Liverpool faced off against probably the friendliest quarter final opponents in Porto, while Tottenham Hotspur slugged it out with English rivals Manchester City. The red half of Manchester reunited with old foe Barcelona, while defending champion Cristiano Ronaldo visited surprise package Ajax. How did the quarterfinalists fare?
Sam Cicci: Hello eager fans and BarnBurner enthusiasts! With a sparse series of Premier League games last weekend, Matthew and I have switched our focus to the much more important first leg of the Champions League quarter finals!
Matt Hein: OH WHEN THE SPURS GO MARCHING IN I WANT TO BE IN THAT NUMBER WHEN THE SPURS GO MARCHING IN
SC: Not sure exactly what you mean, Matthew, but it seems you have something to say about the Spurs-Manchester City game. But let’s not focus on that for now. To open the quarters, Liverpool faced off with traditional Portuguese powerhouse FC Porto. Everyone had earmarked this as the easiest tie of the round, and Liverpool obliged with a 2-0 victory at Anfield. Do Porto have any chance of causing an upset, or is this matchup already done and dusted?
MH: A two goal deficit is not impossible but the way Liverpool handled Porto today, it seems unlikely. Porto did not put up much resistance, with Marega the only player to get a clear sight of goal all game. Liverpool bossed them up and down the pitch and left some goals on the field, including one called back for a fractional offsides. Porto simply cannot allow Liverpool to score at home and although the Reds front three may not be in top form, they still have enough talent to put one away. Honestly, their best hope may be the Klopp decides to rest some players in the second leg to aid in the their title chase. How do you think Klopp will handle the end of the season run-in?
SC: He’ll have to go guns blazing. You saw his reaction when the pundits suggested he pick one competition; he has Liverpool back at the top table, and he intends to act like it. Granted, the team doesn’t quite have the same depth as some of the other big clubs, but there may just be enough to handle the rigors of competing on multiple fronts. For that to work, the squad players will need to step up. Naby Keita, who has struggled to adapt, made the best possible contribution yesterday by scoring the opening goal. That’s the kind of support Klopp needs. Honestly, this is the best time to push forward. Manchester City are in a grueling three-match run against Tottenham, which will be incredibly draining. I’d say it’s now or never. Also, Salah needs to score goals again. No way around it.
Now, on to the real real story: Tottenham beat Manchester City! We haven’t seen that result in a bit. How did Pochettino do it?
MH: A little luck, some great performances, and questionable lineup decisions by Pep. Trippier even played well! Spurs played extremely well before Kane went down in the 2nd half, absorbing pressure and striking quickly on the counter. Kane and Eriksen were both in their passing bag of tricks, splaying balls out to Son and Alli. It led to a wildly entertaining first half. After Kane went down it looked bleak, as Spurs got pressed farther and farther back. But all it takes is one moment of brilliance, and Son has been the man for the occasion so many times this season. Has he surpassed Kane as Spurs fans favorite…. Son?
SC: I don’t know if Son can ever surpass Kane’s popularity due to the Englishman’s homegrown status, but he is certainly a fan favorite at this point. You have to give him credit for that play, too. Spurs were under heavy pressure and dealing with tired legs. It’s so easy to lose that little bit of concentration, or fail to muster the strength to keep the ball from going over the line. Should Ederson have done better with the shot? Sure, but these things happen from time to time. Give Son credit for his match winning contribution, and hope that Spurs can muster a similar performance in the second leg. One’s thing for sure, though: if they bunker down from the get-go, I’d say it’s curtains for them.
But back to Pep: He hasn’t had much luck in the knockout stages over the past few years, and always seems to produce a questionable lineup for big games. It happened as early as his evisceration at the hands of Ancelotti’s Real Madrid in 2014 while at Bayern Munich, and the tradition carries on, including defeats to Monaco and Liverpool in recent years. Can you attempt to puzzle out what he was going for in the Spurs game?
MH: I think his starters are defensible, if not the ones I would have chosen. Mahrez has had success against Spurs, and Gundogan has been in good form. Throughout the game Pep seemed fine with a 0-0 draw, never fully committing to the attack in part out of respect for the Spurs counter. What really relieved me as a Spurs fan was that Pep did not bring on Sane and De Bruyne sooner. They both looked sharp in their seven minutes of action. If they had been brought on twenty minutes sooner I bet they would have found a way to get on the scoresheet.
SC: Instead, Spurs take a 1-0 lead to the Etihad Stadium for the second leg. A promising foundation, but they’ll have to be at the top of their game to move on to the next round.
But 1-0 score lines galore over in Manchester. I’ll admit, Solskjaer’s starting formation left me reeling. What was he going for there, and did it work?
MH: . The real question is: did Mourinho secretly pull an Arya from Game of Thrones and take Solskjaer’s identity? Part of Solskjaer’s success, as opposed to Mourinho, has been his willingness to let loose and attack, trusting in his talent. At home in Manchester, however, he attempted to park a bus in front of De Gea. But he decided to throw a decidedly rickety bus out there, playing a relatively inexperienced squad with Dalot and McTominay featuring in the midfield. Relatively quickly, Barcelona broke through and could relax for the remainder of the game, very content with this away score line. I understand why Solskjaer would be scared of Barcelona but he simply did not even give his players a shot. What do you think of how Manchester approached this game and does it give you any hope for any drama in the away leg?
SC: Not if he lines up like that again! Dalot, McTominay, and Fred in midfield? Interesting would be the most positive spin on that. None of the trio is a playmaker (Dalot isn’t even a midfielder), and pushing Pogba farther up field really isolated the front three from the rest of the team. It makes you think that the idea was to hoof long balls up field for Rashford to chase. Lukaku has never had a great first touch, and that was glaringly apparent in his hold up play during the game. In the end, the statistics tell the story: zero shots on target. The worst part is, Barcelona were on autopilot the whole time. The Red Devils could certainly pull another rabbit out of the hat in the away leg if they drop Lukaku, bolster the midfield with actual midfielders, and get Pogba more involved in the play, but it’s a long shot. Winter is coming for Manchester’s champions league campaign.
On to more attacking oriented squads: Ajax outplayed yet another European goliath in their first leg against Juventus. With the tie poised at 1-1, can they slay another giant and advance to the semis?
MH: I certainly would not count them out. They are so fun to watch aren’t they? With quite the team blend of veteran Premier League rejects like Blind and Tadic, youngsters like Neres, de Light, and de Jong, and a gunner like Ziyech, they simply show no fear. They press up the field and make life hard on the other team while also showing the confidence to take people on and take shots. If they do get knocked out in the away leg, they will be left ruing the many chances they left on the table at Johan Cruyff Arena. Two shots missed the post by inches and Ziyech forced an incredible save out of Szczesny. The way they are playing, I would bet they get at least a goal in Italy but Ronaldo will probably use his overpowered (please nerf) heading skills to propel Juve, it’s what they paid for after all.
The real question is how does Ronaldo keep winning in Champions League by banging away headers while his team is getting dominated?
SC: Juventus certainly looked on the back foot for most of the game and were lucky to escape. If the Italians play like that at home, things are looking up for Ajax. Their attacking verve and high energy proved difficult for Juventus to handle, but they’ll have to be clinical in the second leg because, as you said, Ronaldo loves to bang away headers. He’s always good for a goal, or two, or three, or even sometimes four. Even if Juve are under the cosh, all it takes is one slip up by the Dutch squad, or one half-chance for Ronaldo, and it could be game over.
MH: VAR handballs are starting to become a thing. A player is trying to block a shot and no one even notices, but then the video assistant pulls it back. These soft, technically correct, calls have happened twice now in big Champions League knockout games. It’s a cheap way to concede a goal that is based more on luck than any skill. FIFA may need to either alter the handball rule (again) or how VAR addresses it because the issue will only repeat itself.
SC: Sounds like a complete lack of rational thought is starting to become your thing. If soccer games were based solely on skill, then Manchester City would have won. In fact, there would never be any upsets at all. Sounds fun, right? Luck goes a long way for everyone (see: Madrid’s recent three champions league triumphs).
MH: First, City did not score (thx Lloris) but you have to agree that its against the spirit of the game really, it’s a super soft way to get a goal, especially when literally no one on the field or in the stadium thinks a handball occured.
SC: I must disagree. It is absolutely within the spirit of the game to try to be as accurate as possible with refereeing decisions. But I do agree it was an iffy call. Rose was right in front of that shot, although his hand was up in an unnatural decision. You have to be careful about that, but there really wasn’t much he could do. Some refs may not have called it, but I would probably lean toward giving the penalty. VAR absolutely needs to look at incidents like that. The things players have gotten away with in the past is huge (Hand of God).
MH: FERNANDINHO SLAMMED KANE’S HEAD INTO THE GROUND BUT NO ONE REVIEWED THAT.
SC: Clear bias. That’s what Arsene Wenger could call a clean, textbook tackle.
— Matt Hein and Sam Cicci