previews the four Champions League quarter-finals.
This is the tie that Tottenham wanted least, providing no glamorous European trip and pitching them against the strongest team left in the competition. But get over the disappointment of the draw, and there is reason for Spurs to be cautiously optimistic.
Generally teams would much prefer to play the second leg of a European tie at home; knowing what exactly what you need to do in the game where you have the advantage is useful. But Tottenham’s new stadium changes that. Playing the first leg in Manchester might just end in two-goal defeat that would render the second leg useless. In London tonight, Tottenham can look to take advantage of a cacophonous atmosphere and a can-do spirit. The players will be determined to put on a show.
If Tottenham’s recent Premier League displays demonstrate the difficulties of a fatigued team playing under intense pressure, that pressure evaporates in the Champions League. Nobody expected Tottenham to get through the group stage after early setbacks required a result in the Camp Nou. Nobody expected Mauricio Pochettino’s team to sweep past Borussia Dortmund. Nobody expects them to trouble City either.
City’s extraordinary run of form (include the win on penalties over Chelsea and it’s 22 victories from their last 23 in all competitions) hardly persuades us of their vulnerabilities, but Pochettino will have taken heart from their FA Cup semi-final win over Brighton. Pep Guardiola picked a strong team, and will presumably have been frustrated that City were forced to fight until the end so close to the first leg against Tottenham. Coupled with Spurs’ own free weekend, that might reduce some of the concerns about fatigue.
Liverpool’s players have repeatedly been asked about which competition they are prioritising this season. Last month, Mohamed Salah even offered an honest response, admitting that he would prefer to win the Champions League but understood that Liverpool supporters would prefer the Premier League and would therefore be prepared to sacrifice his own goal for theirs.
But Jurgen Klopp has always insisted that it can be both rather than either/or, and Liverpool’s favourable draw confirms it. Klopp’s sacrifice of Liverpool’s FA Cup participation was a nod to avoiding late-season fatigue. There is no chance of him doing the same in Europe, with a second successive final four games away and Liverpool the only one of last season’s quarter-finalists left in the competition.
It sounds uncharitable to Porto, but they were the club everyone wanted. They are not even top of the Portuguese league, and will be without the influential Hector Herrera in the first leg after he accumulated too many yellow cards. Klopp will stress the need to avoid any foolish complacency, but play to their best and Liverpool should progress with some comfort.
This weekend, Manchester United’s official website published an interview feature with Wes Brown on how to stop Lionel Messi. You do have to admire the optimism.
United have now lost three of their last four matches, and are the outsiders for a top-four place in the Premier League. The pressure is suddenly on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer not to lose the buzz of his temporary appointment so soon after being given the job on a permanent basis. Weekend reports listing the senior players who want to leave this summer — including David de Gea and Paul Pogba — won’t do much for the mood.
Nor too will facing a Barcelona team in rude health. The league title is now a formality, leaving an entire club focused solely on winning the Champions League and thus allowing Messi to draw level with Cristiano Ronaldo. United have picked an inopportune time to rediscover their defensive frailties.
But there are two reasons for optimism. Solskjaer’s side have been far more successful against teams that enjoy the majority of possession and allow United to play on the counter, and Barcelona’s recent away record in Champions League knockout matches is dismal: five losses and one draw in their last six with an aggregate scoreline of 13-1. United must be brave and attack.
Remove those Premier League goggles, and this might just be the tie of the round. It pitches together the here and now against the next generation, a side containing the most individual player in the world, now a veteran, and a team packed with young talent.
This is Ajax’s tie of a generation, their chance to reach a first European Cup semi-final since their run of three in three years in the mid-1990s. It is the culmination of everything Johan Cruyff worked towards with Wim Jonk before the return of Cruyff’s cancer, the plan to instil the Ajax DNA back into a club that had lost its way.
For Juventus, it is surely the last chance for this generation to win the big one after coming so close in 2014/15 and 2016/17. Cristiano Ronaldo was bought to be their Champions League difference-maker and he has already pulled off one miracle. Can they cope with the pressure of being heavy favourites?