Weblog: The football punter

Champions League qualification up for grabs

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There will have been a time in the not too distant past when Manchester United and Chelsea took Champions League qualification for granted.

United beat Chelsea in the final on penalties in Moscow 11 years ago and then went on to reach another couple of finals, losing to Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 before the Blues got their hands on the European Cup beating Bayern Munich in their own backyard in 2012.

Roll on to 2019 and there's a Premier League big six rather than top four and just making next season's competition will go down as a success for managers Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Maurizio Sarri.

The clubs have tasted the somewhat demoralising nature of being in the Europa League, playing early on a Thursday in some far flung footballing backwater, watching rivals in the Champions League mixing with Europe's elite.

Chelsea are in this season's semi-finals but the only real reason to celebrate winning the Europa League is qualification to the Champions League. As Atletico Madrid midfielder Gabi said after his side dropped into the secondary competition last season: "The Europa League is s***."

It's gut-wrenching being on the outside looking in and while it's true that there is no trophy for finishing second, third or fourth, reaching the Champions League is a major prize, particularly given it may be a difficult summer for both clubs. 

Fourth-placed Chelsea hold a three-point advantage over United and a healthy goal-difference which is effectively worth an extra point. Sarri knows the significance of the outcome, saying on Friday: "We will try to win but we need not to lose."

Neither side is looking particularly fluent, with so much at stake it could lead to a cagey contest so backing under 2.5 goals appeals.

United have lost seven of their last nine matches in all competitions and their only goals in the last five games came courtesy of two Paul Pogba penalties in a fortunate 2-1 success over West Ham.

Chelsea, significantly boosted by the return of defensive kingpin Antonio Rudiger, are on a better run of results, losing just twice since going out of the FA Cup to United in February.

Eden Hazard will be the most talented player on the pitch and could be the difference, although his away-day blues are symptomatic of Chelsea's troubles outside Stamford Bridge.

Hazard is without a goal on his travels since Boxing Day and Chelsea have lost every league match away to the top six this season.

Under 2.5 goals

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Match in Focus

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Napoli v Liverpool

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Key stats
  • Liverpool have lost six of their last eight Champions League away games
Expert verdict
Liverpool begin their Champions League title defence with a return to the scene of one of the four away defeats they suffered on their way to winning last season’s competition. The Reds were beaten 1-0 at the Stadio San Paolo in the group stage last October and, as the Partenopei have lost three times in their last 19 home fixtures in the competition, their run of six defeats in eight UCL away games is a concern. However, they rarely fail to deliver in the final third, netting in all but four of their last 42 competitive matches.