Tottenham v Ajax
It would be remarkable if a club that has been lambasted and mocked for failing to win a single trophy since the League Cup in 2008 began their collection with the biggest one of all. But after surviving the emotion and drama of Wednesday’s quarter-final tie at Man City, which Spurs won on away goals despite losing 4-3 on the night, there’s a sudden realisation that it’s actually possible.
It has to be their mental resilience (and who would have thought we’d say that about a Spurs side?) Mauricio Pochettino’s team failed to win any of their first three group stage games but then beat Inter and PSV and drew in Barcelona to get through. Since then they’ve beaten the potential German champions Dortmund and the potential English champions City, and survived Wednesday’s emotional rollercoaster at the Etihad.
Squad size and depth could be a problem here. Spurs famously failed to buy a single player in the last two transfer windows and although that has been forgotten after a strong campaign, it’s in the final weeks when squads really come to the fore. With Harry Kane and Eric Dier already out, and Moussa Sissoko injured in midweek, Tottenham’s strength in depth will be seriously tested. So far Heung-min Son, Lucas Moura and Fernando Llorente have come up trumps. Can do they so even in a Champions League semi-final?
Danny Rose: “Can we win it? Why not? We’ve taken a very hard route to get there and the manager expects us to beat anyone we play against, whether that’s in England or in the Champions League. It will be no different in the semi-final. We’re looking forward to it and obviously we are not scared of anybody.”
If you were going to pick a fairytale finale to the Champions League season then surely you would go with a shock Ajax win over Barcelona in a ‘Cruyff derby’ in Madrid. The Dutch giants haven’t won the trophy since 1995, but it is Ajax’s legends of the 70s, who won it three times in a row between 1971 and 1973, who really make us go dewy-eyed with memories of Johan Cruyff, Arie Haan, Johan Neeskens and Ruud Krol. The new kids on the block are incredibly exciting too, as wins in the backyards of Juventus and Real Madrid prove.
Belief and confidence must be sky-high after an underdog campaign that started in the second qualifying round but Ajax’s real strength is in their well-drilled way of playing and their youthful energy and positivity. They have been described by some as Europe’s most exciting team. Stand-out players include defender Matthijs de Ligt, midfielder Frankie de Jong and striker David Neres but the team ethos is key and don’t underestimate the role of hard-working Lasse Schone in the middle.
You’d have to say lack of experience in the latter stages of a big European competition could play a part. At what stage will nerves kick in? It hasn’t happened so far for
Eric ten Hag’s side but home games, when pressure is at its highest, have been more of a problem than away matches for them in the Champions League so far.
Lasse Schone: “We believe in ourselves and we believe in our way of playing and we stay true to it. So, can we win it? We have just beaten Real Madrid and Juventus, two of the biggest teams in the world. So why not?”
Liverpool v Barcelona
What an incredible season it’s turning out to be for Liverpool after their demolition of Porto in the Champions League quarter-finals. With only weeks to go in the campaign the ultimate dream of a Premier League and Champions League ‘Double’ is still tantalisingly within reach, and given the club’s well-documented struggle to live up to the ghosts of Anfield past it would be a momentous piece of football history if they could achieve it. Fate may decide otherwise, but they are certainly capable.
You don’t have to look much beyond the front three, which is a match for any in the world. The fact that Mo Salah is now joining the party after a slightly subdued few months augurs well for Liverpool, too, because Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have been on fire all season. Liverpool are also finding the energy and mental resolve to battle through games when they don’t play well and score late goals through sheer determination. That’s a vital trait for any champion.
There’s still a feeling that Liverpool could concede at any time and that manager Jurgen Klopp takes some major risks when pushing players forward. Virgil van Dijk and Alisson have made a massive difference in that respect but it’s not totally gone away. Can they really stop Lionel Messi? You also have to wonder about energy levels after a season of heavy metal football right to the wire in both Champions League and Premier League. Will they run out of gas?
Virgil van Dijk: “It’s a great time to be a Liverpool player. Stopping Messi won’t be easy, he’s the best player in the world, but we’ll do it together. We want to reach the final again and go one better than last year.”
It’s been four years since Barca last won the Champions League, so you can only imagine the strength of desire to do it this year with rivals Real Madrid already out and Lionel Messi in the latter stages of his career but as good as ever. They have looked impressive in this campaign, top of LaLiga, in the Copa del Rey final and ready for Liverpool in Europe, too. Bookmakers have them as favourites.
Are you kidding? You’d need a lot more than 250 words. But it’s easy to start with Lionel Messi given the form he’s in – he was certainly the difference against Manchester United this week. But it’s Barcelona’s stature and experience of winning big trophies which also makes them so strong, especially at the Nou Camp. There will be no problems with belief or confidence in this squad and Liverpool will have their work cut out.
Maybe there’s an issue away from home. Barca gave the ball away a lot at Old Trafford and they’ve drawn away at Inter and Lyon in this competition and looked surprisingly unambitious in those games too. So there could be a big opportunity for Liverpool at Anfield – and it’s vital that Jurgen Klopp’s side play at home in the second leg. If there’s a chink in the armour it’s a lack of pace at the back, especially down the channels – and that’s good news for Liverpool.
Lionel Messi: “We’re happy to be in the semis, it has been too long. But we must continue. We’ve become solid as a team and that makes it more difficult for teams to attack us.”