According to multiple reports across England, including the BBC, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is ready to leave Paul Pogba out of his starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Sevilla despite utilizing a 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders.
The reports state that Pogba will be left on the bench in favor of youngster Scott McTominay, who will start alongside Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Mourinho has spoken highly of McTominay recently, saying three days ago, “I think Scott deserves more than what he is getting.”
“Maybe it’s because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid, arrive in the club when he was nine or 10,” Mourinho said in what many perceived to be a thinly veiled slap at Pogba.
Mourinho has held back from publicly criticizing his $125 million midfielder in the media, but his actions on the field suggest otherwise. The 24-year-old has failed to record 90 minutes in three straight Premier League matches, seeing his manager yank him before the full-time whistle in two and failing to make the starting lineup in the other, leaving many to speculate a rift between the two.
The decision is especially surprising given Juan Mata‘s comments earlier Wednesday that suggested Manchester United is prioritizing the Champions League, given their 16-point deficit to Manchester City in the Premier League table.
Pogba missed the 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness, but it’s hard to imagine that four days later that keeps the French superstar on the bench, especially given his ability to make the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad.
And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.
So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?
Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.
Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.
However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.
Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.
Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.
Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.
It was the final step of the process though that now has Antonio Conte‘s side eagerly (and probably angrily) awaiting their opponent in the Round of 16.
The truth is, there’s nobody to blame but themselves for finishing second in Group C, despite being level on 11 points with winners AS Roma from Serie A.
Tuesday’s 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid was just another reminder of Chelsea’s inconsistent play in their 2017/18 campaign, particularly in the UCL.
The Blues had their Spanish opposition on the back foot for much of the match, with Atleti goalkeeper Jan Oblak forced to make seven saves on the day at Stamford Bridge. Conte’s group couldn’t find a decisive second goal though, in spite of their countless chances created, which now leaves the defending Premier League champions in a precarious position ahead of the Round of 16.
Chelsea’s inconsistency goes beyond just one match, though. Outside of the team’s 6-0 opening match victory over Qarabag — who never realistically had a shot at advancing — the Blues had to grind out results just to advance.
Conte’s men squandered a two-goal lead over Roma on Matchday 3, before ultimately settling for a 3-3 tie in that match. Then, the return leg against the Serie A giants proved to be even more costly as Chelsea received a 3-0 thumping at the Stadio Olimpico.
Take away the 10 goals the London scored in two matches against Qarabag (no disrespect), and that leaves you with six goals in three games because of the one Roma shutout.
Coming from a squad that boasts elite frontline talents like Alvaro Morata, Eden Hazard, Willian and others, that’s a stat line that doesn’t bode well for Chelsea as they head into the knockout round, where clubs are only going to get more and more challenging.
The rules are fairly simply for how the first knockout round draw will go. No team from the same country or group can be drawn against one another, which means Manchester United, Tottenham, Manchester City and potentially Liverpool are all hands off for the Blues, along with Roma.
Also, group winners from the group stage can only face runners’ up, which eliminates half the field immediately in terms of which clubs can face on another.
With those five clubs (assuming Liverpool takes care of business on Wednesday) excluded from Chelsea’s path in the first knockout phase, that leaves most likely three other clubs that the Blues could face in the Round of 16.
Let me explain.
Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Besiktas are all non-Premier League clubs and weren’t in Group C for the group stage. If a team other than Liverpool ends up winning Group E on Wednesday, then that could potentially open the door for a fourth team Chelsea could take on.
Assuming those three previously mentioned are in fact the ones available for selection though, the Blues may want to close their eyes during the draw.
Despite PSG’s recent slip-ups, the club has lost just two matches all season in competitions, while Spanish giants Barcelona look as good as ever. Lionel Messi and Co. haven’t lost a competitive match since August, when the Blaugrana dropped back-to-back games to rivals Real Madrid.
Besiktas would be the most-favorable team for Chelsea to take on (if they had a choice), but even the Turkish champions will be a tough out given their hostile home pitch and striker duo of Alvaro Negredo and Cenk Tosun.
Elsewhere, PSG dropped its second consecutive match in all competitions, falling to Bayern Munich in Germany, 3-1. However, the result wasn’t enough for the Parisians to surrender their top spot in Group B. Both sides have advanced to the knockout round, and could potentially be paired against one another in the Round of 16.
Manchester United 2-1 CSKA Moscow
Benfica 0-2 Basel
1. Man United — 15 pts (Advanced) 2. Basel — 12 pts (Advanced)
3. CSKA — 9 pts (Europa League transfer)
4. Benfica — 0 pts