Football’s most exciting competition resumed a couple of weeks ago and the exhilarating entertainment it has already provided in the group stages and round of sixteen continued.
Barcelona 4 – 0 Manchester United
Barcelona’s first-leg performance was reminiscent of last year’s round of sixteen performance against another English side in Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. Cagey, not at their best and a few nervous moments, yet still enough ability to gain a crucial away goal. It was indicative of a team with an ability to grind out results, even when their star players aren’t shining as bright as we might expect. Something similar was to be witnessed this year.
A moment of brilliance at Old Trafford from, unsurprisingly, Lionel Messi as he picked out Luis Suarez who headed the ball back across goal where the unfortunate Luke Shaw put it in his own net meant Barcelona headed back to Spain with the advantage. From then on though, it could easily be argued Manchester United were, not necessarily the better, but very much the equal of their opponents. With the exception of David De Gea making a good reaction save with his feet from former Liverpool man, Philippe Coutinho, United made good use of the ball when they had it, with Scott McTominay in particular proving a key player.
Yet, for all their defensive frailties this season, it was United’s front men that let them down, failing to provide the crucial touch or piece of quality when the opportunity came. It goes without saying that, if you’re going to stand a chance against this lot, you’ll need to take your chances.
The defensive frailties which seemed to be halted at Old Trafford made a stark return in the Nou Camp, however. For the first goal, it was Ashley Young who was to be caught out and, quite frankly, he could not have given the ball away to a worse person in Lionel Messi. The Argentinian produced another master-class as he danced away from another defender before slotting past De Gea. Surprisingly, it was United’s keeper, so often their saviour, who was solely to blame for the second-goal, misreading Messi’s shot to let it slip right underneath him. The second-half simply teetered out, with Philippe Coutinho providing the one-moment of brilliance with his trade-mark cut inside to his right foot, putting his side 3-0 up in the process.
It was a stern reminder for United fans that, for all the positivity surrounding Solskjaer’s permanent appointment, the team has been nothing short of poor since it was announced. Whether anyone likes it or not, they were lucky to have reached this stage and were simply outclassed. Should they want to become the United of old, competing in every trophy that’s going, an overhaul in almost every position could be needed. By contrast, I wish I could come up with some original phrase to describe Messi but what’s the point – it was simply business as usual.
Juventus 2 – 3 Ajax
We just can’t seem to get enough of an underdog these days and Ajax have very much forced themselves onto the list of recent comebacks across the sporting world. Having already put in a world-class performance against last season’s champions, the unlikely Dutch candidates have kept their name very much in the running.
Even with Cristiano Ronaldo returning and scoring in both legs, Juventus simply could not keep up with the young Dutch team. Despite gaining a crucial away goal in Amsterdam and being considered the favourites by near enough everyone, the Italians were simply outdone in every department.
Ajax’s entertaining, high-pressing, relentless and, most importantly, fearless style of football proved far too much. They suffocated Juventus, not giving them a moment’s peace, winning the ball back in key locations and punishing the Italian side when it mattered most. With an average age of only twenty-four, this says a lot about the character of the side. Whilst Barcelona vs Liverpool will likely be billed as the clash of the semi-finals, Ajax will make worthy opponents for Spurs who would be unwise to underestimate a side with nothing to lose.
Erik Ten Hag’s side can easily be compared with the Monaco side a few years ago who, having gone is as underdogs, brushed aside Manchester City and Dortmund before eventually falling short at the hands of Juventus themselves in the semi-finals. However, unsurprisingly, the ‘super-clubs’ were left drooling like dogs over a bone at the thought of stealing the French sides potential. In a footballing industry where these clubs can pay whatever is needed, Monaco lost almost all of their key players (Fabinho, Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Joao Moutinho), and now sit 16th in Ligue 1 – a shadow of the team they were a few years ago. It is crucial that Ajax do not make the same mistake. Yet, it would not surprise me in the slightest, with Frankie De Jong having already signed for Barcelona and Mathias De Light already being tipped to join his compatriot Van Dijk at Liverpool.
This marks a poor season for Juventus. Having brought in Ronaldo to win the competition which has eluded them since 1996 where, ironically, they beat Ajax. With Serie A almost becoming a pointless endeavour, Allegri will no doubt be under pressure. After all, the manager, having reached two champions league finals and lost them both, has yet again failed to deliver on the biggest stage possible. With the added value of Ronaldo to help him do this and what ultimately looked like a favourable tie, eyebrows will undoubtedly be raised.
Porto FC 1 – 6 Liverpool
It says a lot about the other fixtures that a tie which accumulated seven goals across the two legs was the least thrilling. Undoubtedly though, it was the most comprehensive with Liverpool dominating both legs and booking their places in the semi-final for the second year-running. This continues a simply incredible run by Jurgen Klopp, who is yet to lose a two-legged knockout tie as the club’s manager.
The first-leg was exactly what everyone expected in which Liverpool came out 2-0 victors, courtesy of goals from Naby Keita and Roberto Firmino. Jordan Henderson also continued his fine run of form in his new role as a number eight. Rather than playing in the deeper role, which summer-signing Fabinho seems to have made his own, the skipper has now been given licence to get forward, and it is paying dividends for the rest of the squad. His ball into Trent-Alexander Arnold for the second goal will no doubt be underplayed, but it is a reminder of talents that often go unnoticed. Klopp was keen to downplay the fact that his team were not yet through, but one could not help thinking he was merely saying this for the microphones.
Porto were to start the second leg well, with Moussa Marega proving a nuisance for Liverpool defenders in the opening minutes. Overall, the French striker accumulated ten shots over the two games, failing to score any of them, however. It was a reminder that, at the top level, composure is the skill that matters. Having scored in six consecutive European appearances, he was billed as a threat but ultimately rushed three or four efforts which could have put Liverpool on the back foot.
VAR was forced to get involved, correctly it should be noted, to allow Sadio Mane’s goal to stand, albeit against the run of play. From then on, it was as comprehensive as the first leg for the reds, with Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Van Dijk each providing a goal, whilst full-back Eder Militao’s goal acted as mere consolation for a side who simply did not have the quality to compete. Their attention will now turn to the Portuguese title race where them and Benfica, who have subsequently just exited the Europa League, each sit on 72 points with five games remaining.
Liverpool continue to go on in search of what would be a sensational double. Whilst not to undermine Roma’s efforts last year, Barcelona will prove a tougher semi-final than the Italian side. It will come with added value given that two ex-reds, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho, will be making their return to Anfield. Yet, as we seen with the Bayern clash, managerial experience counts as much as quality, even if said quality comes in the form of Lionel Messi, and it’s fair to say Klopp is more experienced than Barcelona manager, Ernesto Valverde.
Man City 4 – 4 Tottenham Hotspur (Tottenham progress on away goals)
For once, what was billed as the tie of the round actually delivered. Unlike the countless Super-Sunday’s which fail to amount to the colossal expectations Sky give us, this was easily one of the two-legged ties in European cup history.
The first-leg could easily be considered somewhat underwhelming. Many considered Manchester City the favourites although the game was a very cagey affair. The biggest point of controversy was a VAR decision which awarded City a penalty that Hugo Lloris would go onto save. Just when it seems to be cementing its place in the footballing world, VAR does something like this, punishing Danny Rose for a handball, despite being in a completely natural position. Harry Kane was also to go off injured later on in the game, which has subsequently rendered him out for the rest of the season. Things didn’t look good for Spurs, but it was to be the somewhat underrated Son-Heung Min who would punish City. As Son reached a ball to the by-line, full-back Fabian Delph stood appealing to the linesman rather than defending, allowing the South-Korean to shift onto his left and slot past Ederson. It was a good win for Spurs at their new home, but the tie was left wide-open.
Any pent-up frustrations of the first-leg not living up to expectations were made-up for within the first twenty-two minutes of the second, which seen five goals, three of which came in the first ten minutes. Raheem Sterling and, once again, Son-Heung Min, were in a class of their own, with City centre-back Vincent Kompany in particular struggling to keep up with the forward. Bernardo Silva chipped in with the goal in-between and City were leading 3-2 at half-time. It looked like it could be another Guardiola master-class, with Sergio Aguero putting City in the position they needed to go through.
Unlike the first-leg, VAR was to be put to good use, at least for Spurs. Not only did it confirm that Fernando Llorente’s game-winning goal was not hand-ball, it was to rule out, correctly an injury-time winner which Man-City thought had won them the game. As Pep rushed up the touchline in celebration and the Spurs players looked defeated, VAR highlighted that Aguero was in fact offside in the build-up to the goal. The managers almost seemed as tired as the players when the full whistle blew, but Pochettino was quick to grab his coaching staff and celebrate. Football’s done a lot wrong recently and it was refreshing to see. Forever the gentleman, Pep was quick to praise Tottenham and even the technology which prevented his side from progressing even as any dreams of a quadruple were crushed.
It was a breath-taking game, one which, played again, could easily have gone the other way. Yet, it will be disappointing for Guardiola, who exits the competition in the quarter-finals for the second year running, having been put out by Liverpool last year. For all his undisputed genius, some decisions can be put under scrutiny. It was similar to last-year’s decisions at Anfield, where dropping Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling proved to be costly. Similarly, this year, the decision to start Riyad Mahrez in the first-leg over Leroy Sane seemed odd as well as starting Vincent Kompany in the second leg. Whilst not to deny the Belgian’s ability or experience, the pace of Son was costly and simply too much for him. We should not be too harsh though. The missing of the penalty in the first-leg and the fact his striker was barely a foot offside were out of his control. It was a cruel reminder that football is decided in moments and, for all the stick managers get, sometimes thing just aren’t meant to be. With a domestic treble still to play for, City gave it everything and can still end the season on an incredible high.
For all the internet warriors who spend their lives reminding us that Mauricio Pochettino is yet to win a trophy with Spurs, the Argentine’s once again silenced his doubters. He has proven he can cope without star striker Harry Kane more than once now. Whilst it is still fair to say Man City and Liverpool are the two best teams in England, Pochettino’s side are not far behind. To not spend any money in the current footballing climate and reach this stage of the competition is indicative of a phenomenal manager. With Ole being given the job at United and Zidane back at Madrid, Spurs might hold onto their man just yet.