Champions League Match Day 4 Preview — Juventus (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Manchester United (1-1-1, 4, +2)

Juventus can wrap up first place in Group H of the Champions League with two matches to spare if they can complete a home-and-home sweep of Manchester United on Wednesday in Italy.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Bianconeri have a 100 percent rate through the first three group matches and are five points clear of closest pursuers Manchester United (1-1-1), who are on four points and two ahead of Valencia for second.

Juventus took command of the group with a convincing 1-0 victory at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, riding a 17th-minute goal by Paulo Dybala as the Italian side controlled most of the match by subduing United’s offence and controlling possession for more than 60 percent of the match.

The victory started a current three-match win streak for Juve, who have yet to lose in 14 matches across all competitions (13-1-0) and are one of two unbeaten clubs left in the top five European leagues along with German side Borussia Dortmund. Technically, Chelsea have not lost a match but did begin their season with a loss to Manchester City in England’s traditional Community Shield opener.

Juventus remained six points clear of Inter Milan and Napoli in Serie A with a 3-1 victory over Cagliari on Saturday. Dybala opened the scoring just 43 seconds into the match, and after Juve allowed an equaliser, they were gifted an own goal by Cagliari midfielder Filip Bradaric in the 38th minute that restored their one-goal advantage.

Cristiano Ronaldo, who was honoured for scoring his 400th club goal in Europe before the match, set up Juan Cuadrado’s insurance marker on 87 minutes. While Ronaldo leads Juve in scoring with seven goals in all competitions — they have all come in Serie A matches — Dybala has done his damage in Champions League, where he has netted four of his six goals. Five of the Argentina’s last six shots that have been on target have ended in the back of the net.

“I’m happy we got all three points tonight and that’s all that matters,” Cuadrado told Juve’s official website. “We’re not setting any limits. We want to improve every with game. We know that’s what we have to do if we want to grow as a team.”

Juventus’ side Saturday looked fairly similar to the first XI who played at Old Trafford. There were three exceptions with left-side defenders Mehdi Benatia and Mattia De Sciglio starting in the place of Giorgio Chiellini and Alex Sandro, while Douglas Costa started up front over Cuadrado, who entered Saturday’s match at halftime when Costa was sidelined with an adductor injury.

Another injury concern for Juve is midfielder Blaise Matuidi, who came off late over the weekend with a hip problem. Mario Mandzukic, who missed the match at Old Trafford with an ankle injury suffered right before the contest, is not likely to play, though he has been practicing.

Manchester United kicked off a hectic week heading into the international break by rallying for a 2-1 victory at Bournemouth to move into seventh place in the Premier League behind the Cherries on goal difference. Marcus Rashford was able to corral a cross from Paul Pogba just above the six-yard box and beat Asmir Begovic in the 92nd minute for the match-winner.

The victory, though hid a lot of blemishes for Jose Mourinho’s side, who were nearly run out of Dean Court in the first half-hour as Bournemouth set a torrid pace and took the lead inside the first quarter-hour. David De Gea, as he has done so many times already this season, kept the deficit manageable with some timely saves before Anthony Martial, continued his purple patch of scoring with an equaliser before the interval. It was his fourth goal in five matches across all competitions.

“It wasn’t just the start [that was bad], it was all of the first half. At half time, I thought I was the luckiest manager in the Premier League, to be at 1-1 in a half in which it should be 5-2 or 6-2 [to Bournemouth],” Mourinho said post-match. “We were really lucky because we were really poor. Defensively awful, absolutely awful, and when I say defensively, I don’t just look to my defenders but to the whole team as a team. We didn’t start pressing up, the work we did during the week. I felt like people watching this game don’t believe how hard we have worked this week, our pressure on this opponent in the first half was a disaster.

“Then, in the second half, it was exactly the opposite. We created a lot of chances, we pressed higher, with much more aggression, intensity and intention. We created lots of chances, we deserved to score before the 92nd minute. In the end, we got the goal which gave us the important points.”

Mourinho must choose among Martial, Rashford, Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata among his attacking front three since Romelu Lukaku is not likely to be available for this match. The Belgium international, who was dropped from the starting XI in United’s win over Everton and has gone nine matches without a goal, was a late scratch at Bournemouth due to a muscle strain suffered in training.

Sanchez made his first start since United’s scoreless draw against Valencia more than a month ago. Mourinho’s high-pressure week concludes Sunday with the Manchester derby at the Etihad against reigning champions City, who are 10 points clear of United through 11 league matches.

Captain Nemanja Matic caused a stir ahead of the match when he announced he would continue to not wear the poppy, which was worn by Premier League teams last weekend and throughout this week ahead of Remembrance Sunday, which also marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Matic, a native of Yugsolavia who did not wear the poppy in the victory at Bournemouth, said in a social media post the poppy “is only a reminder of an attack that I felt personally as a frightened 12-year- old boy living in Vrelo, as my country was devastated by the bombing of Serbia in 1999. I do not want to undermine the poppy as a symbol of pride or offend anyone; however, we are all a product of our own upbringing and this is a personal choice for the reasons outlined.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Juventus are decided favourites to retain their 100 percent record as they are installed as 4/7 favourites. Manchester United are 5/1 underdogs to win their second road match in group play. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 14/5, a result which would keep United on the inside track for second place in the group.

Juve have 8/5 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored, but a 2-0 or 1-0 scoreline is not far off with 5/2 odds. A draw that finished with no goals or two has 18/5 odds, while a United victory on either side of the 2.5 threshold offers 10/1 odds.

Ronaldo leads the way for first-goal options at 3/1, narrowly ahead of reverse fixture scorer Dybala (4/1) and Mandzukic (4/1). All told, eight Juve players are listed before scanning down the toteboard to find Lukaku as the top United option at 9/1, but even he is below the “no goal-scorer” choice at 8/1.

Ronaldo is an almost even-money pick to bag a goal over the course of 90 minutes at 11/10, with Dybala (7/5) narrowly edging out Mandzukic (6/4) for second. Federico Bernardschi and Douglas Costa are 2/1 and 23/10, respectively, with Lukaku again United’s top option at 3/1. Rashford and Martial lag just behind the Belgian at 10/3 and 7/2, respectively.

PREDICTION

After the 1-0 loss at Old Trafford, Mourinho pretty much conceded the group to Juventus, and as The Times reported, said “we knew when the draw was made that we’d be fighting Valencia for second place in the group.”

So even though United played one of their more impressive 45 minutes of the season at Bournemouth to overturn a deficit — though it came after a half-hour of insipid play — everyone knows what’s coming to Turin.

The bus. And not just any bus. It’s going to be one of those big, shiny double-deckers that England made famous as United look to strangle this match for a point before deciding if they have enough to try a smash-and-grab raid in the final quarter-hour if things go according to plan. In theory, this is not an unwise maneuver since Mourinho has seen his side play a full 90-minute match so few times this term.

Add in a lead striker in Lukaku who is both injured and currently ineffective, and you have the makings of a 4-3-3 that could very well morph into a 4-1-4-1 set-up in which Matic shields the back four and Sanchez will be left to his industry up front to try and find a moment of magic. It also means Juan Mata likely retains his spot on the right wing and Rashford comes off the bench, though Ander Herrera could be a lively insertion into the midfield with Pogba after a solid effort off the bench versus Bournemouth.

The biggest problem with this is Juventus have pace to burn on the flanks, whether it be right back Joao Cancelo bombing forward or Ronaldo using his still staggering straight-line speed to give defenders nightmares and twist Ashley Young into a pretzel. He and Dybala have a very underrated comprehension of playing off each other and are not locked into fix areas of space in the final third. That is how Dybala got his goal at Old Trafford, and without De Gea’s quality, there would have been more.

United are still a mess at times in front of De Gea, evidenced by the first half against Bournemouth. But this is also the type of match that makes Mourinho, well, Mourinho. There is a reason United have conceded just four times in their last 10 European away matches. And given they go right from one high-powered club in Juve to another in their eternal rivals City this weekend, the whiteboard and drilling for these two contests probably started at least a month ago.

Juve are likely going to have more than the 60 percent possession they enjoyed at Old Trafford, the issue is where United cede it to them. Lindelof and Smalling must be massive for this defence-first strategy to work, and too many times it has failed to deliver. The resiliency United have shown after getting punched in the mouth has been impressive, but one wonders if they have taken too many shots in recent weeks to recover from a haymaker from a quality foe.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Juventus 2, Manchester United 0.

Tottenham Hotspur (0-1-2, 1, -3) vs. PSV Eindhoven (0-1-2, 1, -5)
Red Star Belgrade (0-1-2, 1, -9) vs. Liverpool (2-0-1, 6, +4)
Manchester City (2-0-1, 6, +4) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-1, 2, -3)

Champions League Match Day 3 Preview — Manchester United (1-1-0, 4, +3) vs. Juventus (2-0-0, 6, +5)

It has been nearly five years since the last time Cristiano Ronaldo faced his former team, eliminating Manchester United in the round of 16 in the Champions League with a goal at Old Trafford for Real Madrid.

Though the only thing at stake in Tuesday’s Group H clash in England is first place, interests of the football world and emotions for a newly minted Juventus version of Ronaldo are running high ahead of just his second contest at Old Trafford since leaving for the Bernabeu nearly a decade ago.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Ronaldo contributed to United’s prestige in his six seasons with Manchester United, winning three Premier League titles and the 2008 Champions League trophy while rising to superstardom. But at Real Madrid, that superstardom became all-encompassing and omnipresent as he helped Los Blancos to two La Liga titles and four Champions League titles — including the last three.

His first season with Juventus has gotten off to a fairly strong start, though this will be just his second Champions League contest with the Bianconeri. Ronaldo was given a red card in Juve’s opening victory for apparently pulling the hair of Valencia defender Jeison Murillo last month and missed their 3-0 victory over Young Boys earlier this month. It was the first Champions League red card in 154 matches for Ronaldo, who has the all-time scoring mark in Europe’s top club competition with 120 goals.

“It is special for me to return to Manchester,” Ronaldo said at Monday’s news conference. “Here I have many memories of victories and affection, and in particular with Sir Alex Ferguson, to whom I send a big hug. He is a person who helped me so much.”

While some of the talk has been about Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, much of the news conference was dominated by an allegation of rape in the summer of 2009 while in the United States. The story came back into the spotlight a month ago following an investigative article by the German newspaper Der Spiegel, and while Ronaldo did not directly address the allegations, he also struck a tone of defiance that implies he has been able to compartmentalize what takes place on the pitch and off it.

“We did the statement two weeks ago, if I’m not wrong,” Ronaldo said when pressed about the issue. “I am glad [about how it progresses]. Of course, I’m not going to lie in this situation, I’m very happy. My lawyers, they are confident and of course I am, too. The most important is I enjoy the football, I enjoy my life. The rest, I have people who take care of my life. Of course, the truth is always coming in the first position [eventually]. So, I’m good.”

It is hard to argue with him based on his recent performances for Juventus. The Portugal international has five goals and three assists in his last six Serie A matches and scored in Juve’s 1-1 tie versus Genoa on Saturday that marked the first time in nine matches they dropped points (8-1-0). The Bianconeri are the only unbeaten team in Serie A and are four points clear of Napoli through nine matches as they seek an eighth consecutive scudetto.

While Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic have taken care of the offence by scoring 13 of Juve’s 24 goals, Juve will be without centre-forward Mandzukic, who sprained his ankle in training and did not make the trip. Douglas Costa appears to be the most likely candidate to lead the line, though the Brasil international’s last Champions League goal came with Manchester United in the 2016-17 season.

Juve’s defence, meanwhile, have been their usual stingy selves, conceding just six goals in 11 matches across all competitions. That is even with the changing of the guard between the sticks from warhorse Gianluigi Buffon to Wojceich Szczesny, who has five clean sheets.

The Poland international has plenty of experience facing Manchester United from his days as the No. 1 with Arsenal, but he has not experienced too much success. Szczesny is 2-2-5 with two shutouts against United, but it also should be noted that eight of the 15 goals he has conceded in those matches came in an 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford in 2011.

Dybala was held out of the starting XI versus Genoa to nurse a knee injury, making a 20-minute cameo late, but had a hat trick in Juve’s win over Young Boys. The only other player in Juve’s regular rotation to not make the trip was midfielder Emre Can, who has been recovering from a thyroid problem.

Manchester United are still trying to find themselves, but some of the fight that has been lacking from the England powerhouse was on display in a 2-2 draw versus Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Always a charged atmosphere when manager Jose Mourinho returns to his former stomping grounds where he won three Premier League titles, United nearly escaped London with three points before a goal at the death by Ross Barkley relegated them to splitting them.

Anthony Martial accounted for both goals with a second-half brace, but it was the forward play of United in the second half that generated optimism for this contest. In some ways, it was similar to their 3-2 win over Newcastle United prior to the international break in which they overcame a two-goal deficit in the final 20 minutes, but that fight needs to be present for all 90 minutes as opposed to just fits and spurts.

“I think the first half we just started slow,” United striker Romelu Lukaku said at Monday’s news conference. “No initiative on the ball and no movement. But then in the second half we did everything we said we wanted to do in the first half. We do it always in the second half and that’s why we come back to get great results. But now the key is to start games how we start them in the second half, and maintain it as much as we can.”

United’s win over Newcastle is their only one over the last six matches in all competitions (1-4-1), but they have more clean sheets in Champions League play (2) than domestically (1). Mourinho has injury concerns as wingers Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard have been ruled out of this match along with midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Scott McTominay.

The lack of bodies forced Mourinho to use a 4-2-3-1 formation against Chelsea, something that could be replicated in this match with Juan Mata as the more forward playmaker and Pogba as a holding one alongside Nemanja Matic.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Juventus are 29/20 favourites to leave Old Trafford with all three points and a stranglehold on the group. United are 2/1 underdogs to claim a victory and the group lead ahead of the return engagement in Turin, and the odds of the teams splitting the points and leaving Juve ahead on goal difference halfway through group play are 21/10.

Despite Juve being listed as favourites, the match result with the lowest odds is a low-scoring draw at 11/4. A Juventus win over 2.5 goals has 10/3 odds, while one under 2.5 goals is 19/5. Manchester United posting a win with more than 2.5 goals checks in at 19/4, while a low-scoring victory for the hosts is slightly longer at 9/2.

Ronaldo is the oddsmakers’ favourite to score the first goal of the match in his return to Old Trafford at 4/1, followed by Dybala (5/1). Lukaku rounds out the top three while serving as United’s top option (11/2), with Marcus Rashford and Fernando Bernardeschi completing the top five at 13/2. Despite his brace at Chelsea, Martial has substantially long odds to make it 1-0 for the hosts at 8/1, which is behind the game ending without a goal-scorer (7/1) and teammate Alexis Sanchez and Juve’s Douglas Costa (15/2).

Ronaldo and Dybala also lead the line to score at any point in the match at 6/4 and 19/10 odds, respectively, while Lukaku is a 2/1 pick to run counter to his flat-track bully reputation and score for United. Rashford is a 5/2 choice to score while both Martial and Sanchez have 14/5 odds. On Juve’s side, Costa weighs in at 11/4, slightly behind Bernardeschi at 12/5.

PREDICTION

Based on United’s last two results and how they got there, the question of whether they can put together a complete 90 minutes remains the biggest issue facing them. If they play with the verve and nous of the second half they played against Chelsea, this could be a rollicking affair versus Ronaldo and Juventus. With the likelihood of Antonio Valencia at right back, though, there is a bit of a nod to defence with the realisation it will be a group effort to contain Ronaldo on the left.

It remains to be seen just how much of an impact Mandzukic’s absence makes considering he is second on Juve with three assists. The Croatia international is the grit between the smooth operators Ronaldo and Dybala, though the latter may not be 100 percent for this match. That means most of the playmaking duties will fall to midfielder Miralem Pjanic, who is plenty capable of the role considering he has two assists in Champions League play and four overall.

While Martial is in excellent form for United, Lukaku could very well be the difference between zero points and any for Mourinho’s side. The Belgium international has not scored in his last seven matches for the club and all four of his markers have come in league play. He will be going up against the well-seasoned tandem of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in central defence for Juve, which means it could be a long, frustrating night for Lukaku.

in the end, though, it always comes down to Ronaldo. United have no real good options at right back between Valencia and Ashley Young when it comes to containing Ronaldo’s pace, which means Matic and Chris Smalling must be cognizant of where the superstar is at all times, especially when he makes his darting runs into space since his straight-line speed must be respected.

If second-half United decide to play from the opening whistle, they should emerge with no worse than a draw. But expecting that to happen is pure speculation, and Juventus right now appear to be in too good a form to be slowed down at the moment.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 0, Juventus 2.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:

Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-0) vs. Manchester City (1-0-1)
PSV Eindhoven (0-0-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (0-0-2)
Liverpool (1-0-1) vs. Red Star Belgrade (0-1-1)