barcelona’s hands. After all, if anyone knows from experience what it is like playing against a team holding on for just a point, it is Xavi.

Chelsea vs. Juventus: A quiet day for goalkeepers

There is plenty at stake at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday. For Chelsea, there is still qualification for the last 16 to be secured. It may look to be a formality now, but another defeat to the Group H leaders coupled with a Zenit win over Malmo might just bring some unnecessary nerves to their trip to Saint Petersburg for the final round of games. As for Juventus, a point or better guarantees them top spot while two games without defeat against the European champions offers a welcome fillip to take with them to next year’s knockout stages.

It is hard to know what to expect from both sides, particularly offensively, when they are monitoring the fitness of key forwards. Chelsea have hardly looked bereft without Romelu Lukaku, but if he is fit he may well go into the starting lineup at Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile, Paulo Dybala may only be fit enough for the substitutes bench with Massimiliano Allegri also sweating on the availability of a string of players, the most notable of whom include Giorgio Chiellini, Aaron Ramsey, Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Bernadeschi.

One wonders, however, whether these two strike forces would be able to break down the other’s defense whether they were at full compliment or not. With the caveat that Group H is not the strongest in depth in this season’s Champions League Chelsea (three) and Juventus (eight) have faced just 11 shots on target combined across their opening four games. The average side in the competition has faced 18.

Juventus in particular look to have clicked into gear defensively after a slow start to the season. Both Lazio and Fiorentina only managed to draw one save from Wojciech Szczesny and Mattia Perin in the last two Serie A games the Bianconeri played in. Edouard Mendy, meanwhile, has a quite ludicrous record of 12 clean sheets in 16 Champions League games for Chelsea. In part, he has been the beneficiary of the excellent defense in front of him but last season in particular he proved himself to be a quite excellent shot stopper with 3.76 goals prevented according to Opta metrics.

Of the two defenses Juventus’ certainly looks the more vulnerable. Chelsea’s forward line coped ably without Lukaku, not least because its wingbacks picked up the slack, whilst they do not have to deal with an absence as significant as Chiellini’s could prove to be for the visitors. Still those heading to Stamford Bridge in the hope of goals aplenty on Tuesday night may want to adjust their expectations beforehand.

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