Champions League hits and misses: Trent Alexander-Arnold hits Atletico Madrid with his special delivery; Man City find their mojo?

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Tremendous Trent delivers as Liverpool bulldoze Group B

If Mohamed Salah doesn’t get you, then Trent Alexander-Arnold will.

Image: Liverpool's star man: Trent Alexander-Arnold

Is there a more deadly partnership down a right flank in world football than those two? It’s enough to give opposition left-backs sleepless nights. West Ham’s Aaron Cresswell is the next man tasked with stopping them on Super Sunday and Liverpool’s win over Atletico Madrid will have been gruesome viewing for the Hammers defender.

Alexander-Arnold had hardly had a sniff of action for the first 12 minutes but all it took was one caress of his right boot to ignite himself into the match. The cross for Diogo Jota to head home was made to look simple from the playmaking full-back but not many in the world could have delivered it with such precision and pace. He wasn’t done there either, grabbing a second assist eight minutes later when finding Sadio Mane with what looked more of a shot than a well-constructed assist. They all count, is what Alexander-Arnold would say.

  • Liverpool 2-0 Atletico Madrid – Match report
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats
  • When is the Champions League last-16 draw; who has qualified?

Since the start of the 2018/19 season, only Kevin De Bruyne (51) has more assists among Premier League players in all competitions than Liverpool’s world-class creator-in-chief (44). Against Diego Simeone’s men, no player had more touches of the ball than Alexander-Arnold (136). For some context, the returning Luis Suarez managed just 19.

It’s a scary proposition to think all of Liverpool’s key players are playing some of the best football of their careers. No wonder their unbeaten run currently stands at 25 matches. It’s hard to see it ending anytime soon.

Alexander-Arnold told BT Sport: “Me and Mo have got a really good understanding. It’s quite natural. We’re told to be flexible, not just stay in set positions to create confusion for the opposition. That’s what we do. We need to get on the ball and create things. And with the form our front players are in, it’s about getting the service into them. That’s what I did today.”
Lewis Jones

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Man City rediscover their mojo in time for derby

Image: Gabriel Jesus celebrates after scoring City's fourth

Pep Guardiola could be satisfied in the end, but it was hard work for a while against Club Brugge. By half-time, Manchester City had been frustrated and pegged back after John Stones’ calamitous own goal cancelled out Phil Foden’s opener.

Charles de Ketelaere is being watched by Europe’s top clubs, and at the Etihad he passed his audition with flying colours, but in the end City’s collective superiority told.

  • Manchester City 4-1 Club Brugge – Match report
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats
  • Champions League fixtures | Results | Group tables

It was a slow start but City’s goalscoring machine then sprung into life with three unanswered goals meaning they pulled away in the end.

Kyle Walker spoke in the build-up to this Group A game, which places Guardiola’s side within a point of qualification, that City needed to their morale back up with the team ‘singing off the same hymn sheet’ following a dip in form.

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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola says Saturday’s match at Manchester United is ‘now the most important game ever’ after claiming their Champions League game against Club Brugge on Wednesday was the most important of the week.

The Carabao Cup penalty shootout exit and surprise home defeat to Crystal Palace were both banished ahead of the Manchester derby, and Guardiola will be pleased that his players came through unscathed heading into Saturday lunchtime showdown, live on Sky Sports.

  • How to watch Manchester derby: Free highlights straight after FT

City weren’t at their swashbuckling best, perhaps at 50 of 60 per cent, and while the defensive vulnerability that led to three Brugge shots on target in the opening period will give Manchester United confidence, this was without Ruben Dias who will return at the weekend.

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“The manager wasn’t happy at half-time and you have to take his advice,” Foden said. “He changed things and we were much better in the second half. Once we got our rhythm the chances started opening up.”

It was a much more rounded performance after the break, and City have now scored 15 goals after four Champions League matches this season, the most by an English side at this stage of a campaign since Arsenal scored 15 in four games in 2010/11. They can head to Old Trafford having rediscovered their mojo.
Ben Grounds

Ronaldo brilliance delays same old questions

Image: Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring his first goal against Atalanta

It feels like deja vu watching Manchester United and really, there’s nothing new to say about them. The holy grail 3-5-2 which helped them win at Tottenham on Saturday lasted barely half an hour at Atalanta, and already we’re back to square one. Again.

  • Atalanta 2-2 Manchester United – Match report
  • Merson: Ronaldo phenomenal but result papers over cracks
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats
  • Champions League fixtures | Results | Group tables

United lurch from high to low in such a consistent state of disarray that while Tuesday’s 2-2 draw in Bergamo ended somewhere in the middle, it still managed to raise the same old questions about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his team.

Defensively they were a mess and a total shadow of the side which denied Tottenham a single shot on target on Saturday, with individual performances so bad you have to question just how poor that Spurs side was.

The loss of Raphael Varane did not help in Italy but his absence did not force Harry Maguire into more of the sort of basic errors which have become worryingly commonplace since he was rushed back from injury last month, and ironically it was Eric Bailly – the man for whom he was brought back early to play ahead of – who far outshone him on the night.

Image: Man Utd are level on points with Villarreal

Gary Neville is probably sick of describing his old side of playing “in moments” in his Sky Sports analyses but that’s exactly how they scored both of their goals in an otherwise familiarly insipid performance.

Without the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo, whatever difficulties he may bring Solskjaer more generally, United would be in real trouble in Group F, and it needed two moments of magic from the striker to dig them out of a hole here, with the team performance still no closer to earning victory through any well-enacted gameplan.

  • How to watch Manchester derby: Free highlights straight after FT

Paul Pogba continues to flatter to deceive and was wasteful, even by his standards, against Atalanta before he was substituted by Solskjaer ahead of Scott McTominay, who had already been booked and was on a final warning from the referee. Perhaps the Frenchman is finally losing the patience of his manager, but why now? Why not the countless other times he has proven a liability?

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer compared Cristiano Ronaldo’s impact on Manchester United to that of NBA legend Michael Jordan at Chicago Bulls, after the forward rescued his side in their Champions League draw at Atalanta.

These are all issues which have dogged United for so long, and just as Solskjaer moves onto the next ‘new dawn’, the club are left wondering whether it is another false one instead.

It must be frustrating for Manchester United fans that it is these same questions which come up time after time. Even more of a concern will be that they still don’t appear closer to any kind of definitive answers.

Just as Liverpool showed how Ronaldo’s magic can only do so much, so could Europe’s elite prove the same if United do make it into the last 16.
Ron Walker

Loftus-Cheek embracing chance under Tuchel

Image: Ruben Loftus-Cheek was handed a start for Chelsea

Chelsea laboured at times during their 1-0 win at Malmo but it was a really big night for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, playing in a deeper role. There is a feeling he is slowly pushing himself into Thomas Tuchel’s side on a regular basis.

The 25-year-old was making his first Champions League start for six years and he provided Chelsea with an extra dimension in their midfield, precisely what he was brought in to do.

Image: Chelsea trail Juventus by three points

Indeed, this was only his fourth start of the season, but he saw plenty of the ball in midfield, creating three chances, completing seven dribbles, and winning 14 duels – nearly twice as many as any other player.

“I was a bit worried in the first 15 minutes that he could find another gear,” said Tuchel of Loftus-Cheek afterwards. “But it was symbolic for him that he did not stay invisible.

“He needs to use his full potential and if he does this he can be a big part of the squad. This is why I am happy. The next step is to show consistency and push himself because he has so much potential.”

In the 32nd minute, we saw his Chelsea career in microcosm as a sublime piece of skill to lift the ball over the head of Bonke Innocent to start an attack was followed up by a miscued pass from a simple throw-in.

  • Malmo 0-1 Chelsea – Match report
  • Tuchel challenges Loftus-Cheek to ‘use his full potential’
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

A lot of Tuchel’s squad have been out in the cold or out on loan at varying times of their career. Loftus-Cheek is the perfect example of that. During a fluctuating spell at Chelsea, his loan at a struggling Fulham last season suggested he was a long way off playing on this stage again.

But he showed the power, energy and drive which Jorginho and Matteo Kovacic don’t necessarily have. Crucially this season, the midfielder is managing to keep himself fit as in the past his body has broken down.

Image: Hakim Ziyech celebrates scoring for Chelsea

His last Chelsea goal was in a Europa League semi-final against Frankfurt in 2019, but it’s good to see him back challenging for those positions in midfield and Tuchel is aware of the player’s strengths as a good tactical option in either using three of two in this area.

Loftus-Cheek showed great guile on Tuesday but his end product was again lacking at times. That said, this was overall a positive night in which he showcased his ability and added to the belief he is embracing his opportunity under Tuchel.

He may not have taken the game by the scruff of its neck against Malmo, but more regular starts in the Premier League are in the offing. Having furthered his cause, he now has to produce the goods against more illustrious opposition.
Ben Grounds

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