This year’s Champions League quarterfinals didn’t disappoint as far as drama is concerned, and I’m definitely looking forward to the semifinals in a couple weeks. Short intro today, simply because I’m too excited and want to talk about the matches.
Juventus 1-2 AFC Ajax (2-3 agg.)
TNT didn’t listen to me (I wonder why), so I was reduced to highlights on this one. Juventus did exactly what it needed to do, and on a wonderful corner routine, where the runs from Cristiano Ronaldo and Leonardo Bonucci led to Matthijs de Ligt and Joël Veltman colliding gave Ronaldo another free header. But once again, Ajax battled back, and Donny van de Beek calmly rolled the ball past Wojciech Szczęsny to make it 1-1. What baffles me though is the management of Paulo Dybala. Not only did he start, but he was named the captain on the night, and then Massimiliano Allegri substitutes the Argentine at halftime. And while he doesn’t necessarily “fit” with Ronaldo, once Dybala came off, the game was all Ajax. Hakim Ziyech and Van de Beek both forced good saves out of Szczęsny, then De Ligt, the 19 year old captain, rose for a corner to score the winner. David Neres could have put the tie to bed, and it led to a nervous VAR review for a potential handball against Daley Blind, but Ajax came out of Turin as deserved winners and advance to their first Champions League semifinal since 1997. Meanwhile, Juventus is stuck with just a Serie A crown the season they spent over €100 million on Ronaldo because he’s a player that pounces on scoring chances, not someone that can take over a game on his own.
Prediction: Juventus to advance. Incorrect.
FC Barcelona 3-0 Manchester United FC (4-0 agg.)
When Marcus Rashford hit the bar in the first 40 seconds, followed up by Manchester United’s pressing that frazzled Barcelona, I thought United might have a chance and was ready to rip Ernesto Valverde a new one for not learning from last year. That was dashed fairly quickly once the Blaugrana settled, and Ivan Rakitić won a penalty that was then overturned by VAR, though I’m pretty sure Fred catches the Croatian on the leg with his studs first. It didn’t matter when Lionel Messi skipped past Ashley Young, nutmegged Fred, then curled it past David de Gea in four touches, though it did come from Young’s sloppy work in possession. And to compound that misery, United lost the ball in a bad area again, and a return to World Cup form for De Gea gifted Messi a second and all but killed the game. From there, Barça toyed with United, creating a chance at the end of the first half that Sergi Roberto inexplicably put right at De Gea, but watching Messi make Phil Jones chase his tail in the build up was entertaining. It’s amazing what that man can do when center backs don’t try to behead him on sight. Philippe Coutinho scored a brilliant third goal. and his celebration definitely vented his frustrations with all the criticism coming his way. It was more than just the goal though, as Coutinho looked lively all night. Everyone for Barça played well, which only compounded the fact that no one had a particularly good game for United. In the end, this wasn’t even close. And had Messi scored his bicycle kick it could have been even worse.
Prediction: Barça to advance. Correct.
FC Porto 1-4 Liverpool FC (1-6 agg.)
Jesús Corona had a shot just over the bar. Moussa Marega again wasted chances. In the opening 20 minutes, it was all Porto, but Sadio Mané’s goal against the run of play was enough to kill the tie off. Liverpool were much better with Roberto Firmino on in the second half instead of Divock Origi, but they never really exerted themselves. Porto got the consolation from Éder Militão, and goals from Mohamed Salah, Firmino, and Virgil van Dijk added gloss for Liverpool, but this was over after 26 minutes. Porto were punished for being wasteful in both legs, and Liverpool deservedly go through in what will be its last low-intensity match of the season.
Prediction: Liverpool to advance. Correct.
Manchester City FC 4-3 Tottenham Hotspur FC (4-4 agg. Spurs through on away goals.)
I don’t think I took a breath for the first 20 minutes of this match. Raheem Sterling opened the scoring, Son Heung-Min scored a pair, Bernardo Silva snuck one through Danny Rose’s legs, then Sterling made it 3-2 on the night and 3-3 on aggregate. While the match calmed from there, City were very much the team on the front foot, especially once Moussa Sissoko went off for Tottenham with a groin injury, and eventually Sergio Agüero smashed the ball past Hugo Lloris to give City the aggregate lead. However, instead of adding to the advantage, City couldn’t beat Lloris and ultimately conceded to Fernando Llorente of all people. Tottenham deserves credit, but for me, it’s still about what City could and couldn’t do. Bernardo Silva clearly made a difference in the way City played, and Kevin de Bruyne was outstanding, finishing the match with three assists. In the back, though, Benjamin Mendy looked a step too slow for the pace of this game, and Aymeric Laporte struggled in the quarterfinal for the second straight year, and all three Spurs goals came from a shortcoming on Laporte’s part. Vincent Kompany didn’t lead the team as well as he could have, and as the game went on, Pep Guardiola left his difference makers on the bench. Leroy Sané would have been perfect for an end to end game to be able to combine his pace and power with his technical quality, but he stayed on the bench until the 84th minute. Gabriel Jesus never saw the field. Riyad Mahrez was left on the bench despite being City’s liveliest attacker in the first leg. I could go on and on about where City could have been better, but even through all that, Sterling had the ball in the net in stoppage time only to see the goal correctly called back for offside in the build up. Yet this is the third time under Guardiola that City have crashed out of the Champions League because of preventable mistakes. Tottenham limps on.
Prediction: City to advance. Incorrect.
FC Barcelona v. Liverpool FC
Liverpool is in a tight title race with Manchester City, while Barcelona can lose three games and still win La Liga on goal difference. Liverpool has struggled on the road in the Champions League this season, while in the past two home matches, Barcelona has won by a combined score of 8-1. With that being said, while I thought last year’s Liverpool rode a lot of luck, this year’s Liverpool is the real deal and they’ve always shown up when it’s time to play the big teams, but they haven’t faced any challenge like Barcelona away before. The second leg at Anfield will be thrilling, and the Liverpool crowd will no doubt get behind their team, but as far as I’m concerned, no one stops Lionel Messi but himself. He’ll do something spectacular, and that will make the difference.
Prediction: Barça advances.
Tottenham Hotspur FC v. AFC Ajax
Tottenham’s squad is falling apart, and now Son misses the first leg after picking up a yellow card against City. Then there’s Ajax, who have just ripped through Juventus’ back line and don’t appear to be slowing down at all. There were times in the second leg that City couldn’t be stopped, and I don’t see Spurs having any better luck against Ajax. Without Son or the previously injured Harry Kane as an attacking outlet, I expect Lloris’ goal to be under siege in the first leg, and Ajax will probably have a lead to defend in Amsterdam. Of course I say defend when Ajax will just play the same way and try to score more. Spurs may get a couple body shots in, but I expect to see a sea of red and white shirts flying forward.
Prediction: Ajax advances.