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Champions League

“Conte’s sweeping changes are vindicated” – Three things learnt from Chelsea’s 6-0 thumping of Qarabag

Rob Meech

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Pedro Chelsea

Chelsea kicked off their Champions League adventure with a thoroughly convincing 6-0 victory over Qarabag at Stamford Bridge. The Blues never looked back once Pedro had given them a fifth-minute lead and they proved far too good for their Azerbaijani opponents, who were competing in Europe’s flagship competition for the first time. Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, who made no fewer than five changes to his starting XI, will be delighted to have come through a potential banana skin unscathed, with Chelsea topping Group C after Roma and Atletico Madrid played out a goalless draw. Here are three things we learned.

Conte’s sweeping changes are vindicated

There was no place for the likes of Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko or Victor Moses in the team, with Conte having one eye on this weekend’s domestic clash with Arsenal. It was a calculated gamble, but had it backfired the Italian would have rightly been subjected to severe criticism. Conte was fortunate to be facing the weakest team in Group C, but this display showed the necessity of a big squad.

Chelsea were without European football last season, which enabled them to focus solely on the Premier League. The signings he made in the summer have brought increased competition and depth across all areas of the pitch, enabling him to rotate his squad when required.

Zappacosta enjoys a stunning full debut

As full debuts go, Davide Zappacosta’s could not have gone any better. The big-money deadline-day signing from Torino netted a spectacular goal that doubled Chelsea’s advantage after Pedro had settled their nerves. The Italy defender embarked on a rampaging run down the right flank before beating the Qarabag keeper from long range.

Zappacosta admitted afterwards that it had meant to be a cross, but his goal capped an assured performance that will have helped him settle into his surroundings. Of course, he will face tougher examinations defensively in both the Premier League and the Champions League. Nevertheless, it was the perfect way to introduce himself to the Chelsea faithful.

Willian gives his manager food for thought

He may not have scored on a fruitful evening, but Willian earned the man-of-the-match award for an impressive all-round performance. The Brazilian has found starts harder to come by recently under Conte, but he took this opportunity with both hands against Qarabag.

Willian hit the crossbar and also played a part in two of Chelsea’s six goals, as he ran the show from midfield and reminded his manager just what he has to offer. His display will certainly have given Conte food for thought when deciding who to select against Arsenal on Sunday.

Rob is a freelance writer, specialising in football, who previously worked as a sports journalist at the Dorset Echo. A long-standing AFC Bournemouth supporter, Rob can often be found on the terraces at the Vitality Stadium. Follow him on Twitter - @RobMeech

Champions League

Gareth Bale’s red-hot Real Madrid form should scare Liverpool

The Welshman has scored 11 goals in his last 15 appearances.

Max Cohen

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Gareth Bale
Photo: Getty Images

In Real Madrid’s final league match of this season on Saturday, Gareth Bale swept home a lovely right-footed finish to open the scoring against Villarreal.

That goal marked the Welshman’s 11th goal in his last 15 appearances for club and country; a remarkably prolific run of form that should scare Liverpool ahead of next weekend’s Champions League final.

Injury problems have marred much of Bale’s time at the Bernabeu, and he suffered a lengthy two-month absence from the first team this fall.

Yet, after returning from his injury lay-off, the former world-record signing has hit full form in the last two months.

In that time period, the winger has scored a hat-trick for Wales, braces against Las Palmas and Celta Vigo, and a crucial goal versus Barcelona.

This spring resurgence presents a worrying prospect for Liverpool’s defence, who already will have their hands full trying to keep Cristiano Ronaldo in check in Kiev.

(Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)

Add in Gareth Bale hitting full form, and suddenly the task at hand for Jurgen Klopp’s men appears far more difficult.

The 28-year-old also has quite the decorated history for los Blancos in cup finals. In his debut season for Real, Bale scored sensational winning goals in both the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals.

The following season in the European Cup final, the Welshman assisted Real Madrid’s sole goal and scored his penalty in the ensuing shoot-out; his cup final record is simply superb.

Combined with Bale’s recent tremendous goalscoring form, the prospect of facing up against the powerful winger might strike fear in the Liverpool backline.

But the Reds have proven adept in stifling some of the best attacks in Europe this season.

Liverpool famously restricted high-scoring Manchester City to just one goal over 180 minutes in the quarterfinals and the Reds will have to conjure up that heroic rearguard performance in order to stop the on-form Gareth Bale next weekend.

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Champions League

Liverpool should pursue a swap deal with Emre Can for Sami Khedira

The Juventus midfielder could be tempted to the Premier League this summer.

Josh Kerr

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Khedira
Photo: Getty Images

Liverpool should make Sami Khedira their primary replacement for Emre Can, who is expected to join Juventus on a free transfer at the end of the season.

The German international is coming to the end of his third season with the Serie A outfit after joining from Real Madrid on a free transfer in 2015, with just a year left on his contract.

With the Serie A outfit’s midfield options already at full strength and the likely addition of Can, this summer could lead to a few clear-outs in the middle of the park for Juventus.

This should prompt Jurgen Klopp to pursue his fellow countryman Khedira, who is said to be interested in a move to the Premier League.

Reports from The Sun suggest Liverpool have been ‘alerted’ to Khedira’s availability this summer during negotiations with Juventus over Can.

The 24-year-old midfielder’s deal expires at the end of the season and Liverpool face the serious prospect of losing him on a free.

A move for Khedira would make perfect sense for Jurgen Klopp’s side, who are needing to strengthen a midfield that has endured so many injuries throughout the current campaign.

(Photo by Javier Soriano/Getty Images)

With the addition of Naby Keita, Khedira could prove to be the established central defensive midfielder who allows the Reds midfield three to tick, similar to the role Sergio Busquets plays at Barcelona.

The World Cup-winning midfielder spoke of his fondness for the Premier League in an interview with Bild, saying: “The Premier League has always fascinated me. Winning the title there would complete my collection.”

Liverpool have been breathtaking in Europe this season and Khedira’s experience of winning four-domestic titles in his career could be the addition the Reds need to compete with the dominance of Pep Guardiola and Manchester City.

The German international, who has nine goals and seven assists this season, has one year remaining on his Juventus contract and may be allowed to leave to join the Reds if he desires, with Can likely to join as his ready-made replacement.

Massimiliano Allegri has always possessed a knack for quickly replacing players who have decided they want to leave Juventus, with Fernando Llorente, Carlos Teves, and Paul Pogba all leaving the Italian side in recent years.

Therefore, the likely arrival of Can could be a link to Khedira’s desires to pursue new challenges elsewhere. If so, Liverpool would be the perfect destination for the Juventus midfielder.

The Reds’ high-pressing, all-out, attacking style of play could appeal to the former Real Madrid star, who would undoubtedly be excited by the prospect of joining up with compatriot, Jurgen Klopp, on Merseyside.

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Champions League

Ranking Liverpool’s possible Champions League semi-final opponents

The draw for the semi-final stage takes place on Friday 13th April.

Max Cohen

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Liverpool
Photo: Getty Images

Liverpool shocked the footballing world with a 5-1 aggregate dismantling of Manchester City in the Champions League quarterfinals, earning themselves their first semifinal appearance in a decade.

The draw to determine who they will play in the last four occurs on Friday, and here are Liverpool’s possible opponents ranked in terms of difficulty.

1. Roma

Fresh off a superb 3-0 second leg win over Barcelona, the Serie A side are certainly high on confidence and feel as if they can beat any team in the world.

Nonetheless, the Reds will be hoping they are rewarded with a matchup against the Italian side, as they are the most inexperienced team left in the competition.

The farthest Roma have ever made it in the UEFA Champions League were back-to-back quarterfinal appearances in 2006/07 and 2007/08; the semifinals mark uncharted territory for the Italians in the modern era.

Roma are also in poor league form, having recently lost to Fiorentina and drawing with Bologna, and currently sit 21 points off the pace in Serie A.

Liverpool would love to play the only remaining Italian side in the semifinals, as it would pit them against an inexperienced European club.

(Photo by Christof Stache/Getty Images)

2. Bayern Munich

One of the world’s best clubs and boasting a superstar collection of top players, the Bundesliga champions are a team to fear.

They have cantered to their sixth-straight league title this spring, winning the title in customary fashion with over a month still to play.

But although it has been all smooth sailing at home, they have shown signs of imperfection in the Champions League. They failed to muster a goal in their second-leg 0-0 draw with Sevilla, and were also thrashed 3-0 by Paris Saint Germain in the group stage.

Although the Bavarian giants are still a force to be reckoned with, they have shown signs of cracking this year; a fact that Liverpool can take heart from.

(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

3. Real Madrid

The back-to-back defending European champions would be the last club Liverpool want to face for a spot in the final.

Real Madrid possess the most dangerous player in Champions League history in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, gifting Los Blancos the ability to win a match out of nowhere.

Ronaldo’s uncanny scoring skills were on display in the quarterfinal battle against Juventus, where he scored three goals, including an outrageous overhead kick and a stoppage-time penalty to send Real through.

Madrid simply don’t get knocked out in Europe; the Reds should be praying they avoid the Spanish side in the semifinal draw.

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