Tottenham fans couldn’t be blamed for thinking it was a favorite to advance to the UEFA Champions League final in the minutes after their away goals rule win in a 4-4 aggregate draw with Manchester City.
But that doesn’t take into account what Tottenham do have. By not making any signings, this is as tight-knit a group as the Premier League has seen in many, many years. Plus, in manager Mauricio Pochettino, there’s a unique tactician who combines great x’s and o’s with excellent man management, always getting the best out of his players in the key moments of the match.
Even without some stars and coming off a rough 1-0 loss to West Ham at home, Tottenham’s players will be confident facing Ajax, only because they are always a confident bunch. It will be a reminder of where he came from for Davinson Sanchez, who spent one successful season at Ajax, helping them to the Europa League final before heading to England, and Christian Eriksen, another Ajax alum (along with Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen) will have a big task ahead of him with Frenkie de Jong running the show for Ajax.
Tottenham’s mission is simple, but it’s one that flummoxed Real Madrid and Juventus so far: How to neutralize Dusan Tadic up the middle and then negate de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt. Whoever of Fernando Llorente or Dele Alli will have to not only occupy de Ligt, but also pull him out of position, opening spaces for Tottenham’s wing backs to exploit on late runs.
Meanwhile, Eriksen or Alli are going to have a busy day keeping tabs on de John, trying to limit his touches, while Alderweireld and Sanchez will have to be quick to pick up Tadic when he drops into space.
Tottenham will have to do all of this on shorter rest, with a shorter bench and less recent confidence than Ajax. But maybe that’s exactly where Pochettino wants his opponents.
“It’s going to be a magical night because to play the semifinals in our new stadium is something that no one could believe or think a few months ago,” Pochettino said in his pre-match press conference Monday. “It’s a game that is impossible to be tired for, not to be excited to play. It’s all mental.
“The energy is going to be there. It’s two legs – tomorrow we are going to play the first half of the game and the second is going to be at Ajax. It’s so important how we approach the game and how we handle the game during 90 minutes.”
Champions League semifinal predictions: Will the PL sides make it through?
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.
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.
There were late cries of joy in North London, and surely Cardiff City, as Christian Eriksen finally pushed Tottenham Hotspur past stingy Brighton and Hove Albion at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Tuesday.
The win boosts Spurs back into third place, with 70 points, while Brighton’s 34 keep it just three ahead of 18th place Cardiff.
Spurs were very much in charge, but a combination of Seagulls goalkeeper Mat Ryan and his center backs helped defy a lively Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son.
Shane Duffy made a goal line clearance on Dele, which may have been partially hit toward the line by a Brighton defender, and Ryan pounced on the rebound to keep it 0-0 heading into halftime.
The game slogged forward at 0-0, Brighton resolute and Spurs unable to cut a path to danger. It took center back Toby Alderweireld dribbling and dragging a shot off the post to snap the game into life.
Ryan saved a Christian Eriksen hit in the final 10 minutes as Spurs desperately pushed for a winner and the Seagulls issued similar defense of their goal.
67 – None of Tottenham’s last 67 Premier League games have ended 0-0 – the longest such current run in the division and Spurs’ longest ever run without a goalless draw in the competition. Goals. #TOTBHA
On Thursday, the club announced in a statement that Kane suffered “significant lateral ligament injury to his left ankle,” during Tottenham’s 1-0 win over Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday. Tottenham also stated that they will continue to assess Kane before announcing a timetable for his return.
In a similar injury to his left ankle in January, Kane wound up missing five weeks, returning faster than expected.
Ultimately, even if Kane misses another five weeks, it would leave Spurs without their star for the return leg at Manchester City, as well as the stretch run in the Premier League. There’s only a month left of matches in the league, which means Kane could miss the rest of the season as Tottenham looks to remain in the top four. It’s the latest bit of drama in a drama-filled Premier League season.
In addition to the announcement about Kane, Tottenham stated that Dele Alli suffered a broken left hand. However, they’re still assessing his hand to see if he can be available to play against Huddersfield Town on Saturday.
Ironically, even without Kane and Alli in January, Tottenham had a decent run of results, as Heung-Min Son turned into a goal-scoring machine. Manager Mauricio Pochettino will be relying on Son even more down the stretch.
Report: Tottenham planning for Kane, Alli to return for second leg
March 5 is the date of Tottenham’s return leg against Borussia Dortmund, three weeks from tomorrow when they play their first leg at Wembley Stadium against the Bundesliga leaders. According to the report, Kane has made an impressive recovery from tearing ankle ligaments in mid-January, and could even return to the field as early as Feb. 23 at Burnley. Alli, on the other hand, has reportedly returned to gym work and could be back in full training by the beginning of March.
Alli has been out since mid-January as well after suffering a hamstring injury. Both players were expected to be out until mid-March or later, but their early recovery has provided a huge boost for the club.
Tottenham was bounced from both the FA Cup and League Cup in late January but have won three straight matches in the Premier League. While Dortmund seems the favorite in Wednesday’s matchup, a Tottenham with Kane and Alli back in the squad can take down nearly any team in Europe.