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Caoimhin Kelleher shows fine form for Liverpool ahead of Premier League showdown with Man City - Europa League hits and misses

Plus: Why West Ham still have their Europa League tie against Freiburg in their hands; Brighton's season in danger of petering out already; Rangers' European journey marches on; Why Aston Villa should believe in themselves more

Can Kelleher take excellent form into Man City game?

Caoimhin Kelleher was in fine form for Liverpool against Sparta Prague
Image: Kelleher was in fine form for Liverpool against Sparta Prague

Caoimhin Kelleher has played the role of unlikely Liverpool hero before when he helped his side win the Carabao Cup in 2022. He's back in that role this season, only with much bigger prizes at stake.

The Irish goalkeeper showed his worth in the first half against Sparta Prague, saving brilliant from Jan Kuchta and Lukas Haraslin when the odds looked against him.

In fact, the 25-year-old has saved eight out of the last 15 big chances faced, including big saves in this year's Carabao Cup final, and some smart stops in the slender 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest.

Kelleher has won Liverpool a trophy and some important points in the title race since he stepped in for the injured Alisson last month. Up next, it's Manchester City and the best striker in world football in Erling Haaland. Can David keep out Goliath?
Sam Blitz

West Ham still have Europa League tie in their hands

West Ham will now have to overturn their first leg deficit in next week's return leg
Image: West Ham will now have to overturn their first leg deficit in next week's return leg

While it sometimes felt like there were forces conspiring against West Ham in their defeat to Freiburg, they cannot deny that they should have scored at least once with the chances they had.

Lucas Paqueta especially had two superb efforts, with Jarrod Bowen and Mohammed Kudus also guilty of missing big chances.

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And for much of the game, the Hammers were comfortable. It looked to be a professional away performance in a tough Europa League match, giving themselves the best chance of going through. And in a lot of ways, despite behind a goal behind, they still hold the tie in their hands.

Most likely, West Ham will be favourites at the London Stadium next Thursday. West Ham never really got out of second gear in Germany, a brief move into third after the break perhaps.

This tie is by no means over either and given the glimpses we saw of just how devastating West Ham can be on their day, there is still all to play for.

With a buoyant home crowd behind them too, there is no doubt David Moyes' side can overturn a one-goal deficit in a week's time and reach the Europa League quarter-finals.
Charlotte Marsh

Brighton's season in danger of petering out already

Roma's Romelu Lukaku, back, celebrates scoring his side's 2nd goal during the Europa League round of sixteen first leg soccer match between Roma and Brighton and Hove Albion, at Rome's Olympic Stadium, Thursday, March 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Image: Roma's Romelu Lukaku, back, celebrates scoring his side's second goal against Brighton

Brighton have been on a wild ride under Roberto De Zerbi. An FA Cup semi-final and a European finish in his first season, a Europa League group win in his second, but now?

Their last-16 clash with Roma is as good as over. They are out of both domestic cups. True, they are still in with a shout of a top-seven finish again.

But with only two wins in their last eight league games, Liverpool and Arsenal to come in their next three games, and Newcastle and Man Utd in their final two matches of the season - things could peter out very quickly.

To lose 4-0 was a harsh scoreline in the Stadio Olimpico. But it wasn't a one-off this week, let alone this season after Saturday's 3-0 reverse at Fulham.

And there is no more excuse that Brighton are operating with a skeleton squad. There are still absences, but the injuries have subsided. This was a strong Seagulls side in the Italian capital, but their defensive frailties were exposed as badly as they have at any point this season.

It's been an odd season for Brighton. Despite never hitting the heights of last season, they are still in the mix, and only three points off a European spot. But at the moment, the direction of travel is down.
Ron Walker

If Villa don't back themselves - who will?

Aston Villa's Ezri Konsa gestures after being shown a red card by Albanian referee Enea Jorgji
Image: Aston Villa's Ezri Konsa gestures after being shown a red card at Ajax

There was a curiosity about Aston Villa's performance at Ajax. A fearfulness. A timidity that, before tonight, was believed to have been stamped out by Unai Emery time ago.

Villa's immense rise has been to Emery's credit: they remain in the hunt for European glory, tipped as Conference League favourites, and are good value for fourth spot in the Premier League.

Huge progress has been made under the Spaniard, until a peculiar trip to the Johan Cruyff Arena, where everything felt backwards. It was as if Villa did not belong. As if they felt dwarfed by the opponent: managing one miserly shot on target.

Granted, the venue is intimidating, and the atmosphere hostile, but there is no gulf in quality between the Dutch side and Villa in their current guises. In fact, Emery's Villa are a much more backable prospect.

Ajax fielded nine starters under the age of 23, and 33-year-old Jordan Henderson, for perspective.

Perhaps the performance was by design - stay compact, don't concede, reel Ajax in, hit them where it hurts at Villa Park in a week's time. And that plan might still work. But if Villa don't back themselves in big games they will eventually come unstuck. Playing passive does not always pay off.

A lesson they may end up learning the hard way.
Laura Hunter

Rangers' European journey marches on yet again

Rangers' Tom Lawrence, right, is congratulated after scoring his side's opening goal
Image: Rangers' Tom Lawrence, right, is congratulated after scoring his side's opening goal at the Estadio da Luz

Benfica might have got demolished by Porto at the weekend, a result which knocked them off the top of the Primeira Liga, but the fact they were there in the first place - and it was just their second league loss of the season - shows the strength of opposition Rangers faced on Thursday night.

And even still, yet again, they ignored the financial mis-match between the two teams to keep their Europa League dream well in tact, less than two years since they defied the odds to get all the way to the final.

A repeat performance in 2023/24 would be some surprise given what's happened since but there is something special in the air when the Ibrox boys are in town.

They stifled a talented Benfica front line throughout, keeping the normally influential Rafa far less dangerous than he could have been.

And but for an unfortunate penalty, for an unintentional but stonewall handball, and a wild own goal from Conor Goldson, they would return to Glasgow next week having snatched the lead from the Portuguese capital.

Philippe Clement's side have long-since learned to dispel their fear when travelling across the continent, with that aforementioned run to the final still fresh in their minds.

Rangers certainly will have no apprehension regarding the return leg next Thursday. And neither should they. A repeat performance and they will be gearing up for the quarter-final draw on March 15.
Ron Walker

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