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Champions League

“Their strength in depth is frightening” – Three things learnt from Manchester United 3-0 FC Basel

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Manchester United

Manchester United’s first taste of Champions League football for two years ended sweetly as Jose Mourinho’s side cantered to a comfortable victory over FC Basel at Old Trafford on Tuesday evening.

The hosts dominated proceedings from the start, with Romelu Lukaku’s goal-bound effort being blocked from close range before Henrikh Mkhitaryan struck the woodwork from three-yards out.

It didn’t take long to break the deadlock though, with substitute Marouane Fellaini stooping low to head United in front before Lukaku continued his fine start to the year with a second after the break.

Basel came close to a late consolation when Mohamed Elyounoussi forced David de Gea into a fine reaction save but it was Marcus Rashford who had the last laugh, firing a late third to wrap up a win.

See below for three things The Boot Room learnt on Manchester United’s winning return to Europe.

Jose Mourinho’s side have strong resources

Manchester United supporters would have approached Tuesday’s match with a small sense of trepidation when the starting eleven was announced after their poor recent record against FC Basel.

The last time the two sides met in the group-stages back in 2011 United were held to a 3-3 draw at Old Trafford before losing 2-1 away from home, in a match that swiftly knocked them out of Europe.

So when Mourinho rang the changes to his back-line, bringing in Daley Blind, Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof and Ashley Young, there would have been a few nerves around Old Trafford before kick-off.

But the thing with this Manchester United side is that the strength in depth is frightening, and although FC Basel are admittedly a lot weaker than six years ago a make-shift defence seemed comfortable.

With United looking to challenge on four fronts this season their squad rotation will prove key, particularly post-Christmas, and they’re already showing they have the ability and resources to cope.

Fellaini remains a vital squad player

Has there ever been a more remarkable turnaround at a big club than Marouane Fellaini?

Under David Moyes he was merely a point of ridicule for Manchester United’s top-flight rivals, looking a shadow of the player he was at Everton, and he became a scapegoat for United’s demise.

But something has happened since Mourinho arrived in Manchester that has turned the Belgian’s fortunes around and, all of a sudden, he’s beginning to earn himself a status as an unlikely cult hero.

Called upon once again after Paul Pogba’s early hamstring injury he was influential all game and United’s opponents didn’t really know how to handle his physicality in midfield and his aerial threat.

It was little surprise then that he popped up in the right place at the right time to head home Ashley Young’s sublime cross to give his side the lead, before putting in a very un-Fellaini like lung-busting run deep into the FC Basel area to cut the ball back for Rashford to wrap up a routine European win.

It just serves to prove the aforementioned strength in depth that United have at their disposal, and with Pogba likely to be side-lined for at least four weeks it could now be the Belgian’s time to shine.

Rashford shines but a winger is still needed

Is there anything that Marcus Rashford can’t do?

The 19-year-old continued his meteoric rise at Manchester United on Tuesday night, popping up on the edge of the area to slot home the third goal of the night and notch his own third of the new season.

This continued his incredible record of scoring on debut in competitions, with Rashford finding the net in his first Premier League, Europa League, EFL Cup, England and now Champions League match.

But despite more goal-scoring antics from the youngster it’s clear that Mourinho’s side are still lacking a world-class winger to take the game to the opposition, with Juan Mata failing to impose himself again.

The Spaniard has struggled to adapt to the right-wing position so far this season, often sloppy in possession and wasteful with his end product, and United will be looking for a vast improvement.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @96PearsonW.

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Champions League

Porto 0-5 Liverpool: Three talking points from Estádio do Dragão

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from Estádio do Dragão, as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool dismantled Champions League opponents Porto.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Sadio Mane plundered a hat-trick as Liverpool produced a five-star performance to thrash Porto and virtually seal their place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Mane opened the scoring on 25 minutes before adding two more in the second half which, coupled with goals from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, made it a hideously one-sided affair at the Estádio do Dragão.

Porto offered precious little resistance during the 90 minutes and were completely outclassed by a Liverpool side bursting with confidence.

The return leg at Anfield in three weeks’ time will be nothing more than a formality to confirm the Reds’ place in the last eight.

Here are three talking points, as Jurgen Klopp’s men sounded a warning to the European elite…

Mane emerges from the shadows of Salah and Firmino

Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’ has been a member short since Philippe Coutinho’s big-money switch to Barcelona in January.

But there has been no sign that the Reds’ form is suffering as a result. If anything, they look stronger by the game.

By his own high standards, Mane has had a relatively quiet campaign thus far and been overshadowed somewhat by the exploits of Salah and Firmino, both of whom were also on the scoresheet against Porto.

But the Senegalese forward returned to his dazzling best on the European stage to help Liverpool take total control of this last 16 tie.

Although he had a helping hand from the Porto keeper for his first goal, which really should have been stopped, Mane took his next two with great precision to round off a sensational evening for the visitors.

Klopp will be delighted that the former Southampton man proved to be so influential in arguably their most important game of the season.

Free-scoring Liverpool will take some stopping

It is not just Liverpool’s performances in the Champions League that have drawn widespread praise, but the amount of goals they have scored in the process.

No club have netted more than the Reds, with the five they bagged in their first knockout fixture since 2009 leapfrogging them above French giants Paris Saint-Germain.

It is now 28 goals in total for Klopp’s free-scoring charges, whose attacking weaponry proved too hot to handle for their Portuguese opponents.

As they showed against Sevilla in the group stage, Liverpool’s defensive frailties can sometimes undermine them.

And when, as expected, they line-up in the quarter-finals, they are likely to face a side with much more to offer in attack than Porto did.

However, new signing Virgil van Dijk, who made his Champions League debut for the Reds, should bring stability and leadership to the back line.

On this evidence, they look like viable contenders for the main prize.

Klopp’s reign is delivering the goods

When Klopp joined Liverpool in the autumn of 2015, many Liverpool supporters believed he would bring them immediate success.

The gregarious German is still yet to win silverware at Anfield, but there is no denying the club are taking significant strides forward under his management this season.

Some of the money they received from Barcelona for Coutinho has already been reinvested into the squad and more high-profile arrivals are likely to follow in future transfer windows.

Liverpool remain prone to suffering off-days against lesser opposition, perhaps more so than any of their main domestic rivals, but they possess the armoury to blow away teams of the highest quality.

Even Manchester City, the runaway Premier League leaders, recently succumbed to the Reds’ attacking might.

As always, the proof will come at the end of the season.

But under Klopp, Liverpool are playing an attractive brand of football that is illuminating Europe.

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Champions League

Juventus 2-2 Tottenham: Mousa Dembele back to his very best in Juventus draw

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham

Tottenham earned an excellent result in the Champions League as they fought back from 2-0 down to earn a credible draw against Juventus. The Serie A team have a lot more experience in this competition, but they found wanting for game management on Tuesday, as they let a dominant position slip after an impressive opening 10 minutes.

They quickly went up by two goals after a Gonzalo Higuain brace, but the Argentine will feel disappointed at the end of the game as he could have reinstated the lead before half-time. However, his second penalty smashed against the bar. After the break, Spurs were very good and were deserving of their equaliser. Here are three talking points from the Allianz Stadium:

Tottenham have fight to go with their quality

If the team spirit of this Tottenham team was ever in doubt, it isn’t any longer as they showed great belief to fight back from 2-0 down against one of the biggest clubs in Europe. They couldn’t have had a worse start as lazy defending allowed Gonzalo Higuain to score an excellent goal. There was a hint of offside, but the visitors were switched off and not aware of the danger.

Another goal quickly followed and at that stage, it looked like it could be a thrashing. However, the players rallied and started to get back in the game by doing the simple things well. In previous seasons, their North London rivals Arsenal have been embarrassed at this stage of the competition and it looked like a similar fate was waiting for Tottenham, but they didn’t fall into the same state of paralysis.

Mousa Dembele was key to the turnaround, as he was distributing the ball well from the centre of the park. His ability to carry it forward five or ten yards was crucial in putting Juventus on the back foot. Christian Eriksen was displaying the creativity that he shows regularly in the Premier League and Harry Kane recovered from a poor miss to get on the score-sheet. Outside of the opening ten minutes, Tottenham were the better team and they have a great chance of progressing to the next round after this result.

Gonzalo Higuain’s career was summed up in 45 minutes

The Argentine international has been on the verge of being a world class player for a number of years, but he regularly fails to make it count on the big stage. It was shaping up to be his night early on as he scored a brace in the opening ten minutes. He looked in the mood and showed a clinical edge in front of goal that threatened to put the tie to bed.

However, as always with Higuain, he missed a crucial chance at an important moment of the game. Seconds before half-time, Douglas Costa did very well to win a penalty for his team with a superb run into the Tottenham box. After scoring from the spot earlier in the match, the former Napoli striker stepped up and smashed an effort against the bar.

It was a confident effort from the forward, as he put his foot through the ball, but the accuracy wasn’t there. If he scored the penalty, it likely put the match beyond Tottenham as they would have went in to half-time with low spirits. As it worked out, they went in with momentum and they used that to great effect in the second half. Higuain has had a habit of letting his team down when it matters most and that was true again on Tuesday night.

Mousa Dembele is back to his best

The central midfielder earned rave reviews at the weekend as he dominated the middle of the park in the North London derby. It was an excellent performance and Tottenham needed a similar display if they were to gain a positive result in Italy. Juventus are renowned for being well-organised and difficult to break down. If the visitors were to get anything from the game, they needed to compete in the central areas and Dembele was key to that objective.

The 30-year-old is able to deliver in both halves of the pitch and he did on Tuesday. He made five ball recoveries and was regularly seen breaking up the play high up the pitch. The midfielder’s best attribute is his power when running with the ball and that was on display at the Allianz Stadium. He completed six dribbles and was near impossible to dispossess when he was advancing up the pitch.

In addition to his ball-carrying, Dembele was effective in distributing the ball, as evidenced by his pass success rate of 95%. He made two key passes and showed a creativity that was perhaps lacking at the weekend. The Belgian international isn’t the perfect midfielder, but he is a well-rounded one and is crucial for Tottenham when he is in this vein of form. They will need him to deliver a similar performance in three weeks’ time at Wembley.

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Champions League

Are Tottenham Hotspur potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Tottenham
Photo: Reuters

Of the five Premier League clubs that have progress to the last 16 of the Champions League,  Tottenham Hotspur are the surprise package.

Their lacklustre domestic form, coupled with a devilishly difficult group that featured European heavyweights Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, meant few expected Spurs to be in the draw for the knockout stages.

But Mauricio Pochettino’s charges, playing their home matches at Wembley Stadium while they await the completion of their brand-new stadium at White Hart Lane, exceeded all expectations.

Their reward is a daunting two-legged tie with last season’s runners-up, Italian powerhouse Juventus. Here, The Boot Room assesses Tottenham’s chances of lifting the trophy.

Performances so far

When the groups were announced, the odds were stacked massively against Spurs finishing in the top two.

Although Cypriot outfit Apoel Nicosia appeared on paper to be favourable opposition, the presence of two clubs with an enviable Champions League pedigree, in Real and Dortmund, looked to be too big a challenge to overcome.

So for Tottenham to remain unbeaten and qualify as group winners was a huge fillip for Pochettino. The victory at home to Real on a magical night at Wembley will live long in the memory, as will the hard-earned point they earned in the corresponding fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu.

That was the only match in which they dropped points, having completed noteworthy doubles over Dortmund and Apoel.

Squad strength

Although Tottenham finished second in the Premier League last season, questions continue to be asked about their strength in depth.

In Harry Kane, the north London club boast arguably the most in-form striker in world football, while the likes of Dele Alli, Cristian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld are regularly rated among the elite footballers in Europe.

Beyond that, however, Spurs have some issues.

Despite signing Davinson Sanchez, Serge Aurier and Fernando Llorente last summer in an effort to bolster his resources, the suspicion remains that Pochettino is over-reliant on a few individuals – especially Kane. If he were to get injured for a prolonged period, then Tottenham’s goal scoring potency and their effectiveness would be severely diminished.

Manager

Pochettino has been a revelation since swapping the Southampton hot-seat for Tottenham’s in 2014, taking the club to the next level.

The Champions League was not new territory for Spurs, who had qualified for a single season under Harry Redknapp’s stewardship, but the Argentinian manager has made their presence in the competition commonplace.

One criticism often aimed at Pochettino is that, for all his good work in transforming Spurs into a genuine force to rival the very best in the Premier League, he is yet to win any silverware.

He twice lifted the Copa del Rey with Espanyol, but his time in England has so far proved fruitless. With such a talented squad at his disposal, it is high time he saw tangible reward.

Chances of winning

Despite their magnificent effort to top Group H, Spurs are one of the outsiders to win the Champions League this season.

Their potential path to the final has already been complicated after being drawn against Juventus in the last 16. However, should they achieve the not-so-small matter of knocking out last year’s finalists, who would bet against them going all the way?

Domestically, Tottenham have struggled to reproduce last season’s form and have dropped far too many points, particularly at home. But this has been in stark contrast to their performances in Europe.

They can take great heart from their displays against Real and Dortmund and should believe they belong at this rarefied level. And with a striker as prolific as Kane in their team, anything can happen.

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