The Champions League semifinals are nearly here and the road to Madrid is nearly complete. Two Premier League teams are left standing, and while both are challenged by formidable opponents, the two teams are facing extremely different tasks.
Liverpool and Tottenham have reached this stage by knocking out giants of the game, preparing them for the biggest stage. Spurs took down Man City in the quarterfinals in thrilling fashion, a massive victory over one of the best Premier League sides in the history of the English top flight. Liverpool, meanwhile, knocked out Bayern Munich in the Round of 16, holding the German giants who have registered 80 goals in 31 Bundesliga matches to just one score over the two legs.
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With a pair of absolutely delicious semifinal matchups to savor, each with varying degrees of intricacies, let’s break down each meeting.
Tottenham vs. Ajax
“We have a spirit in the team that we can achieve anything and all is possible. That is our strength.” -Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino
Spurs host Dutch side Ajax at the new stadium before heading out to the Netherlands for the second leg. In a vacuum, Tottenham fans would be just happy to reach the Champions League semifinals, having reached this stage for the first time since the 60’s. Spurs would become the first team to reach the Champions League final for the first time since Chelsea did in 2008. Yet matching up with Ajax changes that slightly, and as quality as the young Dutch squad has looked this season, the sting of disappointment would be heavy should Spurs be eliminated by a club of Ajax’s stature having just eliminated such a powerhouse the previous round.
The matchup is rife with adversity for Spurs, the most banged up team remaining in the competition. Already without talismanic striker Harry Kane for maybe the remainder of the season with ankle trouble, in-form replacement Heung-Min Son is suspended for the first leg due to yellow card accumulation. That leaves Spurs extremely thin up front, with Fernando Llorente the likely candidate to start the opener. That puts enormous pressure on the creative forces like Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli, a reality which Spurs must face head-on. Moussa Sissoko and Jan Vertonghen are both question marks for the match, with the potential presence of both providing some sense of stability. As StatsBomb points out, the core squad of Alli, Eriksen, Vertonghen, Sissoko, Son, Kane, Hugo Lloris, and Toby Alderweireld have all found been on the pitch together just four times all year.
Nobody has been more battle tested in this tournament, however, than Ajax. They’ve already taken down last year’s champion Real Madrid and eight-time Serie A champs Juventus and will be fearless heading into the electric London atmosphere. Frenkie de Jong is a superstar in the making at just 21 years old, heading to Barcelona next year and looking for a dream finals meeting with his future club. In front of him is 22-year-old Donny van de Beek who has been the face of this beautifully flowing attack that takes no prisoners, and in back of him is 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt who is battle tested at an incredibly young age.
The Dutch club also comes in with extensive rest, with the Eredivisie moving fixtures around the give them more breathing room. Compared to the walking wounded Spurs, this is an enormous advantage for the visitors who will come to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium smelling blood, poised to walk away with a significant advantage in the matchup if they impose their will and pass Spurs to death in their own home.
Kyle Bonn: Spurs could find themselves overwhelmed in the first leg if they can’t find the back of the net. However, the Tottenham midfield remains intact, with Sissoko potentially returning. A lot of this match hinges on Spurs being able to break up the silky smooth Ajax buildup, a trademark of this young team that’s played together at various youth levels. The first leg is critical to keep things close before Son comes back. I like the fairy tale to continue for Ajax, and Spurs forced to swallow a heavy dose of mixed feelings as the Dutch youngsters reach the final on a 2-1 aggregate score.
Joseph Prince-Wright: Tottenham takes down Ajax 3-2 on aggregate to continue Mauricio Pochettino’s dream campaign.
Barcelona vs. Liverpool
“It’s about doing it all together, it’s never one versus one, it’s never just me against a particular striker. It’s always us against everyone and I think that’s the only way we can defend well.” -Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk
The heavyweight matchup of the semifinals features last year’s runner up against this year’s La Liga champion. Barcelona has yet to lose in Champions League play, and hasn’t tasted defeat at all this season since a Copa del Rey defeat to Sevilla back in January, one they avenged 6-1 just seven days later. At 31 years old Lionel Messi looks to be in some of the best form of his spectacular career, with a massive 46-goal haul so far this season in 45 matches.
If anyone can lock down the Barcelona superstar its Liverpool, sporting newly-crowned PFA Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk alongside either Joel Matip or Joe Gomez. While the narrative a few months ago would have been the back line at the other end of the field, Barcelona has shored up its defense in remarkable fashion, conceding just 14 goals over the club’s 23-game league unbeaten streak (just 10 goals in 22 games if you take out the wild 4-4 thriller against Villareal). They held Manchester United scoreless over both quarterfinal legs and have conceded just a single goal over the four Champions League knockout round matches thus far.
Still, among the likes of PSV Eindhoven, Lyon, Tottenham, and Inter, Barcelona has yet to face an attacking onslaught in Champions League play like the one Liverpool possesses. Over their current ten-game winning streak across all competitions, they have scored 29 goals, trouncing the last three Premier League opponents Chelsea, Cardiff City, and Huddersfield Town by a combined 9-0.
Jurgen Klopp‘s men are in stunning form, with all three main attackers providing meaningful contributions. Sadio Mane has 14 goals since the calendar turned to 2019, Roberto Firmino is the perfect foil every manager wishes his striker could be off the ball, and Mohamed Salah has shaken off mid-season doubters with five goals and four assists in his last seven outings. While many have criticized the Egyptian for failing to post the raw numbers he put up last season, his goals have given Liverpool life when they need it the most – his Premier League goals have accounted directly for 24 points this season, double any other player in the league.
Both teams will know what’s at stake, and while the other matchup could see both sides looking to secure an advantage going into the second leg, this game could be cagey with neither side wanting to risk handing the opponents a moment of opportunity. Still, Liverpool will be hungry to take down Barcelona’s imposing home Champions League record, having avoided defeat in 25 Camp Nou matches since falling 3-0 to Bayern Munich in 2013. That, and the prospect of revenge for last year’s finals disappointment will no doubt be on their minds, unable to truly avenge that painful defeat should they get past Barcelona and again have a chance to lift the trophy.
Kyle Bonn: Often in Champions League play, a team is defined not by its strengths but by its weaknesses. Barcelona’s squad has more weaknesses than Liverpool’s. I like Jurgen Klopp to draw up an exciting 2-2 away goals victory, with Salah providing the key away goal to ensure the Reds move on to the final and have a chance to right last season’s close encounter.
Joseph Prince-Wright: Liverpool beats Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate to set up an all-Premier League final in Madrid.