Champions League: Looking at the semifinals

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The world’s greatest annual football competition has arrived at the illustrious semifinal stage after shocking fans around the world.

The road to this season’s Champions League finals has been paved by both surprise and lack thereof. This week’s matchups reflect those two opposites.

Tuesday’s game will see Tottenham play Ajax, two clubs that upset their quarterfinal opponents in two heart-wrenching legs to set the scene for this tie.

Wednesday will witness the first leg of Barcelona versus Liverpool in a matchup of the top teams in Europe, and whichever team pulls through this semifinal will be heavily favored to win the championship game in Madrid.

 

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Ajax Amsterdam

First leg: Tuesday, April 30, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London, U.K.

Second leg: Wednesday, May 8, Johan Cruijff Arena, Amsterdam, Netherland

Neither of these teams was expected to be playing Champions League football in May, yet here they are.

Mauricio Pochettino has made Tottenham into a perennial contender, but he has failed to bring silverware to North London. Could this year’s Champions League title be the trophy that cements the legacy of this Spurs squad?

Without injured star striker Harry Kane, this will be a much more difficult task. Aside from his prolific scoring, Kane’s ability to hold the ball allows Spurs to get forward and attack — without him, Tottenham will be relying on Lucas Moura and Heung-Min Son to lead the front line. Both players have demonstrated their abilities to score, but they are faster and more direct than Kane.

Ajax manager Erik ten Hag, however, may just have the team to break Spurs — his squad is young and fast, playing slick, attacking football that has baffled and obliterated some of Europe’s best. Led by Hakim Ziyech and David Neres on the wings and Dušan Tadić in the striker role, Ajax can dominate stretches of games with its free-flowing passing and shooting.

Nonetheless, youth and inexperience may be Ajax’s weakness; the Dutch side has a tendency to either take chances too early or too late, leading to missed opportunities. If Spurs can disrupt Ajax’s rhythm, Tottenham may emerge victorious.

Prediction: Ajax 2, Tottenham 2

 

Liverpool vs. FC Barcelona

First leg: Wednesday, May 1, Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain

Second leg: Tuesday, May 7, Anfield, Liverpool, U.K.

Two members of Europe’s blue-blooded royalty will clash at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.

Barcelona is on track for a near perfect season. Lionel Messi has led his team to yet another La Liga title, and after being eliminated in the quarterfinals for three straight seasons, fans of the Catalan club are hopeful that their team can return to European dominance.

Messi is the key. He is the best player in the world, and when he is on his game, Barcelona is near invincible. The striker is the conduit between Luis Suárez and Barca’s vaunted attack and the Sergio Busquets-led midfield. Messi’s mercurial footwork and pinpoint passing will result in him either taking his own shots from the top of the box or slipping a through ball to Suarez.

Liverpool will task its midfield three with clogging up the central part of the pitch and making life difficult for Messi. Fabinho, James Milner or Jordan Henderson are likely candidates for the difficult job of containing the best player on the planet, while center back Virgil van Dijk will duel with Suarez.

If the Reds must be wary of Barcelona in the middle of the field, the Blaugrana must tread equally carefully on the wings. Liverpool’s fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson will be dangerous, sending crosses and long balls into the box. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané are deadly from their positions to the right and left of striker Roberto Firmino, and all three can score at virtually any given moment.

This two-legged tie should be filled to the brim with attacking prowess and goals, as neither team will be afraid to forage forward. Barcelona will be eager to control the game and pass around Liverpool, but should the Reds get the ball, their speed may erode any patience Barcelona has accumulated. At home in the legendary Camp Nou, however, Barcelona may have a slight advantage for the first leg.

Prediction: Barcelona 3, Liverpool 2

Jasper Sundeen covers track and field. Contact him at [email protected].