By Max Graham, 16
This year’s Champions League has been one of the more surprising in recent years, with holders Real Madrid unable to secure the title for the fourth consecutive year, humbled at the hands of Dutch giants Ajax at the last 16 stage. Ajax have since stormed onto the Semi Final stage where they face Tottenham; Liverpool will take on Barcelona in the other last four game.
Ajax have had an incredible run in the competition so far, unbeaten in a group with Bayern Munich and defeating some of Europe’s goliaths in recent rounds. To the surprise of many, they have progressed to this stage for the first time in 22 years. However, it is easy to see why. A young side making up a fair portion of the Dutch international team have scored 111 goals in the Eredivisie and their goalscoring prowess has allowed them to capitalise on the solid defending of wonderkid Matthijs de Ligt and garner some huge scalps on their march to the semis.
It would seem that manager Erik ten Hag has got his tactics spot on so far, tailored to countering the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus who they have knocked out already. Their match-up against Spurs should be an interesting one, with both sides going into the clash in top form. Players such as goalkeeper André Onana and starlet midfielder Frenkie de Jong will have to be on their game if they’re to get anything out of a tricky away leg to take into the home fixture.
It seemed unlikely that Spurs were even going to progress past the group stage, performing poorly and unable to make Wembley a fortress. They put in a number of unconvincing performances and needed a dramatic Lucas Moura equaliser at the Camp Nou to see them through what was arguably this year’s ‘Group of Death’. Since then, they have beaten Borussia Dortmund comfortably and relied on some VAR controversy against English rivals Manchester City to get to this stage. Having moved from Wembley to new White Hart Lane, they have put together an impressive run of form and remain unbeaten at their new ground.
Mauricio Pochettino has continued his meteoric rise to the top of the managerial game but Spurs’ away form could be their downfall, in a terrible run of games which hasn’t seen them win away since their Round of 16 second leg against Borussia Dortmund in early March. Ajax could be a step too far for Tottenham considering their away form and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them lose the tie on away goals.
Liverpool seem to have secured their status as a top European club again, reaching the semi finals for the second year in a row and looking to go one better than their runner-up finish from last year. Their impressive (and much needed) additions this summer, notably Alisson, have performed to a high standard all year whilst players who took longer to adapt, such as Naby Keita, seem to have finally hit the ground running at the right time. Their title challenge this year is significant of the rapid progress they’ve made in recent years, having settled for a Europa League finish as acceptable before the Klopp era. In the Champions League, they struggled a bit in their group and relied on a late Alisson save to get past Napoli into the Round of 16, with a disappointing away loss to Red Star providing a reality check for the Merseyside team. Since then however, they haven’t looked back, cruising past Bayern Munich in the Round of 16 and Porto in the Quarters.
Liverpool’s goal threat is almost unparalleled – their acclaimed front 3 of Salah, Firmino and Mane have 61 goals between them this season. They match up against Barcelona’s strong back 4 who have only conceded one goal in their last 6 games, so if they’re to win against Los Cules, their three attackers will have to put in the world-class performances we all know they can.
In recent times, Barcelona have had something of a European dry spell, not winning football’s biggest competition since 2015. However, this season they are well clear at the top of La Liga and have had an impressive run in the Champions League so far, scoring 23 goals and conceding just 6. The likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique have been crucial as ever to the Catalan side who will look to continue their almighty form in the competition against Liverpool.
Barcelona’s strong defence will be crucial if they’re to keep out Liverpool’s aforementioned clinical attack and progress to the final, but their impressive domestic form should give them every reason to believe they can. Whilst Liverpool still have the Premier League title race to focus on, it would be something of a miracle if Barca didn’t win La Liga, and they can have it mathematically wrapped up by the time they play the second leg at Anfield.
I think Barcelona have to be considered the favourites to win the overall title, as their world-class team is full of players who are used to playing in this kind of situation. Whilst all of the other teams they are contesting for the title against have domestic matters to focus on, Barca can shift their focus to Europe once the La Liga title is secured, presuming that they will beat Celta and Levante to do so before the second leg of their semi final comes around. I can see them playing Ajax in the final, as their young side have brought a different dimension to the competition this season, happy to play end-to-end, high-energy football, which could easily tire out the legs of a Spurs side who have a domestic fixture pile-up in between their semi-final games; also have the top 4 battle to contend with. This year has easily been the most exciting Champions League this decade and is so tough to call, but I can most realistically see Barcelona bringing the title back to Catalonia and ending their European heartache of recent times.