Man Utd-linked Mauricio Pochettino reminded of perks and drawbacks of PSG’s superstar front three – Champions League hits and misses
Mauricio Pochettino has played down talk of a mid-season switch to take charge of Manchester United and Paris St-Germain are adamant he won’t be leaving. But you don’t need to have followed football for long to know that doesn’t guarantee anything.
On Wednesday night we saw why Pochettino may be torn, if he did have to make a decision on his managerial future sooner or later.
In the first half, we saw how difficult it has been for him to coach this group of players into a joined-up unit from front to back.
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The three superstars of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in attack often ended up disconnected from the rest of the team. As a result, City had PSG’s defence scrambling around to cover the overloads and it was only through a couple of last-ditch blocks that the hosts weren’t deservedly ahead.
But at the start of the second half, a flash of quick feet from Messi and Mbappe delivered a reminder of the supreme individual quality at the club, as PSG took a surprise lead. Pep Guardiola joked afterwards: “They are too good up front!”
Raheem Sterling pulled City level but had Neymar stuck away his one-on-one chance, it would have been PSG 2-1 up going into the final quarter of the match.
Instead, he fired wastefully wide and another slick City team move moments later allowed Gabriel Jesus to grab the win – and top spot in Group A.
That is the conundrum at PSG, where Pochettino is unable to build a machine that operates consistently but has the outstanding talents with the potential to turn any match in their favour.
Threatening on the counter-attack or through individual moments of quality could take PSG to Champions League glory – or they could be pulled apart if their stars don’t fire.
That is the challenge in Paris with this group of players. Ironically it’s been the template at United in recent times too.
It isn’t really the Pochettino way. It certainly wasn’t what his best work at Tottenham was based on, where every player intensively pressing out of possession and then operating with cohesion with the ball was the trademark.
With United looking for a refresh, Pochettino would be presented with the opportunity to build a team in his own image at Old Trafford, like he had at Spurs.
Should he be asked the question, it will be intriguing to see which decision he makes.
Riyad Mahrez is turning into something of a Champions League specialist this season for Manchester City. He’s had just two Premier League starts but this was his fifth in Europe and he showed, particularly in the first half, why Pep Guardiola likes him on this stage.
Time and time again his team-mates looked for him during that opening 45, with Joao Cancelo spraying passes out to him on a couple of occasions alone. And when he got it, Mahrez looked motivated and capable of taking PSG apart.
He was the standout player in that opening period, cutting in from the right side onto his left foot and giving left-back Nuno Mendes a torrid time.
Only Cancelo had more touches in that first half, but no one could better Mahrez’s total of shots, touches in the opposition box or crosses.
It was a performance that had everything but the finish – and that was only missing because of Achraf Hakimi’s brilliant block to keep out a goal-bound shot.
Mahrez wasn’t given quite as much space after the break but it was his bending cross to the back post which was expertly laid off by Bernardo Silva for Gabriel Jesus to score the winner. Once again in the Champions League this season, he had an important impact.
There was no Kevin De Bruyne for City on Wednesday. No Phil Foden and no Jack Grealish, either. But such is their wealth of talent, they still have players of Mahrez’s quality to come in and cause major problems.
It’s ominous for any opposition.
It was hardly a vintage Liverpool performance against Porto, in contrast to their trip to the Estadio do Drago where they put five past their Portuguese opponents.
But it was a professional showing that dealt with the task at hand – collecting the three points. Jurgen Klopp was clear before the game that he would still be keeping some of his best players in the side – or those who were fit – while giving others a chance.
In fact, he gave a Champions League debut to 19-year-old Tyler Morton, who slipped seamlessly into the midfield alongside Thiago and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He is one to keep an eye on.
They rode the wave of Porto pressure early in the first half, with the visitors missing a glorious chance that could have shaken Liverpool awake far earlier. But they were guilty of overplaying at times and not quite being able to find that killer final touch to beat Alisson.
When the goals did come, they were wonderful strikes from both Thiago and Mohamed Salah, with Liverpool now scoring two-plus goals in 16 consecutive games. Jordan Henderson and Andy Robertson added a spark to Liverpool when they came on, getting more precious minutes under their belts.
Klopp told BT Sport after the game: “Some people may have thought we might have played an easy game, but we’re not here for that. If Anfield is sold out, it means we want to go and that’s what we did.
“So many good things happened tonight individually. Players could get minutes, confidence, rhythm and all these things, nobody got hurt. Our head of rehab gave Milly [James Milner] 15 minutes, and I think he played 12 or 13. Hendo and Robbo came on which is good. The right players could be rested.
“With Tyler, some people might have been surprised and he did exceptionally well. He was fit and there was no need to rest him, and I’m really pleased for him that he could put a performance like this in.”
All in all, it was job done for Liverpool as they aim for six wins from six in Group B. You would not expect them to let up when they travel to Milan on December 7.
What a start to life as interim Man Utd boss for Michael Carrick, who won his first match in temporary charge of the club, a vital 2-0 over Villarreal at El Madrigal that saw the visitors qualify for the knockout phase of the Champions League as Group F winners with a game to spare.
Carrick made four changes from Saturday’s 4-1 humiliation at Watford, the most eye-catching of which was his decision to leave Bruno Fernandes on the bench.
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The Portugal playmaker has created more chances than any other player in Europe’s premier club competition so far this season, but Carrick had a game plan to keep it tight, before sending on Fernandes and the pace of Rashford in the final quarter of the match.
The plan worked to perfection as United’s attacking flair players took charge and late goals on the break from Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho sealed the win and saw Carrick become the first English manager to win his first game in charge of United (excluding second spells) since Walter Crickmer in November 1931.
Jadon Sancho’s career at Manchester United starts now.
You expect a young player to take time to get his feet under the table at a big club but for a player of Sancho’s calibre to not score or assist in any of his first 14 appearances is surprising.
Then again, he wasn’t being asked to play right-wing back as Michael Carrick took a sensible and simple approach to his first game as interim boss. He made United hard to beat and played Sancho in his best position – off the right wing. There were defensive responsibilities on his shoulders – no player made more tackles than him on the night (4) – but there was a spark when he got the ball, almost like the shackles had been lifted.
“I was so pleased for Jadon,” Carrick said. “I thought he worked his socks off tonight, I thought he gave everything tonight.
“At times, it wasn’t always with the ball and I know how much he enjoys the ball at his feet and trying to make things happen. He showed a different side tonight and, to get his goal at the end, pretty much capped it off perfectly for him and for us… it was a big night for him.”
The winger scored his first goal for the club with a rasping, confident finish that wrapped up United’s place in the last 16. But it wasn’t just the goal.
There was a flair and direct running to his game that made him look like the Sancho at Borussia Dortmund.
It was an exciting sight. All of his 11 passes in the final third found a team-mate as that ability to make a telling contribution in the dangerous area of the field will surely shine brightly over the next few weeks.
This performance just might be that springboard.
Being a full-back has never been more attractive.
To coin a famous Monday Night Football quote, young footballers may not dream of wanting to grow up to become the next Gary Neville but aspiring to be Reece James, Trent Alexander-Arnold or Joao Cancelo is most definitely on-trend. All three feature in the top four players according to Sky Sports’ Power Rankings – which ranks every Premier League player based on points being awarded to players for 35 different statistics. Only Mohamed Salah is competing with them on that front.
All three of the Premier League title contenders have playmaking full-backs that are taking centre-stage for their clubs with James grabbing the limelight as Chelsea thrashed Italian giants Juventus.
Meanwhile, James, who tops the Power Rankings, is full of youthful enthusiasm and plays with such quality in everything he does.
James has everything you want in a footballer. If you were building one from scratch you’d basically just do a copy and paste job on his attributes. His physicality and speed are extraordinary – something we’ve all been aware of – but what has emerged this season is an eye for goal that is taking him to the next level. Thomas Tuchel is harnessing that by allowing him so much licence to join his forward players from his right-wing back position. This was on full show in Chelsea’s win at Stamford Bridge.
He’d already tested Wojciech Szczęsny with a disguised free-kick from near the touchline before taking aim with a fierce half volley that needed beating away. His third effort on goal did the damage though as his chest control and strike into the far corner was a piece of brilliance that fitted such a high-stakes encounter. That was his fifth goal of the season across all competitions meaning he is one of only two players to both score five or more goals and assist five or more goals in all competitions for Premier League clubs this season, along with Salah (16 goals, seven assists).
Romelu Lukaku’s return to the Chelsea squad for Tuesday’s meeting with Juventus was a welcome boost for Thomas Tuchel after a month out. But it is tempting to wonder in light of recent evidence whether they even need him.
Since losing their £97.5m striker to an ankle injury against Malmo last month, Chelsea have scored 20 goals in seven games, four of which came in this formidable show of strength at Stamford Bridge as they subjected Juventus to their heaviest defeat since 2004.
Chelsea have shared the goals out in Lukaku’s absence – there have been 11 different scorers in total – and that theme continued here, with Trevoh Chalobah, Reece James, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Timo Werner all finding the net. Lukaku didn’t even make it on.
The true brilliance of Tuchel’s Chelsea is in how they threaten from all angles. If Hudson-Odoi and Hakim Ziyech don’t get you then James and Ben Chilwell will. Juventus could not cope with the sheer numbers they got forward; their movement ripping Massimiliano Allegri’s defence – a defence manned by Leonardo Bonucci, no less – to shreds.
The injuries to N’Golo Kante and Chilwell dampened the victory but they certainly didn’t hinder them on Tuesday night – just as Lukaku’s absence hasn’t hindered them in the last seven games. Chelsea’s strength lies in the collective. The starting line-up changes but the outcome is usually the same.