Ronald Koeman gets his first taste of El Clasico from the dugout on Saturday, when Barcelona host Real Madrid.

A favourite of Johan Cruyff's mighty 'Dream Team' of the early 1990s, the pressure is on Koeman the coach to get Barca back to winning trophies at home and in Europe after last season's miserable ending.

He will have a chance to earn some sizeable brownie points against a Madrid side who are reeling from back-to-back defeats to Cadiz and Shakhtar Donetsk, results that have placed much of the pre-game scrutiny on Koeman's opposite number, Zinedine Zidane.

As the former Netherlands boss looks to end a two-game winless run for Barca in Spain's grandest fixture, we look at how his predecessors fared in their first Clasicos in LaLiga...

 

PEP GUARDIOLA. BARCELONA 2-0 REAL MADRID. DECEMBER 13, 2008.

Both dugouts featured coaches taking charge of teams in a Clasico for the first time and it was Guardiola who got the better of Madrid's Juande Ramos.

Late goals from Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi earned Barcelona the victory as they moved 12 points clear of Madrid in the table too.

That victory occurred during a 10-game winning streak in LaLiga and it was no surprise that Barca, who beat Madrid 6-2 later in the season, went on to win the title.

TITO VILANOVA. BARCELONA 2-2 REAL MADRID. OCTOBER 7, 2012.

The two clubs had already met in the Supercopa de Espana at the start of the season, Madrid winning on away goals after both teams had won a leg apiece.

Their first league meeting of 2012-13 was all about Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi as both men scored twice in a 2-2 draw.

Ronaldo scored for a record sixth successive Clasico to put Madrid ahead and, after Messi had netted a brace, Los Blancos' Portuguese star took his tally to 160 goals in 155 games since his 2009 move from Manchester United with an equaliser.

 

GERARDO MARTINO. BARCELONA 2-1 REAL MADRID. OCTOBER 23, 2013.

All eyes were on new recruits Neymar and Gareth Bale and it was the former who scored first to set Barca on their way.

Alexis Sanchez would double that lead and though Jese Rodriguez pulled one back, Madrid fell to a defeat that left them six points behind Barcelona after just 10 league games.

Both teams would finish the campaign on 87 points, a total not good enough to win the league as Atletico Madrid claimed 90 to be crowned champions.

LUIS ENRIQUE. REAL MADRID 3-1 BARCELONA. OCTOBER 25, 2014.

The Blaugrana had claimed 22 points from the first 24 available but they suffered defeat at Santiago Bernabeu in October 2014.

Barca debutant Luis Suarez, back after a four-month ban for biting, set up Neymar for a fourth-minute opener but the home side stormed back.

An in-form Ronaldo levelled from the spot with his 21st goal of the season before Pepe and Karim Benzema scored in the second half.

 

ERNESTO VALVERDE. REAL MADRID 0-3 BARCELONA. DECEMBER 23, 2017.

Los Blancos' awful start to the 2017-18 campaign continued as Barcelona moved 14 points clear of the defending champions with a comfortable win at the Bernabeu.

Suarez, Messi and Arturo Vidal all scored while Madrid, who had beaten Barca in both Supercopa de Espana legs at the beginning of the campaign, had Dani Carvajal dismissed for handball.

It was the first time Barcelona had won three successive league matches at the Bernabeu in Clasico history, and they went into the last match in our list with four straight victories at the ground.

 

QUIQUE SETIEN, REAL MADRID 2-0 BARCELONA, MARCH 1, 2020.

Setien, who took over from Valverde in January this year, had Barca on a four-game winning streak in LaLiga ahead of their trip to the capital.

What followed was a miserable outing for the Catalans, as second-half goals from Vinicius Junior and Mariano Diaz – in his first league appearance of the season – secured the win for the hosts.

The result lifted Madrid to the top of the table and set them on course to win the title after the coronavirus-enforced break to the season. Setien was sacked in August, his final game in charge that humiliating 8-2 Champions League loss to Bayern Munich.

Ronald Koeman will get his first taste of El Clasico from a dugout when Barcelona host Real Madrid on Saturday.

The LaLiga champions head to Camp Nou after a pretty rotten week in which back-to-back home defeats to Cadiz and Shakhtar Donetsk have left fans and pundits alike thoroughly disillusioned with Zinedine Zidane's current approach.

Barca also lost 1-0 in their previous league game, away to Getafe, but a 5-1 thumping of Ferencvaros in the Champions League was a tonic and, in truth, that defeat at Coliseum Alfonso Perez felt more like an aberration during what has mostly been an encouraging start under Koeman.

The Clasico is always the acid test, though – and Barca, barring a dramatic change in system, will line up for this one in a 4-2-3-1 formation, something they have not done for at least the previous 46 meetings.

BREAKING THE WHEEL

Nobody need tell Koeman about Barca's traditional adherence to 4-3-3. He had enough experience as a player for the Netherlands and the Blaugrana to know such a system like the back of his hand, even if Johan Cruyff's peak 'Dream Team' – such as the one that won the 1992 European Cup final through a Koeman extra-time goal – thrived instead in a 3-4-3.

The fact is, though, that Barca have doubled down on 4-3-3 since Frank Rijkaard took charge in 2003. He, Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino, Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde and, eventually, Quique Setien – all have either stuck religiously to the system or at least made good use of it.

That rings true in the Clasico, too. Since the 2005-06 season, there have been 46 matches between Barca and Madrid in all competitions, and Barca have started in a 4-3-3 in 39 of them. Four games have seen them set up in a 4-4-2, and one each in 3-4-3, 3-5-2 and 4-3-1-2.

It's yielded mixed success, as you might expect. Barca won 17 of those 39 games in 4-3-3 – a 43.6 per cent winning rate – and lost 12. They scored 71 goals and conceded 53.

In 4-4-2, they won twice, drew once and lost once, scoring eight goals and conceding four. The 3-4-3 was, fittingly, a 3-3 LaLiga draw in October 2007; the 4-3-1-2 was that famous 3-2 win for Barca at the Santiago Bernabeu under Luis Enrique in 2017, when Lionel Messi scored his 500th club goal; and the 3-5-2 was used by Valverde when they lost 2-0 in the Supercopa de Espana second leg in the capital three years ago.

Koeman's set-up, then, is a big departure from the norm. But will it work against Madrid?

FATI AND FRENKIE ON FIRE

Koeman explained this month that 4-2-3-1 was preferable because of Barca's lack of wingers. "Looking at the quality that we have, this formation is perfect for the team," he told Barca TV.

Fans may not have warmed to the idea at first, but Koeman's approach makes sense – and there are certain players thriving in this formation.

For one thing, it gets Ansu Fati involved closer to goal. In four league games, the young Spain star has attempted 15 dribbles, created three chances and scored three goals. The freedom to cut inside from the left has also liberated Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest at left-back, each of whom have also created three goalscoring chances. Given Madrid presently have no fully fit right-backs, that should worry Zidane.

Another to benefit is Frenkie de Jong, a player who admitted to underwhelming in his first season after joining from Ajax for an initial €75million. He has performed positively in a central axis, usually alongside Sergio Busquets, asserting himself in games far more even though Barca's average possession figure has dropped to 59.2 per cent, lower than in any of the past 11 seasons.

He, too, has created three goalscoring chances and has a remarkable 100 per cent success rate from 11 attempted dribbles. He has also completed 216 passes, behind only the more possession-focused Gerard Pique (255) and Busquets (261). He is a player with renewed confidence in breaking lines in transition and getting the ball into threatening areas, and Madrid's midfield three will have a real test on their hands to cover the space of Barca's four forwards while keeping De Jong quiet.

And Messi? Koeman said before the Ferencvaros game that his captain's form "could be better", and he had a point – one goal (a penalty) and zero assists from four league games is an unusually modest return. He is also averaging 3.9 shots per game, his lowest rate since 2007-08.

Still, Messi has created more chances (six), attempted more dribbles (19) and more shots (15) than any other Barca player in the league this season, and he may be about to face a Madrid defence without Sergio Ramos.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has denied reports that young forward Mason Greenwood has been overlooked for selection recently after repeatedly turning up late for training.

Greenwood was not part of the squad for United's victories over Newcastle United and Paris Saint-Germain, owing to what Solskjaer put down to a "niggle".

The 19-year-old was sent home from England duty last month for breaching coronavirus protocols and subsequently dropped by Gareth Southgate for this month's triple-header.

Reports suggested Solskjaer had grown frustrated with the teenage academy product and warned the youngster about his punctuality.

However, speaking ahead of Saturday's clash with Chelsea, the United boss dismissed those claims and took aim at the media.

"I'm not concerned at all with Mason making a target for himself," Solskjaer said. "He came in, played fantastic, played in the league for the first time against Tottenham and was brilliant. 

"He kicked on and he makes a mistake for England and suddenly the English press go after him. He's never ever late for training. I've seen some ex-United players talking about him and they don't know what they're talking about. 

"He's got a good family behind him and he's a good trainer. I cannot believe all these stories about him not being professional. That's something we have to deal with many players, many other players at United have had that."

Greenwood has made 37 Premier League appearances for United since his debut in March 2019, scoring 10 times, assisting one and laying on 10 chances for his team-mates.

Solskjaer confirmed the youngster is back in contention to face Chelsea this weekend, while new signing Edinson Cavani is in line to make his debut and Harry Maguire is also fit again after missing the trip to PSG.

"I hope and expect all three of them to be available," he said. "We've got a training session this morning which is the last chance of preparation. They've all got a chance.

"Edinson needs to tick all the boxes that he's gone through in his programme to be ready and make an impact. I'll have a discussion with him, Mason and Harry today."

United are playing at Old Trafford for the first time since losing 6-1 to Tottenham three weeks ago – their joint heaviest defeat in the Premier League.

They have since beaten Newcastle and PSG in back-to-back away games, but Solskjaer admitted nothing will exorcise the demons from the humiliating loss to Spurs.

"I don't think anything will erase that memory – it'll always be in the history books and we have always got to live with having that result," he said. 

"You can look back at different reasons why we had that result but we have got to move forward.

"It's happened so many times at this club that you have results out of the blue or setbacks, so far we have bounced back well.

"It's very important for players that if you lose games you're determined to win, to bounce back, and I saw that focus at Newcastle and PSG.

"It gives you more belief and confidence, two good performances and results but the next game is what we're focused on."

United are unbeaten in their last seven league meetings with Chelsea and won this corresponding fixture 4-0 on the opening weekend of last season, but Solskjaer is anticipating a difficult game.

"We know it’s gonna be tough against Chelsea – two teams that know each other really well," Solskjaer said.

"Addressing our home form is key. The whole lockdown period has made us do things differently at home so we may need to find a different way to beat them."

A Clasico showdown against Real Madrid, or West Ham away?

Before Lionel Messi steps out onto the Camp Nou pitch on Saturday, remember this: he had made up his mind, and he had chosen West Ham away.

Playing for Manchester City was Messi's plan for 2020-21, it is believed, and if that meant sacrificing leading Barcelona against their greatest rivals, shucks to it.

Messi must have thought he had nothing left to prove in this fixture, being already the top scorer in Clasico history with 26 goals across all competitions, way ahead of names such as Alfredo di Stefano, Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul and Cesar Rodriguez.

Eighteen of those goals have come in LaLiga, from 27 appearances, and he has averaged one goal involvement per game in the league thanks to nine assists.

However, he has failed to score in his last five Clasico games - three in the league and two in the Copa del Rey.

This weekend, with the world watching, Barcelona need the real Messi to stand up.


Still the same player?

Before the king of the Clasico faces Los Blancos one more time, team-mate Ansu Fati was moved to comment this week that "Messi is still Messi".

The 17-year-old spoke after Messi's early penalty helped Barcelona to a 5-1 Champions League win over Ferencvaros.

Yet heading into that game, Barcelona's new head coach Ronald Koeman said Messi's form "could be better", cosseting that in sufficient pleasantries to avoid any blowback.

As for who is right - Fati or Koeman - it is hard to dispute the experienced Dutchman's verdict.

Doubtless Fati loves playing with 33-year-old Messi, because what teenager wouldn't relish every minute playing with an all-time great?

But Messi's numbers are down in the early weeks of this LaLiga season, with his average attempted dribbles per game down from 8.58 in 2019-20 to just 4.75, and his shots on target per game at a relatively meagre 1.75 when he has averaged 2.15 or higher in each campaign over the past decade.

One goal in four LaLiga matches in 2020-21 equates to his slowest start to a season since 2005-06, when the teenage Messi failed to score in his first four games.

The Clasico drought

Those five goalless games in Spain's biggest match have consisted of four starts and one appearance off the bench, amounting to 425 minutes of football without a goal, his second longest run without netting in the Clasico - behind a six-game sequence from April 2014 to December 2016.

He has failed to score with his last 16 shots in the fixture and has not been on the winning side in a LaLiga Clasico at Camp Nou since Barcelona's 2-1 victory in March 2015, having missed the 5-1 success in October 2018 because of a fractured arm.

He has not had a goal involvement - scoring or assisting - in the last three Clasico league games, putting him one away from what from that statistical perspective would be the worst run of his career.

And the goal return from Messi in Barcelona's biggest home league match of the season has been modest - albeit only by his extraordinary standards - for some time.

He scored twice in a 2-2 draw in October 2012 and netted once when the team played out the same result in May 2018, but those are the only goals he has scored in this LaLiga game since a late strike sealed a 2-0 win in 2008.

Nobody has scored more Clasico league goals at Camp Nou than Messi's haul of seven, which he launched with a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw back in March 2007.

But the big-game returns are diminishing with time, or at least that is how it seems.

Has Messi become a flat-track bully?

The instinctive response is to challenge the use of such a reductive term to describe a footballer so eminent.

The transition happens time and again though, from sport to sport. The ageing superstars who once routinely tormented elite rivals serve up reminders of their most glorious days in flashes, often against more limited opposition than before. Case in point: Messi looked sublime at times against Ferencvaros.

In tennis, Roger Federer can still toy with low-ranked tennis players to the point of doling out early-round humiliations, but will he win another grand slam title, having recently turned 39? No, probably not. Will Messi win another Champions League? No, probably not. It is hard to see it happening at a crisis-hit Barcelona, anyway.

Messi's haul of 25 LaLiga goals last season was his lowest since he scored 23 in the 2008-09 treble-winning campaign, when Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry were also scavenging for chances.

But if he is not scoring consistently against Real Madrid, and if he was powerless to prevent Bayern Munich's rout of Barcelona in the Champions League back in August, then where is Messi making his big difference heading into his mid-thirties?

Since the start of August 2018, in LaLiga he has scored eight goals against Eibar, five each against Real Betis, Levante, Alaves and Sevilla, and four apiece against Real Mallorca, Celta Vigo and Espanyol.

Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao are the two teams who have defied him throughout that time.

A leaving present

If this is to be Messi's sign-off stretch with Barcelona - and given his recent state of vexation that seems highly possible - then it is to be assumed he wants to depart with a swagger rather than a shrug of a season.

Had Barcelona's board acquiesced to Messi's departure at the end of last term, this weekend's kick-off in El Clasico would have coincided with the Argentinian winding down at the London Stadium after a lunchtime outing for Pep Guardiola's City against David Moyes' Hammers.

Perhaps Messi would have tuned in for El Clasico on the team coach; perhaps not.

Messi was prepared to sacrifice the Clasico - the hysteria and the history that surrounds it - and that summed up the schism that had developed between him and the club's leadership.

He has since lost good friends Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal, offloaded to Atletico Madrid and Inter, and lost some of his sparkle at the same time.

Suarez and Vidal won't be coming back, but the sparkle still might. There were flashes against Ferencvaros - again, take the opposition into account - but a Clasico against a wobbling Madrid side seems as good an occasion as any for Messi to serve up a reminder of his greatness.

If he can lift himself for any game, it must be this one.

Jose Mourinho hailed Tottenham's strength in depth after a much-changed Spurs side earned a 3-0 win over LASK in the Europa League.

Just three players – Davinson Sanchez, Ben Davies and Sergio Reguilon – retained their places from Sunday's 3-3 Premier League draw with West Ham as Spurs got their European campaign underway on Thursday.

But there was no lack of fluency on show as hosts Tottenham raced into an early two-goal lead before putting a seal on the victory in the final 10 minutes.

Spurs head coach Mourinho was understandably delighted to have seen his team earn such a comfortable victory in London.

"I'm happy for the squad," he told BT Sport. "We believe in the others because the others work so hard to play and be ready.

"Normally I wouldn't do it for the first match of the group phase playing at home, you want to make sure you get these three points, but I trust the boys and the answer was good.

"Not a magnificent performance but solid and safe."

Solid start  @SpursOfficial pic.twitter.com/5g81Ooawyl

— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) October 22, 2020

Mourinho's changes meant he was able to bring the likes of Son Heung-min, Dele Alli and Giovani Lo Celso off the bench in the second half against LASK.

Portuguese boss Mourinho admitted he is finding it difficult to leave so much talent out of the starting XI but compared the situation favourably to last season's battles with a lengthy injury list.

"It is hard because I feel for them. Of course everybody wants to play and for the boys it's a bit frustrating," he added.

"They fight to have more minutes and in the end not everybody can play, but it's great.

"Last season I had lots of problems with no striking force and not even wingers or attacking players in some periods of the season.

"Now we have this amazing squad and with UEFA allowing to have everybody on the bench, I look to my side and I have so many options."

Mourinho went on to share his belief that Spurs would have earned a more comfortable win over LASK had supporters been present.

He continued: "Yeah, we could [have scored more], but it's not a knockout game two legs, it's just about the three points.

"Of course, it could be more, I believe with supporters in the stadium it would be more because then they push and bring that extra bit of energy.

"But in the end, opportunities for people to play, to get confidence, three points and that's a good start."

Mikel Arteta had a warning for Bernd Leno and Arsenal after the goalkeeper's mistake almost proved costly in Thursday's clash with Rapid Vienna.

Two goals in four minutes from David Luiz and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang secured a 2-1 win to start the Gunners' Europa League campaign after Taxiarchis Fountas had put the home side ahead in Austria.

Fountas had capitalised when Leno's poor touch and kick gifted him a chance to open the scoring, and two further poor pieces of play from the Arsenal goalkeeper gave the Greek striker opportunities he could not convert.

Leno has now made eight errors leading to goals in all competitions since the start of the 2018-19 season, the third-highest tally by any Premier League player behind David de Gea (nine) and Jordan Pickford (11).

Arteta will not discourage his side from trying to build play from the back, but he does accept there are occasions when clearing their lines is more important.

"It's part of our game," he told reporters. "We need to understand when we can do that and when we should kick the ball into the stands.

"They will understand better and better the type of balls we have to play in those areas and to who in relation to the pressure that's coming.

"We knew it was going to be a difficult match. We made it harder in the beginning with the goal we conceded.

"I really like the reaction. The second half, we understood much better the spaces we have to attack.

"In general, we scored two good goals, the second was fantastic. We are delighted to start with victory."

Thomas Partey made his full debut for the Gunners and delivered an accomplished performance at the heart of midfield.

The £45million signing attempted 57 passes in the opposition half, more than any other player, while some shrewd defensive work saw him win five tackles and regain possession eight times.

"I think he held the midfield by himself in the second half as well, when we were a little bit more open and we started to take more chances attacking certain spaces with some players," Arteta said.

"But I think he was fantastic tonight and there is much more to come from him. We know, with the price we paid for him, he's going to have a lot of people looking at him."

Frank Lampard singled out defensive additions Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy for praise after Chelsea drew 0-0 with Sevilla in the Champions League.

The Blues' last outing saw them concede three times as Southampton snatched a draw at Stamford Bridge, but they looked a far more solid outfit en route to their first point in Group E on Tuesday evening.

Lampard had made three changes to his defence from Saturday, bringing in Reece James at right-back, Mendy in goal and Silva in the heart of the back four.

He reserved special praise for the latter pair, who he believes can have a major impact on Chelsea's defending after arriving during the transfer window.

"It's something you strive for always and I mentioned before about the personnel we had back in today," Lampard told reporters.

"Thiago I thought showed the things I've spoken about, experience and quality; Mendy has probably one good save to make and he makes it, was good with his feet.

"[It was] against a very good team, a very organised defensive performance. They give you a lot of threats, they're very good, that's why they've been so successful in the last year or two, so I was pleased with that side of it.

"We lost a goal in the last minutes at the weekend that loses us two points. When you've got that feeling fresh in your mind, it's really important that you get over it. To get through that game will give us confidence.

"We're going to get better, I keep saying the same thing, but we haven't had the personnel in there playing regularly, getting relationships, working off each other.

"The more we do that, then we'll get better naturally."

Lampard, who has experienced his first goalless draw as Chelsea boss in what was his 62nd match in charge, also hailed work done on the training ground as a key factor in largely keeping a potentially dangerous Sevilla side quiet across the 90 minutes.

He continued: "It's always both. The work is a constant and you analyse the opposition and the threats that they're going to give you. With Sevilla, it was crosses and getting balls in the box.

"They've got quality, they play really well throughout the team but you might expect a team from La Liga to come and try and play a lot of passes through the lines, but they get a lot of crosses in.

"We dealt with all the things they threw at us, we had a few moments ourselves in the game as well. I think it was almost cagey, two good teams cancelling each other out in the first game, which is understandable, and we take the point and move on."

Chelsea's defensive resilience may have come at a cost in terms of their attacking play, with the Blues managing just one attempt on target during the first half.

Their attack did improve after the break, with Chelsea ultimately mustering six attempts in total, with four of those hitting the target.

Manchester United should not have beaten Paris Saint-Germain two seasons ago.

That miraculous comeback by that youthful side was resilient, spirited, but lucky – a result born of mindset rather than tactics from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, where 28 per cent of the ball and four shots on target somehow became a 3-1 win.

On Tuesday, when Marcus Rashford blasted home his second winning goal at Parc des Princes in as many visits, there was no great sense of incredulity, no vilifying of VAR; this time, Neymar's look of astonishment was aimed at his team's listless display, not at the officials from up in the stands.

That game in March 2019 may have got Solskjaer the permanent job, but this one showed what is expected, what is demanded of a United manager: going to Europe's elite and cowing them. His tiger-print-clad charges really earned their stripes.

PSG have their problems and that was laid bare in a sodden French capital. A midfield without Marco Verratti could not dictate; a defence without Marquinhos could not contain. Thomas Tuchel has already aired his grievances with sporting director Leonardo in public over their transfers and, after that performance, that relationship is unlikely to get any easier.

But that should not detract from United's success. That 6-1 humiliation to Tottenham two weeks ago suggested Solskjaer is a man without a plan, and with no players prepared to execute it even if he did. This will have driven some of the wolves from the door.

Solskjaer has often gone with a back three against stronger opponents who are expected to have more of the ball, but nobody will have expected Luke Shaw, Victor Lindelof and Axel Tuanzebe – whose only previous appearance in this competition was nearly three years ago – to play like this.

Tuanzebe, with seven clearances and just two misplaced passes all game, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who made six tackles and two interceptions, shut down the Neymar-Mbappe left-channel link-up in impetuous style. Ahead of the defence, Fred and Scott McTominay won back possession 15 times and contested 30 duels between them. They were so efficient, so effective with and without the ball, that it seemed to rub off on Paul Pogba; again consigned to a substitute role, he seemed positively enthused when he entered the fray and looked more authoritative than he has in weeks.

It meant PSG, despite having 61 per cent of the ball, managed only five shots on target throughout - one fewer than United. When they did breach the defence, they found a confident and competent David de Gea, who saved brilliantly from Layvin Kurzawa and Mbappe in each half. It took a bizarre header from Anthony Martial into his own net to get them on the scoreboard.

At the other end, Tuchel's men were a mess by comparison. Abdou Diallo's careless challenge on Martial, which allowed Bruno Fernandes to score from the spot at the second time of asking, was a moment of rashness that seemed to set the tone. Martial and Rashford broke at will upon the back four and could have put the game out of sight earlier, with Rashford producing an infuriatingly poor pass in a clear two-on-one.

Still, Rashford again had the final word. Whereas last year it was a nerveless penalty in front of the PSG ultras, this was a quick turn and thunderous low strike beyond Keylor Navas, a finish that deserved to be seen by fans in the ground.

This is a truly tough group but United have made a brilliant start. Unlike last time, this is just the start of their Champions League campaign, not the shock highlight towards its end.

Few would make United true contenders for the trophy, but this at least showed they have the nous to mix it with the favourites. Once again, Rashford was the hero in Paris, but this was Solskjaer's night.

Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum has blasted Everton's conduct as "completely unacceptable" following injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Thiago Alcantara sustained in Saturday's Merseyside derby.

Van Dijk is likely to miss most of the campaign after suffering anterior cruciate ligament damage following a wild challenge from Jordan Pickford in the 2-2 draw at Goodison Park.

With Van Dijk having been flagged offside, Everton's goalkeeper did not receive any punishment for the tackle, while the Football Association confirmed on Monday that Pickford would not face retrospective action.

Premier League leaders Everton did subsequently have a player sent off, with Richarlison seeing red for a lunge on Thiago late on, and the former Bayern Munich star has not made the trip to Amsterdam to face Ajax in the Champions League.

Richarlison's red card was the 22nd sending off in a Merseyside derby in the Premier League era, with the Toffees having had 15 players dismissed.

The incidents left a sour taste for Wijnaldum, with the Dutchman believing Everton – who had four players carded on Saturday compared to Liverpool's two – have a track record of being too robust in derbies.

"Of course we are upset. The way Pickford went in was completely stupid," he said.

"I believe he didn't want to injure Virgil, but the way he took the tackle, he didn't care. I think we've had it a lot in the games against Everton.

"In my opinion, they take it way too far in the games we play against them. Sometimes you go a little over the top, but this was too much.

"We can talk about the tackle from Richarlison, it was also a nasty one. That's what bothered me the most. Accidents can always happen, you can be unlucky, but the way they were doing it was completely unacceptable. It makes it harder that they don't get punished."

While Richarlison issued an apology for his tackle on Thiago, it was confirmed on Sunday that Van Dijk will require surgery and Wijnaldum acknowledged that the squad are hugely concerned for their star defender.

"First of all we're still devastated, it's also different than normal. The way it happened is really hard for us," he added.

"Everyone has a really bad feeling about it. When we were speaking with the players after Saturday I think none of the players slept because of what happened with Virgil. It's a really hard one to take.

"People will say that because Virgil is really important part of our team. He had really big performances, a really important player for us, a leader.

"It's quite normal people will say that, but it's up to us. It's a situation we didn't deal with before, but it's what we have to deal with. Everyone can see what kind of impact he's had."

Jurgen Klopp has hit out at Jamie Carragher for suggesting Liverpool took a risk by going into the new campaign with just three senior centre-halves.

The Reds boss opted against bring in another central defender after selling Dejan Lovren to Zenit over the summer, preferring to ask midfielder Fabinho to occasionally operate as back-up to Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk.

But, with the latter having sustained a serious knee injury during Saturday's trip to Everton, Klopp's options have already thinned significantly.

That situation led Liverpool great Carragher, now a television pundit, to declare that his former club must enter the January transfer market to strengthen an area he believes was left "weak", with RB Leipzig's Dayot Upamecano his pick.

However, Klopp has now angrily dismissed that assessment, and remained tight-lipped over whether the Reds are planning any January moves.

Klopp said: "We went into the season with three centre-halves, Fabinho and young kids.

"It’s difficult to have four world class centre-halves. It’s not a position you rotate. If anyone wants to tell us we made a mistake, I think Jamie Carragher. There is a reason why they don’t do this job, they do the other job.

"It’s our situation. We will see how we react. We are still a little sensitive. We are in a completely different mood.

"We know since yesterday our vice-captain and the best centre-half in the world will not play for us for a long time. For the future, I have no idea."

Van Dijk's injury was the result of a poor challenge from Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, which was neither punished by the referee nor video assistant referee, or indeed retrospectively.

Thiago Alcantara also ended up on the wrong end of a red-card tackle from Richarlison late in the same game, and Klopp was clearly still angered by both situations, expressing frustration that Liverpool have been the only ones left to "deal with the consequences".

Speaking ahead of Wednesday's Champions League match at Ajax, which Thiago will also miss, Klopp said: "You judge us, you judge everybody. A couple of days ago something happened that should not have happened in a football game. And it’s not the first time. I see it similar to my players.

"Both challenges were difficult to accept. What we all can do is try to change these kind of things. I spoke the day after, it’s really hard for us, yes he’s a world-class player, injuries happen.

"In the last four years, we were the leader of the fair play table. People make a joke about it.

"In this game, a few things came together. I have to say, first the ref didn’t see it. Michael Oliver, I don’t understand – he had the best view. VAR forgets the rules.

"As a human being, it’s not that I want a player to be punished, but it’s something we all agree on, you have to deal with the consequences. At the moment, only Virgil and Thiago have to deal with the consequences.

"You keep all these stories up, I’m here for a Champions League. But you asked these questions. We didn’t do anything wrong in the game, or since then, but our players are the ones that suffer and it doesn’t feel right.

"We all accept injuries can happen, but it should be in a normal challenge."

Roberto Firmino's importance to Liverpool is undoubtable.

Ahead of Saturday's Merseyside derby against Everton, manager Jurgen Klopp again defended the forward over his lack of goals, with Firmino yet to find the net for the Premier League champions this season.

And for good reason. As Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane dominate the headlines and the goals, Firmino plays a key role for Liverpool.

Using Opta data, we take a look at how Liverpool go with and without Firmino, plus his output.

 

No doubt over Firmino importance

His output constantly questioned, Firmino's importance to Liverpool has often been highlighted on the rare occasions he has been absent for the Reds.

The data shows the same. Since Firmino's arrival from Hoffenheim for a reported £29million in 2015, Liverpool have played 194 Premier League games.

Klopp's side have a win percentage of 64.8 when the durable Firmino has played, compared to 53.3 in the 15 games they have been without him. They also collect more points per game (2.2 to 1.9) with Firmino.

While Liverpool have scored slightly more without Firmino (2.2 average goals for to 2.1), they have more shots, possession, crosses and passes into the final third with the Brazil international, highlighting his link-up ability and movement. Both passing accuracy and accuracy in the opposition half is slightly higher, too.

With Firmino having scored 29 of his 57 Premier League goals away from home – Liverpool have also been completely dominant at Anfield – their winning percentage on the road in the league without him is just 37.5, compared to 58.4 with him.

Firmino provides balance

Salah and Mane have been two of the Premier League's best attackers in recent seasons, so it is no surprise Firmino's goal involvements are below his star team-mates. Since their respective arrivals at Anfield, Salah has an incredible 106 in 112 games and Mane has 86 in 130, with Firmino (57 goals and 37 assists) contributing 94 in 179.

A key factor to that has been Firmino's inability to convert as well as his team-mates. Salah was the last of the trio to arrive at Liverpool, joining Firmino and Mane with his move from Roma in 2017. Since then, Firmino's big chance conversion sits at 41.3 per cent, compared to Salah (49.5) and Mane (46.2), although he also gets far fewer opportunities. The Egyptian has had 1.02 big chances per 90 minutes, more than both Mane (0.85) and Firmino (0.65).

And while Salah has enjoyed a spectacular Liverpool career, Firmino's goal involvements have also been consistent at and away from Anfield. Since the trio came together, Firmino has been directly involved in 31 goals in 58 away league games, similar to his 28 in 55 at home. On the road in that time, Salah has 39 in 54 games, while Mane's drops off to 25 in 50.

Plus, Firmino balances out the front three. He has a considerably better dribble success rate (61.1) than both Mane (52.3) and Salah (51.5) since the dynamic trio formed their partnership, while he can also drop deeper, providing 3.7 passes into the final third per 90 minutes, compared to Mane's 3.1 and Salah's 2.2.

Liverpool may need more goals from Firmino, but there is no doubt about his importance to Klopp's side.

The Premier League had already thrown up a disorientating, action-packed weekend by the time Liverpool took to the field at Villa Park at the start of this month.

What followed was scarcely credible as a Jack Grealish-inspired Aston Villa unceremoniously demolished Jurgen Klopp's dominant champions 7-2.

After that humiliating scoreline, one seemingly plucked from the realms of fantasy or another sport entirely, how can we expect Liverpool to respond?

Their weekend opponents, Merseyside rivals Everton, are top of the Premier League table thanks to four wins out of four. Has Liverpool's favourite fixture come around at the worst possible time?

How do champions respond to a thrashing?

When looking for precedents to see how Liverpool might fare after their Birmingham ordeal, we're operating with a fairly small sample size.

Put simply, reigning champions tend not to lose so heavily too often. In the Premier League era, there have been seven instances of the team with the biggest target on their back being defeated by four goals or more.

Two of those came in the league's inaugural season, when Leeds United struggled to maintain the form that lifted them to the Division One crown on the other side of the rebrand.

Howard Wilkinson's side lost 4-0 at Manchester City on November 7, 1992 - a reverse that was compounded by a League Cup defeat at Watford. But they regrouped impressively for Arsenal's visit to Elland Road, dispatching the Gunners 3-0.

Arsenal were also the opponents after Leeds lost 4-0 at Tottenham on February 20 ,1993, with the second of their double-header in north London ending in a 0-0 draw.

Blackburn Rovers endured a similarly unhappy title defence in 1995-96, but they were at least able to bounce back from a 5-0 December reverse at Coventry City when Alan Shearer scored the only goal to down Middlesbrough.

Manchester United dominated the Premier League under Alex Ferguson but were not immune to the odd humbling setback. One of those arrived on October 20, 1996, when Newcastle United thrashed them 5-0 at St James' Park.

There was more misery to follow, with Southampton raucous 6-3 victors in United's next league game at The Dell. It got worse for Ferguson's men, with defeats to Fenerbahce and Chelsea.

Most pertinently for Liverpool, United still finished 1996-97 as champions. As they did in 1999-00, when a 5-0 embarrassment at Chelsea was followed by a 4-1 win over Watford.

They lost out on goal difference to Manchester City in 2011-12, meaning a 6-1 loss in the derby at Old Trafford was telling in the final reckoning. Everton learned it is not always easy to capitalise upon such a malaise as United ground out a 1-0 home win in their next match.

Claudio Ranieri and much of the Leicester City fairy tale had dissipated by the time Tottenham thumped them 6-1 at the King Power Stadium in May 2017, with Harry Kane scoring four. The Foxes recovered their poise to close the 2016-17 season with a 1-1 draw at home to Bournemouth.

 

Bad night at the office or signs of decline?

Even if history shows the next game after a heavy defeat tends not to be a problem for reigning champions, the ripples from Liverpool's Villa Park reverse will probably be felt for some time, with opponents at least emboldened to try and probe at perceived vulnerabilities.

It is worth remembering that Klopp's side won each of their first three Premier League games this season and Opta's advanced metrics show they are hitting similar levels overall to last season at this early stage.

In terms of high turnovers (a sequence that starts in open play and begins 40 metres or less from the opponents' goal), ending in a shot and pressed sequences, the Reds are the best performing team in the division. That was the case over the entirely of last season, apart from shot-ending high turnovers - where they were second.

Effectively disrupting opponents in their own territory is an area where Everton have improved markedly. For shot-ending and goal-ending high turnovers, they were the lowest ranked Premier League team in 2019-20. Carlo Ancelotti's resurgent side are tied fifth and seventh respectively in those categories so far this season.

Another area where Liverpool are ahead of the rest of the league is their starting distance of 49.2 metres - the average distance they are from their own goal when starting an open play sequence. Of course, dominance of this sort is in part facilitated by the high defensive line Villa exploited so frequently.

Good omens for Everton?

Saturday's game will be exactly 10 years to the day from when Everton last won a Premier League derby.

If Liverpool avoid defeat they will set a new club record of 23 games unbeaten against the same opponent in all competitions. They set their previous best of 22 matches without a loss between September 19, 1981 and March 8, 1992… against Villa.

Everton have only endured a longer winless streak across 24 encounters with Chelsea, from May 5, 2001 to December 12, 2009.

However, there are a couple of historical quirks to send those of a Goodison persuasion into the weekend with a smile on their faces.

Everton are aiming to win their first eight games of a campaign in all competitions for the first time since the 1894-95 campaign. The eighth game in that sequence of Victorian joy? A 3-0 home win over Liverpool.

They have not won their opening five league games since 1938-39, when the fifth victory came 2-1 over an Arsenal team who were the reigning champions.

Lionel Messi said he is less obsessed with scoring goals these days as the Barcelona and Argentina superstar eyes team success.

Messi stands alone atop the all-time goalscoring charts for both LaLiga giants Barca and powerhouse South American nation Argentina.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner improved his record-setting international tally to 71 goals after netting in Argentina's 1-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Ecuador last week.

But Messi is prioritising team objectives, telling La Garganta Poderosa magazine: "Today I am less obsessed with scoring. I try to do my best for the team."

Messi is Barcelona's all-time leading goalscorer with 635 in total, having debuted for the Spanish club in 2004.

Of those goals, 445 have come in LaLiga – a league record ahead of next best and former Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (311).

The 33-year-old has also scored 115 Champions League goals, to go with 53 in the Copa del Rey, 14 in the Supercopa de Espana, three in the UEFA Super Cup and five in the Club World Cup.

Since debuting against Espanyol 16 years ago, Messi has won 10 LaLiga trophies, six Copa del Rey titles and the Champions League on four occasions.

In 2020-21, Messi has one goal through three LaLiga fixtures as Barca – under new head coach Ronald Koeman – look to bounce back following a tumultuous campaign, which saw the club dethroned by bitter rivals Madrid and humiliated 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Messi remains at Barca, despite handing in a transfer request at the start of the season amid strong links with Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.

Gaizka Mendieta and Stiliyan Petrov are determined for others not to "make the same mistakes and suffer" in the way they did, as they outlined the aims behind a new project committed to helping footballers with the transition into life after playing.

The pair are two of five former professionals involved in Player 4 Player, which deals with areas ranging from finance and brand management to education and lifestyle.

They are joined on the seven-strong team by Emile Heskey, Michael Johnson and Gareth Farrelly, plus communications expert Pedro Pinto and entrepreneur Neil Meredith. 

Speaking about the inspiration behind the initiative, ex-Barcelona midfielder Mendieta said: "We felt that there was something in football that was kind of missing.

"We know it perfectly because we have been through it, experienced it and have lived some situations that we are trying to help players avoid.

"So the outcome is to help players or to try to help players in their own career when it comes to finance, legal, education and lifestyle in any possible way to make their lives easier."

Petrov's 18-year playing career ended in 2013, a year after being diagnosed with acute leukaemia, and he has since spent time working as a coach.

The 41-year-old admits life after football can be a daunting prospect and is hoping to offer the type of assistance that was not available in his playing days.

"The advice, guidance and the mentoring we are going to give others, is what is actual life after football," he said. 

"It's what we went through, how difficult it is, to give the opportunity for those players not to make the same mistakes, not to suffer, not to take years after their career to work out what they actually want to do. 

"We give them a plan, we give them guidance, to understand what they want to be and be prepared after the football is finished.

"I have made some wrong decisions; I have made some great decisions. I had to really go and learn things on my own. 

"Having that when I was playing, it would have been invaluable for me because I would have learnt so much. I would have understood why having education, having knowledge, and being prepared for after my career could have helped me."

James Rodriguez's move to Everton invoked polarising opinions from fans and pundits alike – it seemed his signing was either destined to be a masterstroke or an expensive flop.

Many suggested that, while undoubtedly gifted, James' qualities were those of a bygone era when teams were built around a number 10 whose only real job was to create chances and score goals.

The common conception was that, in introducing a player who does little work off the ball, Everton were putting themselves at a disadvantage to every other team.

Even James himself recognises he is one of a dying breed, saying recently on the Locker Room podcast: "Everyone plays 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, hardly any kids want to be a number 10 now, because now the number 10s are being left out by the managers because they only want fast players who have one-on-one skills, can run, can play through the middle - 15 or 20 years ago, everyone wanted to be a number 10."

It's a well-known fact that James isn't much of a runner – he will never cover as much ground as someone like Kevin De Bruyne, but that's the point. He hasn't ever been that type of player – let him play to his strengths and he'll thrive.

If anyone knew how to get the best out of him, it was his former Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, and the Italian has expertly found a way to get the best out James, as we examine ahead of Saturday's Merseyside derby.

Ancelotti's James bond key to success

While James is certainly acting like the traditional number 10 for Everton, he's playing the role with his own unique spin, a way that has regularly seen both he and Juan Fernando Quintero thrive alongside each other at international level for Colombia.

Normally one would expect a player in such a role to occupy more of the central spaces, yet James operates initially from the right, allowing him to cut inside on to his left foot.

This creates a much greater area for him to do damage, as he can either dribble into the centre, play a diagonal pass out to the left, or look for a reverse ball into an advanced position on the right.

 

Not only is the pitch generally less crowded for him in this area, but were he deployed in a strictly central role, having such range of passing avenues without needing to turn would be unlikely.

This explains why Lucas Digne – who went off with a knee injury late in France's Nations League victory over Croatia on Wednesday – is the second most frequent receiver of passes (23) from James in the Everton team despite operating on the other flank, as the left-back is one of Premier League's best creators.

James knows this and regularly looks to the Frenchman on the opposite flank – together, they are Everton's greatest sources of chances this term (12 for James, eight for Digne). Similarly, the former Madrid star has picked out left-sided forward Richarlison for more chances (five) than he has anyone else.

But another key factor Ancelotti has had to consider, as highlighted already, is that James won't offer a huge amount when the Toffees aren't in possession.

Ancelotti surrounds James with hard-working, dynamic players. Allan is as tenacious as any midfielder in the league, while Abdoulaye Doucoure is a fine option as a box-to-box battler and Seamus Coleman is tireless at right-back.

 

With Doucoure and Coleman working close to James, Ancelotti's table-toppers often create overloads on the right flank, and as that attracts more defenders over to their side, that's when gaps can open up on the left for Digne.

Identifying the weakness

As much as Everton fans may not want to admit, there are certainly similarities between how they and Liverpool attack – the Reds' full-backs are key to the offensive phase of their play, while Mohamed Salah's cutting in off the left flank is a vital component in terms of chance creation.

With that in mind, it will be intriguing to see how they counteract each other's strengths, but there's no doubt stopping James will go a long way for the Reds.

The Colombian has three goals (joint fourth-highest in the league) and two assists (joint third-highest in the league) to his name, while only Salah, De Bruyne (both 14) and Son Heung-min (13) have produced more key passes than him.

Of the 12 opportunities carved out by Rodriguez, four were classed by Opta as "big chances", second to Harry Kane (six).

But he's not just involved at the end of attacking moves, as highlighted by sequence data – he has played a role in six different goal-ending sequences, a figure bettered by only four others, while James started two of them. Ollie Watkins (three) is the solitary player with a better number here.

Where Liverpool will need to pay particular attention, however, is with regards to their high line. The average distance from goal that their open-play sequences begin is 49.2 metres, meaning they play with a higher defensive line than anyone else in the division – this was exploited by Aston Villa in the 7-2 humiliation before the international break, and James will surely be mindful.

Uncharted territory… almost

James' importance to Everton is certainly comparable to Salah's influence on Liverpool – across all competitions the Toffees playmaker has created three more chances (17) than his rival, been involved in one more goal (six) and played the same number of passes into the box (31).

But where their different approaches are accentuated is their total touches in the area, with Salah at 47 and James on 10.

That's where others come in.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison may not have quite the same reputation as their Liverpool counterparts in Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, but there's no doubt the Everton pair have both started the season in exhilarating fashion.

So, although James is undoubtedly the key, Everton have several weapons capable of doing damage.

Saturday's game will be exactly 10 years on from Everton's last Premier League win over their bitter rivals. While a victory over the Reds might almost feel like uncharted territory for the Toffees, with James plotting their route, one has to think they've never had a better opportunity to sink a Liverpool side whose weaknesses have already been exposed.

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