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Champions League

Three talking points as Tottenham eased to victory over minnows APOEL Nicosia

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Tottenham made it five wins from a possible six in the Champions League group stage as Mauricio Pochettino’s experimental team cantered to a three-goal win over Cypriot minnows APOEL Nicosia.

With passage to the last 16 already secured ahead of the final round of fixtures, the Tottenham manager awarded rare starts to Juan Foyth, Georges-Kevin N’Koudou and striker Fernando Llorente.

And it was the £12million deadline day signing from Swansea City that got the hosts off to the perfect start, collecting the ball inside the six-yard box before swivelling and finishing in one swift move.

Son Heung-min then got in on the act shortly before half-time when his curling effort from the edge of the area – finishing off a smart one-two with the impressive Llorente – left APOEL’s goalkeeper helpless.

The visitors needed at least a point to salvage any chance of a Europa League spot and although Praxitelis Vouros went close after the break when his deflected strike fizzed narrowly past the post it was Pochettino’s side who added a deserved third late on, with N’Koudou’s strike cannoning into the net.

Tottenham – who can claim the accolade of finishing the group stages with the most points of any team to qualify – will now turn their attention to Monday morning when the draw for the last 16 gets underway.

Youth given a chance as Pochettino rings the changes

With Tottenham already assured of their passage to the knock-out stages as Group H winners, and considering the minnow status of the opposition, it offered the chance for youth to be given a shot.

Juan Foyth – bought from Argentinian side Estudiantes during the summer transfer window – and Georges-Kevin N’Koudou were awarded the opportunity to impress by boss Mauricio Pochettino, whilst academy product and 19-year-old striker Kazaiah Sterling was introduced for his Spurs debut.

Whilst it wasn’t particularly the most testing 90 minutes of football that these young players will ever face in a Tottenham shirt it offered a glimpse of the future, with Foyth in particular impressing.

The 19-year-old defender slotted in nicely alongside the beastly figure of Davinson Sanchez, seeming comfortable when repelling any of APOEL’s endeavours in attack and dealing with problems in a composed manner, and Pochettino would have been pleased with the Argentine’s tidy performance.

And it was N’Koudou who added some deserved gloss to the score-line late on, wriggling his way into the penalty area before his deflected effort found its way in for his first ever Tottenham goal.

It’s unlikely that these players – nor Kyle Walker-Peters, a second-half substitute – will all of a sudden become first-team regulars overnight, but it was valuable first-team exposure nonetheless.

Llorente off the mark in a Tottenham shirt

The last few months have been something of a struggle for Fernando Llorente, overcoming an arm injury whilst trying to impress in the little first-team action he’s been awarded since moving to north London.

Due to the way that Pochettino sets his side up week-in, week-out, packing the midfield instead of utilising two strikers, and due to Harry Kane’s undroppable nature, it’s been tough going until now.

Yet with Kane given a rest for an essential ‘dead rubber’ final group stage match, Llorente was awarded his first start of the Champions League this season and certainly sent a message of intent to his manager.

The 32-year-old was a potent outlet throughout – with his height and strength causing no end of problems for a weak APOEL defence – and his goal inside the opening 20 minutes wasn’t one affiliated with a man devoid of confidence, smartly turning his man before firing into a gaping net.

It was a goal that got his Tottenham tally up and running after 17 appearances – and nearly seven hours of football – and it will no doubt feel like a huge weight has been lifted from off his shoulders.

His performance went from strength to strength after that early boost too, with his cushioned one-two putting the ball into Son’s path for the second, and he could – and arguably should – have doubled his efforts on the night when he completely mis-kicked a clear shot from just a few yards out.

As with the other fringe players on show on Wednesday night it is unlikely to ever see Llorente marching out ahead of Kane anytime soon but it showed he could be a key squad player as the season goes on.

Pochettino clears up Rose incident

Whilst Wednesday offered the chance for a lot of fringe players to get a taste of first-team football in Europe, it offered Danny Rose the chance to continue trying to stake a claim for his starting berth back.

Since returning from a long-term injury he has found it difficult to reach the heights of last season when he was named in the PFA team of the year, playing just two of Spurs’ last five league matches.

And he was certainly in the thick of the action at Wembley Stadium – albeit mainly for the wrong reasons – as he escaped with only a yellow after reacting rashly to a challenge before storming straight down the tunnel by himself after being hauled off by Pochettino with 20 minutes remaining.

At the time it seemed that he was frustrated at being taken off prematurely, although speaking shortly after full-time Pochettino cleared up the issue and said:

“Players are never happy when they are going out. He had a big cut and the doctors said he needed a stitch and it was impossible to play. Of course the player was frustrated because it was Champions League but nothing is wrong.”

It transpired that Rose needed five stitches to a cut above his eye as a result after falling on the wrong end of an APOEL challenge, with Pochettino left with no choice but to end his night early.

But in terms of his contribution on the pitch the England left-back did very little to convince the Tottenham boss that he merits a starting role ahead of Ben Davies, failing to impress once again.

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 - @willypearson.

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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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Champions League

Are Manchester City potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Manchester City
Photo: Reuters

With a seemingly unassailable advantage at the top of the table, Manchester City are all but guaranteed to be crowned this season’s Premier League champions. However, manager Pep Guardiola, not to mention the club’s fiercely ambitious owners, will have an even greater prize on their minds.

The Cityzens have never won the Champions League, but such has been their form in all competitions that they must surely be in contention to lift the most coveted trophy in European football. Here, The Boot Room analyses Manchester City’s prospects of becoming the first English club to win the Champions League since 2012.

Performances so far

Mirroring their fortunes in the Premier League, Manchester City dominated the first stage of the Champions League, qualifying for the last 16 with ease as Group F winners.

Drawn with Napoli, Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donetsk, City won their first five fixtures – scoring 13 goals in the process – before an unexpected defeat with a weakened team to the Ukrainian outfit ended their 100 per cent record and removed some of the gloss.

The two wins over Italian giants Napoli – 2-1 at the Etihad and 4-2 away – were particularly impressive given their form in Serie A. Paired against Swiss side Basel in the last 16 – the round at which they bowed out of the competition last year – City are very highly fancied to book their spot in the quarter-finals.

Squad strength

Guardiola has assembled one of the strongest squads in European football; one to rival the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Since last season, the Spaniard has focused on strengthening his defence. Out went Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy, who were all deemed surplus to requirements, while in came upgrades Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy. Goalkeeper Ederson has been a revelation since arriving from Benfica and shored up a back line that had been their Achilles heel.

Another summer arrival, Bernardo Silva, has been used more sparingly but provides depth in central midfield. City also boast in their ranks arguably the best player in Europe this season, Kevin de Bruyne, who has been a tour de force in central midfield alongside the guile and subtlety of David Silva.

Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, currently sidelined through injury, provide genuine potency in front of goal.

Manager

Although the investment has been substantial, Guardiola must take credit for improving his young stars. The rise of Raheem Sterling is a pertinent example. The England star flattered to deceive last season but has been rejuvenated, scoring for fun and providing real creativity in City’s all-conquering side.

As a player, Guardiola never experienced Champions League glory with Barcelona but he twice guided them to the trophy as manager, in 2009 and 2011. He could not repeat the feat at Bayern Munich, although he did capture the Bundesliga title on three successive occasions.

Now in his second season in Manchester, the 46-year-old is yet to win silverware. However, given City’s current position as runaway Premier League leaders, that is sure to change – perhaps in spectacular fashion.

Chances of winning

It’s no surprise City are rated favourites by bookmakers to lift the prestigious cup later this year. One only needs to look at their record this season to see they are the form team in Europe. In a division as competitive as the Premier League, their 19-match winning sequence was an extraordinary feat.

With a favourable last-16 tie, City will believe they can progress to the last eight and beyond. Football is an unpredictable game, but nobody would be shocked to see them walking out in the showpiece final in four months’ time. And with Guardiola at the helm, they have the ideal manager to mastermind the club’s maiden European title.

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Champions League

Are Chelsea potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Antonio Conte will be looking to emulate his Italian counterpart Roberto di Matteo, by leading Chelsea to Champions League glory this season. The Blues’ champagne moment six years ago was the realisation of a dream Roman Abramovich had held since he gained ownership of the club in 2003.

Chelsea are the reigning Premier League champions, having claimed the title in Conte’s first campaign in charge. But the former Italy boss’s honeymoon period is now over, amid a run of mixed results and speculation of player unrest. Here, The Boot Room assesses Chelsea’s prospects of lifting the Champions League for a second time.

Performances so far

The Blues were in the same group as both Atletico Madrid and Roma – as well as minnows Qarabag – and they finished level on points with the Italian club at the top of the standings. The highlight was a 2-1 victory away to Atletico, courtesy of a stoppage-time winner from Michy Batshuayi. A routine double was completed over Qarabag, but it was their results against Roma that shaped the final standings.

Even though both clubs ended on 11 points to qualify for the last 16 and Chelsea had a vastly superior goal difference, the Blues could only follow up their 3-0 defeat in the Italian capital with a 3-3 draw at home. This proved costly, with Conte’s side finishing second and being drawn against Barcelona, which has significantly dented their chances of making it into the quarter-finals.

Squad strength

Chelsea captured the Premier League at a canter last season, thanks largely to the goals of Diego Costa and the brilliance of Eden Hazard. Despite the summer arrival of Alvaro Morata, Costa’s departure has been a big loss. Surprisingly, Nemanja Matic was permitted to join Manchester United, while David Luiz has fallen out of favour under Conte.

Antonio Rudiger, Danny Drinkwater and Tiemoue Bakayoko have added depth to the squad, while the rise to prominence of Andreas Christensen has been an unexpected bonus. Ross Barkley is the first of their signings in the January window and perhaps more will follow. Most important is proper competition for the misfiring Morata, with Chelsea currently lacking a cutting edge in tight games.

Manager

A three-time winner of Serie A with Juventus (to go alongside last season’s Premier League crown), Conte is without doubt a manager of immense repute. After Jose Mourinho’s reign had turned sour, the 48-year-old was the perfect successor. He revitalised Chelsea and turned them into champions after adopting a 3-4-3 formation that proved to be a masterstroke.

Conte has a unique style of management. His demonstrable shows of passion are loved by supporters, but his intensity has sparked rumours that he is not universally liked by his players. Costa fell foul of his wrath last summer, while Brazilian centre-back Luiz is the latest to be marginalised. Conte’s public clashes with his superiors over failed transfer targets have increased the tension.

Chances of winning

When Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, they had to beat Barcelona over two legs in the semi-finals. If they want to lift the prestigious trophy again this year, it’s a feat they will need to repeat. Although the Blues are more than capable of competing with the very best in Europe, they would much rather have avoided opponents of Barcelona’s class at this stage.

Chelsea only have themselves to blame for not topping Group C, which would likely have given them a smoother passage to the last eight. Barcelona, the runaway La Liga leaders, are by no means unbeatable, but they will be the favourites to progress and Chelsea will need to be at their very best over both games to stop them.

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