Europa League Match Day 4 Preview — BATE Borisov (1-0-2, 3, -3) vs. Chelsea (3-0-0, 9, +4)

Chelsea have a chance to wrap up the top spot in Group L of the Europa League on Thursday when they attempt a home-and-home sweep of BATE Borisov in Belarus.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues are still unbeaten under first-year manager Maurizio Sarri. In addition to grabbing the maximum nine points from their first three group matches, Chelsea are two points back of reigning champions Manchester City in the Premier League, in second place ahead of Liverpool on goal difference.

Sarri’s side, though, have had struggle finding goals in this competition with five goals in the three victories. The good news is they put three past the Tractor Boys at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, trigging their current four-match winning streak in all competitions in which they have piled up 13 goals after pulling away for a 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace last Sunday.

Eden Hazard, who had been slowed by a back injury that resulted in a three-match absence, came off the bench versus Palace and made an immediate contribution after has introduction by assisting on Alvaro Morata’s tie-breaking goal on 65 minutes.

It was Hazard’s fourth overall assist and his third in league play coming off the bench. The Belgium international has logged just 36 minutes in Europa League play, but Sarri included him on the roster to make the 3,200-mile round trip with an eye on finishing off qualification for the knockout round. The Pensioners will claim group honours with a victory and a draw by Midi and PAOK in the other match.

“According to our doctor there is not any risk, otherwise he would have stayed at Cobham, of course,” Sarri told the club’s official website. “We felt that for him it’s better to play, not for 90 minutes, but to play after two weeks of not playing.

“In the last match he played only for 30 minutes. The best way for him is that tomorrow he will play for 45 or 50 minutes.”

Somewhat surprising is who did not make the trip in Morata and midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Morata appeared to turn a corner with his brace, giving him six goals in all competitions, but Sarri saw this as an opportune time to give the Spaniard a breather having played all but 16 minutes in Chelsea’s last three matches while Olivier Giroud dealt with a knock.

Fabregas has been waylaid by an illness, prompting N’Golo Kante to make the trip. But since that is not the like-for-like switch that Sarri prefers, it appears Jorginho will serve as midfield metronome for the 4-3-3.

“We are in a perfect mood,” left midfielder Mateo Kovacic said. “We are doing good in our league and we are doing good in all competitions so this team wants to play football, we enjoy it, and every game we have an opportunity to show ourselves, so tomorrow we will be prepared and give our best to win the game.

“We are still unbeaten and we have not played at our highest level. We are with the coach only three months and of course it needs time to understand completely and to work on his football. I think we are doing a great job and I am sure in every training and every game we will be better and better.”

Sarri’s pattern of rotating his entire back line appears set to continue as Emerson, Andreas Christensen, Gary Cahill and David Zappacosta are likely to feature in front of Kepa Arrizabalaga.

BATE, who have wrapped up their 13th consecutive domestic title, have won three on the bounce since their loss to Chelsea and are coming off a 1-0 victory over Neman Grodno on Sunday. Yevegniy Berezkin came off the bench in the 77th minute and scored the winner two minutes from time.

The Tractor Boys have lost their last two group matches after winning at Midi, and the seven goals shipped in those two defeats have left them at the bottom of Group L at the halfway point. BATE will be keen to contain Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who ran riot in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge and accounted for all of Chelsea’s offence in the 3-0 victory.

We have followed all the games Chelsea have played. Videoton played well, had plenty of chances and could have got a different result. They are an example for us,” BATE manager Alyaksey Baha told BT Sport. “We analyse the games (against Arsenal) so we learnt from our mistakes. Now, a year later we are here in England, in London, playing against a top club, and we hope for a better result this time.”

Chelsea have outshot opponents 73-15 through the first three matches of group play and have won six consecutive Europa League matches dating back to a loss to Ruben Kazan in 2013. BATE have just two wins in their last 15 Europa League matches (2-5-8) while shipping 33 goals.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are decided favourites to make the group a fait accompli with 4/11 odds to take home all three points. There are 15/4 odds for the teams to split the points, while hosts BATE are a 17/2 pick to pull off an upset and improve their chances of getting out of the group.

The Blues are almost even money to win with a result of more than 2.5 goals at 21/20, while a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline — they posted a 0-1 result at PAOK in their other group play contest on the road — has a 5/2 return. The odds of a deadlock at 0-0 and 1-1 are 15/4, while BATE has 16/1 odds for a victory on either side of the 2.5 threshold.

Oddsmakers have listed nine Chelsea players and the “no goal-scorer” ahead of BATE’s top option for the first goal of the match. Eden Hazard leads the line at 16/5, while Chelsea’s strikers Morata and Olivier Giroud are joint-second at 7/2. Willian follows at 9/2, edging out Callum Hudson-Odoi and fellow winger Pedro (5/1). Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek lurk slightly further back at 6/1. The top picks for BATE are Nikolai Signevich and Igor Stasevich at 12/1.

No one on Chelsea is better than even money to score, though Hazard (21/2), Morata and Giroud (both 23/20) are close. Willian is also a favourite among the oddsmakers at 8/5 while Hudson-Odoi and Pedro (both 7/4) and Loftus-Cheek and Barkley (19/10) also have shorter odds than 2/1. Signevich (7/2) edges out Stasevich (4/1) for the top BATE option to put one in the back of the net.

PREDICTION

One of the more interesting things about Chelsea is that they are as capable of grinding down opponents for a 1-0 victory or cruising by them 3-0. This match has the feel of the former given Chelsea’s previous road exploits in group play and the fact Sarri has committed to rotating his players more consistently, evidenced by changing over his back line and finding a way to get Loftus-Cheek involved.

By bringing Kante for Fabregas, it is possible the midfield could be Loftus-Cheek, Kovacic and Kante from left to right. Regardless of the trio, the primary task besides scoring must be to get Olivier Giroud involved in his return. The France international has four assists, tied for the most among Chelsea players — but has yet to open his scoring account.

The fact Chelsea have gone 16 matches without a loss and without a goal from Giroud is a testament not only to the talent the Pensioners have but also just how well they have taken to Sarri’s tactics and how well he has quickly figured out this squad.

Hazard likely will not become a factor in this match until the hour mark, unless Chelsea are trailing at the interval, and then the 45-minute estimation Sarri offered would come into play. Otherwise, this reeks of a blue-collar match in which Chelsea will control the ball similar to the 60 percent possession they had at Stamford Bridge. It would seem less likely Loftus-Cheek will strike for another hat trick, but one goal could be enough to see off the Tractor Boys.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: BATE Borisov 0, Chelsea 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Sporting CP (2-0-1, 6, +2)

Europa League Match Day 4 Preview — Arsenal (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Sporting CP (2-0-1, 6, +2)

Arsenal have a chance to wrap up first place in Group E of the Europa League on Thursday when they attempt a sweep of their home-and-home set against Sporting CP.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Gunners have the maximum nine points through their first three group matches, including a 1-0 road win a fortnight ago on Denny Welbeck’s goal on 78 minutes. That was part of Arsenal’s 11-match winning streak which came to an end in their following contest with a draw at Crystal Palace.

But the unbeaten streak continues and is now at 14 matches (12-2-0) after a 1-1 draw at home versus Liverpool on Saturday. Alexander Lacazette assured the Gunners a split of the points with his equaliser in the 82nd minute, though Arsenal were also the beneficiaries of a disallowed goal that should have been allowed to stand in the first half prior to Liverpool taking the lead through James Milner.

“It was an intense game,” keeper Bernd Leno told the club’s official website. “It was a good game for the fans and we also played very well. I think we deserved to win but the draw is OK because Liverpool are a big team. The way we played was very good.

“I think today we saw that we can play our way against big teams. We controlled Liverpool. We played out from the back. It was not just lucky or lucky things to create from. We played the ball with passes from behind and that’s the way we want to play.”

While it was not a win, many regarded the draw against Liverpool as a positive result since it was a valid measuring stick contest given Arsenal had not played any of England’s “Big Six” since opening the season with losses to Manchester City and Arsenal.

The draw, in which Emery chased the victory late with his attacking substitutions, offered a tangible mark of progress Emery has made in his first season with the club in terms of changing the culture and match preparations of the north London side.

While it took Arsenal 83 minutes to break down Sporting in the reverse fixture, they had the better of the chances in Portugal as they put six of their shots on target before Welbeck notched his winner. The Gunners also did not permit any of Sporting’s 14 shots to trouble Leno, but with the prospects of continuing to mix and match his personnel on the back four due to injuries, Emery is expecting another tough battle.

“Of course the first [target] for us is to finish first in this group,” Emery said at Wednesday’s news conference. “Tomorrow is a very important match because they are second in the table and if we win, we are first in the group. That’s our clear target tomorrow.”

Hector Bellerin shook off a knock that forced him off at halftime of Arsenal’s draw against Crystal Palace to play all 90 minutes versus Liverpool, and it is possible the right back could give way to veteran Stephen Lichtsteiner since Arsenal have a margin of error atop the group. Emery will also get a boost with the expected return of left back Nacho Monreal, who missed the last five contests due to a hamstring injury. Emery was pressed so thin he had moved midfielder Granit Xhaka to left back for a couple of contests.

There likely will be changes across the board to Emery’s first XI, with Guendouzi and Aaron Ramsey potentially reunited as Arsenal’s holding midfielders. There could also be room for Iwobi on the right flank with Welbeck in the playmaking role.

Sporting are in third place in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, two points behind Porto and Braga, but they have won just two of their last five matches in all competitions. Sporting bounced back from a cup elimination at the hands of Estoril Praira with a 2-1 victory at Santa Clara last Sunday.

Bas Dost started Sporting’s rally with a penalty in the 62nd minute before Marcos Acuna grabbed the match-winner on the stroke of the final quarter-hour. It was a welcome return to the starting XI for Bost, whose last start before Sunday came Aug. 28. But as one player returned for Sporting, they are expected to be without midfielder Rodrigo Battaglia, who had to leave Sunday’s win after just 30 minutes.

Jovane Cabral, who appeared as a second-half substitute Sunday, is expected to fill the spot on the right side for Tiago Manuel Matos da Costa Fernandes.

“We know how good a team Arsenal are, especially at home,” the Sporting gaffer said Wednesday. “But we want to bring joy to the supporters that we’re bringing to their stadium. The players have been training fantastically, with a lot of professionalism, and that makes me proud to represent the club in this competition.

“If we make any mistakes, Arsenal will try and punish us. We need to be organised and cohesive. The key is to play for ourselves.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are prohibitive favourites to claim all three points and wrap up the top spot in the group with 3/10 odds to win. There are 21/5 odds for a split of the points, and a Sporting victory to keep their hopes of topping the group alive are 9/1.

Oddsmakers are also expecting the Gunners to rack up a few goals, giving them 20/23 odds to win with a total goal count above 2.5. There are also 11/4 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline to the hosts. Sporting have 16/1 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals and 20/1 for a shock 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. There are 11/2 odds on a low-scoring draw, while oddsmakers give a 2-2 deadlock or higher the same odds on a Sporting victory above 2.5 goals — 16/1.

Lacazette leads a list of nine Arsenal players for first-goal honours before Sporting’s Bas Dost can be found on the betting sheet. The France international has 3/1 odds to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal, closely trailed by Aubameyang at 16/5. Denny Welbeck rounds out the top three slots at 7/2, ahead of Eddie Nketiah (4/1) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Playmakers Ramsey and Ozil are paired together at 13/2, a touch ahead of Emile Smith-Rowe at 7/1.

After Dost, Montero is the next Sporting option for a 0-1 scoreline with 12/1 odds.

Arsenal’s forward tandem of Lacazette and Aubameyang are better than even money to put one in the back of the net during the match, getting 10/11 and 19/20 odds, respectively, to score over the 90 minutes. Welbeck is near even money at 23/20, while Nektiah is 5/4. Mkhitaryan is also below 2/1 odds, checking in with a 13/8 return.

Sporting’s top three options or Bost, Montero and Nani, with Bost leading the way at 14/5, while Montero and the one-time United winger Nani both listed at 7/2.

PREDICTION

With the international break on the horizon, Arsenal must resist the urge to sprint to Sunday’s league contest against struggling Wolverhampton and, as Emery said, “to give a big match our personality.” While it is not the blooding of youth predecessor Arsene Wenger did previously with this tournament, Emery has developed a rotation that has slowly climbed near 20 players who he can count on without a troublesome fall-off.

That will be the case here as Emery could conceivably make as many as nine changes from his Liverpool XI around his central defence pairing of Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi. It likely will not reach that total, but Iwobi is one player who is starting to become a more integral part of the attacking unit behind the primary four as evidenced by his assist on Lacazette’s equaliser.

This could be another chance to steal a rest for some of his league regulars, primarily midfielders Lucas Torreira and Mesut Ozil. Emery has almost always put the right foot forward when it comes to his attacking substitutions, and given Arsenal’s current form, none of his choices on the sidelines are bad ones.

Sporting do not necessarily have to sit back and absorb pressure in this contest — they have a three-point lead over Vorskla for second in the group and already recorded a 2-1 victory at the Hungarian side last month. Sporting also have a solid advantage in goal difference, and another 1-0 loss to the Gunners will be far from the end of the world.

The problem is Arsenal are in far too fine a form to be held to just one goal, especially at home. Look for the Gunners to take care of business and book a spot in the knockout round in relatively easy fashion.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 4, Sporting CP 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

BATE (1-0-2, 3, -3) vs. Chelsea (3-0-0, 9, +4)

Champions League Match Day 4 Preview — Manchester City (2-0-1, 6, +4) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-1, 2, -3)

Even without their most creative player, Manchester City have shown they have more than enough ways to find goals of late. The Citizens look to take a huge step in advancing out of Group F of the Champions League on Wednesday when they look to sweep their home-and-home set versus Shakhtar Donetsk.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

After an initial stumble at home versus Lyon, City have regrouped with back-to-back wins to move atop the group with six points at the halfway point, one better than the French side. Pep Guardiola’s team also have a plus-3 goal difference, the best in Group F after swatting aside the Ukraine side 3-0 a fortnight ago.

That victory is part of a five-match run in all competitions that was extended Sunday with a 6-1 thrashing of Southampton. Raheem Sterling had two goals and two assists while Sergio Aguero chipped on a goal while helping on two others as City moved on quickly in response to losing winger Kevin De Bruyne for a prolonged period for the second time this season.

The Belgium international is expected to miss at least four weeks with a knee injury suffered late in City’s mid-week victory over Fulham in the Carabao Cup, but the front line more than picked up the slack as Leroy Sane made the most of his turn in the rotation with a goal and an assist.

About the only negative was City’s shutout streak in league play ending at 10 1/2 hours after Danny Ings converted a penalty on the half-hour for the Saints. City, who have scored 17 goals during their current win streak, have shipped just seven in 16 matches across all competitions. And ever the perfectionist, Guardiola saw plenty to pick apart from his side despite the lopsided win that moved them two points clear atop the table.

“Without the ball we conceded a lot.,” he said. “We conceded a lot of corners, free kicks and they have the best corner-taker in the Premier League,” he told the club’s official website. “It’s always dangerous, but of course I am so satisfied with the result and performance.

“At 3-1, they created problems for us. Their crosses were always dangerous, and we had problems controlling long balls. Scoring in the last minute of the first-half made it better for us in the second. Southampton, I felt, could score more. But at the same time, we also could have scored more goals.”

While most news between matches off the pitch revolves around who is and who isn’t starting each match for City, there is a fresh new round of controversy involving the club’s finances after leaked documents were part of a report in Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine. The documents showed that a substantial portion of sponsorship money — £59.5 million of an estimated £67.5 million — that was supposed to come from Etihad actually came from the club’s ownership group, which would be a violation of UEFA’s fair play principles.

While Europe’s football governing body has yet to offer a comment on the story, it is possible an investigation could be re-launched. City were fined approximately £17.5 million in 2014 for breaching FFP rules, and further leaked documents from that same article showed a secret agreement between current FIFA president and then-UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino which allowed City to avoid a Champions League ban.

The club released a statement last week reading “We will not be providing any comment on out of context materials purported to have been hacked or stolen from City Football Group and Manchester City personnel and associated people. The attempt to damage the club’s reputation is organised and clear.”

City did field close to a full first-choice lineup versus Southampton, and Guardiola gave late run-outs to Vincent Kompany, Fabian Delph and Phil Foden. Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus were unused substitutes, and with the Manchester derby looming this weekend versus eternal rivals United, it would not be surprising to see Jesus leading the line like he did in the reverse fixture in search of his first goal in six matches.

In that 3-0 win over Donetsk, Guardiola did some experimenting as he used Nicolas Otamendi in central defence and let centre back John Stones play out wide on the right. With a chance to put a hammerlock on the group, Guardiola likely will play a more straightforward back four.

One other side note for this match has been the home support for Champions League matches by City supporters. Guardiola has been on record about wanting a more vocal backing at the Etihad, though City supporters have had a long-running antagonism against UEFA and boo the Champions League anthem that is played before kick-off.

Guardiola has seen the empty seats during group play both this term and last — City have averaged nearly 10,000 shy of a sellout in their 55,000-seat stadium in the last four home Champions League contests in group play — and noted before the reverse fixture to The Times that “still we don’t have that feeling, the feeling that the fans are pushing that we have to win the Champions League.”

City are also trying to avoid a dubious feat, as a loss would make them the first English side to lose four consecutive Champions League home contests. They lost what was essentially a dead second-leg rubber to Basel before their quarterfinal exit at the hands of Liverpool and lost to Lyon to open group play this term.

Shakhtar Donetsk continues to rule the Ukrainian Premier League and have won their three matches since losing at home to City. They are coming off a 2-1 victory over Dynamo Kyiv last weekend that extended their lead atop the table to eight points through 14 matches.

After conceding late in the first half to Mykola Shaparenko, Junior Moraes pulled Shakhtar level nine minutes after the interval against his former team and Viktor Kovalenko scored a 95th-minute winner against a 10-man Kyiv side in a testy match that saw nine yellow cards issued in total along with the double booking of defender Tomasz Kedziora three minutes before Kovalenko’s winner.

“All the players did well today,” the 22-year-old Kovalenko told the club’s official website. “In the scoring episode, I received the ball having the possibility to net one, and it worked, I reckon, just spectacularly. This may be one of my most beautiful goals for Shakhtar.”

Moraes has 11 goals in 13 matches across all competitions and seven in his last eight games. Marlos is second with six goals but is looking to end a five-match scoring drought.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, City are overwhelming favourites to break their duck at home and have 1/10 odds to claim all three points. Even a draw seems unlikely to oddsmakers at 17/2, while Shakhtar are 25/1 underdogs to pull off an upset that would turn the group into chaos.

City are also expected to pump a few goals past Andriy Pyatov, getting 2/5 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals scored. They are a 7/2 pick to win either 1-0 or 2-0, and a low-scoring draw checks in at 11/1. A 2-2 deadlock or higher is 28/1, while the Shakhtar longshots read as: 45/1 with a victory over 2.5 goals and 60/1 for a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline.

Aguero leads a lengthy list of nine City players who are more likely to score the first goal of the match before top Shakhtar option Moraes at 14/1. Aguero is listed at 23/10 despite the strong likelihood he might not start, while potential replacement Jesus is the second choice at 13/5. Sterling and Mahrez are together at 7/2, with Leroy Sane lurking behind them at 9/2.

Aguero, Jesus, Sterling, and Mahrez are all better than even money to score during the course of the match, ranging from Aguero at 4/9 to Mahrez at 10/11. Sane is just off even money at 6/5, and both Silvas are better than 2/1 to score as Bernardo is 7/4 and David is 9/5. Moraes again is Shakhtar’s top option at 10/3. with Marlos second-best at 5/1.

PREDICTION

What was supposed to be a straightforward match in which City all but assure themselves of advancing and overturn their rotation enough to have as many first-choice players available for the Manchester derby has turned into something much larger and perhaps more nefarious if the findings alleged in the Der Spiegel are true.

There may not be any short-term ramifications as City try to progress further than last year’s quarterfinal exit, but there could be very serious and lasting long-term repercussions for the club should Europe’s governing soccer body and even the English FA come down with punitive measures.

For Guardiola, the potential distraction of the article comes at the worst possible time with these two matches, more so for Sunday’s tilt versus United. For this match, however, it is a chance for Jesus and Mahrez to get themselves a good lather to be available for Sunday’s contest, and maybe give Aguero and Ilkay Gundogan a late run-out. Of course, Guardiola might go all guns blazing for this match as a response for the article, and create an insurmountable goal difference for the last two matches.

Shakhtar’s primary goal will be to limit the damage and potentially steal a late marker after the result is decided. That, however, would also be wildly optimistic considering City played their best match of the three in the Ukraine a fortnight ago and can now put them to the sword at home.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 5, Shakhtar Donetsk 0.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

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

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 4 Preview — Red Star Belgrade (0-1-2, 1, -9) vs. Liverpool (2-0-1, 6, +4)

Liverpool have the opportunity to put themselves in prime position to advance from Group C of the Champions League on Tuesday if they can complete a home-and-home sweep of last-place Red Star Belgrade.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Liverpool are atop the group on six points through three matches and also have the joint-best goal difference with PSG at plus-4. The Reds are one point better than Napoli and two better than the French side after the first set of three matches and walloped Red Star 4-0 at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp’s team put 12 of their 22 shots on goal and limited Red Star to two shots for the match.

Domestically, however, Liverpool are coming off a 1-1 draw at Arsenal that dropped them two points back of front-running Manchester City. The Reds were unlucky to have a goal chalked off incorrectly for offsides, but James Milner gave them a chance for all three points by lashing a shot past Bernd Leno just after the hour, but Arsenal gained a split of the points eight minutes from time through Alexander Lacazette.

The biggest surprise among the players named for this match making the trip is the omission of in-form winger Xherdan Shaqiri. The Switzerland international and native of Kosovo caused a stir during the Swiss’ World Cup match against Serbia when he celebrated his goal by making a double eagle gesture, which is the national symbol for Kosovo.

Klopp opted to remove all potential for a distraction with Shaqiri’s presence, which would have undoubtedly riled what will likely be a very lively and partisan Rajko Mitic Stadium.

“We have heard and read the speculation and talk about what kind of reception Shaq would receive and although we have no idea what would happen, we want to go there and be focused 100 per cent on football and not have to think about anything else, that’s all,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website.

“We are keen to be respectful and keen to avoid any distractions that would take focus away from a 90-minute-plus contest that is important for football and only football. So for that reason, Shaq is not involved and he accepts and understands this. Shaq is our player, we love him, and he will play for us a lot of times, but not on Tuesday.”

Two players who will return are centre back Dejan Lovren and midfielder Naby Keita. Keita has missed Liverpool’s last four matches with a hamstring injury while Lovren did not make the 18-man roster for the Arsenal match as Klopp opted to pair Virgil Van Dijk with Joe Gomez in central defence.

Liverpool, though, will again be without talisman and midfielder Jordan Henderson as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury as well.

While Red Star may be at the bottom of the group and suffering defensively after shipping 10 goals in the last two matches, their home form implies this will be a difficult task for Liverpool in prying all three points from the Serbian side. Red Star, who opened group play with a 0-0 draw versus Napoli, are unbeaten in their last 28 (23-5-0) at Rajko Mitic since a loss to Arsenal more than a year ago in Europa League group play.

“I said it after the first game, I saw it in that game – we were really good that night and if we would have been a little bit less good then immediately Red Star would have been in the game,” Klopp said. But, that night, we were really strong and that was good. We have to be very strong tomorrow again, football-wise.

“Atmosphere… we are from Liverpool so we know how big the influence can be. The only way I know to cool the atmosphere down is playing really good football. That’s what we have to try; to be ready for a fight and ready for a big game.

Domestically, Red Star have been imperious with just two dropped points from 15 matches and have won three on the trot since the loss at Anfield. They are coming off a 2-0 road victory over Novi Sad on Saturday. The hosts gifted Red Star a lead on nine minutes through an own goal by Aleksandar Andrejevic before Ben El Fardou Nabouhane put the game out of reach just before the hour.

While shipping just four goals at home this season, Red Star have posted just one clean sheet there in their last five league contests. Milan Pavkov and Richmond Boakeye share the team lead in league play with five goals. Nabouhane’s goal was his fourth in the Super Liga and team-best 10th in all competitions.

Though Red Star are decided underdogs for this match, manager Vladan Milojevic is hoping the side, with the support of the home crowd, can turn back the clock to their glory days of yesteryear to pull off a shock scoreline and muddle a group where no one has broken away.

“For the club, Belgrade, Serbia and the whole region tomorrow is an important occasion, and we are looking forward to a spectacle. We will try to make the best of the game,” Milojevic told a press conference.

“Liverpool are a favourite, no matter what. They are one of the main contenders to win the Champions League; the team is made to attack for the title. We need to be concentrated all the time, because every pause and the smallest little thing is immediately punished.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are decisive favourites to claim a sweep of this home-and-home set, installed at 2/11 odds to claim all three points. Red Star are 16/1 longshots to pull off the shock verdict, and even a draw seems far-fetched with 11/2 odds.

Liverpool are again expected to put up goals, getting 4/6 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals in the match. The Reds also have 27/10 odds for a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline to bring back to England. There are 7/1 odds on a draw with less than 2.5 goals, and a 2-2 draw has better odds (22/1) than a Red Star victory with more than 2.5 goals (28/1) and less than the 2.5 threshold (33/1).

Despite being on the road, Liverpool have the first nine options on the toteboard for first-goal selections. Mohamed Salah leads the way at 13/5, while Sadio Mane and Daniel Sturridge — who could get the start over Firmino — are 7/2. Speaking of Firmino, he and Divock Origi are paired together at 4/1, followed by a parade of Liverpool midfielders — Adam Lallana, Keita, Georginio Wijnaldum and Milner — all between 15/2 and 12/1. Boakye and Pavkov are Red Star’s top picks at 14/1, while Ben Nabouhane is third at 16/1.

Salah is better than even money to put one in the back of the net at 7/10, while Sturridge is even money. Firmino (6/5) and Origi (5/4) are just off that pace, with Milner an intriguing pick at 7/2 as Liverpool’s usual penalty taker. Boakye (7/2) is rated slightly higher than Ben Nabouhane and Pavkov, who are both 4/1 on getting one by Alisson.

PREDICTION

While Liverpool get a break at the weekend with a Fulham side in horrid form, this is a contest that could prove tricky. The Reds are nearing the end of an exhausting stretch of matches that included two high-intensity league contests versus City and Arsenal around the first win over Red Star.

The decision to leave Shaqiri behind, in theory, should not make that much of a difference given the depth in attack Klopp has, but lineup selection could make this too clever by half. There has been talk of Firmino being dropped for Sturridge — the Brasil international has one goal in his last nine matches (though he nearly had one against Arsenal) — and could be in need of a break. Liverpool have looked slightly fatigued, and the international break is coming at an ideal time.

Red Star will likely come out aggressive in the first half-hour, but the challenge will come after that to maintain that energy the final hour. The Serbian side are obviously a different one at home than on the road, but the gulf in class was clearly evident in both the reverse fixture and at PSG where they shipped six. Expect more resiliency from Red Star, but ultimately, the same victor.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Red Star 0, Liverpool 2.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

Tottenham Hotspur (0-1-2, 1, -3) vs. PSV Eindhoven (0-1-2, 1, -5)
Juventus (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Manchester United (1-1-1, 4, +2)
Manchester City (2-1-0, 6, +4) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-1, 2, -3)

Europa League Match Day 2 Preview: Chelsea (1-0-0, +1, 1-0) vs. MOL Vidi FC (0-0-1, -2, 0-2)

After a highly productive week in which Chelsea proved themselves worthy of being counted among the Premier League title contenders, Maurizio Sarri’s team look to keep the good times rolling Thursday when they host Hungarian side MOL Vidi FC at Stamford Bridge.

POTENTIAL XIs

Chelsea enjoyed a blazing start under Sarri, winning their first six matches in all competitions that included a workmanlike 1-0 victory at Greek side PAOK. But some doubts were raised after a dour 0-0 draw at West Ham United in which the Blues’ 4-3-3 attack was largely stymied by a disciplined Irons side in two banks of four.

Some could argue West Ham deserved a victory and let Chelsea off the hook when Andriy Yarmolenko missed a sitter of a header late. The competition level ramped up again with a pair of matches against Champions League runners-up Liverpool, one in the Carabao Cup and another in league play in which the full depth of Sarri’s squad would be tested.

In the Carabao Cup, Chelsea ended Liverpool’s 100 percent run with a 2-1 victory at Anfield, with Eden Hazard providing the razor-thin margin of separation with a jaw-dropping individual effort for the match-winner on 85 minutes, tearing through half of Liverpool’s defence before beating Simon Mingolet.

The Premier League tussle in London provided more of the high-quality football that showed Chelsea are definitely among those who can ask questions of the league’s best, including reigning champions Manchester City. Hazard continued terrorising opposing differences, racing onto an exquisite through ball by Mateo Kovacic and beat Alisson across goal inside the right corner on 25 minutes.

This time, however, the world-class goal belonged to Liverpool, who received a stunning equaliser by Daniel Sturridge, whose left-footed rocket from 25 yards found the perfect spot of space over the outstretched hand of Kepa Arrizabalaga and just underneath the upper right 90 in the 89th minute as the sides split the points in a highly entertaining 1-1 draw.

After two high-intensity matches, Sarri has signaled he is going to turn over a good portion of his starting XI for this match so they can rest ahead of Sunday’s clash at Southampton. Conceivably, the Italian manager can overturn his entire lineup from the one that drew Liverpool, but there is a definite curiosity for him to try out Cesc Fabregas in Jorginho’s role as the deep-lying midfielder who doubles as the hub of all offence.

“Cesc did very well in the last 30 minutes in Greece and very well for 90 minutes in Liverpool,” Sarri told the club’s official website, referring to the Spaniard’s effort in the Carabao Cup. “He has to improve his physical condition of course but he is a great option in this position. Cesc is very good in moving the ball, like Jorginho, more than Jorginho, so we don’t need to change the style of football with Fabregas.”

Chelsea’s midfield could get an entire makeover, with Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek also likely to feature on either side of Fabregas. For the latter, it has been a disappointing lack of playing time after contributing to England’s run to the World Cup semifinal as a bustling midfielder off the bench.

Loftus-Cheek, a full-time starter last season on loan at Crystal Palace and had wanted to return to Selhurst Park knowing his spot was still there, has played just 33 minutes in two appearances and has not played in Chelsea’s last five matches due to both injuries and Sarri’s preferences.

Barkley, on the other hand, has flourished under the Italian’s tutelage and emerged as Kovacic’s understudy on the left side of the midfield in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation. He is hoping to get a call-up to England’s national side for the upcoming international break — potentially at Loftus-Cheek’s expense — and praised the coach for elevating his technical understanding of the game.

“Over the years I haven’t been coached much and I am at an age now where I understand football a lot more and I know how important it is to take the different tactics from different managers on board,” Barkley told The Times. “I feel like right now I am ready to understand every aspect of the game.

“When I broke into the Everton side under Roberto Martínez, I was playing in the No 10 role and I had never played there before from when I was developing through the academy to the first team. I was getting used to that role as a first-team player but usually I was a No 8 or, before I broke my leg, I was a deep-lying midfield player. I have always been a centre midfielder, either in a two or a three, and now I am in a three and I feel really comfortable with that.”

MOL Vidi, formerly known as Videoton before changing sponsors in the offseason, are at the bottom of Group L after opening with a 2-0 loss to BATE Borisov. Vidi are currently third in the domestic table through eight matches, eight points adrift of Ferencavros, and have won three contests on the bounce heading into this meeting.

They are coming off a 1-0 victory at Diosygor on Sunday, riding a 69th-minute goal by Szabolcs Huszti. Vidi talisman Juhasz Roland is making his first appearance in England in over a decade, last doing so with Belgian side Anderlecht, and is excited to see how his side stacks up with one of Europe’s heavyweight clubs.

“I was here around 13 years ago with Anderlecht, but so much has changed since then. I was at the start of my career back then, and I am now heading towards the end,” said Roland, the 35-year-old defender with two goals on the season, to the club’s official website. “I am pleased that I can be here again, which is why I signed for Vidi back then. Chelsea are the favourites but we can measure where we are against them. We must be fully focused throughout and if we are not, we will be punished. We want to enjoy every minute of the game.”

Vidi have scored 16 goals in league play, with Huszti and Marko Scepovic pacing the side with three goals apiece. Marko’s younger brother Stefan has also bagged a goal for the Hungary squad.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are overwhelming favourites to win and stay unbeaten at 1/12 odds. Even a split of the points seems like a far-fetched fantasy to oddsmakers, who have installed a draw at 10/1 odds, which is far shorter than a shock scoreline of Vidi winning, which is 22/1.

Oddsmakers are expecting Chelsea to run rampant, even with a second-choice lineup, as a hosts win with more than 2.5 goals has 4/11 odds. Even a soft 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline in favour of Chelsea has a 7/2 return. The odds of a 0-0 or 1-1 draw are a distant 12/1, which pales in comparison to a Vidi win with more than 2.5 goals (60/1) or less (70/1). Chelsea are also getting 6/10 odds to win with a clean sheet.

Alvaro Morata is one of three Chelsea players listed at 11/4 to score the match’s first goal, but the Spaniard is the only expected starter of the trio as both Hazard and Olivier Giroud join him. In fact, 14 of 16 potential Chelsea outfield players are listed as more likely to score the first goal of this contest before finding Marko Scepovic on the toteboard at 16/1.

A whopping four Chelsea players are better than even money to score during this match, with Pedro (5/6) joining the aforementioned trio of Morata (4/7), Giroud (4/7) and frontrunner Hazard (8/15). Another two — Willian and Callam Hudson-Odoi — are even money. Scepovic is again Vidi’s top option at a more modest 4/1 to help his side avoid a shutout.

PREDICTION

This will be a case of Chelsea being able to “veni and vici” Vidi, with the only question the margin of victory. It is a chance for Sarri to see his full squad and also see who is absorbing the new system he has installed beyond his top 13 outfield players since Barkley, Pedro and Morata are pigeonholed as his primary three substitutes in his 18-man group.

In a bigger picture, this is a very important match for Loftus-Cheek, who may be better served leaving the squad in January via transfer given how well-defined this squad is in order to make sure he does not fall too far down the pecking order for Gareth Southgate’s England squad. It also is a chance for Fabregas to prove his worth to Sarri, who has taken the same tack he did with Hazard earlier in this season regarding conditioning in adjusting to his higher-tempo style.

So in a perfect world, Chelsea win comfortably, no one gets injured and Sarri only has things to nit-pick about as opposed to worry his lessons are not taking hold. With the international break coming after Sunday’s match versus Southampton, Chelsea have an excellent opportunity to remain unbeaten during that sojourn, and it starts with this match.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 4, Vidi 0.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 2 PREVIEWS:

Qarabag FK (0-0-1) vs. Arsenal (1-0-0)

 

 

 

Champions League Match Day 2 Preview — Napoli (0-1-0, 0, 0-0) vs. Liverpool (1-0-0, +1, 3-2)

Liverpool learned they were not perfect in a pair of matches against Chelsea last week, and they look to apply those lessons to maintain a 100 percent record in Champions League play Wednesday when they face Napoli at Stadio San Paolo.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Liverpool’s run of seven wins in as many matches that included a wild 3-2 win over Paris-St. Germain to open their Champions League campaign came to an end with a pulsating 2-1 loss at home to Chelsea in the Carabao Cup despite the teams playing largely overturned sides. The match was decided on a moment of individual brilliance by Eden Hazard late in the contest in which he danced through half of Liverpool’s defence.

The return encounter at Stamford Bridge, played with their full first-choice lineups, was of high calibre play throughout the pitch. Like the previous match, it turned on a moment of individual brilliance, but it belonged to a Liverpool player as substitute Daniel Sturridge belted a world-class left-footed goal from 25 yards that found the absolute perfect spot of space beyond the reach of Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and the upper right corner on 89 minutes to give the Merseysiders a 1-1 draw to remain level with Premier League leaders Manchester City on points.

Since Liverpool play the reigning champions Sunday — the first match between the sides since the Reds swept City aside in two legs of the Champions League quarterfinals last term — manager Jurgen Klopp considered making some changes, but he also has no injury concerns heading into this contest.

“It’s no problem. It’s really difficult to think about anything other than the next game – we only think about the next game, but not the next game after the next game! It is always like this,” Klopp explained to Liverpoolfc.com during the team flight. “In the moment it is all fine and we have to use it. We will see, maybe we will make one or two changes or whatever – maybe more – but it’s all about this game. It’s the only way I understand it.

“We are in good shape, we have good rhythm and that’s something we have to use so let’s try our best. It’s not that you can say, ‘OK, Champions League in Naples, I will make five or six changes’ and then for City you make six changes again, then who are the other six because the six that played already, they cannot play on Sunday… it’s difficult really. We will think about this game and then we will see who we can use for City.”

One of the few potential changes that Klopp could make is to give Dejan Lovren his second start of the season after the Croatia international made his debut in the Carabao Cup loss to Chelsea. He was allowed to rehab a muscle injury conservatively following the World Cup as Joe Gomez — the centre back he would conceivably replace in such a swap — formed a solid partnership with Virgil van Dijk.

While Sturridge will not displace the trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, he likely has moved ahead of Xherdan Shaqiri in the pecking order as first-choice substitute with three goals in his last four matches.

“I don’t know what he did in his pre-season but he was quite fit, and during the season he just showed he is really important for us, not only because of his goals but also the way he is playing,” Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum said at Tuesday’s news conference. “Against Paris Saint-Germain, we saw Sturridge playing in a way we didn’t see before, defending, [and] he switched positions with one of the front three and did their job. He is really, really good in shape, fit, in form and I think he deserves to be in the England squad.”

While Liverpool have mainly found success, Napoli are still transitioning to life under well-traveled manager Carlo Ancelotti, who replaced Maurizio Sarri after he departed for Chelsea and is no stranger to the pressure-cooker of Champions League life.

The Little Donkeys again are emerging as the primary threat to Juventus’ hegemony in Serie A, trailing the hard-charging and perfect Biaconeri by six points through the first seven matches. The teams had their first meeting in Turin on Saturday, and after Dries Mertens staked Napoli to an early lead in the 10th minute, Cristiano Ronaldo had his biggest impact in domestic play since signing from Real Madrid in the offseason, assisting on a pair of goals as Mario Mandzukic had a brace and consigned Napoli to a 3-1 defeat.

The loss ended a four-match unbeaten streak in all competitions, including a 0-0 draw at Red Star Belgrade a fortnight ago that opened their Champions League adventure, but Ancelotti insisted a failure to get a result here would not doom his side despite the obvious quality in opposition looming as they play PSG in their next two continental matches.

“It’s an important game, but not decisive,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference. “It would be massive for us to get the three points because we weren’t able to get them against Red Star. It’s always nice to play in these games – football is about these exciting matches. We need to be focused but also maintain a level of calm so that we can showcase our qualities.”

“We need to improve the way we handle periods when we’re under pressure. We needed to do that better against Juventus and we hope to improve on that tomorrow.”

The Little Donkeys will have their full attacking contingent at the ready with Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne leading the line, backed by talented midfielders Marek Hamsik and Piotr Zielinski on the left. Insigne has a team-high five goals, while Arkadiusz Milik will serve as supersub with three markers of his own.

Liverpool will be shooting at a familiar face in goal for Napoli as former Arsenal No. 2 David Ospina will be between the sticks as the Colombia international was sent out on loan after the Gunners acquired Bernd Leno in the summer.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are solid favourites to return to England with three points at 11/10 odds, with hosts Napoli checking in at 23/10. The odds of the teams splitting the points are slightly longer at 5/2.

A Reds win with more than 2.5 goals is the top option for punters with 21/10 odds, while Napoli’s odds for a win over that mark rank second at 4/1. Liverpool, who have shown themselves capable of defending well, are also 9/2 favourites to win a 1-0 or 2-0 match, and a 0-0 or 1-1 draw returns 9/5 odds. A win by the Little Donkeys of either 1-0 or 2-0 is a 7/1 longshot, while a 2-2 draw or higher is 9/1.

Salah is the unsurprising leader for first goal-scorer options at 7/2, with Sturridge’s recent purple patch vaulting him into second at 5/1 to make it 1-0. Firmino is right behind him at 11/2, while Napoli’s pair of Mertens and Milik are 6/1 along with Mane. Insigne is another half-step back at 13/2 to give the hosts a 1-0 advantage.

The Egypt international is nearly even money to find the back of the net during this contest at 6/5, again leading the line, while Sturridge (13/8) and Firmino (15/8) round out the top three. The three M’s — Mertens, Milik and Mane — are all 2/1 picks to get on the scoresheet, with Hamsik a sleeper option for Napoli at 13/5.

PREDICTION

It’s not often that a Champions League tie can be referred to as a “trap game,” yet many can look at this match as exactly that given what is at stake this weekend for Liverpool as they host Manchester City in a top-of-the-table clash Sunday. This is a result Klopp “would like” to have. It’s not a must-win, but a road point is a nice consolation prize ahead of back-to-back matches against Red Star, who are considered the weakest link of this group.

The only point of contention for Liverpool is what to do with Lovren, who while close to 100 percent, is probably not quite there with only two weeks of full-time practice under his belt. He made the trip to Naples, but until Gomez does something so awful it warrants a benching — unlikely considering he has yet to be on the losing side of a continental match through nine appearances — the Croatian may be waiting a little longer.

Napoli have a tough bounce-back challenge on their hands after their loss to Juventus. Ancelotti is right in the sense a loss would not end their hopes of getting out of the group, but it would be far better to scrape out a point in this match and then take their chances in the home-and-away versus PSG.

Insigne has thrived in his new role underneath Mertens, but Napoli’s defence will be under scrutiny, especially on the left side with Mario Rui and Kalidou Koulabily, the former of whom was sent off before the hour with the outcome still up for grabs after a second booking. Rui is available for this contest, but if Salah is in the mood, he could give the left back a torrid time.

Ospina is also an X-factor who cannot be ignored, though it is for the wrong reasons. He has a lifetime record of 5-3-6 in Champions League play and has let in 28 goals in 15 matches. He recorded only his fourth shutout in the draw versus Red Star and has conceded two or more goals in eight of those 15 contests. Ospina has faced Liverpool just once in his career, allowing a meaningless penalty to Jordan Henderson in a 4-1 Arsenal victory in the 2014/15 season.

Of the 12 players who wore a Liverpool shirt in that match only Henderson and Sturridge are on the current side.

If Napoli can find an early goal and make Liverpool chase the match, they should be able to grab at least one point from this contest. But after a trying week versus Chelsea, it would not be surprising to see Klopp’s team open the throttle and try to run the Little Donkeys off the pitch.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Napoli 0, LIVERPOOL 2.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 2 PREVIEWS:

Tottenham Hotspur (0-0-1) vs. Barcelona (1-0-0)