There was no shortage of drama in the last eight. After all the controversy surrounding VAR in the first knock-out stages, it’s potential positives completely shone through in the quarter-finals. But now a place in Madrid is at stake for four teams as David Domb asses their chances prior to the first leg clashes this week.
Tottenham Hotspur vs Ajax
As Franki Valli once put it…’oh what a night’ was the cry from Tottenham supporters as they poured out of the Etihad Stadium following that epic triumph at the Etihad Stadium.
Their performance across the two legs completely defied the term so many characteristics those of a certain generation have been accustomed to supporting the team from North London. So much grit, effort, determination and team spirit saw them to a huge statement of a victory.
The apparent title bid may have fallen by the wayside by the end of February and their league form isn’t exactly stellar, but the performances against Manchester City this month have really shown Mauricio Pochettino has a side capable of mixing among the elite of European football, and let’s not kid ourselves – Manchester City under Pep Guadiola very much are in that bracket.
At the time of writing, a place in next season’s competition very much remains in their hands, even without Harry Kane. Though it’s another Harry who’s continued injuries are really starting to cause concern. Winks’ progression has made him one of the most highly rated midfielders in the Premier League and his importance to the cause alongside the forever improving Moussa Sissoko cannot be understated, but for a third season running the England international has been plagued by absences due to injury problems; ankle, groin, hamstring. You can’t pretend it’s not an issue as his importance to the Tottenham cause will only grow.
Spurs will be without Kane and Heung-Min Son for the first leg, but there are plenty of goals in their ranks. Lucas Moura has broken double figures, while Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Fernando Llorente have all fired in some important goals this season, with the Spaniard really showing some true value to the majority of supporters now within his role as third choice striker.
I predicted Ajax would progress. I just knew. Yes, Juventus are blessed with a world class player, but arguably they haven’t progressed as a team since their run to the Champions League final in 2017. Ajax on the other hand, as eluded to in the previous column, are blessed with some extraordinary young talent mixed with some extremely useful experienced heads.
You don’t get more seasoned strikers around than Klaas Jan Huntelaar, who himself has 15 goals in the Eredivisie this season as they sit top of the pile in that division while Lasse Schone’s know-how coupled with Hakim Ziyech’s influence have only served to help those immensely talented youngsters develop into the potential global superstars they are.
It’s the first leg that could be crucial. Yes, Tottenham have a good record in their new home and just in general in front of their own fans, but Ajax have done the damage in the two previous rounds while on their travels, and that’s even after recovering a deficit from their first game with Real Madrid. Of course, Spurs were only a matter of minutes from elimination in the group stages so their run to this stage is equally as extraordinary.
Perhaps this is my heart ruling my head, but in a season where it looked as though so much could derail the team, Pochettino’s side will just about do enough to see this one through.
Prediction: Tottenham Hotspur
Player to watch: Jan Vertonghen
Barcelona vs Liverpool
It’s not been easy to score against Liverpool this season. At the time of writing, just the 20 shipped in 35 matches, a remarkable achievement. Personally, I’m not convinced by Alison Becker as a goalkeeper. I don’t think he’s in the same class as Ederson at Manchester City, but he certainly is an upgrade on Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius. I can’t help but wonder if, over the period of a season, he’d have been as good if Virgil Van Dijk wasn’t in front of him. The Dutch centre half was already a top defender, but the way he’s developed since his arrival at Anfield is equally as significant as the trio they’ve got at the other end.
This Liverpool side really do look like the real deal in every element. Their midfield, whatever combination, always appears to be the right one, but they always seem to look at their best when Jordan Henderson – so criminally undervalued by many in the wider football world – is right in the spine of the team, just as he was in the ‘nearly’ men in 2014. It’s obvious why Gareth Southgate thinks so highly of him and why many who support Liverpool do. I’ve always felt in these big matches, like Park-Ji Sung at Manchester United under Sir Alex, the England man is pivotal and will continue to stand by that sentiment. Is it the same in the Nou Camp? Yes. But will it be enough?
Barcelona haven’t always been at their sparkling best this season, but against English opposition Lionel Messi has been nothing short of magic. Inspirational is a word all too often used to describe a player’s performance, but his wizardry at Wembley against Tottenham and then again in Nou Camp against Manchester United continues to just be jaw dropping, not to mention former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho would have loved his goal against his former foe. But he and Luis Suarez now prepare for a reunion with the Anfield crowd and their contribution to that title pursuit in 2014 is still fresh in the minds of many, but there’s a huge belief that the class of 2019 can go a step further.
But in this battle the margins will be tiny. On paper these are arguably the best strike forces in the world (certainly the Messi/Suarez partnership must be ranked Number 1) but where Liverpool are significantly stronger is at the back. Barca have already conceded 32 goals in the league this season, which isn’t a disaster from 34 matches, but isn’t as imposing as what Van Dijk et al have created under Jurgen Klopp, but they won’t have come up against a duo quite like this, particularly with the Argentine continuing to defy logic.
When the king is in town, everyone’s watching, and Liverpool can’t afford to be in awe. I’ve felt since the start of the season this would be Barcelona’s time to end that four-year wait for the next title and will not be changing my mind now.
One to watch: Lionel Messi