Thursday, January 27, 2022

Champions League New Year’s resolutions: PSG have to get Lionel Messi going; Manchester United need changes

We all have New Year’s Resolutions, and they are usually focused on things that we can do to improve our quality of life, health or knocking off some bucket list items. Mine, this year, is to try and stop acting like I’m back in college, staying up till midnight or later to play video games with my friends. I’m fully focused on trying to get more sleep, more than the six-ish that I get right now. But what if all remaining 16 UEFA Champions League teams had to provide their overall New Year’s Resolution ahead of the round of 16? Those matches are set to begin on Feb. 15-16 live on Paramount+ with select games on CBS. Let’s take a look at the first-leg schedule:

Tuesday, Feb. 15:

UEFA Champions League Today, 2 p.m. (CBS/Paramount+)

Paris Saint-Germain vs. Real Madrid, 3 p.m. (CBS/Paramount+)

Sporting CP vs. Manchester City, 3 p.m. (Paramount+)

UEFA Champions League Post-Match Show, 5 p.m. (CBS Sports Network/Paramount+)

Wednesday, Feb. 16

UEFA Champions League Today, 2 p.m. (CBS/Paramount+)

Inter Milan vs. Liverpool, 3 p.m. (CBS/Paramount+)

RB Leipzig vs. Bayern Munich, 3 p.m. (Paramount+)

UEFA Champions League Post-Match Show, 5 p.m. (CBS Sports Network/Paramount+)

Tuesday, Feb. 22:

UEFA Champions League Today, 2 p.m. (CBS/Paramount+)

Chelsea vs. Lille, 3 p.m. (CBS/Paramount+)

Villarreal vs. Juventus, 3 p.m. (Paramount+)

UEFA Champions League Post-Match Show, 5 p.m. (CBS Sports Network/Paramount+)

Wednesday, Feb. 23

UEFA Champions League Today, 2 p.m. (CBS/Paramount+)

Atletico Madrid vs. Manchester United, 3 p.m. (CBS/Paramount+)

Benfica vs. Ajax, 3 p.m. (Paramount+)

UEFA Champions League Post-Match Show, 5 p.m. (CBS Sports Network/Paramount+)

With some of the biggest names in Europe still alive, along with some worthy underdogs, albeit with flaws, I’m going to provide some resolutions for each (in alphabetical order):

Ajax

Stay the course and don’t adapt to an opponent: Credit is deserved for Ajax, because they have such a confidence and don’t tend to adapt to who they are playing, even if it is a better team on paper. Their style of quick passes and creative movement can drive any team bonkers, and they essentially force other teams to adapt to them. If they can continue to on this current path and avoid injuries, another semifinal run could be in store.

Atletico Madrid

Block out the noise and make yourself the underdog: Atleti feed off of being the underdog. That has contributed to their incredible rise in European soccer, finishing as runners-up in the Champions League twice. Atleti were once viewed as just an average team in Madrid and are now a global brand with world-class players, but they find themselves taking on Manchester United and foe Cristiano Ronaldo, with Los Colchoneros being the favorites. 

Diego Simeone is going to preach to his team to not let United’s poor form mess with their mentality. They’ll respect what Manchester United once was and what they hope to become, and he’ll play it as if they are the underdogs and must give everything to pull it off. That motivation has always been key for Simeone, who lets his emotion impact the play on the field. Blocking out the noise and believing in their minds they are the underdogs will have them ready.

Bayern Munich

Continue to show no mercy: There is no doubt that the Nov. 19 loss to Augsburg was an embarrassing one, but sometimes a down moment can be beneficial and lead to a crazy run of form. That’s what we’ve seen from the Bavarians since then, having reeled off seven straight wins ahead of Friday’s showdown with Borussia Monchengladbach. When Bayern are at their best, they show absolutely no mercy and take pride in bashing their opponents for 90 minutes. Coming off of 5-0 and 4-0 wins domestically in December, expect this well-rested team to run through the schedule ahead of facing RB Salzburg and be eager and ready to punish them on their way to the quarterfinals.  

Benfica

Get the ball to Darwin Nunez’s feet more often: A potential superstar striker, Darwin Nunez has been on fire for the Portuguese giants. He’s got 11 goals in 18 games, which is a team-high. The former Penarol man is the future No. 9 of the Uruguay national team and will likely earn a big-money move to a top-five league before long. Against Ajax, a team that is lethal going forward, Benfica are likely going to need to match them in attack to feel good about their chances.

Nunez can score in a variety of ways, but his ability to be technical inside the box and free up space to shoot is superb. Expect him to be the focal point in attack, for him to constantly look to get in over the top, and if Benfica advance, he’ll be the reason why.

He’s got three goals in the group stage but only 65 minutes in their last three group stage games while dealing with injuries.

Chelsea

Bridge the gap between Thomas Tuchel and Romelu Lukaku: Winning the Champions League last season without a star striker was quite a shock, but it’s unlikely they can do it again without Romelu Lukaku. The tension between the club and the player, stemming from his unapproved interview in which he expressed unhappiness at the club, forced Tuchel to not even include him in the squad for the match against Liverpool. 

They can cruise by Lille without him if this lingers after his apology, but when going up against the big boys in Europe, they are going to need his best. 

Improving that relationship between the club and the player must be priority No. 1. 

Inter Milan

Don’t get too cocky: Inter Milan are looking like the heavy favorites to win Serie A and are mostly blowing teams out in the process, which is impressive when you consider all of the key players in the offseason. And while they are a massive club and past winners of the Champions League, the competition hasn’t been too kind to them, crashing out of the group stage the last two seasons. While they have only lost one game since mid-October, and while their opponent Liverpool may be on a below-average run of form, now isn’t the time to get cocky and confident. Make no mistake, they are the clear underdogs against the Reds. The attack may be flying high and the defense is statistically one of the best in all of Italy, but they could be in line for some humble pie against Jurgen Klopp and company. They’ve got to keep their heads down, stay united and produce 180 minutes like they haven’t in years if they are to have a chance. 

Juventus

Practice safer, quicker touches: Losing Cristiano Ronaldo certainly took a big bite out of the Juve attack, and as a result they have to be more creative. They’ve managed to score multiple goals in four of their last six games after doing it just twice in their previous 12. The passing in the final third has been pretty strong, regularly surpassing 80 percent conversion. But I suspect Villarreal will sit back and play the counter, and because of that they have to be crisper on the ball. Villarreal do a good job of stabbing at the ball and poking it lose, then quickly getting forward. Juve need to be careful of those diagonal, risky balls and play a bit more direct in order to limit chances on the counter. If they can do that, along with shielding well, they’ll likely create some better chances and also set up potential scoring opportunities from set plays.

Lille

Shift to two defensive midfielders: Just like most teams, they deploy a defensive midfielder and another centrally to create, but against Chelsea they really need to double up defensively in the midfield if they are to have any chance. 

Chelsea have won the battle of possession in 12 of their last 14 games, while Lille have won it in just five of their last 12. And in the five games of winning possession, Lille have come away with only one victory. Where they are more dangerous is on the counter, and that has to be the plan against the Blues but via prioritizing defending in centrally in the midfield. We all know it is a mismatch on paper, but that’s why they play the game.

Liverpool

Have a short memory: Things haven’t really been going all that well at Liverpool. Aside from all of the positive COVID-19 tests, the results have been rocky as well. They haven’t won a league game since Dec. 16, they’ve taken just two points from a possible nine in their last three games, and the defense has conceded multiple goals in three of the last four matches in all competitions. As a result, they have to commit to having a short memory, not dwelling on the recent form and kick it into another gear. A fairly easy schedule ahead of the first leg against Inter should have them flying high. 

Only once this season in league play have they dropped points then followed up with a win. There is a trend of stringing together poor results, and it only gets more hectic with the EFL Cup semifinals taking place and their participation in the FA Cup coming up. Rotation will be key, as it is for any side, but as will having a short memory and looking to get back on track after underwhelming performances. 

Manchester City

Don’t try and get too cute: The downfall for City in the Champions League, especially last season, has been Pep Guardiola overthinking things. The unnecessary formation change in the final, which included a shock start for Raheem Sterling, saw them implode on the biggest of stages. This is Manchester City — arguably the most talented and dangerous team in the world. Pep must commit to not trying to do too much, stick to what has gotten them into the top tier of clubs and believe that the results will come. Tinkering around cost them a UCL title last season, and they must not repeat that if they want to win it this season.

Manchester United

Change the whole darn formation: Manchester United have been absolutely awful as of late. Let’s take a look at what has transpired in terms of results since early December following Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking:

  • A fortunate 1-0 win over Crystal Palace thanks to a Fred wondergoal
  • 1-1 draw at home against Young Boys in the Champions League where they played backups
  • 1-0 win over a horrible Norwich in which they needed a late penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo
  • 1-1 draw with relegation contenders Newcastle in which United were outplayed
  • A 3-1 win over Burnley that was decent but not great
  • A 1-0 loss at Old Trafford against a Wolves team that can barely score. 

The 4-2-2-2 formation of Ralf Rangnick has seen a team without an identity become … a team without an identity, just in another formation. They struggle to create, they struggle to score, and Bruno Fernandes went from indispensable to a bench player in the matter of weeks. He may love the formation and believe in it long term, but United need to salvage their season by making some changes. 

This team is in need of a formation that can get a creative player on the ball centrally, not wide. You can’t just toss attacking talent in attack and assume it will work without distribution. Rangnick knows that, but he must do something before it is too late. He already has his own players seemingly questioning him and teammates in what could be an even more uncomfortable situation. 

“We need to bring the intensity and more motivation,” Luke Shaw told Sky Sports. “Inside the dressing room, we know what we want but out on the pitch we need to give 100 percent. To win these types of games we all need to be 100 percent committed. It is tough and disappointing.

“We have time now to refocus back, we got a long training week and maybe the manager can bring some more ideas to what he wants on the pitch,” Shaw said.

PSG

Incorporate Lionel Messi more: There is no doubt that manager Mauricio Pochettino wants to get his shiny new toy going, because all in all, it’s been a somewhat slow start for Messi at PSG. The 34-year-old Argentine has been largely efficient in the Champions League with his five goals, but he’s played double the minutes in Ligue 1 with just one goal to show for it. He continues to be denied by the post or just missing wide when facing French opponents, converting one goal despite his 4.93 xG. He and the club both crave that consistency.

Pochettino will expect Messi to step up in the round of 16 against a familiar foe in Real Madrid, but part of the lack of converting domestically overall is simply playing alongside the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and others, all of which crave goals as well. 

Messi has been allowed the freedom to get wide and cut inside, but there needs to be an emphasis to get him the ball more in the middle and let him create. PSG are often a bit too reliant on getting the ball over the top quickly or aiming to be too cute at the top of the box. Messi is most effective when he can get the ball in space and work off of his teammates. Getting him more involved is a must.

RB Salzburg

Live in the moment and enjoy the ride: They’ve got Bayern Munich and are likely on their way to a lopsided loss. But in becoming the first Austrian side to make the round of 16, they’ve added to a belief that they really can compete with anybody. While they likely only have 180 minutes left in the competition, they need to enjoy the moment, have fun and be proud of what they accomplished.

Real Madrid

Reel in the fullbacks and keep shape: Real Madrid have had an inconsistent start to the calendar year, and it is isn’t going to get any easier when they face PSG next month. As a result, Carlo Ancelotti would be wise to reel in his fullbacks and play a bit cautiously. With the speed PSG have on the wings, Real need to keep shape at the back or risk getting blown out.

Just as we saw in the shock 1-0 loss to Getafe over the weekend, Real can get exposed on the counter and create more trouble with needless bookings. 

real.jpg

Real’s defensive shape in transition is a concern.c ESPN screengrab

If it becomes a high-scoring battle, Real Madrid will likely be out. They have to prioritize defending, keep four at the back and play cohesively to have a strong chance of moving on.

Sporting CP

Embrace the underdog role: Nobody is giving them a chance against Manchester City, and they have to continue to use that as motivation. Not many thought they could get out of a group that included both Ajax and Borussia Dortmund, but they held their own to get second in the group.

I’m sure they believe they can pull it off the upset, but internally they must be aware of the importance to hold on to the ball as much as possible to try and limit City’s chances. After all, Sporting did allow two goals per game in the group stage.

But the fuel of being the underdogs brings an unquestioned value, an extra bit of energy when needed. Let’s see if they can capitalize and compete. 

Villarreal

Embrace counter-attacking style: Unai Emery’s team loves to have the ball, evident by winning the battle of possession in seven of their last eight games. But what they must do against Juventus is exactly the same game plan as against Atalanta in that impressive 3-2 win on Dec. 9 to get to the knockout stage of the UCL. Juve also love to have the ball, and Villarreal would be wise to concede that possession and aim for the counter. It worked against Atalanta and helped set the to en route to an upset victory:

Emery surely knows that Juve will probably win the possession battle, so staying sharp defensively and using their pace to go at a somewhat slow Juve defense will be the key.

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