Big Midweek has a manager and striker in need of a change in fortunes, Barcelona in need of a big win and a wholly unpredictable EFL game.
Game to watch – Barcelona vs Inter
After their summer of spending as though the end of the world was nigh – we’ll get back to you on that – Barcelona have started their season in La Liga looking very much like the Barcelona of old.
Following a goalless draw against Rayo Vallecano on the opening day of the season they’ve won seven in a row and have only conceded one goal in the league all season. This solid defence has put them ahead of Real Madrid at the top of the table on goal difference.
But in the Champions League, it’s a different story. Successive defeats against Bayern Munich and Inter have left them languishing in third place in the group, and defeat in their return match against Inter would leave them needing a win from their next game against Bayern Munich to have a realistic chance of progressing, and that is always a tall order.
This group had ‘Group of Death’ written all over it from the outset. Losing it and dropping into the Europa League may have financial ramifications for a club whose hunger for a European Super League heavily implies that even latter stages of the Champions League money isn’t enough to keep them on the financial straight and narrow.
The good news for them is that Inter have been blowing hot and cold in Serie A this season, having won five and lost four of their first nine matches of the season. Two Edin Dzeko goals at the weekend gave them a narrow win at Sassuolo to leave them in 7th place in the table. Their league form has been patchy, but they will arrive at Camp Nou knowing that a win will leave them needing just one point from their last two games to guarantee qualification for the next round.
Team to watch – Chelsea
Less than a week before Chelsea take to the pitch at the San Siro for their return match against Milan, the task ahead of them just to stay in this year’s Champions League was looking somewhat daunting. One point from their first two matches had left them needing a win to have a realistic chance of finishing in the top two in their group.
A week on, the picture couldn’t have changed much more. Chelsea romped to an extremely comfortable 3-0 win, which lifted them to second place in the group above their next opponents, all of which means that this is a critical evening for Milan too. They had a comfortable 2-0 win against Juventus at the weekend while Chelsea barely had to break into a jog to see off a managerless Wolves side in the Premier League.
The effects of Potterball are becoming evident, and they’re doing so quickly. With Reece James excelling, they’re already starting to look quite a lot like what Todd Boehly would have intended when he hired Graham Potter in the first place and a win in the San Siro, one of European football’s truly iconic homes, would be a suitable cherry on the cake for what has been a successful first month for the new manager.
Manager to watch – Massimiliano Allegri
Liverpool aren’t the only big beasts of European club football going through a difficult time. Following their 2-0 defeat away to Milan on Saturday evening, Juventus are down in eighth place in Serie A with just three wins from their nine league games. They’re already seven points off a Champions League place for next season and ten points off the top of the table, and this means trouble for head coach Massimiliano Allegri.
When Allegri left Juventus in 2019, he did so off the back of five successive league titles, but things haven’t really worked out as successfully since his return. Last season, Juve could only manage fourth place in Serie A (16 points behind champions Milan), while their Champions League ambitions – a bugbear of Allegri during his previous spell with the club – went up in smoke at the Round of Sixteen stage against Villareal.
But this season has been no better for The Old Lady. They’ve only lost twice, but one of those defeats was a first ever Serie A win for newly promoted Monza, and their Champions League form has been equally patchy. They lost their first two games to PSG and Benfica, but kept their hopes of qualification alive with a win against Maccabi Haifa last week.
Now comes the return game in Israel, and the stakes are high. PSG and Benfica are tied on seven points at the top of the group, and Juventus are already four points adrift of those two, so they desperately need a win against a Haifa team who have lost all three of their group games so far and, as expected, remain rooted to the bottom of the group.
A failure to win this game wouldn’t be a disaster in a mathematical sense. PSG play Benfica in Paris on the same evening, so at least one of those two will drop points, and Juventus travel to Lisbon for their return match against Benfica in two weeks’ time. It would be a stretch to say that their chances of getting through the group stages would be substantially improved with a win in Haifa (that four-point gap means that they would have to get a result in Paris in their final match), the psychological effects of failing to win could be huge.
And all of this spells trouble for Allegri, who may already be wishing that he’d paid greater attention to that old adage that ‘you can’t go home again’ before returning to the club. The fans are already deeply unhappy with him. A failure to record what by any reasonable measure should be a routine Champions League win against Maccabi Haifa would surely make the termination of his contract little more than a foregone conclusion.
Player to watch – Mo Salah
Mo Salah’s form has fallen off a cliff since he returned from the African Cup of Nations in February. The arrival of Luis Diaz has squeezed him further wide and the chances aren’t flowing to the same extent that they used to be. Keep in mind that this state of affairs was playing out while he was in the process of signing a new contract worth £400,000 a week, and it starts to look as though the issue runs a little deeper than just the player himself.
Nothing changed in respect of Salah being forced into wider positions with the replacement of Sadio Mane with Darwin Nunez, so how joined-up was the thinking at the time of Salah’s contract extension being agreed in the summer? Has all this been factored in? Because increasingly, it doesn’t look like it.
Salah has scored five goals this season, but one of those was in the Community Shield. He hasn’t scored in the Premier League since August 22 and has only managed two in that competition all season. There is going to come a point at which Jurgen Klopp will have to reconsider whether he should be in the starting XI at all.
A ‘Battle of Britain’ match against Rangers, who’ve lost all three of their group games so far, is an opportunity for Salah to get back on the scoresheet (and such has been his form of late that this should probably be followed with ‘if selected’), but there is a lingering concern; what if this decline is irreversible? With that plump new contract still relatively freshly signed, all at Liverpool will be hoping amongst hopes that this isn’t the case, but there has been a distinct lack of evidence to the contrary.
At his best, Salah can be a whirling dervish of a player, a perpetual motion machine with an unerring eye for goal. Squeezed out on the right-hand side, he isn’t getting the sort of chances but this shortfall doesn’t seem to have really been picked up by anyone else, other than on that one occasion against Bournemouth. But while the going has become extremely difficult for him, he has to start delivering again.
The transformative effect that Erling Haaland has had upon Manchester City has only made this feel all the more urgent, but whether Salah even can go again is increasingly debatable.
EFL game to watch – Wigan Athletic vs Blackburn Rovers
For those amongst us who remain unswayed by the glitz and glamour of the Champions League, there are pretty slim pickings this week, with the EFL seemingly taking the opportunity to clear up a few loose ends with their scheduling. But Sky Sports can’t possibly tolerate an evening of live football on BT Sport while offering nothing in return, so their cameras will be at The DW Stadium for a Lancashire derby between newly promoted Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers in the EFL Championship.
Ten years ago this season, Wigan Athletic were a Premier League club. They ended that season by winning the FA Cup and getting relegated, and over the intervening ten years they’ve been relegated from the Championship three times and promoted back as League One champions three times as well. It comes as little surprise to glance at the Championship table and see that they’ve won four, drawn four and lost four this time around. Wigan have more than occasionally over the last ten years been guilty of not quite knowing which division they belong in.
Blackburn Rovers have been a slightly different form of inconsistent to Wigan so far this season, to such a point that their inconsistency is itself starting to become, well, consistent. They won their first three games of the season, taking them to the top of the table, but they then lost three in a row, and their record in the league since then has been WLWLWLW.
Blackburn are currently in 7th place, but such is the nature of the Championship this season that a six-goal win in this game would put them in second place despite having lost six of their first 14games. There are obviously more glamorous games being played across Europe this week, but few others are more difficult to predict than this one.