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Is the tide turning against Wenger at Arsenal one final time?

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The Frenchman is struggling to win over some sections of the Gunners’ support, having seen his side drop from first to fifth in alarming fashion in recent weeks.

Arsenal may be in the FA Cup final but, as they prepare to face West Ham in a vital London derby in Tuesday night, there is a distinct, unwelcome air of uncertainty pervading the corridors of the Emirates Stadium.

Arsene Wenger has been offered a new contract by club yet, despite the deal laying on the table and terms having been agreed since October last year, it remains unsigned.

And, despite the irrefutable, legacy-sealing success of his early tenure in particular, many fans would rather that the Frenchman passed on the chance to stay, instead handing over the reins to somebody, anybody, else after another dismally frustrating season.

A skin-of-the-teeth penalty shootout victory over Wigan saw the Gunners into the cup final on Saturday and they now stand just 90 minutes away from ending that cursed nine-year trophy drought which has spawned spoof Twitter accounts and even its own website.

All that stands between them and glory is Steve Bruce’s humble Hull City, a team who sit 18 points behind the Gunners in the Premier League table and who lost 2-0 at the Emirates in December. ki

It seems straightforward but it may not be enough.

With the Gunners’ league form such that missing out on Champions League football appears a real danger, those who fear that Wenger has been left behind by the modern era, that his frugality in the transfer market continues to cost the league’s most cash-rich club dear, that his Midas touch has long since been lost, are an increasingly vocal unit within the club.

Lukas Podolski claims that missing out on the Champions League would be a “disaster” for the Gunners, even if they were to triumph at Wembley – and few fans disagree. Yet the selfies taken by the Gunners players following the penalty victory over Wigan suggests that they believe they are on the verge of something special.

Quite simply, they are not. Roy Keane offered a withering assessment of the pictures, brutally ripping into the players for celebrating their Wembley win in the manner they did, saying on ITV: “These Arsenal players need a reality check.

“Last season they celebrated finishing fourth and now they celebrate beating a Championship side on penalties – we are talking about Arsenal FC here.”

Yet this is the stage Arsenal have reached. A single trophy, for these players under Wenger, is a success. At Manchester United during Keane’s days, if it wasn’t the Premier League or the Champions League, it was a consolation. They were expected to win everything.

Arsenal are merely expected to finish fourth. On Wenger’s watch they have gone from serial winners to perennial also-rans.

Wenger, when he took over, was seen as a revolutionary. Dubbed ‘Le Professeur’, the bespectacled Frenchman ushered in a era of unprecedented success, winning three Premier League titles – one with the fabled ‘Invincibles’ – and four FA Cups. The north Londoners also went within a hair’s breadth of lifting Europe’s premier prize, though they were defeated by Barcelona in the Champions League final.

He also laid down the blueprint for the Arsenal of today, with young players preferred to big-money acquisitions and attacking, possession-based football preferred to the defensive style fostered beforehand. When he did dip his toe in the market, in the early years, he hit paydirt often – with the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires all becoming club legends.

Now he is regarded as frustratingly uncertain. He finally loosened the purse-strings last summer, with the £42.5 million signing of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid appearing to signal the start of a cash-laden re-emergence. ki

The season started brightly, with the German sparkling, but he, along with the team, soon burned out. Support was needed but only an injured Kim Kallstrom arrived in January.

Wenger has often been criticised for spending the club’s money as though it is his own. He is frugal to the point of being penny-pinching and has never been rushed into a deal. It has cost the Gunners dear.

His failure to sign a striker in January has seen the burden fall upon the shoulders of Olivier Giroud and, to a lesser extent, Yaya Sanogo – a free transfer in a summer where Gonzalo Higuain, Luis Suarez and Wayne Rooney were regarded as realistic targets. Neither have delivered since the transfer window shut, with Arsenal falling from the summit to fifth in alarmingly quick time.

They were thumped by fourth-placed Everton 3-0 at Goodison Park – a result even more damaging within the context of similar beatings at the hands of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City – and are in genuine danger of missing out on the Champions League. They simply must beat West Ham.

Gunners legend Pires believes that the uncertainty surrounding Wenger’s contract has transmitted to the players, telling Goal in March: “There is a little bit of confusion in the situation because normally he would have already signed the contract but maybe he can wait until the end of the season or the FA Cup [to announce it].

“I love Arsene Wenger but the situation for the players is maybe not good.”

It is one theory. Yet Wenger must surely sense the discontent currently engulfing the stands.

They are stuck in an identity crisis. Maybe the critics are right; Wenger stepping aside would allow Arsenal football club to find themselves once again. Yet that contract remains on the table. A win over Hull and a top-four finish would likely see it inked, with a trophy added to that threadbare cabinet in the Emirates Stadium trophy room.

It is far from certain, though, whether that version of events would benefit the club.

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Liverpool are favourites for the Premier League title and it seems every neutral is behind them… Here are our 10 reasons why

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Liverpool are favourites for the Premier League title and everyone, it seems, is rooting for the Reds.

Sunday’s 3-2 victory over Manchester City means they are now just four wins away from a first league crown in 24 years. Theirs would be a triumph celebrated beyond Merseyside. But why? Here, We examines 10 reasons why we’re loving the Red revolution…

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1) They are the underdogs, we love underdogs

During the infancy of their 10-match winning streak, Liverpool were as big as 25-1 for the title. That price, of course, has long gone and they are now the odds-on favourites to claim the crown.

As a nation we love underdogs and the Reds are flying our plucky-upstart flag.

 

2) Brendan is the British answer to Mourinho and Wenger

Jose Mourinho played for Sesimbra. Arsene Wenger ‘starred’ for FC Mulhouse. Brendan Rodgers, meanwhile, last turned out for Newbury Town. So much for the old footballing adage of not understanding the game if you haven’t played at the top level.

For so long Mourinho and Wenger have been celebrated as students of the game, and now us Brits have Rodgers. Having graduated through the youth academy at Chelsea and then impressing at Watford, Reading and Swansea, the Northern Irishman – still only 41, don’t forget – is every inch the modern manager; master tactician, motivator and innovator.

 

3) Super Suarez

He was the man we loved to loathe. Then we loathed to love him. Now we simply love to love him. Sunday’s histrionics apart, Luis Suarez’s transformation from villain to hero is on a par with David Beckham’s rehabilitation in the wake of France 98.

The Uruguayan doesn’t do form, he is form – a relentless, rampaging rascal who terrorises opposition rearguards but leaves the rest of us rejoicing in his devilry.

4) Captain Fantastic

There wasn’t a football fan in the country (City and Chelsea followers apart) who didn’t let rip with an armchair roar when Steven Gerrard delivered his post-match battle cry to his Liverpool team-mates.

This was the raw, spine-tingling emotion for so long forgotten amid the modern-day hyperbole of our national sport. Gerrard has always been the most popular of the ‘Golden Generation’ and few would begrudge this one-club man a title win.

 

5) Twenty-five years on from Hillsborough

Kenny Dalglish does not want supporters to place too much emphasis on the 25-year anniversary of Hillsborough and Liverpool’s title quest – justice for the 96 victims will be played out in the courts, not on a football field.

Nonetheless, were the Reds to emerge victorious, the poignancy and timing of their success would not be lost on any football fan.

6) Six Lions.

 

7) They’ve wandered through the Premier League wilderness for long enough

Traditionally, Liverpool are the club we love to hate – success has a habit of triggering such contempt, or should that read jealousy? For through the Seventies and Eighties the Kop idols were king, dominating the domestic and European landscape.

But since their last league triumph in 1990, others have come to the fore to take residence of that malice-laden mantle. That being the case, the level of resentment towards the Reds has subsided in recent years and their re-emergence has been a welcome one.

 

8) The Entertainers

Nothing excites supporters more than a team which breaks at speed, for there is no sight more satisfying than a swift counter-attack being climaxed with a goal.

To that end, Liverpool are the most mesmerising side in the country right now and a title would be just reward for their endeavour.

 

9) We’re nuts for the Brazilian

No, not Lucas. Philippe Coutinho. We all assumed the Inter Milan reject was too lightweight for the rigours of the English top flight when he landed on these shores in January of last year.

How wrong we were, for his cunning, creation and trickery have more than compensated for his slight of frame. At just 21 years old his best years are still ahead of him, let us hope they are in the Premier League.

 

10) Hope for the rest of us

Should they prevail, Liverpool will be the first side in Premier League history to come from a finish as low as seventh to lift the championship. And that gives everyone else a little bit of hope; belief that the monopoly can be broken.

They are proof that canny management, team spirit and shrewd investment can pay dividends. Their victory, then, would be a victory for us all.

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Messi can’t be bothered, Xavi’s too weak and they’re a shambles at the back. What the hell is going on at Barcelona?

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Earlier this season Barcelona were knocked off the top of La Liga for the first time in 59 consecutive matchdays by Atletico Madrid.

And on Wednesday night the same team turfed them out of the Champions League, with a surprisingly comfortable victory at the Vicente Calderon.

Barcelona will point to their astonishing 79 per cent possession but when it came down to clear cut opportunities, Diego Simeone’s side prevailed.ki

They hit the woodwork on several occasions, rarely looked like letting the Blaugrana in, and rightfully claimed their place in the semi-finals.

Bayern Munich brutally exposed the Catalan giants last season, with a 7-0 aggregate victory and it heralded the start of a new era in football.

For many years, Barcelona had been the model to which other clubs have aspired; they had a style and panache that seemed virtually impossible to counter.

A few teams managed it on occasion, Chelsea, for example, scraping through at the Nou Camp in 2012.

But Barcelona’s thrashing at the hands of Bayern should have been a wake-up call, a sign that something was rotten.

However, instead of using it – as well as the unfortunate and sad cancer diagnosis of coach Tito Vilanova – as a chance to refresh the football philosophy and structure of the side, they stuck to their guns.

 

Barcelona’s big-money purchase of Neymar was essentially the club showing they backed themselves to continue along the same path.

That money could have been spent in numerous other places to modernise the side and make them competitive against Europe’s elite.

The Brazilian has done Barcelona more harm than good this season, if you take into account the furore caused by his transfer.

On the pitch he has sparkled infrequently, with his finishing, composure and overall influence on games all lacking.

He looks a better player when he takes to the pitch with Brazil; perhaps Neymar needs to be the main man to gain confidence and flourish.

A team with Messi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets is never going to be a bad one, but pummeling La Liga’s lesser lights week in, week out isn’t enough for Barcelona supporters.ki

Bringing in Tata Martino as manager was another nod to their familiar style; the coach has not tried to change much with the exception of the introduction of longer diagonal passes.

He doesn’t have the personality and ability to inspire that, say, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone have.

Nor the long history of success and ability to handle superstars that the other manager of this year’s Champions League semi-finalists, Carlo Ancelotti, has.

Martino made some strange decisions on Wednesday night, like starting Messi on the right and playing Cesc Fabregas as a ‘false nine’.

Messi had not scored in his last five games against Atletico and Martino wanted to tweak the system.

But the Argentine was toothless and Fabregas was aimless, meaning Barcelona offered little attacking punch.

Martino also took off Iniesta, citing ‘fatigue’ in his post-match press conference.

But the Spaniard has been the club’s best player for the past few months and if there was ever a time to keep him on the pitch to unlock a tough defence, this was it.

Messi has never been a player who runs his heart out for the team but his total of 6.8km against Atletico was appalling, just 1.5km further than goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto.ki

Some suspect the forward has been trying to save himself from burnout, so he can finally impress for Argentina at the World Cup.

Messi and his countrymen will be relishing the chance to lift football’s most prestigious trophy in Brazil, Argentina’s great rivals.

In the last few weeks, Messi has been playing well, but not exerting himself particularly. Even in the Clasico, where he scored a hat-trick, it was moments of genius rather than an inspiring display.

The aforementioned Fabregas is another problem. He doesn’t seem to have a position at Barcelona – a jack of all trades and master of none.

It is scarcely believable that this is the same player who was dominating games in the Premier League with Arsenal, because now he looks lost on the pitch.

They also need more power in the centre. Xavi is still a technically adroit pass-master, but physically only Busquets is up to the job and demands of modern football.

The best teams in Europe put together a combination of exquisite technical ability and super-human physicality and Barcelona have all their stock invested in the former.

Not since Yaya Toure reigned supreme at the Nou Camp have they had enough force and dynamism through the middle.

And defensively, they are a shambles. With Dani Alves and Jordi Alba bombarding forward, it puts a lot of stress on the centre backs.

Javier Mascherano, converted from midfield, is not tall enough. Gerard Pique seems to have lost his way and is a decent defender but could have been so much more.

Marc Bartra is talented but inexperienced and Carles Puyol is quitting the club at the end of the season.

They could yet finish the season as La Liga champions, vying with Atletico and Real Madrid for the trophy – but it would only paper over the cracks.

There are a lot of problems at Barcelona and if FIFA’s two-window transfer ban is upheld after the club’s appeal, we will have a Catalan crisis on our hands.

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Five games, zero goals – how has Simeone stopped Messi?

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With Barcelona needing to score at the Calderon on Wednesday to stay in the Champions League, Goal takes a look at how their best player has been nullified by the Rojiblancos.

How do you stop Lionel Messi? Coaches all over the world have thought long and hard in an attempt to discover an antidote to the Argentine’s brilliance, but very few have managed it. Thwarting the four-time Ballon d’Or winner is almost impossible, it seems, yet one man has done it five times in a row. ki

Diego Simeone has had some fortune on his side during that time, but the Argentine’s remarkable record against his compatriot is much more than just luck and certainly no coincidence. So how has he done it?

Messi made hay against Atletico for many a year, netting 20 goals in his first 14 fixtures versus the Madrid side. But since Simeone’s arrival, he has found himself halted and is now without a goal in his last five games against the Rojiblancos: 341 minutes in total.

The first of those was a 2-1 win for Barca at the Calderon in La Liga last season. Messi started, but barely threatened. One defence-splitting pass almost let in Cristian Tello, but Diego Godin was alert to cut out the danger, while Messi also sent a free kick straight at Thibaut Courtois before suffering a recurrence of his thigh problem and departing after 67 minutes. In his absence, Barca actually improved and turned the game around with only 10 men on the pitch as Alexis Sanchez levelled and Gabi scored an own goal.

The teams’ next meeting was in the Spanish Supercopa, also at the Calderon. And as in the previous match, Messi was forced off with an injury – this time at the interval. While on the pitch, the Argentine played one clever pass through to Pedro and also fired a shot wide from the edge of the area. But that was about it. Neymar cancelled out David Villa’s opener in the second half as the game ended 1-1.

Eight days later, Barca and Atleti met again at Camp Nou and Messi made a return to the starting XI. The Argentine began brilliantly and was denied by Courtois early on after latching onto a pass from Sergio Busquets. But the 26-year-old was caught up in a physical battle and complained to the referee at half-time. Less impressive in the second period, Messi was unable to find a way through even after Filipe Luis was sent off and also blasted a late penalty against the bar. The game ended goalless, but Barca won the Supercopa thanks to Neymar’s away strike in Madrid.

In January, Simeone’s side then frustrated Barca once again in another goalless game at the Calderon. Messi, recently recovered from the thigh injury which had seen him sidelined for most of November and December, was left on the bench by Gerardo Martino and introduced at half-time in place of Andres Iniesta. Productive in his 45-minute cameo, Leo left empty-handed in large part due to Courtois. The Belgian goalkeeper deflected one dangerous cross out for a corner and made a stunning save to repel a left-footed drive late on. Messi also headed wide and sent one precise pass through to Cesc Fabregas, who was quickly crowded out by Godin, Joao Miranda and Filipe Luis.

And in last week’s Champions League quarter-final first leg at Camp Nou, the forward could consider himself unlucky as he was frustrated again by Atletico and, in particular, Courtois. The Belgian brilliantly saved a first-half header from the Argentine and produced a stunning stop late in the game to keep out a goalbound free kick from the 26-year-old. Earlier on, Godin had timed a block to perfection after Messi found Iniesta all alone in the area, with the Spain midfielder looking odds on to score.

 

hose moments, however, are few and far between against Atleti. Simeone’s side have played all five games with the same back four – Godin, Miranda, Filipe Luis and Juanfran – and the quartet have developed an almost telepathic understanding.

“Simeone has got the players playing with such commitment – he has made the team much stronger,” former Atleti player and youth coach Quique Estebaranz told Goal. “The defence is a very strong unit and that comes through hard work. Simeone, with the way he manages the dressing room, has got these players fired up and playing for each other – that’s their big secret.”

Defending deep with discipline, organisation, maximum commitment, courage and, when necessary, foul play, the back four are supported by a midfield that squeezes the spaces between the two lines to minimise the through-balls and defence-splitting passes made in La Masia.ki

“Pressing from midfield is important,” Estebaranz added. “They work extremely hard to close the spaces available to Messi. It’s not just the defence, but a team effort with help from the midfielders to drop into those spaces and crowd him out.”

Messi is therefore forced to drop deep or out wide to look for the ball and here his participation is automatically reduced. The Barca midfield, meanwhile, is made to resort to sideways passes or more speculative searching balls which are often mopped up comfortably by the Atleti defence.

And if all else fails, there is a last line of defence in the commanding figure of Courtois. “He is enjoying a fantastic moment,” Estebaranz enthused. “He has been in wonderful form for two or three years now and he makes such a big difference to this team – let’s hope he can stay much longer at Atletico.”

Barca have long looked less comfortable against defensive sides and never relish a physical battle. Atletico, in the image of Simeone as a player, are ultra-competitive, extremely fit, hugely passionate and sometimes cynical, stretching the rules to the limit in order to stop rival teams.

“Teamwork is the key,” former Atletico forward Veljko Paunovic told Goal. “Inside Atletico, things are working well and that’s evident. It’s the fruit of hard work, planning and organisation over the last few years. Simeone is a great leader in charge of a great project.”

He did warn his former club, however, that concentrating on Messi could hand opportunities to others, such as Neymar, who has scored both of Barca’s goals against the capital club this term. “Messi hasn’t been able to score because Atleti’s defenders have been on top of him,” he said. “But that reduces pressure and leaves spaces in other areas of the pitch for other Barcelona players to create dangerous situations and score – as Neymar has done.”

So what will happen this time? “It’s exciting to see what technical and tactical strategies both coaches come up with,” Paunovic added, while Estebaranz said: “I’m expecting more of the same: a tight game just like the previous four. It’s a clash of styles and it will be an incredible battle.”

This time, though, with a place in the Champions League semi-finals at stake, one of the Argentines will have the last laugh. So will it be Simeone or will it be Messi? The game of chess continues.

 

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Debate: Zlatan Ibrahimovic – genius or overrated?

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The giant Swede has an unbeatable domestic record but has for a long time split opinion due to a lack of European success. So just how good is the former AC Milan man?

There are few more colourful characters in the game than Paris Saint-Germain forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In fact, possibly the only individual who can match the Swede when it comes to self-confidence and charisma is his former coach at Inter, Jose Mourinho.

On Wednesday evening the pair will come face to face as Mourinho’s Chelsea travel to France to play PSG in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.

The headlines prior to the match have been dominated by Ibrahimovic and one of football’s most discussed topics over the past six or seven years has been just how good the 32-year-old really is.

Domestically, Ibrahimovic has enjoyed unparallelled success during spells at Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, AC Milan and now PSG but his detractors say that his failure to conquer the Champions League means that he should not be compared to the greats of the game. ki

Is Ibrahimovic a genius, or is he overrated? Goal‘s Robin Bairner and John Baines go head to head over the issue.

“IBRA IS THE MOST MERCURIAL PLAYER ON THE PLANET”

That Zlatan Ibrahimovic should be considered one of the outstanding players of this generation is unquestionable.

The Swede has collected a litany of honours that few players in world football can match, famously winning eight domestic league crowns in succession with four different clubs. It is no coincidence that such success has followed the most mercurial and exciting player on the planet.

Nevertheless, the Swede bizarrely still has to answer an ailing band of critics, who would dismiss Ligue 1 as being a level barely worthy of note. Without wishing to extol the virtues of Le Championnat too much, this simply is not the case.

If Radamel Falcao, for instance, thought that France was going to be an easy touch fresh from scoring at close to a goal-a-game for Atletico Madrid, he was sorely mistaken as he struggled to register one in two for Monaco before serious injury destroyed his campaign.

Ibra had no such teething problems in France, blasting 30 league goals in his first term to match the strike rate that he had achieved the previous season in Serie A with Milan.

Even at 32, the Swede continues to imrpove his game. His 40 goals this season have been even more impressive than last – and this has been achieved despite being a stronger, more mature team player. On a developmental level, it is arguably his crowning glory.

This is brought into sharper focus by his impressive contribution with the national team. Sweden’s level on an international basis is moderate yet Ibra is just a touch under a goal a game when playing for his country.

His form with Sweden obliterates any notion that he is a flat-track bully.

Zlatan has scored 20 times in 19 international appearances since the beginning of 2012. Amongst the sides against whom he has registered in that period are World Cup qualifiers Croatia, France, Germany, England and Portugal – hardly evidence of someone who thrives against ‘weak’ opponents. ki

Any way it is looked at, Ibrahimovic’s record is phenomenal – and, remarkably it is getting better. To suggest that he is overrated is disrespectful. It is naive. It is simply preposterous.

“A BULLY WHO FAILS TO DELIVER WHEN IT MATTERS MOST”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s domestic haul of 10 league titles (although the two won with Juventus were later revoked) accrued in the past 12 seasons in four different countries is unparalleled. As a gun for hire, the Swedish striker comes fully loaded with an arsenal of ammunition and unerring accuracy.

Yet despite this serial accumulation of winners medals, there is an obvious void in his CV as far as the Champions League is concerned – an arena where prominent players are supposed to come to the fore rather than submerge into the shadows.

An overall record of 43 goals in 102 games in Europe’s premier club competition is good but not great and a tally of just seven strikes in 32 knockout ties is appalling for a man of his purported brilliance.

But assertions made on purely a statistical basis are often unwise. Instead it is his performances in such games of importance which continue to fuel the notion that he is nothing more than a bully who fails to deliver when pressure and expectation is at its maximum.

Zlatan sceptics can point to a catalogue of anonymous and anaemic displays as the norm rather than the exception, with definitive moments against the elite few and far between.

If Ibrahimovic really is as good as many suggest, why does he so often come up short when it matters most – when the hallowed few are supposed to make the difference, when the best should elevate and inspire the rest instead of going down solemnly with the ship?

At Inter his hat-trick of Scudetti were attained with Serie A on its knees after Calciopoli but the man who dominated Italian football looked weak, passive, overawed and overhyped on the continent.

His sole indifferent season at Barcelona again left many unanswered questions about his credentials and, once back in Italy with Milan, an outstanding debut campaign and another league title was tarnished by vacant offerings in Europe.

Currently in a Paris Saint-Germain side empowered with riches and resources well beyond the rest of its competitors, his prolific output creates constant acclaim but until he has addressed those no-shows against Valencia, Liverpool, Manchester United, Inter and Tottenham, Ibrahimovic cannot be classed as one of the great players of his generation.

 

 

 

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Rooney vs Mandzukic, Fellaini vs Schweinsteiger, Smalling vs Lahm, Robben vs Giggs… How the players match up in Man United vs Bayern showdown

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It couldn’t have been any tougher for David Moyes and his faltering Manchester United team.

Of course there are no easy draws in the quarter-finals of the Champions League – it is the blue riband event of European club football after all – but there is no greater challenge in world football at the moment than Bayern Munich.

The Bavarians are relentless in their pursuit of an unprecedented ‘double Treble’ and already have one trophy safely under lock and key.

Off the back of a 53-match unbeaten sequence, Bayern wrapped up the Bundesliga title last week – the earliest it has even been mathematically secured.

They are in the semi-finals of the German Cup and equally focused on retaining the Champions League crown they won at Wembley last May.

So can United defy the odds and destroy the ambitions of Pep Guardiola’s men?

Ahead of Tuesday night’s first leg at Old Trafford, we rate all the players in the likely line-ups.
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Manchester United (4-3-2-1): De Gea; Smalling, Vidic, Jones, Buttner; Carrick, Fellaini, Giggs; Valencia, Welbeck; Rooney
David De Gea 8.5/10

In a season when so many Manchester United players have underperformed, the same accusation can’t be levelled at David De Gea. The young Spanish goalkeeper regularly excels with point-blank and reflex saves, keeping United in contention in many games. He is maturing into a fine keeper and should be No 1 at Old Trafford for many years to come.

Chris Smalling 6/10

The man charged with keeping Franck Ribery at bay, Smalling will have to produce the best performance of his career. He has been culpable for too many goals this season with his poor positioning and lightweight tackling, with serious doubt cast on his long-term place in the United team. His versatility to play right across the back line does count in his favour in the eyes of Moyes, however.
Nemanja Vidic 7/10

These ties could be Vidic’s last for United in Europe and the Serbian warrior does not deserve to depart for his new challenge at Inter Milan off the back of a hiding. But the 32-year-old could struggle against the pace and improvisation of Bayern’s forward line, though his leadership will prove crucial in organising the troops against the onslaught.

Phil Jones 6/10

Another United man who will need to have the performance of his life is Jones, who has struggled against some of the better attacks this season. He will need to be inch-perfect with his positioning to keep Mandzukic and co at bay, as well as dominant in the aerial duties.
Alexander Buttner 5/10

It’s fair to say that Buttner did not expect to be facing the might of Bayern Munich this week, but Patrice Evra’s unfortunate suspension will press the inexperienced left-back into action. The Dutchman has only made 24 appearances for United but hopefully his intimacy with Dutch football will mean an in-depth knowledge of all Robben’s flicks and tricks.
Michael Carrick 6.5/10

Carrick has been exceptional over the last couple of seasons, finally growing into his destined role as heir to Paul Scholes. Struggling with an Achilles problem, he hasn’t reached the same standards this term but is absolutely crucial to United’s cause here. He must marshall the midfield and disrupt the supply lines to shield the back four, otherwise there’s a real danger United will be over-run.

Marouane Fellaini 5/10

Hardly the greatest debut season for the Belgian, who has struggled to come up to expectations. So far, the deadline day move last summer has represented good business only for Everton, who coined in £28.5m. Languid and featherlight in the tackle during too many big games this season, he has been roundly criticised by United fans and needs to step up.
Ryan Giggs 6/10

Evergreen Giggs rolled back the year to guide United past Olympiacos in the last round and it’s astonishing that United rely on the 40-year-old so heavily in European games. Still, it’s the lead part he was born to play and the Welshman will give body and soul to make sure his team are not embarrassed. Could there be time for one last, great Giggs performance in the Champions League?

Antonio Valencia 6.5/10

Valencia has been one of United’s better midfielders during this sub-par season and his superior crossing abilities have been noted by Moyes, who plays him in most matches and especially in Europe. With Bayern’s wing-backs keen to get forward, moving the ball swiftly to Valencia in behind could prove profitable for United if his deliveries are sharp.
Danny Welbeck 7/10

Moyes has succeeded where Sir Alex Ferguson stumbled and got some good form out of Welbeck at times this season. He has contributed 10 goals and five assists, yet is all-too-often left out for two or three games at a time. Welbeck came up with a crucial away goal in the Bernabeu when United played Real Madrid last season and so can perform on the biggest stage. Can he do it again?
Wayne Rooney 9/10

If United are to surprise everyone and eliminate Bayern, then Wayne Rooney is key. With his future at Old Trafford once again settled, he is in a purple patch once again, scoring 17 goals for United this season and chipping in with an incredible 21 assists. In the absence of the injured Robin van Persie, it is all down to the England star. He’s not one to shirk a challenge and he is perhaps the only man to genuinely unnerve the Bayern defence.

Bayern (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Lahm, Martinez, Boateng, Alaba; Schweinsteiger, Kroos; Robben, Gotze, Ribery; Mandzukic

Manuel Neuer 8.5/10

Neuer has been a virtual spectator in so many games during Bayern’s incredible unbeaten run, making it all the more remarkable when he pulls off an athletic save. Germany’s No 1 is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment.
Philipp Lahm 7.5/10

Every successful team needs an inspirational leader and, at Bayern, that man is skipper Lahm. He is capable of initiating attacks but his defensive solidity helps ensure the German champions keep clean sheets on a regular basis. Pep Guardiola sometimes deploys him as a defensive midfielder too and Lahm has adapted to the challenges of that new position with ease.

Javi Martinez 7/10

The Spaniard’s role has changed this season, with Guardiola stripping away a lot of the forward-thinking freedom he enjoyed under Jupp Heynckes. Instead of lining up in defensive midfield, Martinez can now more often be found dropping deep to assist the centre-backs and, at Old Trafford, he will likely line-up alongside Boateng in that defensive role. Whatever the posting, though, Martinez always impresses with his intelligent reading of the game and ability to find the right pass.

Jerome Boateng 7.5/10

Boateng is the ball-playing half of the central defensive duo he usually forms with Dante, his turn of pace meaning he is seldom beaten in a foot race with an attacker. At Old Trafford, he will be without his usually defensive partner but will still be incredibly tough for Wayne Rooney and co to break down.
David Alaba 8/10

Left-back Alaba and Frank Ribery have formed a formidable partnership down the flank. While the Austrian gets forward tirelessly in support of the French star, he also rarely leaves any space behind him like many other attacking full-backs.

Bastian Schweinsteiger 7/10

Schweinsteiger had his season interrupted by injury, meaning he was absent between November and February, but he has returned to the same consistent level since coming back into the side. The vital link between defence and attack, Schweinsteiger will relish the battle against Ryan Giggs, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick.
Toni Kroos 8/10

Guardiola has given him a slightly deeper role in midfield – and it has been revolutionary in his performances. He has thrived in Bayern’s total possession mentality – borne from their manager – and has adapted his game well. Little wonder United are keen to sign him.

Arjen Robben 9/10

There have been plenty of sneers about his greed on the ball and blatant diving, not least after the last 16 tie with Arsenal, but Robben just shrugs off the criticism to scale ever greater heights. He is the wrong side of 30 yet is still Bayern’s dynamo. He has 19 goals and 13 assists to his credit for club and country Holland this season and figuring out how to stop his passing, shots and cutting inside is a top priority for Moyes.

Mario Gotze 9/10

The most expensive German footballer of all time when he defected from Borussia Dortmund last summer, Gotze has adapted seamlessly to life under Guardiola at Bayern. The new boss has fully made use of his marvellous talent and he has been repaid with 13 goals and 10 assists. His myriad qualities are well known, from picking the killer pass through an apparently locked back-line to applying a deadly finishing touch.
Franck Ribery 9/10

Although he has been so often compared to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo after they went head-to-head for the Ballon d’Or award, he plays a slightly different role to them. As well as his obvious attacking threat, he is a hard-worker who is often found tracking back with a far more defensive mentality. A team player who brings other people into the game.
Mario Mandzukic 8/10

Bayern’s forward line have certainly been inventive this season and Mandzukic has benefited. He has 22 club goals to his name so far and also nine assists, combining lethal finishing and creativity. He does know that with the imminent arrival of Robert Lewandowski in the summer, his days may be numbered at the Allianz Arena – and the Premier League could await – but he can definitely go out on a high if he keep going the way he is.
BAYERN MUNICH TOTAL: 88.5/110

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