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Champions League

Three talking points from Manchester United’s Champions League victory over Benfica

Rob Meech

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Manchester United are within touching distance of a place in the knockout stages of the Champions League after seeing off Benfica at Old Trafford.

An own goal from luckless keeper Mile Svilar, who could only watch helplessly as a Nemanja Matic shot rebounded off him and into the net after hitting the post, set United on their way before Daley Blind sealed the win from the spot.

Anthony Martial had earlier seen his penalty saved by young Svilar. Jose Mourinho’s troops have won all four of their Group A matches and need only one point from their final two fixtures to ensure their name will be in the hat for the last 16 draw.

Here are three talking points from a comfortable evening for the Red Devils…

Workmanlike Manchester United not hitting the heights

Not for the first time Mourinho had caused a stir, this time with comments in the match-day programme that were construed as a criticism of the club’s supporters. The Portuguese wrote that he hoped they would enjoy the game against Benfica ‘more than some of you did against Tottenham‘ three days earlier, which United won 1-0.

The Red Devils’ results have been impressive this season, but they have not matched the scintillating football played by their Manchester rivals. That is bound to be a cause of some frustration. Mourinho is renowned as a pragmatist and his distinguished managerial record cannot be questioned. United are all-but assured of progressing to the knockout stages of the Champions League, but it’s clear the supporters would like to see a more attractive brand of football.

Marcus Rashford has cause for celebration on his birthday

It was fitting that, on his 20th birthday, Marcus Rashford had something to celebrate. Just three minutes after being introduced as a 75th-minute substitute, with the game well poised, he was in the thick of the action. A dazzling run saw him bypass two Benfica defenders, before his quick feet invited a challenge that earned United a penalty.

After some confusion as to who would take it, Blind stepped up and scored, but it was all a product of Rashford’s energetic arrival. The England man has a habit of making things happen. He certainly awoke the Old Trafford crowd, among whom he is a firm favourite. The youngster’s fearlessness is his greatest asset. Rashford is always willing to try something different and he is sure to be a star of the future for club and country.

A night to remember for Scott McTominay

United have a proud history of always naming at least one academy graduate in their match-day squad; indeed, it is a run that stretches all the way back to 1937. The latest talent to roll off the production line is midfielder Scott McTominay, who made his full Champions League debut against Benfica. The 20-year-old looked assured in the middle of the park alongside the ever-reliable Matic.

United’s smooth progress in the Champions League enabled Mourinho to rotate his squad, and McTominay will have benefited immensely from his 90 minutes. With Jesse Lingard and Rashford also in the 18 against Benfica, United’s fabled academy system looks to be in rude health.

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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