We got two very different semifinals this week, but I personally wasn’t all that surprised by anything that happened. So let’s take a look, shall we?
Tottenham Hotspur FC 0-1 AFC Ajax
Before I get into any of the game, the Spurs medical staff should be ashamed of themselves. Jan Vertonghen took a nasty clash to the head, and they sent him back out onto the field. Not even one minute later, he’s falling over on his way into the tunnel. For the medical staff of a professional team to be so blasé on the issue of concussions is criminal, and it’s an issue beyond just Tottenham’s staff as well. Soccer teams make the NFL look like leaders on the concussion front.
Now to the game, Vertonghen’s injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Tottenham. The first 30 minutes of the match, Ajax was sensational. The move that led to Donny van de Beek’s goal was everything Ajax had done to upend Real Madrid and Juventus, and the final pass from Hakim Ziyech was on another level. For the other Ajax shot on target in the half, Van de Beek let the ball run across him before slipping around the corner, and had he squared the ball for David Neres instead of shooting, Ajax probably goes two goals up. Victor Wanyama was hopeless on his own in the midfield, and once Moussa Sissoko came on to help out, Spurs were a little more solid defensively. Unless he re-aggravates his injury, he’ll be a shoo-in to start in Amsterdam next week. Once Tottenham could get on the ball, they found a weakness in Ajax’s team, though given the ease with which Cristiano Ronaldo scored his two headers it wasn’t that hard to find. Ajax’s marking of runners into the box is poor, and having Daley Blind as one of the center backs only exacerbates their lack of quality in the air. However, they hardly tested André Onana’s goal, and Ajax playing a high line on free kicks managed to limit Tottenham’s aerial advantage. It still should have been 2-0 with about 10 minutes to go, but Dušan Tadić decided to pass to Neres instead of shoot, and still Neres hit the post with Hugo Lloris not even moving. Son Heung-Min’s return will give Tottenham some more pace in attack, though I do think the success Spurs had lumping the ball into Fernando Llorente may lead to Llorente staying in the lineup instead of Lucas Moura. However, I also don’t think Ajax was at its best, especially in the second half when Tottenham managed to reduce the game to long balls and little fouls. Ajax will look to find a rhythm and gain support from the home crowd to carry them through to the final, and I think that even with Son in the lineup, Ajax won’t let this slip.
Prediction: Ajax advances 3-1 on aggregate.
FC Barcelona 3-0 Liverpool FC
To me, this was very reminiscent of the Champions League semifinal between Barça and Bayern Munich four years ago. Once again, the first 15 minutes of the match were incredibly open before the teams settled into their shapes, and the game slowed down. In those opening moments, both teams had penalty shouts, neither of which was called. Both were soft, and I think the ref got both right. Then it was Barcelona that found the breakthrough with Luis Suárez sliding in the opener after getting between Joël Matip and Virgil van Dijk. Sadio Mané had a chance to equalize, but his shot flew over the bar, but Liverpool began to grow into the game at that point and looked like the better team from there. I thought both managers were much more conservative than they normally would be based on the opponent, though Jürgen Klopp was forced into it because of the injury to Roberto Firmino. While both teams nominally played a 4-3-3, both morphed into a 4-4-2 defensively, and it only got more defensive when Ernesto Valverde brought on Nélson Semedo for Philippe Coutinho along with Arturo Vidal lasting the full 90 minutes. While it wasn’t completely one-way traffic, Marc-André ter Stegen was forced to come up big for his team multiple times before Klopp finally lost his patience and decided to go for it. Once Liverpool opened up, Lionel Messi took over, being instrumental in the buildup to the second goal before putting away Suárez’s rebound, and while the goal may have been the result of a few lucky bounces, Liverpool was reduced to last ditch defending as soon as Messi slipped Sergi Roberto through. As for the third goal, foul at your own peril. Messi can hurt a team in so many different ways, and when he’s putting free kicks into the top corner all opponents can do is hold their hands up in exasperation. To add insult to injury, Firmino immediately had a chance cleared off the line before Mohamed Salah hit the post, though Liverpool is lucky that Ousmane Dembélé squandered his chance to make it four. Liverpool will be better at Anfield, and I think they’ll score, but they need at least three to have a chance. Barça rarely concedes three, and when they do, they’re normally scoring as well. An away goal effectively ends the tie. I don’t see a way back for Liverpool.
Prediction: Barça advances 4-2 on aggregate.
We’ll have a final set in a week. I really can’t wait.