The Workmanlike Performers: Champions League Semi Finalists and Premier League Drama

The semifinalists for this year’s UEFA Champions League are set, and with some surprises in tow! Barcelona finally make it back to the semis, Tottenham survive the Etihad gauntlet, Ajax keep on killing Goliath, and Liverpool are making themselves at home at football’s top table. Meanwhile, there’s misery in Manchester and Arsenal’s season looks to be slipping away from them.


Samuel Cicci: After all these games, I really needed to take a nap. Especially after that Tottenham and Manchester City game.

Matthew Hein: Considering I crouched six inches away from my television for the last twenty minutes, I would agree.

SC: Am I correct in assuming your opinion of VAR has see-sawed in the complete opposite direction since our last blog?

MH: I have seen the light now. Especially on cut and dried issues like being marginally offsides for a winning goal.

SC: I really would have liked to have been in Eriksen’s headspace after that ludicrous giveaway.

MH: Honestly, though, I was expecting that goal. Being a Tottenham fan has conditioned me to watch games a certain way. 

SC: Is your Tottenham brain even able to comprehend the sheer joy of victory in crunch time?

MH: By the end of the game I could comprehend. But when Llorente bounced the ball in the goal off of his…. Body? It took me a solid minute to fully realize what had happened.

SC: It was one for the ages, all right. City dominated possession, as was expected with a Pep team and City needing to chase a goal, and Spurs having no Harry Kane, and Spurs not having their preferred midfielders, and…huh, maybe they should buy more players.

MH: Down our top 3 CDMs, I had given up most hope. That being said when you are missing Eric Dier and want to be a top team, that might be a problem. Hopefully this extra Champions League money (and Eriksen’s transfer fee, shhhh) will be enough to enlist some depth.

SC: At any rate, it was refreshing to witness a play straight from the Wanyama school of “forget the counter attack, I’ll just boot it into the stands.” Transitioning to some slick interplay, how about that Greek champions of legend? At the start of the tournament I would have said the Dutch troublemakers were more akin to the Trojan War’s Little (lesser?) Ajax, but they’ve since proved capable of holding the mantle of Big Ajax. As long as they don’t draw Athena’s ire by dragging a supplicant from her temple, they could be well poised to advance to the final.

MH: English major alert! Thanks for the references I am sure a large portion of our audience will appreciate. I think Ajax have an excellent chance the way they are playing, having already knocked out and outplayed two giants of European football. I just wish I could see this team in Europe again next year. Oh wait I can, they will just be wearing Barcelona jerseys.

SC: True, Barcelona’s famed youth academy has been mostly stagnant for a while. They’ve been snapping up top quality players and buying their way to success recently. ‘Mes que un club’ indeed. Posers.

MH: Do you think its a problem that they will be picked apart this summer or it just how European football goes these days?

SC: It’s too bad, really. That is how it goes, but it still sucks. There’s usually some sort of surprise package, like Schalke making it to the semis in 2011, or Leicester having a brilliant run after their surprise title win. But Ajax have broken the mold by dominating the teams they’ve faced. As you said, they were the better team not just at home, but in the away legs of their round-of-16 and quarter final matchups. I hate to see it broken apart; they’ve built up their squad using good veteran recruitment coupled with the famed Ajax youth academy. Unless they pull two rabbits out of the hat, replacing De Jong and De Ligt will be tough. Never say never, but they’ll need to take advantage of this run. And I hate to say it, but for Ajax, Spurs are the “easiest” opponent left in the tournament (considering how under strength they are at the moment).

Sorry to drone on, but let’s switch gears. There were a few pretty miserable performances in the Premier League last weekend, and mostly from teams we aren’t very fond of! I’m licking my lips. Where to begin?

MH: The dual Arsenal and Man United losses were music to my ears, as Spurs managed to stay in 3rd place even with their Prem loss to City to round out their 3rd game against them in 10 days, where they played 6 defenders at one point while down a goal. Arsenal have been really up and down, especially on the road.

SC: It’s only been down for them on the road.

MH: This loss encapsulated their season for me: shaky defending offsetting some really quality attackers. The Man United loss stunned a lot of people though, not because they lost, but how they were absolutely beat down by a mediocre Everton team. Is United that bad right now?

SC: United’s run after Solskjaer came in was, quite frankly, remarkable. But even then, the performances didn’t always match the brilliant results. The team still needs a lot of work, but they do have talent, so the 4-0 drubbing by Everton was quite a surprise. Marco Silva is a promising manager, and Everton have talented players, but they’ve been highly inconsistent this season. So for United to lose by that margin, well, I guess they do have to be that bad. It doesn’t help that De Gea is out of form at the moment, but I’m not going to point to him as the issue here considering how many times he’s bailed them out over the years. Perhaps Solskjaer isn’t the savior they hoped. They signed him up for the permanent position very quickly, but were there no other candidates they were looking at? It did seem like they rushed into that, but now they’re committed for now. How, exactly, are they going to rebuild in the summer?

MH: I think with a popular club legend like Solskjaer they will give him a little rein to fit the team in his image, although what that image is remains very unclear. I would not be surprised to have some high profile players offloaded, Martial, Lukaku, and perhaps even Pogba have all under-performed in red shirts. I honestly forgot Alex Sanchez was on this team until I just looked at their roster.

SC: If such a team existed, you could probably convince an under performing, humiliated Spanish side with oodles of money to spend to take a gamble on Pogba for a hefty fee.

Volleys

  • No one wants to lock up that 4th Champions League spot in England. Manchester United and Arsenal both lost, while Chelsea drew 2-2 with Burnley on Monday. There’s only a three-point span between 4th and 6th, with Chelsea holding the last remaining berth with 67 points, albeit with a game in hand. Down at the bottom, Cardiff and Brighton will be slugging it out to remain in England’s top flight. Brighton currently hold a three-point advantage over Cardiff, but Chris Hughton’s team still have to play Arsenal and Manchester City. Yikes.

Meanwhile, what’s going on across the pond in Spain, France, and Italy?

  • Karim Benzema scored his first hat trick since 2015 to down Athletic Bilbao last week, bringing his La Liga tally to 21. No, he can’t be Ronaldo, but despite some dry spells, the Frenchman has done his best to contribute goals this season when no one else has for Real Madrid. 11 of his strikes have also been headed goals, more than any other striker in Europe’s top leagues.
  • PSG finally wrapped up the Ligue 1 title after some dire performances in recent weeks. Their triumph was always a foregone conclusion, but the players’ ability to take the last step over the finish line will have Thomas Tuchel fuming. That, coupled with their Champions League collapse, should push the hierarchy to find more ‘character’ for the squad.
  • Juventus also confirmed their 8th consecutive Serie A title. Cause for celebration? Sure, but their real goal was the Champions League after the $100 million investment in Cristiano Ronaldo. Will the Italian league ever be competitive again? The Milanese sides are finally starting to get it together, while Ancelotti at Napoli always makes his team a threat. It might not be next year, but Serie A maybe, just maybe could see a competitive balance soon.

Workmanlike Performer of the Week:

Ladies and Gentlemen, say congrats to our first two time winner: VAR! With two huge reviews in one of the biggest games of the season, there was no other choice. Everyone on both teams thought the game was over and done with. But negating rampant celebrations throughout the Etihad was simply a video board with: VAR NO GOAL. VAR has really done some work this season, adding to the drama of Champions League in ways no one saw coming.

— Matt Hein and Sam Cicci


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