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.


Time for the Sun to shine on Hyderabad in the IPL

Updated 22 March 2019
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Time for the Sun to shine on Hyderabad in the IPL

  • Can MS Dhoni lead the Super Kings to another IPL title?
  • Who are the players to watch out for?

LONDON: The 12th edition of the Indian Premier League gets underway today with the usual razzmatazz, stacks of cash — in cricketing terms at least, pure conspicuous consumption — on display. This is the form of leather on willow that is as close to pure Americana as you are going to find.
As much as $15 million was shelled out at this year’s auction on 60 players. You only have to look at the riches the players are now earning to realize why every big-hitting batsman or wily bowler wants a piece of the IPL. Varun Chakravarthy went for $1.2 million, a millionaire overnight having not even played for his country.
Once again the Chennai Super Kings are the team to beat. Under MS Dhoni the powerhouses have won three titles — a record they share with the Mumbai Indians.
Here we give you the lowdown on cricket’s brashest format and take a peek into our crystal ball to tell you what we think is going to happen.

DELHI CAPITALS (8th last year)

Have only made the last four three times, finished rock bottom last year and decided something had to change. So they changed their name from the Daredevils to the Capitals, the new name as prosaic as their past cricket. They have added Shikhar Dhawan for power at the top of the order and to compliment the decent bowling attack of Trent Boult and Kagiso Rabada.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: The only way is up but will finish outside the top four.

RAJASTHAN ROYALS (4th)

The winners of the first IPL they have made the last four three times since. A look at their batting line-up — Steve Smith, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Ajinkya Rahane — will always trouble the opposition bowlers and with Jofra Archer and Jaydev Unadkat in the attack will always take wickets. Can they back up their impressive team sheet with equally impressive results?
ARAB NEWS SAYS: Will reach the last four but will miss the departing Stokes and Buttler who leave for a pre-World Cup training camp.

KINGS PUNJAB (7th)

An impressive spin attack of Ravi Ashwin, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Chakravarthy will once again prove that T20, once thought to be the graveyard for slow bowlers, is a game built just for them. They will look for West Indies legend Chris Gayle to find his big-hitting range early on to give them the totals to defend.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: Could prove to be the surprise package if, and it is a big if, their big names fire. We think they will just miss out on the last four.

Will Chris Gayle fire again this season? (AFP)

ROYAL CHALLENGERS BANGALORE (6th)

One look at their batting line-up is enough to give any bowler the dreaded yips. Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers could have their very own “who is the greatest short-form batsman of all-time” competition. The addition of Marcus Stoinis will give the side more balance and a chance of winning their first title.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: A side with Kohli and De Villiers cannot go three years without a top-four finish.

MUMBAI INDIANS (5th)

The Manchester United of the IPL, they have won three titles and with Rohit Sharma as captain, and a settled side — Kieron Pollard, Lasith Malinga and Jasprit Bumrah just three of the retained stars — will always be a danger. But they finished outside the top four last year and perhaps miss a bit of fire power in the batting department.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: Another year outside the top four.

Virat Kohli is dangerous no matter what the format. (AFP) 

KOLKATA KNIGHT RIDERS (3)

Last year’s top-four finish was a surprise and there is the sense they will struggle to match that this time around. With Windies stars Carlos Brathwaite and Andre Russell in the side and spin king Sunil Narine they will always have a chance but it is perhaps expecting too much to repeat last season’s surge to the semis.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: They will not be able to repeat last year’s heroics and will finish in sixth.

CHENNAI SUPER KINGS (Champions)

The team to beat, they have kept most of their title-winning side from last year and still have MS Dhoni — will he ever retire? — at the helm. It is hard to make a case for them not reaching the final, harder still not making the last four. If there is one possible worry is it that they have not strengthened much over the winter.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: In the last four.

SUNRISERS HYDERABAD (2nd)

Will still be smarting from their heavy defeat in the final at the hands of Chennai last year. They look to have the strongest batting line-up with Kane Williamson, Martin Guptil, Jonny Bairstow and David Warner to share the big-hitting responsibilities and with spinner of the moment Rashid Khan they will always be able to take wickets.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: Champions