2018-19 UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Preview — Valencia (1-2-2, 5, -1) vs. x-Manchester United (3-1-1, 10, +4)

Rotation is the watchword for Manchester United heading into their final Group H Champions League match Wednesday at Valencia as Jose Mourinho’s already-through side are content to hold their runners-up spot versus a Tarongues club who have already assured themselves passage to the Europa League.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Technically, Manchester United can finish atop Group H with a victory and a loss by Juventus, but since the Italian side are hosting Young Boys in their group finale, there is little belief the last-place Swiss club can pull off what would be the biggest shock of Champions League group play.

United come into this match in good spirits for a change, having properly walloped a last-place Fulham side 4-1 Saturday in their last Premier League match. Marcus Rashford continued his stellar run of playmaking, setting up goals by Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata in the first half-hour before adding a strike of his own on 82 minutes.

Ashley Young scored the other goal for the Red Devils, who are unbeaten in five (2-3-0) in all competitions and have lost just once in their last nine (5-3-1). Though there is nothing to play for, Mourinho has opted to bring just two academy players to Spain as he feels his senior players are deserving of playing time for this match.

“The kids won’t start the match. (James) Garner will be on the bench, and Mason (Greenwood) is the protection player, in case we have any injuries,” Mourinho said at his Tuesday news conference. “We have players that need to play; we have players that deserve to play so, in spite of leaving a few players in Manchester, we are going to play with a team only with players from the first team.”

One senior player getting the start will be Paul Pogba, who was an unused substitute versus Fulham and played just 15 minutes in the 2-2 draw versus Arsenal in the previous match. While things have been tense between manager and star throughout the season, Mourinho placed little expectations upon the France international for this match beyond a professional performance.

“I’m looking for him to play well, and to have a good impact in the game and in the team,” Mourinho said.  “[It will be] a team with many players that don’t have many miles in their legs, a team with some players that are not playing a lot.

“So I hope that people like Paul and a couple of others that are normally in the team, who have the number of miles that players need to be at that top level, I hope that they can have a good impact on the team.”

Mourinho will again have a makeshift backline of sorts as Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw did not practice, and Diogo Dalot — who responded well to the pressure of his first two Premier League starts — also is nursing an injury, as is Matteo Darmian. Centre back Victor Lindelof remains a longer-term absentee with a hamstring injury.

Up front, Anthony Martial also did not train Tuesday, and Alexis Sanchez is also sidelined with a hamstring injury. After back-to-back starts for the first time this season, Jesse Lingard will likely be among the reserves.

Valencia are also expected to be without a slew of first-choice starters with nothing at stake, as coach Marcelino already has an eye on his club’s league match against Eibar this weekend. The Tarongues are 15th in the La Liga table, just four points above the drop but also only six out of fifth place.

“I am as strong, convinced and excited as I was on my first day here, if not more. But obviously when you do not win you cannot be so happy, it would be irresponsible if there was no self-assessment. The word surrender is not in my vocabulary. I’m not going to give up,” Marcelino explained about his priorities for this match.

“This is a game we did not want to play, with hopes of qualifying over. Having sealed a place in the UEFA Europa League, and given our Liga situation, the priority has to be the match against Eibar [on Saturday]. At the same time, it’s a Champions League match and they are never meaningless.”

One change will be enforced as defender Jose Luis Gaya is out through suspension. Striker Kevin Gameiro and Jeison Murillo are not expected to play due to injuries, while Goncalo Guedes and Gabriel Paulista are also being held out ahead of league play.

Valencia have been starved offensively for goals in Champions League — the only team they have scored upon in their last eight matches was Young Boys in this term’s group play. Los Che have also lost four of their last six home matches in Champions League.

These teams are no strangers to Champions League play as this will be their eighth meeting. United are 2-5-0 in the previous seven, and goals have been at a premium throughout this rivalry. There have been just five goals combined in the last six matchups, with a scoreless draw on Match Day 2 at Old Trafford.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Valencia are slight 8/5 favourites to pull out a victory in this dead rubber, while United have 19/10 odds to claim all three points. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 12/5.

Given the teams played to a scoreless draw at Old Trafford coupled with there being nothing at stake, oddsmakers are split on whether there will be goals in this match. There are 10/11 odds on either side of the 2.5 goals threshold, with even money on at least one team recording a clean sheet compared to 3/4 odds on both teams scoring.

Continuing the split decisions up and down the toteboard for this match, Valencia’s Gameiro and Lukaku are joint-top options for the first goal-scorer at 11/2, with Martial and one-time Chelsea forward Michy Batshuayi joint-third at 6/1. Santi Mina, who has two of Valencia’s four goals in group play, has 13/2 odds, edging out teammate Moreno Rodrigo and the United duo of Rashford and Pogba.

Gameiro and Lukaku also lead the line for any-time goal-scorers at 7/4, followed by Martial and Batshuayi at 2/1. Santi Mina is 21/10, trailed by the same Rodrigo, Rashford and Pogba trio — all of whom are 9/4. Valencia’s Manuel Goncalo Guedes has 11/4 odds, followed by Dani Parejo at 3/1 and Lingard at 10/3.

PREDICTION

If a tree falls at the Mestalla and no one scores a goal, did it really happen? There is little in the way of expectations for this match, though all eyes will be on Pogba as he gets his first start since United’s 2-2 draw at Southampton in which the France international was lifted before the hour. After that match, word got out regarding another disagreement, albeit a calm one, between Mourinho and Pogba.

That said, having Rashford on his side makes for an intriguing examination to see if the forward’s pace is something Pogba can use to help create offence. That McTominay and not Marouane Fellaini is expected to anchor the central midfield is an added layer of intrigue since McTominay has struggled for first-team playing time for most of the season.

It also would have been interesting to see Dalot play after his impressive showings at right back versus both Arsenal and Fulham. After such a dour reverse fixture, it would not be surprising if the sides played to another scoreless draw, but the hunch here is United have too much firepower to bring in the final half-hour for that scoreline to repeat itself.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Valencia 0, Manchester United 1.

OTHER UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Previews:

y-Barcelona (4-1-0, 13, +9) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (2-1-2, 7, -1)
Liverpool (2-0-3, 6, +1) vs. Napoli (2-3-0, 9, +3)
x-Manchester City (3-1-1, 10, +9) vs. Hoffenheim 1899 (0-3-2, 3, -2)

2018-19 UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Preview — x-Manchester City (3-1-1, 10, +9) vs. Hoffenheim 1899 (0-3-2, 3, -2)

Manchester City need just a draw in Wednesday’s Champions League finale to finish atop Group F, something that is not expected to be too demanding as they face group-bottom Hoffenheim 1899.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The reigning Premier League champions, though, are coming off their first loss in domestic play, a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea on Saturday that ended a 16-match unbeaten streak in all competitions (14-2-0). It was also just the second time Manchester City were held without a goal, the other coming in a scoreless draw at Anfield versus Liverpool.

Even playing without injured striker Sergio Aguero and still without top playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, City still looked the better side as Raheem Sterling was inserted between Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez as a false nine. Yet the Citizens were caught out on a counter over the top, finished by N’Golo Kante just before halftime, and they were consigned to a defeat when David Luiz added a second 12 minutes from time.

For all of City’s imperious displays this term, the loss also showed the fine line they are walking because the loss also dropped them behind Liverpool in the Premier League table.

“We still have a target against Hoffenheim to win the game and finish top,” Sane told City’s official website. “We want to finish first and hopefully look good for the Round of 16 draw – it’s important we win and end the group stage strongly.

“Even more so because we lost at Chelsea on Saturday and didn’t start the group stage very well.”

Though there is something at stake, City manager Pep Guardola is going to rotate a good portion of his side given the hectic December fixture list. Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho are both one yellow card from picking up a one-match ban that would rule them out of the first leg round of 16 tie, and while Aguero is in a similar predicament, Guardiola has ruled him out with his adductor injury.

The City boss, in fact, stated he has just 15 healthy senior players available for this match, also ruling out De Bruyne, David Silva and Danilo. Benjamin Mendy and backup keeper Claudio Bravo remain long-term absentees with injuries, which does limit some of Guardiola’s abilities to rotate his side.

“We have 15 players tomorrow it’s a really tough game,” he said at Tuesday’s news conference. “We are in next stage which is important but we have to try and win every game, to finish first. Last-16 is always tough but in general the next Monday when there is a draw it’s a success we are there and the team we will face will be tough.

“They (Hoffenheim) were incredible against Donetsk and they lost. It was incredible and fascinating to watch as a spectator. My admiration for Hoffenheim has increased. I knew about Julian Nagelsmann and his team but now I realise how tough tomorrow will be.”

While Guardiola is effusive in praise of his German counterpart, getting three points to have a chance of reaching the Europa League as third-place finishers in Group F remains a daunting task for Hoffenheim. The 12 goals they have shipped are better than only fellow Group F side Shakhtar Donetsk and both AEK and Red Star Belgrade.

“As an optimist, I can say that it’ll be difficult to get third place,” Nagelsmann said Tuesday. “We don’t have a lot to lose tomorrow, so we want to show the football that got us to the Champions League in the first place.”

Domestic play has not treated Die Kraichgauer much better of late as Hoffenheim have just one win from their last six matches overall (1-4-1) and are winless in their last four (0-3-1). Hoffenheim are coming off a 2-2 draw at Wolfsburg on Saturday as Andrej Kramaric salvaged a point with a goal in the 71st minute.

Kramaric had set up Ishak Belfodil in the fourth minute, but an own goal by Ermin Bicakcic and a strike from Daniel Ginczek four minutes apart left Hoffenheim down 2-1 after 32 minutes.

“I was very satisfied with the opening 20 minutes. We consciously gave up possession in order to have chances to counter,” Nagelsmann told his club’s official website. “We defended too aggressively before the equaliser. Thereafter, we did not get to grips with our pressing too well. During the interval we brought on another striker – we couldn’t get much more attacking than that.

We deserved to get the equaliser and dominated the second half. It was a fair result. The right commitment was there and I like that.”

Kramaric, who helped Croatia reach the World Cup final last summer, has a team-best 10 goals in all competitions and netted four in Champions League play. Joelinton has gone five matches without a goal for Hoffenheim since his brace versus Bayer Leverkusen on Nov. 3.

“Andrej Kramaric also plays in the number eight position and does that well,” Nagelsmann said. “He has a lot more to him than goals and assists. He is very critical of himself but his heart is in the right place”

Hoffenheim have never won a Champions League road match in three tries, though they did draw Shakhtar and Lyon earlier in this group. This will be their second trip to England, with the other result a 4-2 setback in a second-leg qualifying round match last year versus Liverpool.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, City are overwhelming favourites to cap group play on a winning note and enter this match as a 2/9 pick for a victory. Hoffenheim are 12/1 longshots to avoid going winless in group play, and there are 13/2 odds on the teams splitting the points, a result also acceptable for the reigning Premier League champs.

Given the open play of Hoffenheim coupled with City’s quality, oddsmakers are expecting a haul of goals as there are 3/10 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 5/2 odds for it being a low-scoring affair. The odds of both teams finding the back of the net are 4/6, with 11/10 odds on either side posting a clean sheet.

With Aguero out, Jesus has moved to the top of the board for first-goal scoring options at 3/1, followed by Sterling (9/2), Mahrez (5/1) and Sane (6/1). With Guardiola’s expected rotation, some of the bottom players on the 25-man roster are seeing action, including Brahim Diaz (8/1) and Foden (11/1).

Bernardo Silva is also an 8/1 option to make it 1-0 for the hosts, while Ilkay Gundogan is 11/1 to do likewise. Kramaric and Joelinton are the top options for Hoffenheim at 14/1, just ahead of Belfodil (16/1) — who gave Die Kraichgauer a shock lead in the opening minute of the reverse fixture.

Jesus (8/15) and Sterling (10/11) lead the any-time goal-scoring options, with Mahrez checking in at even money. Sane is just off that pace at 5/4, followed by Diaz and Bernardo Silva at 7/4. Kramaric and Joelinton again are the top picks for the visitors with both being offered at 11/4.

PREDICTION

It is a shame Manchester City supporters have not fully warmed up to Champions League group matches at the Etihad because this has the potential to be a wild back-and-forth contest. There were two goals in the first eight minutes of the reverse fixture, which then calmed until David Silva’s 87th-minute winner.

It is admittedly difficult to figure out what exactly Guardiola is going to do with his back line. It could range from anywhere with Fabian Delph being shifted from left to right back to let Oleksander Zinchenko play left back to Otamendi playing in central defence or in central midfield ahead of a partnership of John Stones and Vincent Kompany.

Otamendi sitting on a potential yellow card ban is less than ideal, but if there is going to be one player between him and Fernandinho to sit out this match because of such a possiblity, Fernandinho is going to be the spectator. Additionally, Guardiola had been looking to give his central midfielder a rest ahead of the holiday fixtures, and this is as good a time as any.

Though a 4-3-3 is projected, it would not be surprising to see Guardiola use a 4-4-2 in which Jesus and Sterling are up front with Mahrez and Sane lying deeper behind the pair. Another possibility is a 4-1-4-1 with Jesus as the lone striker, which would allow Sterling to terrorise Hoffenheim’s back four with his pace.

Kramaric has been in exquisite form — his equaliser at Wolfsburg extended his goal-scoring streak to eight matches in all competitions for Hoffenheim. But not having centre back Kevin Vogt could prove problematic for a team that has often looked out of their depth in this tournament and need a win.

City could put this match out of its misery early with a pair of strikes in the first half-hour, though Hoffenheim are more than capable of finding a quick goal for the second time in as many matches between the sides. But in the end, it will be too much City, who will wrap up group honours with a win.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 4, Hoffenheim 1.

OTHER UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Previews:

y-Barcelona (4-1-0, 13, +9) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (2-1-2, 7, -1)
Liverpool (2-0-3, 6, +1) vs. Napoli (2-3-0, 9, +3)
Valencia (1-2-2, 5, -1) vs. x-Manchester United (3-1-1, 10, +4)

2018-19 Champions League Match Day 6 Preview — y-Barcelona (4-1-0, 13, +9) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (2-1-2, 7, -1)

(y-denotes clinched first in Group B)

It is not “Mission: Impossible” but still a daunting challenge for Tottenham Hotspur at the Nou Camp nevertheless: Spurs must at least match the result of fellow Group B side Inter Milan on Tuesday against Barcelona to reach the knockout round of the Champions League for the second straight year.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Inter are hosting last-place PSV Eindhoven in the other Group B match which is going on simultaneously. The Lilywhites have no one to blame but themselves for this predicament, throwing away points from winning positions at both the San Siro and Philips Stadion in their other two road matches before scrambling to give themselves a chance to advance with wins over both the Italian and Dutch sides.

Tottenham Hotspur, though, will face long odds in trying to deal the Blaugrana their first Champions League defeat at the Nou Camp since Bayern Munich stormed to a 3-0 victory in the second leg of their 2013 semifinal.

Barcelona have gone a staggering 26-2-0 at home since that loss to Bayern completed an embarrassing 7-0 aggregate defeat. Barca have outscored opponents 87-13 in those games and not conceding more than once in any of them. The current La Liga leaders have a chance to match the longest Champions League home unbeaten run set by Bayern at 29 games from 1998-2002.

“This is special because it’s special for Tottenham and it’s special for us to have the chance to go to the next stage of the Champions League – and that’s with all the respect to Barcelona,” Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino said at his Monday news conference, himself no stranger to Barcelona derbies from his days as a player and manager with Espanyol.

“We are focused on trying to prepare for the game in the best way. After the victory against Leicester I think it’s important in a decisive game to have confidence and a belief we can win. Of course, in front of us, we are going to have one of the best teams in the world and it’s going to be tough, but the most important thing is to be focused and concentrate on trying to play in our best way and trying to win.

“Without belief in football, it is too difficult to win,” Pochettino added. “I think it’s so important to arrive at that moment with the belief and the faith that we can perform in the best way. After that, we will see what happens in the game because you need some luck and some good things to happen for you but we are confident that we can do a good job.”

The big news for Spurs will be the likely insertion of third-choice Kyle Walker-Peters at right back since both Kieran Trippier and Serge Aurier did not make the trip due to injuries. Walker-Peters got a late runout Saturday in Tottenham’s 2-0 win at Leicester City, and the 21-year-old has the complete confidence of manager Mauricio Pochettino heading into this crunch encounter.

“His quality is unbelievable. Younger players always need trust and one day to be given a chance to play and to play here at a difficult place like the Nou Camp will make him stronger. We don’t have a doubt that he can perform,” Pochettino said at Monday’s news conference. “I’m so happy because from the beginning of the season we have three excellent players in that position, three players with different qualities. Kyle has the quality to play.

“He needs to feel free. He’s a very relaxed player and person and the most important thing is that we believe in him, we trust in him and whatever happens he will be a massive success at this Club.”

Walker-Peters is part of a back line who have been severely challenged throughout the season due to injuries as only Toby Alderweireld has emerged unscathed coming off the World Cup summer. Left back Danny Rose and fellow centre backs Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez have all missed time due to injury, with Sanchez still sidelined. A potential centre back replacement, Juan Foyth, is not eligible for this match since he was not on Tottenham’s 25-man roster for group play but is also injured at the moment.

Up front, however, there was good news as playmaking midfielder Erik Lamela was cleared to play and should see his first action since suffering a thigh bruise in Spurs’ win over Inter Milan on Nov. 28. Pochettino must choose between Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Lucas Moura and Heung-Min Son among his attacking options alongside striker Harry Kane.

Kane leads the Lilywhites with 13 goals in all competitons, and both he and Son have bagged three in their last five matches in all competitions. Kane also has potted seven goals in his last seven Champions League away matches.

Eriksen has a goal and three assists in that stretch and Alli two goals and two assists as Spurs have racked up 11 goals in those five contests while winning four.

Barcelona have gone a staggering 26-2-0 at the Nou Camp in Champions League play since that loss to Bayern completed an embarrassing 7-0 aggregate defeat. Barca have outscored opponents 87-13 during this unbeaten run and have not conceded more than once in any of those contests. There have been five wins over Premier League teams in that stretch, including three over Manchester City.

The Blaugrana have won back-to-back matches and waxed Pochettino’s Espanyol side 4-0 on Saturday as Lionel Messi had a brace on either side of halftime via a pair of jaw-dropping free kicks. Messi also set up a goal by Ousmane Dembele, who set up a goal by Luis Suarez that gave Barca a 3-0 lead right before halftime.

Ernesto Valverde’s team have nothing to play for in this match — Barcelona will finish atop their Champions League group for the 12th consecutive year and the lone blemish was a 1-1 draw at the San Siro versus Inter. Valverde has already decided to hold out Suarez for this match, while it is possible Messi could also be a spectator for the Catalans.

That could prove largely beneficial for Spurs as Messi has tormented English sides with 22 goals and six assists in 29 career Champions League matches. His 22 Champions League goals are the most of any player against English clubs, far outpacing runner-up Cristiano Ronaldo (12).

“There are players with discomfort and it does not fit into my plans, of course, to play then in two games in three days,” Valverde said ahead of the Nou Camp clash when asked about player availability and maintaining the integrity of the match with nothing at stake.

“Inter has nothing to fear. If they had drawn or won, they would have no problem. We have to look after ourselves. We will go out to win but we respect the competition and we want to win.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, oddsmakers are still fairly confident in Barca being able to win without at least Suarez and potentially Messi as well, entering this contest as 19/20 favourites. Spurs are 5/2 underdogs to get a victory that could potentially propel them to the knockout round, and there are 10/3 odds on the sides splitting the points.

After the ragged six-goal match between the sides at Wembley on Match Day 2, it is also not surprising their are 1/2 odds for the clubs to clear 2.5 goals compared to the 13/8 odds to finish below it. There are similar 1/2 odds for both teams to score at least one goal, while 6/4 odds exist for at least one clean sheet.

With Messi still at least a possibility to play, he leads the toteboard for first goal-scorers at 11/4 with plenty of daylight between him and Kane at 4/1. Dembele is an 11/2 selection as the third-most likely option, while one-time Liverpool forward Philippe Coutinho has 6/1 odds. Barca’s El Haddadi Munir rounds out the top five options at 13/2 just ahead of a whole slew of Spurs to make it 0-1 — Fernando Llorente (7/1), Son and Moura (15/2), Alli and Lamela (10/1) and Eriksen (11/1).

Messi is an 8/13 pick to score over the course of 90 minutes, and Kane is even money to do likewise. Dembele again edges out Coutinho for third at 7/5 compared to 8/5 for the Brasil international, with Munir (7/4) and Llorente (15/8) completing the group at better than 2/1 odds. Son and Moura start that group, followed by Alli and Lamela at 11/4 and Eriksen at 3/1.

PREDICTION

Let’s be blunt about this for a second: Spurs are going to have to win this match because the odds of PSV getting a victory at the San Siro are far longer at 17/2 than the Lilywhites at that more modest 5/2 offering. That said, Tottenham are going to have to withstand the first half-hour of this match — no small challenge since Barcelona were two up in the reverse fixture before 30 minutes had passed at Wembley.

That means the spotlight will shine brightest on Walker-Peters, who has not played a minute of the previous five group contests. His under-20 turn with England aside, Walker-Peters’ lone match action for Spurs before Saturday’s late runout came in their Carabao Cup win over West Ham United on Halloween.

While he may miss out on Suarez, Coutinho will undoubtedly be someone to mark, and that does not even account for the interplay between the Brasilian and Messi, who would likely move into the false No. 9 role without Suarez into the middle of Barca’s three-man front. Messi has accounted for six of Barcelona’s 13 goals in Champions League play, but no one else on the La Liga side has more than one.

Tottenham have shown plenty of fight in getting to this point, and they also showed plenty of it in that loss to Barcelona at Wembley, twice drawing within one goal before a 90th-minute marker from Messi sealed that victory. But a victory at the Nou Camp by any English club is rare — the lone one in 30 matches since the start of the 1976-77 season was a 2-1 win by Liverpool in 2007.

There will be plenty of heart for Tottenham to display, but the fact Pochettino’s side have to play an open match to equal Inter’s result means Barcelona will have many opportunities themselves, and the Catalan side are too ruthless to not take advantage.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Barcelona 3, Tottenham Hotspur 2.

OTHER UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Previews:

Liverpool (2-0-3, 6, +1) vs. Napoli (2-3-0, 9, +3)
x-Manchester City (3-1-1, 10, +9) vs. Hoffenheim 1899 (0-3-2, 3, -2)
Valencia (1-2-2, 5, -1) vs. x-Manchester United (3-1-1, 10, +4)

2018-19 UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Preview — Liverpool (2-0-3, 6, +1) vs. Napoli (2-3-0, 9, +3)

The most straightforward way Liverpool can advance to the knockout round of the Champions League for a second straight year Tuesday is with a 1-0 victory over Napoli at Anfield.

The question is whether their improved defence can live up to that 90-minute challenge or whether their offence will have to deliver like last term to reach the round of 16 in Europe’s most prestigious club tournament.

“It’s going to be a difficult game. That’s how they play but we need to play our game, we need to be ready to do what we’ve been doing almost the whole season,” centre back Virgil Van Dijk said at Monday’s pre-match news conference. “We have plenty of quality to score and we have plenty of quality to defend as well, but at the end of the day it’s all about showing it on the pitch. It is all about showing it on the pitch.”

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Though Liverpool have taken the pole position in the Premier League table following their 4-0 romp at Bournemouth combined with Manchester City’s first defeat — a 2-0 reverse at Chelsea — looking down at their domestic peers has taken a back seat to the urgency of Tuesday’s moment. If the Reds, currently third in Group C on six points, fail to keep a clean sheet, they must beat the Italian side by two or more goals to advance.

The good news for Jurgen Klopp’s team is that the match is being played at Anfield, where they have won both their group matches and been near-invincible. Liverool’s only defeat in 10 matches (8-1-1) across all competitions at home was a 2-1 loss to Chelsea in the Carabao Cup, and they have scored 23 goals with only five in reply while posting seven clean sheets.

“So far at home we were good – we have to be even better tomorrow night. I told the boys, I really think if nothing special happens with referee decisions, we get tomorrow night what we deserve,” Klopp said. “The only way to make that sure is to really perform at our highest level in the two big parts of the game: defensive and offensive. That makes it special. But we caused the situation and we are responsible in a good way and in a bad way.

The group is a hard one; that was clear when we got the draw. Now we have the chance to go through and that is pretty special after the campaign we played so far.”

The Reds have been two distinctly different sides home and away through their first five group matches, always level or ahead at home and failing to grab a lead in any of their three road contests. The seven goals allowed overall are one more than they have yielded in 16 Premier League matches, though Saturday’s 4-0 rout at Dean Court was more about striker Mohamed Salah re-discovering his lethal form from last term with three goals against the Clarets.

The Egypt international has eight goals in his last 10 matches in all competitions and has a team-high 12. Three of the dozen have come in group play, and Liverpool have also struck three times from the spot for nearly half of their eight goals.

“What Mo did around his two goals in the second half was just exceptional,” Klopp said after Saturday’s win. “I don’t know at the moment a lot of players who would have scored these two goals. The first one, it is a foul actually but he wants to score the goal so he stays on his feet and scores it. It was not the most impressive finish but I would say it was pretty surprising [for the goalkeeper]. His third goal was outstanding as well; really, how we set it up and all that stuff was good.”

Klopp does have some selection questions for this match, most notably who will pair with Van Dijk in central defence. Joel Matip got the call this weekend, but the Cameroon international is coming off back-to-back starts on a short turnaround and has yet to be in the first XI for three consecutive matches. That leaves Dejan Lovren, who sat out the last two matches due to a concussion but returned to practice Monday, as the most likely option.

In the midfield, Klopp must also decide whether he will stick to his regular 4-3-3 formation or the 4-2-3-1 he has used on occasion. Jordan Henderson is likely back after being held out at Bournemouth, while James Milner is hoping to get back in the midfield after playing right back — a spot Trent Alexander-Arnold is expected to reclaim.

Naby Keita and Fabinho are also midfield options, with Giorginio Wijnaldum likely to hold down one of those three spots if Klopp goes 4-3-3 or in a defensive midfield pairing in a 4-2-3-1 set-up.

Napoli are atop the group on nine points, one better than Paris-St. Germain, and are unbeaten in 12 matches (8-4-0) overall since a 3-1 loss at scudetto-holders Juventus on Sept. 29. The Partenopei have won three on the bounce after storming past Frosinone 4-0 on Saturday as Arkadiusz Milik had a second-half brace set up by Faouzi Ghoulam after Piotr Zielinski and Adam Ounas scored in the first half.

Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti was able to rest some of his regulars ahead of this match, most notably keeper David Ospina and striker Dries Mertens along with centre back Raul Albiol and midfielder Jose Callejon. Despite spending four seasons with Arsenal — mainly as a backup to Petr Cech in the previous three — Ospina has never played at the cauldron that is Anfield.

It was the second brace Milik has notched at home for the Partenopei and is third on the team with seven goals, trailing only joint-leaders Lorenzo Insigne and Mertens — who have 10 apiece in all competitions.

Despite their current form, Napoli are still eight points adrift of Juventus in Serie A through 15 matches. The Italian side are trying to avoid their second straight exit in group play after finishing third in a group behind Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk last term, but Ancelotti is confident his side can get a result after recording a 1-0 victory in the reverse fixture Oct. 3 on a 90th-minute goal by Insigne.

“We know what to expect from Liverpool,” Ancelotti said at Monday’s news conference at Anfield. “We know all about the tempo they play at but we have to focus first and foremost on our own game. If we’re smart in defence and incisive in attack, we have an excellent chance of going through.

“The reverse fixture gives us confidence but we don’t know if we’ll be able to reproduce that performance. We certainly won’t sit back and let Liverpool come at us. We believe in our ability and our potential. A lot of what happens on the pitch is down to us, but it also depends on how Liverpool play. We have this final step to take and we believe we can take it even at a very tough ground like Anfield.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Liverpool are 8/13 favourites to get the job done and make a return to the knockout round. There are 7/2 odds for Napoli to hold out enough for a draw and seal their advancement and 9/2 odds to grab a victory that would see them through as the group winners.

Oddsmakers are expecting both teams to press for goals, with 8/15 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 odds for failing to reach that threshold. There are also 4/7 odds for both teams to bag a goal, and 5/4 odds of there being at least one clean sheet.

Salah’s current rich vein of goal-scoring has made him the favourite for the match’s first goal-scorer at 10/3, followed by teammates Daniel Sturridge (15/4), Divock Origi (4/1), Roberto Firmino (5/1) and both Dominic Solanke and Sadio Mane (11/2). Mertens (6/1) and Insigne (13/2) are Napoli’s top options, with Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri also 13/2, a step ahead of Milik (15/2).

Salah and Sturridge are better than even money odds to score over the course of the 90 minutes at 4/5 and 10/11, respectively. Origi is at even money, with Firmino lurking behind him at 5/4. Solanke and Mane have 7/5 odds, and Mertens is 8/5. Insigne and Shaqiri are again paired together at 7/4, and Milik has 2/1 odds along with Callejon.

PREDICTION

It really is all there for Liverpool, but the question is which way are they going to take to get there. Obviously, they will try to ride the emotion of the home supporters at Anfield, and the first half-hour will turn into a high-paced match in which the Reds try to turn the screws on Napoli.

The next question is what happens if Liverpool score in those 30 minutes. Do you make the commitment to find the second and then try to kill off the match, or do you have trust in Alisson and Van Dijk at the back four to hold that 1-0 advantage until the final whistle?

The Partonepei did not have an overwhelming majority of the possession in the reverse fixture at 54 percent, but they were far more efficient with the ball — Napoli attempted 16 shots to Liverpool’s four and registered five on target while the Reds failed to do so. Klopp also had to make an injury-forced substitution less than 20 minutes into that contest as Keita suffered a back injury, but Liverpool were clearly second-best and can ill-afford such a repeat performance at Anfield.

Liverpool are unbeaten in their last 10 Champions League home matches (7-3-0) since a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid on Oct. 22, 2014. AS Roma was the most recent Serie A side to visit Anfield and took a 5-2 drubbing in last term’s first-leg semifinal.

Napoli are winless in their last five Champions League road contests (0-2-3), though both draws have come this season. The Partonepei are 0-1-3 on Premier League grounds in this competition, suffering a 2-1 loss at the Etihad last term. The only point Napoli claimed was a 1-1 draw at Manchester City in 2011.

This should be a finely balanced match, but in the end, the fire of the Anfield cauldron will again prove too much for a European side as the five-times champions will scrape through into the next round.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 2, Napoli 0.

OTHER UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Previews:

y-Barcelona (4-1-0, 13, +9) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (2-1-2, 7, -1)
x-Manchester City (3-1-1, 10, +9) vs. Hoffenheim 1899 (0-3-2, 3, -2)
Valencia (1-2-2, 5, -1) vs. x-Manchester United (3-1-1, 10, +4)

Champions League Match Day 5 Preview — Paris-St. Germain (1-2-1, 5, +4) vs Liverpool (2-0-2, 6, +2)

Liverpool can potentially clinch a spot in the knockout round of the Champions League for a second successive season if they can complete the double over Paris-St. Germain on Wednesday at Parc des Princes and get a little bit of help.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Jurgen Klopp’s side opened group play with a thrilling 3-2 victory at Anfield over the Ligue 1 leaders in September as Roberto Firmino’s goal in stoppage time the winner after PSG nearly escaped with a point after Kylian Mbappe’s equaliser on 83 minutes.

Yet therein, lies the rub for the Reds. They have played arguably their two worst matches of the season on the continent in group play, suffering a 1-0 loss at current Group D leaders Napoli and then a stunning 2-0 setback at Red Star earlier this month with a chance to put one foot through the door to reach the knockout round.

Liverpool can clinch a spot in the round of 16 with a victory and a win or draw by Napoli against Red Star.

“Two very ambitious teams will face each other in a very, very interesting competition, in an interesting situation in the group because we brought Belgrade back in the group [by losing in Serbia], so we go for everything and that’s how football should be,” Klopp said at Tuesday’s news conference. “Very often when you see groups after the draw you know immediately who will go through. The first two are pretty clear most of the time, but in this group it was clear from the beginning it was a difficult one and that’s it. We are here, we didn’t ever think negatively about it, we were looking forward to the game in Paris.”

Liverpool have won both their matches since the defeat to Red Star, recording clean sheet victories over Fulham and Watford, including a 3-0 romp past the latter at Vicarage Road last weekend. Mo Salah has scored in both contests and has five goals in his last five matches across all competitions, but the more welcome news was Firmino ending a four-match goalless drought with a marker right before the final whistle.

The match also showed what could be Klopp’s eventual evolution from a 4-3-3 set-up to a 4-2-3-1 formation in which Salah is the most forward striker and Firmino in the hole behind him flanked by Sadio Mane and Xherdan Shaqiri. It does not seem likely Liverpool will hold that formation for this match given PSG’s offensive prowess and Shaqiri’s ability to make a bigger impact in Champions League play given the style of competition, but Klopp has been pleased Firmino has adapted to the new role asked of him.

“In the last home game against Fulham, I had 20 German coaches in the stadium. Most of them were friends of mine, and I know them all,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website. “They watched the game. I’m not sure what the critics were saying about Bobby Firmino after the game, but when I saw the coaches later and we had drinks together, they were like ‘Bobby Firmino… what a player!’

“It’s because of the small things he is doing, he is working hard, he is here, he is there, he has five goals now and he opens 5,000 gaps for everybody. It’s about how you see it.”

Klopp has a midfield that is almost 100 percent as Fabinho was the only regular who did not make the 21-man roster who traveled to Paris. But it will be the central defence pairing of Joe Gomez and Virgil Van Dijk who will likely be the most influential factors in whether Liverpool can shake off their road blues while wearing their trademark home red kits.

“We know they are top players – their strike force is something they are known worldwide for,” Gomez said. “As a team we just have to play our way. We have fundamentals that we stick to, that the gaffer gives us; we have to defend as a team regardless of who we’re playing.

“We do analysis and we have to prepare for different formations and different set-ups but our general philosophies in defending stay the same. That’s what we have to stick to.”

PSG could not figure out a way to beat Napoli as the two sides played to draws at both venues, and their Champions League play runs in stark contrast to their seeming invinicbility in Ligue 1. Les Parisiens retained their 100 percent record domestically last weekend with a 1-0 victory over Toulouse.

Thomas Tuchel held out both Neymar and Mbappe to let the superstars nurse injuries, and the third part of their potent strike force, Edinson Cavani, supplied the contest’s only goal in the ninth minute. It was the ninth goal in as many league matches for the Uruguay international, whose 10 overall goals are third behind the pair’s 13 apiece.

Both players are expected to be in PSG’s first XI for this game, but Teuchel believes his defence is going to be as important, if not more, to the chances of the French club’s side of getting through to the round of 16.

“The key will be to defend well against Liverpool’s attacking trio, that’s always difficult because they can change position. Firmino can play everywhere, he’s fluid, able to change rhythm,” Tuchel said.  “They can also play in 4-4-2, but that doesn’t change much in terms of their structure or their approach to the game.

“It’s necessary for us to play with confidence and play attacking football and have the desire to win. The ball has to move around quickly, we have to take the right decisions quickly, and we have to limit the number of touches in our opponents’ half.”

PSG will have at least two notable changes from the reverse fixture as keeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfielder Marco Verratti are expected to be in the starting XI. Buffon served a suspension for his red card while with Juventus as they lost to eventual champions Real Madrid in the second leg of last year’s Champions League semifinals while Verratti served a one-match ban for his two yellow cards accrued in PSG’s second-leg exit to the reigning three-time champions in the round of 16.

Liverpool will conclude their group play at home versus Napoli, while PSG caps their six group play matches at last-place Red Star.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, PSG are firm favourites to hold serve and claim all three points with 11/10 odds, while Liverpool are a 21/10 pick to return to Anfield with a vital three road points. The odds of the sides splitting the points and contributing to a free-for-all in the final match day are 27/10.

The French side have 9/5 odds on winning with more than 2.5 goals scored, while a like result for Liverpool offers 16/5 odds. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw is the next-most likely outcome according to the oddsmakers with 19/4 odds, while PSG get 11/2 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 victory compared to Liverpool’s 17/2 for the same such results.

PSG’s attacking trio of Mbappe, Neymar and Cavani are all joint-top options to open the scoring at 9/2, while Liverpool’s trident of Salah (5/1), Mane (7/1) and Firmino (15/2) are joined by teammate Daniel Sturridge (6/1). Angel Di Maria is a distant fourth option for Les Parisiens at 10/1, which is also 10th overall.

Surprisingly, no one is better than even money to score a goal in this match, with Neymar and Mbappe joint top at 5/4 and Cavani just off their pair at 11/8. Salah is 7/5 to lead Liverpool’s options, trailed by Sturridge (7/4), Mane (21/10) and Firmino (11/5). Expected to come off the bench because Klopp is likely to use a 4-3-3, Shaqiri offers a 10/3 return to score during the contest.

PREDICTION

First off, is there anyone who really thought Mbappe and Neymar would not play in this match? Ok, just wanted to get that out of the way. Onto the match.

Though it sounds like hyperbole, it does not feel out of place to say Liverpool’s season could hinge on getting at least one point from this contest. No one will say it out loud, but there has to be a certain amount of exhaustion and frustration chasing Manchester City in the Premier League. Yes, Liverpool are just two points behind the reigning champions, but how quickly do good feelings wash away after a 3-0 road victory when scoreboard watching reveals a 4-0 victory by City?

In this competition, Liverpool only have themselves to blame for what could be a potentially disastrous plight. The Reds should have taken at least one point from their other two road contests and clearly played below their capabilities in both contests against sides they were perceived to be better than or, at worst, equal to.

Paris-Saint Germain, it can be argued, are a side better than Liverpool. They are unbeaten in 12 (10-2-0) since the loss to Liverpool and have conceded just seven goals in those contests. The trip of Neymar, Mbappe and Cavani have accounted for 24 in that span. And while Liverpool have a good amount of pressure on them to return to the Champions League knockout round, it still dwarves the amount on Les Parisiens, who in some ways have become France’s answer to Manchester City as an ultra-rich squad who have yet to crack Europe’s true elite.

It says a lot Buffon is going to get the start in this match over Alphonse Arreola, having appeared in only one other Champions League match for the side, their 1-1 draw at Napoli in which the Italian side scored their lone goal from the spot. This could be Buffon’s last go-round at the one trophy which has eluded him all these years, and the self-applied pressure could also factor here.

This is a game that could be played in fits and spurts, where individual defensive breakdowns lead to goals scored. The winner of this match is who will have the lesser amount, and given Liverpool’s road form in this group, it is hard to imagine PSG not getting the inside track to advancing with a victory here.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Paris-St. Germain 2, Liverpool 1.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 5 PREVIEWS:

Lyon (1-3-0, 6, +1) vs. Manchester City (3-0-1, 9, +9)
Manchester United (2-1-1, 7, +2) vs. Young Boys (0-1-3, 1, -8)
Tottenham Hotspur (1-1-2, 4, -2) vs. Inter Milan (2-1-1, 7, 0)

Champions League Match Day 5 Preview — Tottenham Hotspur (1-1-2, 4, -2) vs. Inter Milan (2-1-1, 7, 0)

Tottenham Hotspur’s bid to return to the Champions League knockout round for a second straight year has hit a seminal moment as the Spurs host Inter Milan in a crunch encounter Wednesday at Wembley Stadium.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

(Editor’s Note — Miranda likely to start at right back for the injured Vraslko for Inter)

Left for dead with just one point from their first three matches after being held to a 2-2 draw at PSV Eindhoven, the Lilywhites (1-1-2) began their fight back with a 2-1 victory over the Dutch side in their most recent Champions League contest. Harry Kane’s brace in the final 12 minutes erased an early deficit, and Tottenham got some help from Barcelona, who recorded a draw at Inter earlier this month to raise the stakes for this contest.

The motivation to prove the naysayers wrong runs deep for Spurs gaffer Mauricio Pochettino, who told The Guardian at Tuesday’s news conference, “Yes, a massive motivation. When people say that something is going to be difficult, for me, it’s like, ah, I’m so excited to show them it’s completely different.”

The victory over PSV is one of five on the trot currently for the Spurs, with Pochettino showing his tactical chops in his side’s most convincing performance of the season, a 3-1 romp over London derby rival Chelsea in which Tottenham dealt Maurizio Sarri his first loss since arriving at Stamford Bridge.

Pochettino’s decision to play a diamond in font of his back four with Dele Alli serving as the top point to feed Kane and Heung-Min Son completely defused Sarri’s 4-3-3 set-up as Spurs turned Jorginho’s lack of elite pace against him and exploited the gaps created when Chelsea’s midfielders pressed forward.

Alli and Kane both scored off passes from Christian Eriksen in the first 16 minutes, and Son completed the scoring by latching onto a pass from Alli on the flank and blazing past and around Jorginho before slotting home shortly after the restart.

But the Argentine manager is rightly concerned about his threadbare defence for this contest, and with good reason. Jan Vertonghen is being pushed back into duty in central defence after missing the past 10 matches with a hamstring injury. Pochettino would have preferred to use Juan Foyth to partner with Toby Alderweireld, but the Argentine was not one of the 17 non-locally players Tottenham submitted to UEFA for their group play roster.

“When you need to take a decision from the beginning, you cannot guess what’s going to happen,” said Pochettino, who placed the blame for his side’s imbalance at the feet of the club’s higher-ups following their dormancy in the summer transfer window. “Central defence was a position where we had players, but we have Davinson injured and Jan was injured. That is why we use Juan. I am happy with Juan and his evolution but I am so disappointed we cannot come with him in the Champions League.”

Left back Danny Rose could make his return in this match after an eight-game absence due to injury, though Ben Davies has deputised well in his absence. Serge Aurier again gets the call at right back since Kieran Trippier remains sidelined due to a groin injury.

Inter (2-1-1) enter this match with a margin of error since they have the easier final Champions League tie of the two — at home versus PSV compared to Tottenham having to try and get a result at Barcelona.

The Nerazzurri will be without right back Sime Vrsaljko, who picked up a thigh injury while on international duty with Croatia and did not make the trip to London. He also missed the first encounter between the teams, and like that match, Miranda is expected to take his place.

Luciano Spalletti’s side ended a two-match winless spell with a 3-0 drubbing of Frosinone on Saturday as Keita Balde had a brace on either side of halftime and assisted on Lautaro Martinez’s goal on 57 minutes. Inter are a comfortable third in the Serie A table but also nine points adrift of front-running Juventus and one back of Napoli through 13 matches.

“The game tomorrow will be a straight knockout to ensure that things remain in our hands,” Spalletti said as Inter look to progress out of the group stages for the first time in six years. “To just approach it as an ordinary group stage game is a risk we can’t take. We want to keep going down this road. We must think that qualification depends on the result tomorrow night.

“From when the draw was made, we knew that we’d have to knock out one of the biggest European teams to make the next round. Tottenham are a strong team with a great manager but we have the quality to take anyone on. Inter had been waiting for years to play in matches like this. The important thing is to show the fans that we’re ready to give anything to win. We need to work till the final drop of sweat to go through.”

Mauro Icardi, who began Inter’s fight back in the reverse fixture with a goal in the 86th minute at the San Siro, has a team-high 10 goals for the Nerazzurri. At three goals, Radja Nainggolan is the only other player with more than two as Inter have 30 goals overall.

Also of note is keeper Samir Handanovic has yet to post a clean sheet in the group stage despite having seven in Serie A.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Spurs are strong 8/11 favourites to win and carry their hopes of advancing into the final match day at the Nou Camp versus Barcelona. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 14/5, while Inter are 7/2 underdogs to win at Wembley and end Tottenham’s hopes of returning to the knockout round for a second straight season.

The Lilywhites have 6/4 odds to post a victory with a goal total above 2.5, and there are 15/4 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline for the hosts at Wembley. There are 21/5 odds on a draw that ends either 0-0 or 1-1, while the Nerazzurri are an 11/2 choice to post a second win over Tottenham with more than 2.5 goals. A win with fewer than 2.5 goals for the visitors or a 2-2 draw or higher have 10/1 odds.

Kane, to no one’s surprise, is the top option to open the scoring in the match with 13/5 odds, followed by Spurs reserve striker Fernando Llorente (9/2). Icardi is Inter’s first listing at 11/2 with Tottenham’s Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela rounding out the top five at 13/2. Son sneaks in behind the Lilywhites duo at 7/1. Martinez and Ivan Perisic complete Inter’s top three choices with 9/1 odds, with Eriksen just ahead of them at 17/2.

The Three Lions talisman is a better than even money pick to score over the course of the 90 minutes at 4/5 odds, with Llorente again second at 6/4. Icardi again tops the toteboard for Inter options, this time at 9/5, while Moura and Lamela are paired together once more — this time at 21/10 while Son is an 11/5 pick. Martinez rates slightly higher at 14/5 for an any-time goal compared to Perisic’s 3/1 potential return.

PREDICTION

It’s hard to tell if Pochettino was feeling good about himself after that Chelsea win or genuinely aggravated about not being able to use Foyth in this match, but there is no doubt the English media are going to have a field day with his comments about what Tottenham failed to do during the summer window.

This will undoubtedly start a whole new round of rumours regarding his desire to stay at Spurs, which in some ways has been par for the course in a season of fits and starts that includes an unexpected second season at Wembley Stadium due to the extended delays of renovating White Hart Lane.

Yet Pochettino is correct in the sense this is not entirely his fault, though no one would have expected Tottenham’s defence to be ravaged so thoroughly by injury. Foyth is arguably the fourth centre back on the depth chart and seventh overall, so it does also speak to the side’s scouts they have coped so well to this point.

Spalletti’s comments about going for it in this match are somewhat surprising given Inter can play for the draw in this match and then wrap things up at the San Siro versus PSV. But with already-qualified Barcelona likely to field a second-choice lineup in that last match versus Tottenham, there is some merit to his belief the Nerazzurri should be playing for three points.

And with neither team recording a clean sheet in group play, it has all the makings of a combustible up-and-down match. Much of Tottenham’s play is going to be carried through the middle without Trippier, though Davies has been a revelation and can offer support on the left. Pochettino used a 4-3-1-2 formation in the first match between the teams, so it is feasible the diamond midfield he used versus Chelsea will get a second look here.

If Inter can withstand Spurs’ pressure in the first half-hour, there will be opportunities for them to break down the Lilywhites defence. Just how willing the Nerazzurri pour forward after that, specifically in terms of testing Vertonghen’s match fitness, will go a long way in determining if Spalletti’s side are truly viewing this as a knockout contest like he claims.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 3, Inter Milan 1.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 5 PREVIEWS:

Lyon (1-3-0, 6, +1) vs. Manchester City (3-0-1, 9, +9)
Manchester United (2-1-1, 7, +2) vs. Young Boys (0-1-3, 1, -8)
Paris-St. Germain (1-2-1, 5, +4) vs. Liverpool (2-0-2, 6, +2)

Champions League Match Day 5 Preview — Lyon (1-3-0, 6,+1) vs. Manchester City (3-0-1, 9, +9)

Manchester City can wrap up the top spot in Group F of the Champions League and avenge their only loss in all competitions this season Tuesday night when they face French side Olympique Lyon at Groupama Stadium.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

City have gone unbeaten in their last 13 matches (12-1-0) and have won eight on the bounce in all competitions since their stunning 2-1 loss to Lyon to open group play on Sept. 19. Only Liverpool — their closest pursuers in the Premier League — have been able to take points off the reigning domestic champions, and since that 0-0 draw, Pep Guardiola’s imperious side have racked up 30 goals while conceding only two.

The Citizens made quick work of West Ham United on Saturday, thrashing the London side 4-0 in their first match against former manager and Guardiola’s predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini. David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane all scored first-half goals, and Sane completed his brace in second-half stoppage time.

Normally tasked the role of playmaker, especially with Kevin De Bruyne injured, Silva has netted a goal in his last four matches across all competitions and his eight goals overall trail only Sergio Aguero (9).

“All I can say is we want to get better. We want to improve. It’s a new season, we need to be on top of our game,” winger Raheem Sterling told the club’s official website, expressing the same relentless drive as his manager. “I thought at times we did some very good stuff. But at times we could have been better. Great win but at the same time a lot to improve on.

“We gave them too many chances. On another day if they had took them, it could have been more difficult. We know what we done last year and it’s easy to be complacent. He (Pep) wants to keep us at a high level. We are trying to be better, do our best. That’s what will take us to the next level. Every day we need to perform and win games.”

Guardiola was able to rest some of his regulars as centre back John Stones was held out and Riyad Mahrez made a late runout in the final quarter-hour for Sterling. The one expected change Guardiola will make for this match is the introduction of Phil Foden, who will join the midfield since both Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan did not make the trip due to injury.

Guardiola is putting an emphasis on winning this match, and by extension, the group so he can begin rotating his players ahead of the busy holiday fixture list domestically.

“I want to qualify, that’s the first target,” he stated. “When you start the season to now, most important is qualifying in the Champions League. “If you make one or two mistakes, then you’re out. When you believe it’s already done, it’s not done until it’s done. We like that pressure. To play against Hoffenheim in the last game (already qualified) would be a big advantage, but first: let’s qualify.”

Qualification would have come quicker had Lyon not thrown an early spanner into Guardiola’s plans back in September. The French side have not lacked for excitement in their group matches, having scored nine and shipped eight while playing three successive draws following that win at the Etihad.

Les Gones are unbeaten in their last seven matches (4-3-0) in all competitions since a 5-0 thrashing by Paris-St. Germain on Oct. 7 and have won back-to-back matches following a 1-0 victory over St. Etienne on Friday. Jason Denayer’s goal just after the hour was enough to separate the sides as Lyon held out for the victory despite playing the final 20 minutes with 10 men after Rafael was given a direct red card.

Bruno Genesio’s side moved up to second in the Ligue 1 table, but Lyon are 15 points adrift of PSG through 14 matches.

“In recent days we started feeling that it was a different match with a special atmosphere,” Denayer told OLTV after the win. “I hope we can continue this momentum. Manchester City will be different for me, too. We will do our best to win and get the three points.”

Playmaker Nabil Fekir is expected to play despite being forced off at halftime due to a knock. He has four goals, and his four assists are second only to Memphis Depay. Depay, the one-time Manchester United winger, has team bests of six goals and six assists in 18 matches across all competitions.

Lyon would move atop the group with a victory given the head-to-head sweep, but Genesio has warned his side they cannot sit back and try to hold out for a point in a bid to get out of the group.

“This is a team that is superior to us on paper. We’ll have to be at 150 per cent to win,” he remarked about City. “We have to play. If we just defend, we will suffer and we will concede. That much is obvious. We must play with ambition in front of our home fans and have no regrets.”

Manchester City will conclude group play at home versus Hoffenheim, while Lyon travel to last-place Shakhtar Donetsk for their final Group F contest.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, City are still solid 2/5 favourites to claim all three points despite losing the first meeting between the sides. The odds of a draw are 4/1, and the hosts have 11/2 odds to claim all three points and the inside track to the top of the group.

The Citizens are a 3/4 pick to win with more than 2.5 goals, while a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline offer 17/4 odds. The odds of the teams splitting the points with fewer than 2.5 goals are 13/2, while a Lyon victory with over 2.5 goals checks in at 17/2. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has 10/1 odds, while a low-scoring Les Gones victory is the longshot of the bunch at 20/1 odds.

Aguero is the frontrunner to score the first goal of the match at 10/3, followed by his understudy Gabriel Jesus at 10/3. City’s wingers — Sterling, Sane and Mahrez — round out the top five as Sterling is 9/2, edging out Sane and Mahrez (5/1). Silva has 15/2 odds, and then Lyon’s strikers — Depay and Moussa Dembele — are the French club’s top options at 9/1.

Aguero (8/11) and Jesus (5/6) are both better than even money odds to score over the 90 minutes, while Sterling is third at 23/20. Mahrez and Sane again round out the top five, with the Algeria international edging out the German at 13/10 to 7/5, respectively. Depay and Dembele again lead Lyon’s options at 12/5, with Fekir just behind the duo at 14/5.

PREDICTION

It needs to be stated that City’s lone loss this season came when Guardiola was not on the touchline — he served his ban during the reverse fixture for his actions during the second-leg Champions League quarterfinal loss to Liverpool last term. At the same time, it also needs to be stated the Citizens were second-best for much of that game and failed to recover from first-half goals by Maxwel Cornet and Fekir.

Both teams have improved since that match in September, though Guardiola’s side are currently operating with a peak ruthless efficiency that is all the more impressive they are without arguably their best player (De Bruyne) and currently dealing with a spate of injuries that include left back Benjamin Mendy in addition to the short-term woes of Bernando Silva and Gundogan.

Lyon have risen from seventh in the table to their current spot of second in the two months since beating Manchester City, and the France side’s lone loss in 14 matches since their 2-0-2 open to the season was that hiding administered by PSG. Despite all the talk of how Group D was going to be the most entertaining of the four with PSG, Liverpool and Napoli, it is possible this contest could be the most entertaining of all the group matches in Champions League.

The man with the most to prove for City is centre back Aymeric Laporte, who appears to have been frozen out of the France national side by coach Didier Deschamps. While the World Cup winners do not lack for quality on the back line, it confuses to frustrate both Guardiola and Laporte — whom Guardiola has defended and praised as perhaps his best defender. A strong showing here would be sweet vindication for Laporte, especially against a Les Gones side with quality in attack, and the prize of a spot in the round of 16 all the sweeter.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Lyon 1, Manchester City 3.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 5 PREVIEWS:

Manchester United (2-1-1, 7, +2) vs. Young Boys (0-1-3, 1, -8)
Paris-St. Germain (1-2-1, 5, +4) vs. Liverpool (2-0-2, 6, +2)
Tottenham Hotspur (1-1-2, 4, -2) vs. Inter Milan (2-1-1, 7, 0)