Champions League Tactical Preview: Four key battles to look out for

Guardiola faces his toughest challenge of the season with the visit of Napoli
Guardiola faces his toughest challenge of the season with the visit of Napoli
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Alex Keble returns for his regular Champions League tactical analysis, picking out four key battles ahead of a fascinating set of midweek games...

"Napoli have attacked down the left flank more frequently than any other side in Serie A (49%) and the Champions League (45%) this season, reflecting their reliance on inside left forward Lorenzo Insigne."

Manchester City v Napoli

Walker v Insigne
Tuesday, 19:45
Live on BT Sport 3

What makes this contest particularly interesting is Manchester City are facing possession-based opponents for the first time this season, and so if Napoli - who have won all eight of their Serie A games this term - clip City's wings we will be presented with a new template with which to approach the Premier League leaders. The key battle, then, is territorial, making Kyle Walker's positional play very important.

Napoli have attacked down the left flank more frequently than any other side in Serie A (49%) and the Champions League (45%) this season, reflecting their reliance on inside left forward Lorenzo Insigne. He will float infield to play in the half-spaces between Walker and Fernandinho, linking Dries Mertens with central midfield.

Walker's stamina and ability to contribute at both ends of the pitch will prove crucial, even if Pep Guardiola fields Ilkay Gundogan alongside Fernandinho to add an extra body in the middle. The England international must avoid following Insigne as he comes off the flank while simultaneously remaining goal side whenever possible. Ultimately, Guardiola's relentless desire for attacking football will leave Walker with too much to do defensively, even though City themselves will surely score a couple.

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Back Over 3.5 Goals at 1/1

Real Madrid v Tottenham Hotspur

Isco/Asensio v Spurs' injury-hit midfield
Tuesday, 19:45
Live on BT Sport 2

Gareth Bale's replacement, either Isco or Marco Asensio, will only hold a left-sided position during periods of Tottenham Hotspur possession, before shifting into the number 10 space in support of Real Madrid's two strikers. These late movements into central attacking midfield could be problematic for a Spurs team without Moussa Dembele or Victor Wanyama.

Harry Winks is too raw to be trusted with tracking Isco or Asensio, while Eric Dier is arguably not energetic enough for such a frantic encounter at the Bernabeu. Mauricio Pochettino is likely to use the same 5-4-1 formation as in the 3-1 home win against Borussia Dortmund, in which the hosts played deep and attacked on the counter, but an absence of combative midfielders should allow Real to shut Spurs down before they can break.

With Luka Modric and Toni Kroos controlling the centre, it seems highly likely that Spurs won't have enough quality to prevent Isco from dancing through the defence or Asensio from getting his shots away. And that's before we even consider Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Back Real Madrid with a -1 handicap at 11/10

Benfica v Manchester United

Benfica's ageing defenders v United's attacking speed
Wednesday, 19:45
Live on BT Sport 2

Given Benfica's faltering league form and their shock 5-0 defeat to FC Basel, this should be an easy game for United; regardless of the result, it is a timely test of United's attacking speed following their turgid performance at Anfield on Saturday.

Jose Mourinho will ultimately be satisfied with a 0-0 draw against Liverpool, but a notably higher line and attack-minded formation (4-2-3-1 rather than 4-3-3) suggested he wanted United to be bolder going forward. However, the sluggish positional play of Romelu Lukaku and Henrikh Mkhitaryan meant they struggled to counter-attack with any fluency.

The average age of Benfica's central defenders is 33.5, which explains why Basel so easily scored direct, counter-attacking goals during the last round of Champions League fixtures. United clearly have the speed in their attack to do something similar, but have gradually slowed down as the domestic season progresses. Failure to live up to expectations on Wednesday could trigger the beginning of a downturn in form, but ultimately Lukaku and Anthony Martial should have enough to get the better of such a slow Benfica back line.

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Back half-time/full-time draw/Man Utd at 7/2

Chelsea v Roma

Luiz v Dzeko
Wednesday, 19:45, Live on BT Sport 3

Antonio Conte's team are low on confidence following their second consecutive league defeat on Saturday, in which a haphazard David Luiz played a hand in their downfall. The Brazilian is prone to lapses in concentration when times are tough, making the lurking presence of Roma's top goalscorer Eden Dzeko the biggest threat for the hosts.

Dzeko has netted eight goals in nine games this season in all competitions, and his physical presence in the penalty area should cause serious problems at Stamford Bridge in a tense and highly physical match. Both teams have very technical midfield players and prefer to play on the back foot, which probably means both sides will find it difficult to fashion clear cut chances.

Dzeko versus Luiz is perhaps the only battle that won't end in a stalemate, handing an advantage to the Italian side.

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Back double chance Roma or draw at 13/10

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