Off Premier League pace, Champions League now more important for Manchester United

16 points behind rivals Manchester City, United’s Champions League against Sevilla on Wednesday is even more important that it would usually be. (REUTERS)
Updated 20 February 2018
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Off Premier League pace, Champions League now more important for Manchester United

LONDON: It is easy to forget that Manchester United lie second in the Premier League table. They are averaging more than two points per game which, in any normal season, would have them in the thick of a title race.
But this is not a normal season and the fact that Manchester City stand 16 points clear means that the pressures are different. Clubs can accept that one other team has a freakishly good campaign, but it does mean they have to perform in other competitions and that means that United’s Champions League against Sevilla on Wednesday is even more important that it would usually be.
There is no reason to panic for United, but there are plenty of reasons for doubt. United’s performances against other members of the big six have been disappointing — a home defeat to City, away defeats at Chelsea and Tottenham, a stalemate at Liverpool and a fortuitous win at Arsenal.
Neither of the two biggest signings United have made under Mourinho, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba, have entirely convinced, and neither Henrikh Mkhitaryan nor Victor Lindelof made much of an impact. Claims that Pep Guardiola and City are buying their way to success might be looked on more sympathetically if United had not seemingly wasted so
much money.
The signing of Alexis Sanchez in a swap deal initially looked like good business, and all the more so given it took the Chilean out of the hands of City, who clearly wanted him, but already there are questions about how he fits in the side and whether his arrival may have destabilized the promising link-up of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial. Increasingly, the squad looks a mishmash put together with little thought to a cohesive product.
That, in turn, has prompted the sort of background grumble of discontent that often characterises the later periods of Mourinho’s spells at clubs.
His relationship with Pogba, who missed Saturday’s FA Cup win at Huddersfield with illness, appears strained, while there has been talk of a furious row after the league defeat at Newcastle.
In a sense, the detail is less important than the fact the stories are appearing at all: Happy dressing-rooms tend not to leak.
With Chelsea to come for United at the weekend, this is a crunch period, not merely in terms of this season but also the future. It is unlikely (it would require a Chelsea win by three goals) but it is not inconceivable that United could be down to fourth by Sunday evening.
But this season already feels as though it is not about the league — a failure to finish in the top four would be catastrophic for United.
It’s the Champions League that might offer salvation. They do not need to win it — although were Mourinho to become the first manager to lift the trophy with three different sides, it would silence a lot of his critics — but they do need some big performances and big results. And that is why Sevilla are so dangerous.
United are expected to win against the side fifth in La Liga, who are undergoing a period of turmoil after the departures in the summer of both their sporting director Monchi, for Roma, and their coach Jorge Sampaoli, for Argentina. They have since sacked another coach, Eduardo Berizzo. But they remain an awkward side. United cannot save their season tonight, but they could ensure it ends in failure.
 
STEVEN N’ZONZI VS PAUL POGBA
It is not entirely clear yet whether Paul Pogba will have recovered from illness in time to face Sevilla but if he does start, he will be the center of attention. He reportedly wants to play on the left side of a midfield three and is frustrated by the 4-2-3-1 preferred by Mourinho. It was clear for France during Euro 2016 that he chafes at the restrictions of being one of the two holding players, but perhaps lacks the tight technical skill with his back to goal to be the advanced central midfielder. Sevilla, both under Berizzo and his replacement Vincenzo Montella, have a flexibility in midfield, but essentially have a similar triangle with Ever Banega (or Guido Pizarro, who has stepped in since Banega suffered a thigh injury) as a deep-lying playmaker and Nolito or Franco Vazquez as the Number 10, with Steven N’zonzi playing the restrained shuttling role in a far more responsible manner than Pogba has of late.


River edge out Boca after extra time to win Copa Libertadores

River prevailed 5-3 on aggregate after the first leg finished 2-2. (AFP
Updated 10 December 2018
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River edge out Boca after extra time to win Copa Libertadores

  • River Plate came from behind to beat bitter Argentine rivals Boca Juniors 3-1 in extra time
  • The fixture postponed on three occasions and then relocated from Buenos Aires to Madrid

MADRID: River Plate won the Copa Libertadores by beating their fiercest rivals Boca Juniors 3-1 after extra time on Sunday, bringing an end to a final tainted by violence and moved more than six thousand miles away from Argentina.
Boca took the lead through Dario Benedetto but Lucas Pratto equalized before Juan Quintero and Gonzalo Martinez scored in extra time, aided by Wilmar Barrios being sent off, to win a fittingly dramatic contest for River.
It means River prevailed 5-3 on aggregate after the first leg finished 2-2 and the club reclaim the trophy they had last won in 2015, lifting it for the fourth time in their history.
“The only thing I feel is sadness for not winning the cup and giving it to the people of Boca,” Boca coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said.
“It is difficult to say to people that we haven’t won, especially those that made so much effort to come from Argentina.”
Postponed on three occasions and then relocated from Buenos Aires to Madrid, the supporters of these two great clubs showed in the Santiago Bernabeu why this fixture had been billed as one of football’s greatest ever.
Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Diego Godin were among the 62,200 in attendance.
But, despite the bouncing huddles in the streets, the plumes of blue and red smoke, the swinging scarves, fluttering flags and fans that were chanting in their seats three hours before kick-off, there was nothing to extinguish the lingering sense of regret.
There was no repeat of the scenes that cast a shadow over Argentinian football and saw the original game at River’s El Monumental on November 24 postponed, when around 50 fans attacked Boca’s team bus and left some of their players injured.
Madrid, which will also host the Champions League final in June, was chosen in part because of its record of hosting major events and the security, which included around 2,500 police officers, did its job before kick-off.
Fans were separated into zones either side of the stadium and had to go through checks even to enter the area immediately surrounding it.
The shame was only that the operation was not as thorough 15 days ago and that a minority decided to take advantage.
Both clubs were allocated 25,000 tickets, with 5,000 of those reserved for residents of Argentina. The fear had been most of those buying would be tourists and neutrals, but the atmosphere suggested different.
Both teams had initially refused to play in Spain’s capital but as the losers, Boca’s sense of grievance will now become more entrenched.
They felt River were responsible for the chaos two weeks ago and should have forfeited the trophy. They took their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but the appeal was rejected on Saturday.
When the players shuffled out two hours before kick-off to inspect the pitch, they held up their phones to capture the thousands already inside and the view of a stadium most of them had never played in before.
The cheers grew louder when they came out for kick-off. Then there were whistles as the teams swapped ends and each were greeted by their opponent’s fans behind the goal.
Jonatan Maidana was playing for Boca when they last won the Copa Libertadores 11 years ago and, now in the red and white of River, he almost gave his former club an early lead, slicing just over his own crossbar.
The game lacked quality but came alive one minute before half-time. Nahitan Nandez’s superb pass split two River defenders and Benedetto kept a cool head, guiding into the corner, before taunting the beaten Gonzalo Montiel.
River had been inferior but improved. Their first real attacking move was also a brilliant one as Leonardo Ponzio and Quintero exchanged passes before the latter pulled back for Pratto to sweep home.
The game meandered toward full-time and seemed destined for penalties until Barrios was shown a second yellow card for a tackle on Exequiel Palacios and soon after, Quintero struck.
It was a goal worthy of winning the tournament, as he collected 25 yards out, glanced up and whipped the ball in off the underside of the crossbar.
Leonard Jara almost snatched a late Boca goal but his shot nicked the outside of the post. Then, with Boca’s goalkeeper Esteban Andrada up for a corner, River added the final touch.
Martinez ran the ball into the empty net and River’s substitutes and staff were already pouring onto the pitch to begin the celebrations.