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Three things learnt from Stoke’s 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough

Martyn Cooke

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A first-half brace from Mark Arnautovic helped Stoke City to dispel the memory of their nightmare performance last weekend and ensure that struggling Middlesbrough dropped in the relegation zone for the first time this season.

The Potters were on the receiving end of a four-goal thumping at White Hart Lane one week ago – a performance that drew heavy criticism from manager Mark Hughes and the club’s chairman Peter Coates. However, they were much improved against Middlesbrough and demonstrated their superiority over the visitors by easing to a 2-0 victory at the Bet365 Stadium.

Arnautovic, not for the first time, was the star figure in a first half in which Stoke dominated and Middlesbrough rarely threatened. The charismatic Austrian caused visiting full-back George Friend all sorts of problems and it was little surprise to see the winger open the scoring when he beautifully plucked Glenn Whelan’s long ball out of the air, rounded the goalkeeper and smashed his shot between two despairing defenders. The 27-year-old then doubled his tally when he hooked in from close range after Peter Crouch had nodded down Glenn Whelan’s corner into the six-yard box.

Middlesbrough rarely threatened throughout the contest and never truly looked like securing a result. The closest that Aitor Karanka’s side came to a goal was when Ben Gibson’s effort was correctly ruled out for offside and there were ironic cheers from the away supporters when they saw a late second half shot float aimlessly wide. The Boro have now slipped into the relegation zone.

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Stoke demonstrate their quality

Mark Hughes did not hold back in his criticism of Stoke City’s performance at White Hart Lane last weekend but he would have been delighted by the response of his player’s against Middlesbrough.

The Potters were quite clearly head-and-shoulders above their opponents both in terms of quality and application, with the only disappointment being that they only scored two goals. Hughes’ team produced some fluent, attractive football and Ramadan Sobhi, Joe Allen, and Ibrahim Afellay all wasted opportunities to extend the two-goal lead provided by Marko Arnautovic in the first half. In truth, they never looked threatened by a poor Middlesbrough team that were short of confidence and quality in the final third.

This result moves Stoke up to ninth in the Premier League and The Potters look near-certainties to secure a fourth consecutive finish under the guidance of Hughes.

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Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

Barcelona

Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Chelsea held La Liga leaders Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Lionel Messi finally broke his goalscoring duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona the edge after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Messi had failed to score in eight previous attempts against the Blues, but he was not to be denied on this occasion as he cancelled out Willian’s 62nd-minute opener.

A Chelsea clean sheet would have been a massive boost ahead of a daunting trip to the Camp Nou next month.

However, Messi’s equaliser 15 minutes from time means Antonio Conte’s men face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s showpiece competition.

Here are three talking points from Stamford Bridge…

Conte’s tactical approach so nearly pays dividends

But for the fatal error that led to Messi’s leveller, Chelsea would be heading to Catalonia in three weeks’ time with a one-goal lead to protect.

That they came so close to victory is testament to Conte’s tactical nous, which stifled Barcelona while also allowing the home side to flourish.

As expected, the visitors dominated the ball throughout the encounter. However, they created precious few opportunities as Chelsea’s back line held firm.

Conte had resisted the temptation to start with an out-and-out striker, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud both named on the bench.

The fluid movement of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian caused more problems than Barcelona have been used to this season and the Blues’ second-half goal was a deserved one.

Heading into the second leg, Conte will need to devise another masterplan if Chelsea are to proceed to the last eight.

Third time lucky for impressive Willian

The tricky Brazilian has by no means been a regular for Chelsea this season.

But he was given the nod against Barcelona in a three-man attack that featured Hazard as a false number nine.

It’s a system Conte has favoured recently, but although it failed to get the best out of Hazard, the same could not be said about Willian.

He was Chelsea’s chief threat and, on another night, could have walked off with the match ball.

Willian twice hit the post in the first-half, showing great skill on each occasion to create space and leave Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.

Despite his misfortune, Willian was unbowed and he broke the deadlock with a pinpoint finish that raised the roof at Stamford Bridge.

It was a fitting reward for a top-class performance that highlighted his natural ability.

Surely he can’t be far away from cementing a regular spot in Conte’s starting XI?

Messi ends Chelsea goal drought to have decisive say

It is not often that British football fans get to see the little magician at such close quarters, so each time he arrives on these shores it is to be cherished.

Chelsea had a game-plan to nullify his influence and in the first half this worked superbly.

Although there were the usual sublime touches that we have come to expect, Messi was largely shackled by a solid rearguard display from Chelsea’s three-man central defence.

However, it only takes a side to switch off for a moment for the Argentinian to flex his muscles.

A misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose pull back enabled Messi to slide the ball past Thibaut Courtois.

Once the ball had arrived to him in the box, there was no doubting where it would nestle.

Messi’s exuberant celebrations underlined the importance of his equaliser in the context of the tie.

It could be the decisive moment.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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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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