Patience is not a virtue when it comes to European soccer.
As the top teams in Europe wrapped up their regular seasons the last few weeks, rumors of coaching changes are rampant. Consider:
- We heard speculation about a possible coaching change at Chelsea, where Maurizio Sarri’s future appears unclear.
- Many also wonder if Barcelona’s Ernesto Valverde will survive his team’s second Champions League meltdown in as many years, especially if the Catalans lose to Valencia in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final.
- There have even been questions about Bayern Munich boss Niko Kovac despite his team winning the German league again. His critics seem to think the club’s seventh straight league title was just a result of a late-season meltdown by Borussia Dortmund. (Here’s where I should acknowledge that every fanbase contains segments that make noise that should be ignored, but I digress…)
Among European powers, Juventus appeared as unlikely to make a coaching change as anyone. Yes, the addition of Cristiano Ronaldo last summer made it Champions League or bust for Massimiliano Allegri and Co.
Despite that, it didn’t feel like the loss to Ajax in the UCL quarters was the type of outcome that would spark significant personnel changes. Yet there we were last Friday, reading a statement saying Allegri and the club were going their separate ways, despite one year remaining on his contract.
In five years with the Italians, Allegri led the team to five Serie A titles and no shortage of Champions League success. Juve finished as the UCL runner-up in both ’15 and ’17.
So why make a change now?
I could rattle off a long list of Allegri accomplishments with Juventus. But simply put, Allegri won just about everything possible domestically since the ’14-15 season. After five very successful years, I can only think of two reasons why this relationship is ending.
- The Dreaded Plateau. The first possibility is that both parties believe they’ve plateaued. This seems somewhat plausible, but I doubt a team that has come this close to winning the Champions League believes European glory is out of reach under the current setup. The age of Juve’s best players, though, does make you wonder how bright the immediate future is. Ronaldo is 34, Mario Mandzukic is 33, Blaise Matuidi is 32, Giorgio Chiellini is 34 and Leonardo Bonucci is 32. Maybe Allegri reached the conclusion that there was nothing more he could do with this roster. There were enough young contributors on this team, though, that I struggle to buy that it was entirely a matter of feeling like this roster’s best days are behind it.
- Not a matter of “if,” a matter of “what.” The matter of what changes to make to finally bring home a UCL trophy — and disagreement between Allegri and Juve execs over how to do so — strikes me as the more likely reason for the split.
At what point do Mandzukic, Chiellini, Bonucci, etc. – the team’s veteran leaders — take on smaller roles to make way for fresher legs? How do you build an attack around this vintage of Ronaldo, who remains arguably the best in the world at finishing, but is far less versatile than he used to be? On a related note, can Paulo Dybala ever blossom into the star he’s shown flashes of being while playing alongside CR7? The Argentine’s production fell off a cliff in his first year with Ronaldo — from 22 goals and five assists in Serie A last year to five goals and four assists this year.
Those are just a few of the questions whose answers are unclear. If Allegri and club execs differ on the way forward, going their separate ways makes plenty of sense.
Perhaps the true reason for his exit will emerge later this summer or further down the road, but those currently seem like the best possible explanations for this puzzling move.
Who takes over?
The Juventus job is the most prominent one available right now, and how it is filled is sure to spark a carousel effect. Everyone from Pep Guardiola (that can’t possibly be a legitimate possibility, can it??) to Sarri has already been mentioned.
Someone like Antonio Conte, who played for Old Lady for more than a decade and coached the club from ’11-14, would seem like a decent bet. That obviously only happens if the speculation he’s set to take over at Inter Milan proves false.
Lazio’s Simone Inzaghi has also been mentioned, and would make sense — if for no other reason than the fact that this club has been managed exclusively by Italians, with Didier Deschamps from ’06-07 one of the few exceptions — since the ‘70s.
One closing thought: instead of joining the rest of the internet in coming up with a list of 10 or 20 possible Allegri replacements, let’s get back to Juve’s thought process here. They must have had a replacement in mind – and one they felt confident they could sign – before ending things with Allegri, right? This team has been too good, and stable, for too long, for it to say goodbye to a proven commodity without a defined succession plan. With that in mind, expect a new Juve coach to be introduced some time this month. If not, an already head-scratching move will quickly make even less sense than it currently does.
For most of the season, it looked like underdog Getafe (or, for a while, possibly Alavés) would join Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid in next year’s Champions League. Instead, the hottest team down the stretch, Valencia, ended up with the coveted UCL spot, as Getafe, Alavés and Sevilla limped to the finish line.
With the regular season in the books, we know the four Spanish teams in next year’s Champions League. We also know that it will be fifth-place Getafe, sixth-place Sevilla and seventh-place Espanyol representing Spain in the Europa League.
Valencia became the rare outfit that decided against a coaching change after a bad start to the season – and have their patience rewarded. Nobody is questioning that non-sacking now.
Manager Marcelino is now 2-for-2 qualifying for Europe’s top competition as Valencia’s boss. This team also finished fourth a year ago. Valencia finished ’17-18 with 73 points, a record of 22-7-9 and a goal differential of plus-27. It was dramatically worse by each of those measures this year, recording 61 points with a 15-16-7 record and goal differential of plus-16. We’ve previously covered the fact that Valencia won a very watered down race for fourth place.
Want further proof the Spanish league was weaker this season? Valencia’s 73-point output from a year ago would have put this team comfortably ahead of third-place RM (68) and right on the heels of runner-up Atlético (76) in the ’18-19 La Liga table.
How did Valencia get here?
The biggest factor in Valencia winning just 15 games this season was its brutal start. On Nov. 3, after 11 games in La Liga, the club had an abysmal record of 1-8-2.
Valencia then went an impressive 14-8-5 over its last 27. Dividing the season into two halves, Valencia were 4-11-4 (23 points) at “halftime” on Jan. 12 after 19 matches. From the win over Celta Vigo on Jan. 19 through the season finale victory over Valladolid last Saturday, this team went 11-5-2 (38 points). In other words, this team has been playing well for a long time. And we haven’t even mentioned the runs it made in the Europa League (advancing all the way to the semifinals) and the Copa del Rey (it will meet Barcelona in the final on Saturday at 3 p.m. Eastern at Estadio Benito Villamarín in Seville).
What made the difference?
As this team won just one of its first 11, the goal differential at that point (seven scored to nine allowed) was minus-2. It was an indication they had a chance to get on track if they could find their scoring touch. Allowing nine goals in 11 games was not the issue; the problem was the inability to score. By season’s end, Valencia’s offense had improved substantially — they finished with 51 goals, seventh-most in the league.
More importantly, they remained solid defensively, allowing just 35 goals on the year, less than one per game. Only perennially stingy Atlético (29) gave up fewer in the league. Brazilian keeper Neto earned 10 clean sheets in 34 appearances. The last two seasons, Valencia has given up 36.5 goals per year, meaning Los Rojiblancos are no longer the only Spanish team that is hard to crack. Barcelona are by no means a sieve, but the first thing that comes to mind with the Catalans is not their back line.
Head-to-head against the big three
Let’s talk about the six games (home and away against Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid) that should tell us the most about whether they can hang with Europe’s elite next season. In those matches, Valencia tallied 1 win (vs. RM), three draws (two vs. Barça, one vs. Atleti) and two losses (vs. Atlético and RM). The combined score of those matches: 8 goals scored to 10 allowed. That was a long way of saying they played La Liga’s heavy hitters close.
Ready for the limelight in Europe?
We caught a brief glimpse of this team in the Champions League last fall. Playing in Group H with Juventus, Man United and Swiss side Young Boys, Valencia earned eight points in six games, going 2-2-2 to finish third and bow out. Have I mentioned Valencia were not playing their best soccer at that point?
As for the Europa League, they advanced to the semis after beating Scottish Premiership club Celtic in the round of 32. They then knocked off Russian Premier League side Krasnodar in the round of 16 before taking down familiar foe Villarreal, which finished 14th in La Liga, in the quarters.
Players to watch
This team’s top player statistically is 30-year-old midfielder Dani Parejo, who led the squad in both goals (9) and assists (7) this year. Valencia’s roster lacks the big names that the top clubs in Spain and Europe boast, but it’s a balanced group. Nobody finished the season with double-digit goals in La Liga, but five players scored at least five times, and six players had at least three assists.
Check out High Press Soccer later this week to find out what to watch for in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final vs. Barcelona.
No, unfortunately it’s not the three-way tie it could have been heading into the final weekend. But the race between Valencia and Getafe for La Liga’s fourth spot in next year’s Champions League will still provide some drama.
The coveted place in the UCL would belong to Valencia if the season ended today. Both teams have 58 points, but Valencia holds the tiebreaker thanks to the head-to-head advantage (Valencia won the first meeting 1-0 on Nov. 10 and the rematch on March 17 ended in a 0-0 draw).
Speaking of their head-to-head meetings, Valencia also eliminated Getafe from the Copa del Rey 3-2 on aggregate in the quarterfinals. We’ll know the winner of this race as soon as Valencia’s match at 16th-place Valladolid on Saturday at 10:15 a.m. Eastern and Getafe’s home clash with 14th-place Villarreal at the same time are in the books.
Just to cover our bases, we have to mention that if Sevilla (56 points) beats Athletic Bilbao on Saturday and both Valencia and Getafe lose, the spot would be theirs. FiveThirtyEight currently gives that a 2% chance of happening.
Back to Valladolid-Valencia and Getafe-Villarreal. According to FiveThirtyEight, Valencia has a 51% chance to win (the site says there is a 24% chance they lose and a 25% chance it’s a draw). The analytics site is more bullish on Getafe (60% chance to win, 16% to lose and 24% to draw).
Are These Games As Easy As They Look?
Considering the stakes, chalk would be comfortable victories for both these teams, but I have my doubts everything goes to plan. One reason why is that both Valencia and Getafe have had head-scratching slipups down the stretch.
Valencia lost to 12th-place Eibar on April 28 and lost to 19th-place — and relegated — Rayo Vallecano on April 6.
Getafe, on the other hand, is coming off a loss against a Barcelona team fresh off its UCL embarrassment at Anfield. While there’s no shame in the result against Barça, Manager Jose Bordalas’ team has not taken care of business over the last month. The April 28 loss to 8th-place Real Sociedad, the April 25 draw vs. Real Madrid and the April 14 draw vs. Valladolid will all be tough memories to erase if Getafe ends up missing out on the UCL.
The other reason to be on the lookout for an upset or two is that both Valladolid and Villarreal are currently playing much better than you’d expect teams at the bottom of the table to be playing this time of year.
Valladolid and Villarreal Playing Well
Valladolid is 3-2-1 in its last six, with the only loss a 1-0 defeat against Atlético Madrid. And Getafe’s opponent, Villarreal (4-1-1), is in better form than Getafe (2-2-2). Those strong finishes represent impressive responses to being in danger of relegation as late as April.
While we’re talking recent current form, Valencia is 4-0-2 in their last six. In fact, Getafe is the only one of these teams that is not in the midst of a strong finish.
The Bottom Line
All that being said, I think both these games will be fun to watch considering the stakes, but I see Valencia finding a way to win, rendering the result of Getafe-Villarreal irrelevant. Two reasons to expect a low-scoring, close match between Valencia and Valladolid: 1) These teams drew 1-1 in their previous meeting this season, meaning Valladolid should have Valencia’s full attention. 2) Valladolid have allowed just two goals in their last four matches.
Keep an eye on HPS in the weeks to come for end-of-season/early offseason content on La Liga. This will include a breakdown of what to expect from Valencia or Getafe in next year’s Champions League, a look at the offseason moves to expect from Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid (they miiight make a move or two) and Barcelona, and the latest on what promises to be another busy transfer window throughout Spain.
Most of the soccer world spent Tuesday afternoon and evening struggling to comprehend Liverpool’s stunning comeback win over Barcelona. But former Reds keeper Bruce Grobbelaar saw the outcome as just the latest example of Liverpool overcoming long odds on a big stage.
Liverpool never gives up
“Liverpool have to be the greatest comeback team ever in the history of this sport.”Bruce Grobbelaar to High Press Soccer
In an interview with High Press Soccer, Grobbelaar compared Tuesday’s stunner to Liverpool’s ’05 Champions League final win over AC Milan in Istanbul, among other memorable matches.
He said that he knew going into Leg 2 against Barcelona that his former team only needed one goal by halftime to have a shot at erasing the deficit from the first leg. Sure enough, the Reds got on the board in the 7th minute on a goal from Divock Origi, and Barcelona never recovered. The outcome is just over 48 hours old, but the rest is already history.
Grobbelaar spoke to HPS about his impression of Alisson, how he thinks Liverpool will do in in the 2019 UEFA Champions League Final vs. Tottenham, and more.
HPS interview with Bruce Grobbelaar
HPS: What qualities have allowed Alisson to be so successful this season?
Grobbelaar: I’ve seen Alisson grow in stature. The last time against Barcelona [in Leg 1], when the third goal went in, I believe that it was his mistake for not lining the wall up a little bit better, especially with a striker like [Lionel] Messi. Messi got it at exactly the same spot at Anfield, and this time Alisson lined the wall up properly. The ball hit the wall. He learns from his mistakes. … For him to make the momentous save that he did when we were 3-0 up, it contributed for us to get that final goal and put us through to the final.
HPS: Do you believe this team can make a run similar to the one the club made in the ‘80s?
Grobbelaar: Listen, there’s a lot of dominance because everybody wants to play under [Jurgen] Klopp. They’re going to keep this squad together for a very long time.
HPS: How does Klopp compare with previous managers like Bill Shankly?
Grobbelaar: This little journey started with Bill Shankly, who won quite a few. Then we went on to Bob Paisley, who became the highest-decorated manager in the first division. Then we had Joe Fagan. In two years, he won five trophies. Then we had Sir Kenny Dalglish. He won a few, as a player-manager and as a manager. … Jurgen Klopp has got the charismatic style, he knows the people and he will be winning many, many trophies with Liverpool from now on.
HPS: What is your prediction for this year’s Champions League final on June 1 in Madrid? (Grobbelaar answered this question before Tottenham defeated Ajax in the semifinals).
Grobbelaar: We’ll go one further than last year. We’ll win it this time, because when you take positives out of your mishaps, you come back stronger. Just like the semifinal when we went down 3-0 in Barcelona, we came back stronger. The players won’t be forgetting last year’s Champions League final, that’s for sure.
Just two games remain in La Liga. With the finish line 180 short minutes away, the race for fourth place and a spot in next year’s Champions League has a clear front-runner: Getafe.
No, not Valencia, Sevilla or any of Spain’s other far more well-known clubs. Instead, the little-known Madrid side is on the verge of its first trip to Europe’s top competition. With a three-point lead with two games to play – Getafe has 58 points, while Valencia and Sevilla are tied with 55 – Getafe is in the driver’s seat. However, they still have some work to do.
This weekend’s game against Barcelona will be much tougher than expected after the Catalans’ meltdown Tuesday at Anfield. Before that result, FiveThirtyEight gave Getafe a better-than-70% chance to finish fourth, which has since dropped to 60%, compared to 35% for Valencia and 5% for Sevilla. The analytics site currently gives Getafe a 15% chance to beat Barça and a 51% chance to knock off Villarreal in the season finale.
Valencia is favored in its last two games (71% chance to beat Alavés, 42% chance to defeat Valladolid). Sevilla is the underdog this weekend against Atlético Madrid (25% chance to win) but is favored to finish with a win over Athletic Bilbao (52%).
How did Getafe get here?
Getafe’s current advantage is no thanks to any sort of well-timed hot streak. The team’s record in its 11 games since March is just 5-4-2, which is far from dominant. Give them credit, however, for their consistency: the 19 points they’ve captured out of a possible 33 in that span (about 58%), is right in line with their play all season (58 points out of a possible 108 through 36 games). “Slightly above average” – which would also apply to the team’s goal differential of plus-15 – appears to be enough in this race, though.
Valencia (seven wins and 22 points) has only been a touch better since March, while Sevilla’s record over the same time is just 6-5 (18 points). FWIW, Getafe was the team leading this race the first time we broke it down here at HPS. If this seems like an underwhelming trio of candidates for an automatic berth in the UCL, it’s because it is – although Valencia being a Europa League semifinalist does help the optics of the Spanish league.
How does La Liga stack up with other leagues with four ’19-20 UCL spots?
In the Premier League, fourth-place — and UEFA Champions League finalists— Spurs already have 70 points through 37 matches, with one more remaining. This is despite a late-season swoon domestically. The Bundesliga’s race for fourth place features teams with similar point totals to Getafe’s. With two games to play, fourth-place Eintracht Frankfurt has 54 points, but that’s through just 32 games. The other league with four automatic spots in next year’s UCL, Serie A, will likely be represented by Juventus, Napoli, Inter Milan and Atalanta. The latter of that group has 62 points and a goal differential of plus-28 through 35 games.
It’s hard to defend Ligue 1 when PSG, which flames out of the UCL every year, is 16 points clear. But it’s worth mentioning that the French league’s second, third and fourth place teams have all been solid domestically, with over 60 points. That’s probably due to how poor the rest of the league is, but it’s one more factor that makes the possibility of La Liga’s fourth automatic qualifier finishing with just over 60 points in 38 games a bad look.
Coming soon: a closer look at La Liga’s fourth UCL qualifier
This article was initially conceived as an introduction to Getafe’s style and key players, but we’ll save that for if and when they lock up a spot. A Getafe loss to Barcelona would open the door to this race featuring a three-way tie going into the final matchday of the La Liga season next weekend. In the event that someone other than Getafe takes fourth in Spain, that team will get plenty of coverage here at High Press Soccer.
In erasing a 3-0 deficit, Liverpool not only shocked Barcelona and the soccer world, but also asserted themselves as the clear favorite to win the EPL. The Reds’ futures at FanDuel Sportsbook NJ were last priced at -230 before Wednesday’s other semifinal between Ajax and Spurs.
Ajax appeared to be on its way to the UCL final, but lost in unforgettable fashion as Lucas Moura’s astonishing third (!) goal, in the 96th (!), gave Spurs the 3-2 win. Tottenham advanced on an aggregate score of 3-3 thanks to their away goal advantage.
Plenty has already been – and will be – said about what happened at Anfield Tuesday night, but here’s a quick look ahead at how they match up with Tottenham, which was left for dead at halftime Wednesday but pulled off a miraculous comeback.
Anyone who’s paid attention to the UCL knows how dangerous Tottenham are despite being shorthanded, but we’re talking about a Liverpool team as good as any we’ve seen in a while. A year after nearly winning the UCL, the Reds added PFA Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk and Premier League clean sheet-leading Alisson at two of the only positions where they needed upgrades. If not for a historic run by Manchester City, Liverpool would be closing in on a historic EPL-UCL double.
But can they do what nemesis City, among others, could not: turn away a Spurs team running on fumes but finding a way, one game after another?
Will Liverpool be able to overpower Tottenham?
Having gotten through City, the one team that is arguably more talented than Liverpool, in the quarters, Spurs are the last group likely to be intimidated by what Jurgen Klopp’s team pulled off Tuesday. Spurs can’t possibly be afraid of anything after what they pulled off Wednesday.
But they’re meeting a Liverpool squad that just outran and outmuscled Barcelona in unforgettable fashion.
It’s no secret that Barcelona’s a seasoned club. It was still staggering, however, to see the issues Barcelona’s thirty-somethings besides Lionel Messi — who struggled to play up to his own impossible standard – had against Liverpool’s collective athleticism. Luis Suárez was largely anonymous, Sergio Busquets looked completely overwhelmed and Jordi Alba had multiple awful turnovers. And those were by no means the only Blaugrana players who could not keep up.
A lack of footspeed will not be a major problem for a team as familiar with Liverpool as Tottenham. The question is whether an injury-depleted Spurs lineup will finally falter against the physical challenges they’re going to face from VVD, Jordan Henderson and the rest of a Liverpool squad that bullied Barcelona from the start yesterday. While I certainly don’t see Spurs responding by wilting the way Barcelona did, it will be fascinating to see how Mauricio Pochettino’s men react to the pressure of both the UCL final atmosphere at Wanda Metropolitano and their opponent.
Make no mistake, these teams deserve to be here
One thing is for certain: both of these teams are absolutely deserving of their spots in the finals.
Liverpool are en route to the third-highest point total in Premier League history. To get to the finals, they’ve beaten the Bundesliga champs (Bayern Munich), the potential Primeira Liga champs (Porto, though they’ll likely end up second), and La Liga champs Barcelona. A win against Ajax and they’ll have slayed the likely Eredivisie winners as well.
Tottenham made it out of a difficult group that included Barcelona, Inter Milan, and PSV Eindhoven. From there they conquered an in-form Borussia Dortmund that many expected to make some noise this Champions League campaign. After that, they only beat Man City and overcame a strong Ajax team on the road — DESPITE BEING DOWN 3-0 AGGREGATE AT HALFTIME — all with their best player, Harry Kane, injured.
No seriously, watch this–this actually happened:
In the meantime, keep an eye out for our 2019 UEFA Champions League Final predictions and combined starting XI next week.
Ajax will will host Tottenham on Wednesday in Amsterdam with a 1-0 lead and a crucial away goal in its pocket. Below are three questions worth considering as the Dutch club seeks a trip to the 2019 UEFA Champions League final at Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano on June 1.
Here’s how oddsmakers see the Leg 2 match-up:
|Ajax +110||Draw +260||Tottenham +230|
Will Son Heung-Min’s return make the difference for Tottenham?
Though Spurs were dominated for nearly 45 minutes in Leg 1, they arguably – I say “arguably” because it never felt like Ajax was truly against the ropes – had the upper hand after halftime.
One reason for this was Moussa Sissoko. He had a massive impact on the game after coming on to replace Jan Vertonghen in the 39th minute. Tottenham went from completely overmatched in the midfield before Sissoko took the field to essentially Ajax’s equal in that area for the rest of the match.
A case could be made that Mauricio Pochettino’s men just needed time to adjust to an opponent as cohesive and skilled as Ajax.
But by far the biggest reason Tottenham should like its chances is that it lost just 1-0 without one of its best players in Son in Leg 1. Son has had a knack for scoring huge goals all season, and his team never would have made it past Manchester City without him. All eyes would be on Spurs’ Korean star regardless of the score and circumstances, but with Harry Kane out of the picture and his team in need of at least two goals, Son will be counted on more than ever on Wednesday afternoon.
The short answer: Not quite.
How will Ajax perform as the hunted?
They have been so assertive and freewheeling that it’s hard to imagine them tightening up and/or sitting back now. Many teams in this position – effectively nursing a two-goal lead — would take a conservative approach, if not fully commit to packing it in. But I don’t see Ajax playing not to lose, in terms of either temperament or tactics.
This is, however, new territory for the Dutch club in the UCL. It entered Leg 2 of the round of 16 against Real Madrid down 2-1 and was tied 1-1 with Juve going into Leg 2 of the quarters. For better or worse, I don’t see Ajax taking a cautious approach.
Spurs have an interesting decision to make as they plan their comeback bid. The temptation to sell out for a goal will be strong, but leaving Ajax open space is playing with fire. Ajax will have a decided advantage against Tottenham’s injury-riddled midfield if the field opens up. Pochettino worked some serious tactical magic to get his team this far. He will need to draw up another brilliant scheme to put his players in position to tie this game up while limiting the risk of giving up a goal on the counter.
The short answer: We’re going to see the same fearless approach that has gotten Ajax this far.
Will Ajax’s defense get some love?
Keeper André Onana is one of the few Ajax players still flying under the radar at this point, even after a busy afternoon in Leg 1. Though Tottenham never quite put him under siege, he was impressive because a) a shutout is a shutout, especially at this point in the UCL and b) he showed off impressive timing and guts as he snuffed out several crosses – even if they all left something to be desired. This team’s keeper seems about as afraid of the spotlight as his teammates, which is to say not at all.
Matthijs de Ligt has gotten plenty of publicity, but the backline as a collective and Onana deserve more credit. Since giving up two goals in Leg 1 of the Round of 16 versus Real Madrid, Ajax has strung together four consecutive Champions League games in which they’ve allowed one goal or less. In their last three UCL matches, this team has allowed just five shots on goal, as de Ligt, Daley Blind, Nicolás Tagliafico and the rest of the Dutch team’s defense have been stout.
The short answer: Yes! In a game where keeping Spurs off the board will be the primary goal, these guys will get their due.
Here are two quick questions that will go a long way toward deciding which of these teams will book a ticket to the Champions League Final at Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano on June 1.
Can Liverpool make it interesting?
It’s been a brutal week for the Reds. First, they came out of Leg 1 in a massive hole after fielding an unorthodox – that’s one word for it, at least – lineup.
Out of respect for Liverpool fans, I won’t rehash everything that’s gone wrong since, but they’re without two of their top three strikers in Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino, and PFA Player of the Year Virgil Van Dijk missed the team portion of training on Monday.
VVD could still play Tuesday, and I have a feeling he will, but the news he was not at full-strength the day before the match came as a gut punch within hours of a haymaker from Vincent Kompany and Manchester City.
Manager Jürgen Klopp will likely have to go with an even more unorthodox line-up to even have a chance today. Expect seeing more offensively-geared players like Rhian Brewster (making a debut, no less), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Xherdan Shaqiri in the starting XI.
Regardless, considering the mountain they have to climb, Liverpool needed their best players at 100% to have a realistic chance. Even if they did, they’d still going to need a fortunate bounce or two. With so much of the team’s scoring punch absent, I can’t see them pulling this off, or coming particularly close to doing so. Oddsmakers agree, as FanDuel Sportsbook NJ barely have Liverpool favored to win this–at home–at +145. Barcelona is priced at +165.
The short answer: (OK, so this one isn’t that short): As much as the atmosphere at Anfield will help, and as much pressure as Jürgen Klopp’s team is sure to apply from the opening whistle, it’s not going to be enough to dig out of the 3-0 hole, not against a veteran squad like Barcelona.
Will Barcelona learn from its meltdown in the UCL quarterfinals a year ago?
I’ll start by admitting that I thought AS Roma was cooked when they went down 4-1 in Leg 1 of last year’s UCL quarters. But there are a couple of key differences here. For one thing, the away goal the Italians got in Leg 1 of that match-up was crucial. Second, the Catalans’ opponent in Rome was not missing key pieces like Salah and Firmino.
It also works against Liverpool that Barcelona is just a year removed from a painful lesson about what happens when you take a three-goal lead for granted. It’s still hard to believe a team with this much experience could collapse like it did last year, but it’s unfathomable that it could happen in back-to-back seasons.
The short answer: Yes, Barcelona will have enough poise to make its massive cushion hold up.
The Europa League semifinals will kick off this afternoon at 3 p.m., when Arsenal host Valencia and Eintracht Frankfurt host Chelsea.
Over at FanDuel Sportsbook NJ–Chelsea are considered favorites to win it all at +125. Arsenal follow at +240. Not surprisingly, Valencia (+360) and Eintracth (+500) bring up the rear.
For today’s games, FanDuel Sportsbook NJ has them as follows:
|Eintracth Frankfurt +210||Draw +220||Chelsea +135|
|Arsenal +105||Draw +230||Valencia +280|
With that out of the way, here are four players – two from each match-up – worth keeping an eye on in the final four of the UEL. The idea of this is to introduce players on the younger and/or lesser-known side, hence the omission of guys like Eden Hazard.
(Apologies to Chelsea, but as a longtime fixture near the top of the EPL table, they lack “under-the-radar” options).
Eintracht Frankfurt striker Luka Jovic, 21
We’ve previously mentioned Jovic as one of Europe’s best young players and as one of Real Madrid’s (countless) summer targets. Against Chelsea, Jovic can show off the goal-scoring prowess that has him tied for second in the Bundesliga with 17 goals in 29 appearances. According to Bundesliga.com, he has scored eight times with his left foot and six times with his right, with three headers — impressive versatility, regardless of his age.
He’s been no slouch in the UEL, either, with eight goals and an assist in 12 games. Jovic and fellow striker Sébastien Haller (14 goals and nine assists in the Bundesliga) have their team in fourth place in Germany, good enough to qualify for next year’s UCL if the season ended today.
Eintracht Frankfurt striker Sébastien Haller, 24
Like Jovic, Haller has been effective both domestically and in Europe, with five goals and three assists in nine UEL appearances. He actually has a higher WhoScored rating (7.84) than Jovic (7.13) in both the Europa League and the Bundesliga (7.63-7.1). If these two can lead Eintracht Frankfurt past Chelsea, currently fourth in the EPL in spite of a recent skid, the demand for their services this offseason will only grow.
Valencia attacking midfielder Gonçalo Guedes, 22
The 22-year-old was the key to his team’s 5-1 aggregate win over familiar foe Villarreal in the UEL quarters, scoring twice in the first leg and adding an assist in Leg 2. Those performances made him WhoScored’s man of the match in both games. Including the two legs against Villarreal, he piled up five goals and two assists over four matches from April 11-21. Playing on a team that currently has two ways to secure a place in next year’s UCL — Valencia is also three points out of fourth place in La Liga with three to play — Guedes has at least five high-stakes games left this season.
Arsenal defender/midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles, 21
Maitland-Niles is a graduate of Arsenal’s academy who made his first appearance for the first team as a 17-year-old in a Champions League match against Galatasaray back in Dec. ’14. Currently in his second season with Arsenal’s first team, he’s made 16 appearances in the EPL this year and played nearly 1,000 minutes after making 15 appearances and logging 909 minutes in ’17-18. He’s been a solid contributor for an Arsenal team that has lost four of five in the EPL and now needs help to secure a top-four spot domestically. Maitland-Niles has the highest WhoScored UEL rating (7.24) of anyone in Arsenal’s expected starting XI today.
Ahead of the Barcelona–Liverpool 2019 UEFA Champions League Semifinal first leg Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern at Camp Nou, here’s a look at what both teams need to do to win, as well as the key players to watch.
Barcelona will win if …
Barcelona is in great position to win a treble in spite of their tendency to play to the level of their opponent. Draws against teams like Huesca (0-0 on April 13) and Villarreal (4-4 on April 2) are baffling, even for a team that all but wrapped up La Liga a long time ago.
But when the Catalans have had to, they’ve shown the ability to reach a gear where few teams can keep up with them.
I bring up Barcelona’s on-off switch for two reasons: 1) if they come out lackadaisical against Jurgen Klopp’s squad, they’re going to get buried, and 2) this will be the toughest foe Barcelona has faced.
In La Liga, Real Madrid has not been among Europe’s elite this season, while Atlético has nothing resembling Liverpool’s firepower up top, no matter how good Los Rojiblancos are defensively. In the UCL, Barcelona has faced quality opposition, including Tottenham in the group stage, Lyon in the round of 16 and Manchester United in the quarters, but again, nobody quite like ’18-19 Liverpool.
With the best player on the planet playing at an insane level and a supporting cast featuring six players in our Starting XI for this match-up, Barcelona will by no means be in over its head, but is finally meeting its match talent-wise.
Liverpool will win if …
They can exploit Barcelona’s inconsistent midfield and defense – see the start of Leg 2 vs. Manchester United – while finding a way to contain Messi.
Liverpool have been prolific offensively this year, and they will test Barcelona’s back line and keeper Marc-André ter Stegen. As mentioned above, Barça have seen few scorers like Mohamed Salah or front lines like Liverpool’s Salah-Roberto Firmino–Sadio Mané trio.
Ter Stegen has quietly been very good when he’s had to be this year. Can he, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba and Co. stifle one of the continent’s most dangerous offenses?
On the other end of the pitch, the biggest difference between last year’s Liverpool team and this year’s is how stout the defense has been thanks to Virgil van Dijk and steady between the sticks with Alisson. While Barcelona is squaring off with its deepest opponent of the season, Liverpool has not had to contend with anyone like Messi.
The Argentine and former Liverpool striker Luis Suárez have combined for several memorable performances this year. Jurgen Klopp’s team faces the unenviable task of trying to wrangle a player in Messi who requires extra attention, but also has a knack for punishing foes who ignore his teammates.
Barcelona’s most important player and secret weapon are Messi and ter Stegen, respectively.
At this point, it’s both obvious and repetitive to call Messi his side’s most significant piece. It’s also, however, the easy, indisputable choice, for all the reasons we’ve discussed.
I can’t imagine this will be a quiet 180 minutes for ter Stegen. He is sure to be tested against an opponent playing its best soccer right now – the Reds have scored at least two goals in every game since a 0-0 draw against Everton on March 3.
Liverpool’s most important player and secret weapon are VVD and Mané, respectively.
VVD has a great opportunity to show the world exactly why he was recently crowned PFA Player of the Year. There’s no bigger stage in club soccer than at Camp Nou, against Messi, Suárez and the rest of Barcelona’s proven veterans. The Dutch defender will not be tasked with marking Messi by himself, but he’s the key to the match for Liverpool.
I expect Piqué and Co. to make a concerted effort to force someone besides Salah to beat them. There are plenty of options for who could step up as Liverpool’s “secret weapon,” but why not highlight Mané, who has tallied four goals on 13 shots in his last four games?
Like the other half of the draw, this match statistically is a coin-flip. FiveThirtyEight actually has Liverpool as a slight probability favorite at 52-48% to advance. Liverpool are also favored to win the UCL at 37% to Barcelona’s 33% (Ajax has now unbelievably climbed to 22%).
Leg 1 odds haven’t really changed since they opened. Barcelona has dropped from +135 to -110, but Liverpool has dropped too, from +340 to +300.
All listed odds from FanDuel Sportsbook NJ. Leg 1 is listed first.
|Barcelona -110||Draw +250||Liverpool +300|
|Liverpool +135||Draw +250||Barcelona +190|
FanDuel Sportsbook NJ has Barcelona now at -144 to advance to Liverpool’s +114.
Ahead of the Tottenham–Ajax 2019 UEFA Champions League Semifinal first leg Tuesday, here’s a look at what both teams need to do to win, as well as the key players to watch.
Ajax will win if …
The Dutch club continues to play at the level it has throughout the Champions League. We knew before their quarterfinal win over Juventus that Ajax had a roster full of talented young players. They showed us in Turin in Leg 2 that they can be as physical as they are flashy, an impressive feat against such a seasoned group of gritty players.
Against a Tottenham team without either Harry Kane or Son Heung-min on Tuesday (Son will be back for Leg 2), Ajax will have a pronounced talent advantage, in our opinion. Recent results and form also make it hard to understand why Ajax is not the clear favorite: the Eredivisie outfit has not lost in its last eight games, while Spurs were shut out by West Ham in their most recent game and have scored just once in their last three EPL matches.
Everyone knows about both Barcelona summer transferee Frenkie de Jong and (likely Barcelona summer transferee) Matthijs de Ligt at this point, but Ajax are by no means a two-man squad. From top to bottom, this team was clearly superior to Real Madrid and Juventus in the round of 16 and quarters, respectively, and especially so in the second legs.
I also expect Manager Erik ten Hag’s side to benefit from playing the second leg of the semifinals in front of its home fans after having to finish off both Los Blancos and Juve on the road. As long as Ajax do not fall into a hole amid the raucous atmosphere at Tottenham’s new home, I believe they will move on without a ton of drama. And I expect the party before, during and after Leg 2 in Amsterdam to be outrageous.
Spurs will win if …
The homefield advantage in Leg 1 changes the fact that they’re significantly undermanned? I should probably have much more faith in Mauricio Pochettino’s men after they stunned Manchester City, but I just don’t like their chances here.
Though Spurs have played well without Kane, I don’t see a club missing its best player (Kane) and arguably its second-best player (Son) coming out of Leg 1 in a position to advance to the UCL final. It’s not just the losses of Kane and Son, either, as Harry Winks is out of the picture due to injury, while Erik Lamela, Moussa Sissoko and Jan Vertonghen are all doubtful, per WhoScored.
But this is supposed to be the section where I make the case why they will win, so let’s (try to) change course. A big reason Spurs were up 1-0 going into the second leg of the quarterfinals was Pep Guardiola’s head-scratching decision to keep Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane on the bench until the 89th minute. Both teams played somewhat conservatively for the first 90 minutes of their match-up – especially in comparison to their shootout in Leg 2 – as Spurs had four shots on goal, while Manchester City had just two. Could we see another first leg in which both teams appear more determined to protect their goal than attack the opposition? Not if everything I’ve seen from Ajax is anything to go by. It’s also doubtful we’ll see any Ajax stars on the bench for 80-plus minutes.
One other possible advantage for Tottenham is their quartet of players who previously played for Ajax: Christian Eriksen, Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sánchez. Those four may be able to help Pochettino come up with a better scheme to combat Ajax’s pressure than RM or Juventus was able to.
Ajax’s most important player and secret weapon are Frenkie de Jong and Dusan Tadic, respectively.
De Jong has starred throughout his team’s UCL run, and I expect him to remain at that level against Spurs. Eriksen and Dele Alli will have their work cut out for them trying to battle the 21-year-old future Barcelona midfielder.
De Ligt can’t be considered a “secret” anything at this point, so I’ll go with Tadic. Though his team’s balance – along with its swagger – is its calling card, I’d argue that Tadic is the most important piece of the Ajax attack. He has a chance to carve up Spurs’ injury-depleted midfield and back line.
Spurs’ most important player and secret weapon are Eriksen and Hugo Lloris, respectively.
Eriksen will be his team’s best player on the field in the first leg, and he’ll be counted on to step up with Kane and Son unavailable. If he can outplay, or at least equal, de Jong and generate offense for his teammates — no pressure! — Spurs’ chances improve drastically.
No matter how many opportunities Ajax create, Spurs can stay level if Lloris is making stops like the one he made on Sergio Aguero’s PK in leg 1 of the quarters. I don’t see Tottenham going through with anything short of a spectacular effort by Lloris, but if he can keep it low-scoring, anything could happen late in a 1-1 or 0-0 game.
This match-up is essentially a coin-flip if Son and Kane were available, but they’re not. That is for the first time being reflected in betting odds too. Ajax is actually favored. That hasn’t happened in any of their Champions League rounds, and wasn’t the case when betting opened.
All listed odds from FanDuel Sportsbook NJ. Leg 1 is listed first.
|Tottenham +120||Draw +210||Ajax +240|
|Ajax +110||Draw +240||Tottenham +250|
FanDuel Sportsbook NJ has Ajax now at -126 to advance to Spurs -102.
Barcelona is one win — against 15th-place Levante at home on Saturday — from clinching the La Liga title. FiveThirtyEight gives Lionel Messi and Co. an 86% chance to win that one and make it official.
With a nine-point lead over second-place Atlético, the Catalans would also clinch another La Liga crown with a loss by Los Rojiblancos against Valladolid this weekend. An Atleti draw would mean all Barca have to do is secure a result themselves.
While Ernesto Valverde’s side has not been on the tear that either Manchester City or Liverpool have been on all season in the EPL, this club has not lost a league match since Nov. 11 (!). Even in a down year – to put it lightly – for Real Madrid, that is staggering in a league as good as La Liga. Atlético Madrid remains among the best teams on the continent – they were unlucky not to make the UCL quarters – and any time your sixth-place team is still alive in Europe (Valencia is a Europa League semifinalist), it speaks to your depth as a league.
Atleti will be kicking itself for back-to-back losses to Real Betis on February 3 and February 9, but there’s no shame in finishing second to a Barcelona team that has won 17 of 22 games, without a loss, during the season’s most important months.
Will Getafe secure its Champions League debut?
We’ll talk plenty more about Barcelona’s chances at a treble soon. For now, let’s focus on whether it will be Getafe – which has never qualified for the UCL – Sevilla or Valencia as the Spanish league’s fourth representative in next year’s Champions League. Getafe was leading this race the first time we broke it down back in March.
The Madrid club is still in the driver’s seat, as it is tied with Sevilla with 55 points, but holds the tiebreaker, having won their two meetings by a combined score of 5-0, including last Sunday’s 3-0 romp. Valencia is also right on both these teams’ heels and could make it a three-way tie with a win this weekend and losses by Getafe and Sevilla.
FiveThirtyEight believes in Sevilla, whom it gives a 42% chance at UCL qualification. The analytics site appears to view this as a two-horse race, giving Getafe a 35% chance, while putting little faith in Valencia (22%). It’s hard to say whether the site is influenced by Sevilla being a much better-known brand or by numbers like the club’s superior goal differential (plus-17, compared to plus-14 for Getafe).
As is the case in the Premier League, none of these three teams have been on fire of late: Getafe has earned nine of a possible 15 points over its last five games, compared to 12 for Sevilla and nine for Valencia.
Getafe’s last four games are against 11th-place Real Sociedad, 18th-place Girona, Barcelona (whose top players almost certainly won’t play) and 14th-place Villarreal — not exactly a daunting home stretch.
Sevilla, meanwhile, closes with Girona, Leganés (12th), Atlético and Athletic Bilbao (7th), while Valencia faces Eibar (13th), Huesca (19th), Alavés (8th) and Valladolid (17th). Sevilla’s remaining slate is probably the toughest, but all three teams in this race are favored in at least three of their last four games, per FiveThirtyEight.
It’s interesting that Getafe is currently considered a massive underdog against Barcelona, with a 7% chance to win, but the odds for that match-up will almost certainly change dramatically after this weekend. A similar dynamic could be in play for Sevilla-Atlético, as Simeone’s team will have little to play for in its second-to-last game of the season.
We’re taking a different approach for the 2019 UEFA Champions League Semifinals combined starting XI this go around.
Today, we examine the Tottenham vs. Ajax combined XI. Check out our combined XI for Barcelona-Liverpool here.
We mostly were in agreement on this group, which required substantially less back-and-forth than the other semifinal.
Tottenham– Ajax Champions League Odds and Probabilities
Just like with the Barcelona-Liverpool semifinal pairing, oddsmakers and analytics don’t line up on this match-up.
Although not to the same degree as with Barcelona in the other half of the bracket, Tottenham are seen as the favorite to advance on FanDuel Sportsbook NJ. They are +380 on UCL futures on
FanDuel Sportsbook NJ to Ajax’s +410.
However their individual match odds interestingly don’t reflect that favored status. Leg 1 is listed first. Leg 2 at Ajax underneath. The odds show Ajax as a heavy home favorite and more likely to draw or upset Spurs on the road.
|Tottenham +130||Draw +230||Ajax +210|
|Ajax +110||Draw +240||Tottenham +250|
Over on FiveThirtyEight, like with Barcelona-Liverpool, the match-up is essentially a coin-flip.
Tottenham – Ajax Combined Starting XI
We went with a change in formation to a 3-4-3 instead of the standard 4-3-3 we’ve been using. Why? In part because it accommodates the talent better. But it also is a FUN AF line-up that would be an absolute joy to watch against any squad in the world.
Seriously, how fun would that XI be to watch?
Chops: If you asked me which goalie I’d rather have over the next 3-4 years, I’d go with the 23 year-old André Onana. But a goalie for the semifinals of the 2019 Champions League? I’m going with Lloris by a hair. He’s got a high save percentage in the UCL and has been an underrated performer for Tottenham in the Premier League, where he has 11 clean sheets in this season’s best overall domestic league (including two Man of the Matches). The difference is razor-thin, but Lloris has been tested against bigger competition more frequently this season which gives him the edge.
Everett: I’ve been impressed with Onana, who did not make a ton of saves against Juventus in the UCL quarters — the Italians tallied just four shots on goal over the two games — but stood tall when he had to. He was not one of the first names mentioned as his team knocked off Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. But he should have gotten more love than he did after allowing the Serie A champs to score just twice over 180 minutes, with no second-half goals in either game. His quarterfinal performance followed a solid effort in leg 2 of the round of 16 against Real Madrid, when he did not allow Los Blancos on the board until the 70th minute, when his team was up 3-0.
FWIW, WhoScored has rated Lloris 6.9 in the EPL and 6.71 in the UCL, compared to Onana’s 6.84 (Eredivisie) and 6.76 (UCL).
Chops: All of Tyler’s points are valid here. Flip a coin.
Everett: It landed on the Lloris side.
Chops: On to the backline, which is unsurprisingly Ajax-heavy.
Everett: Matthijs de Ligt is world-class. This is more evident than ever in the wake of what he did against Juve, when his game-winner off a corner in leg 2 wrapped up a memorable performance.
He has to be joined by Nicolás Tagliafico as the other center back. A scary thought for Spurs fans: Ajax stifled Juventus, on the road, without arguably its second-best defender in Tagliafico, who missed leg 2 of the quarters due to a suspension. In addition to his defensive work, Tagliafico has scored three goals in eight UCL appearances this year. We made it an all-Ajax back line, with Noussair Mazraoui completing the trio.
Everett: Choosing this midfield required less discussion than any other position group in either semifinal XI. De Jong, like de Ligt, needs no explanation. It was also easy to pick Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli, which account for most of Spurs’ star power with Harry Kane on the shelf.
Chops: I’m a heavy Premier League watcher and I want Liverpool to buy Eriksen and Alli (to be fair, I want them to buy everyone good on any other team, earlier this season I was trying to make a case for buying Richarlison, soooo…). But there’s a reason why Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester United are coming hard after Eriksen. He’s a great assist man, tallying 12 so far in the Premier League this season. But he can come up huge when his team needs him to find the net, like he did with Brighton this week.
Dele Alli is sometimes overlooked as one of the top young players in England, but there’s a reason why he’s one of the top six valued midfielders in the Premier League. At 23, Alli actually feels more like an Ajax player than a Spurs one. A silent assassin, he’s so confident on ball, willing to take chances, create opportunities. Liverpool should buy him.
Everett: Up top, Son Heung-min and Dusan Tadic represent two more easy choices. We all saw the work Son did in both legs against Manchester City, carrying the load after Kane’s injury. Spurs are not here without their Korean star, which makes his unavailability for leg 1 due to suspension a major problem.
Tadic is not yet a huge name, but for long stretches of Ajax’s last four games, he’s been arguably the best — and certainly the flashiest/most entertaining — player on the pitch. He was spectacular in leg 2 of the round of 16 as his team ransacked RM. While he was not quite at that highlight-reel level against Juve, he was still impressive. The numbers back up the notion that he’s been among the best players in the UCL, as he has totaled a ridiculous 30 goals to go with 15 assists in Champions League and Eredivisie play this year.
Chops: I actually debated the inclusion of Son since he’s only playing the Leg 2 game, but as criminally underrated as Son has been this year, it would only underrate him more feloniously to leave him out. He’s in an elite group of goal scorers who don’t require teammates creating “big chances” for him — he creates them himself (2:50 mark).
Tadic and Ziyech are not the names of the aliens from the Simpsons, but two of the three top-rated offensive players in the Eredivisie this year. Tadic, who at 30 could be the father to half of Ajax’s team, has been the more productive goal scorer of the two, but Ziyech creates chances. He’s generating an absurd 5.3 shots on goal per game in the UCL (and 5.4 in the Eredivisie). If Harry Kane were healthy, he’d surely get one of the forward spots — but not until after some legit debate on whether it would be Tadic or Ziyech getting left off.
Everett: One place where I’ll give Tottenham the advantage is on the bench, where Mauricio Pochettino deserves all the credit in the world. His team just knocked off what looked like the best squad in the world (please forgive me for saying that, Chops!). And that was while missing Kane down the stretch of leg 1 and without him at all in the second leg. At this point, it’s well-documented that Spurs are in the midst of an incredible run despite no offseason signings last summer, but it’s hard to say enough about the job Pochettino’s done, especially in the round of 16.
We’re taking a different approach for the 2019 UEFA Champions League Semifinals combined starting XI this go around.
Today, we examine the Barcelona vs Liverpool combined XI. Tottenham & Ajax will be published this weekend.
Surprisingly, the choices for Liverpool and Barcelona mostly lined up. We’ll get to it shortly, but only the backline and last frontline spot had any meaningful back-and-forth.
Barcelona – Liverpool Champions League Odds and Probabilities
Oddsmakers and analytics don’t line up on this match-up.
Barcelona is seen as the semifinal and overall UCL favorite on sportsbooks such as FanDuel Sportsbook NJ. Leg 1 is listed first. Home team is listed first.
|Barcelona -130||Draw +290||Liverpool +340|
|Liverpool +145||Draw +250||Barcelona +180|
While Barcelona and Liverpool are the two favorites to win the UCL,
FanDuel Sportsbook NJ has the Catalans at +135 and the Reds at +230.
Over on FiveThirtyEight, the match-up is essentially a coin-flip.
Barcelona – Liverpool Combined Starting XI
As for the combined starting XI, the squad reflects the probabilities. These are two well-balanced and evenly matched opponents.
Chops: Ok, let’s start with the #1’s. Right now, Alisson and Marc-André ter Stegen are inarguably two of the top five GKs in the world. There’s a razor-thin margin in their stats and ratings. Going into this, I thought Alisson would be a runaway but that wasn’t the case.
Everett: This was one of several spots where you really can’t go wrong. Whether you go by the numbers or the eye test, you reach the same conclusion: Alisson and ter Stegen have been excellent this season. WhoScored gives Alisson a 6.77 rating in the EPL, compared to ter Stegen’s 6.67 in La Liga. It’s also close in UCL play, but Alisson (6.71) is slightly lower-rated than ter Stegen (6.77). Ultimately, though it’s impossible to go against Alisson considering his phenomenal play domestically, where he’s given up just 20 goals in 35 games, with a ridiculous 19 shutouts. While we’re talking numbers, though, let’s not forget to mention ter Stegen’s 14 clean sheets in 33 La Liga matches.
Chops: While Alisson has slightly better stats, for me the deciding factor is — this year — he’s come up HUGE in the moments he’s been tested. His save in the 92nd minute against Napoli in the group stage is the singular reason why Liverpool is even here. He’s been in a pressure cooker all year with the Premier League title chase and Champions League run. If Liverpool need a big save to close out a game, he’s ready.
Everett: Ter Stegen has been really good in his own right, but his team has won its biggest games this year pretty comfortably. The second legs of both the UCL round of 16 and quarters were easy victories for Barcelona. It will be interesting to see how the German fares if either of both of these games come down to the wire.
Chops: On to the backline, where we had our hardest decisions.
Everett: Virgil van Dijk is a no-brainer, but after that, there were multiple players worth starting at each of the other three spots.
Jordi Alba has quietly been one of Barcelona’s most dangerous players going forward, while also helping hold things down for a team that’s been more stout defensively than people realize. The debate between Alba and Andy Robertson was as lengthy as any we had, but we gave Alba a slight edge, due in part to concerns Robbo’s massive workload might catch up with him.
Gerard Piqué, at 32, is showing no signs of his age, and has been in great form in the UCL.
We entertained getting creative and having Robbo out of position at right back, but Trent Alexander-Arnold is a solid choice who is in form — and he also keeps our lineup positionally accurate.
Chops: Yeah, leaving Robbo off was a tough decision. What TAA and Robertson mean to the Liverpool attack and overall tactical strategy can’t be overlooked. But if we’re giving weight to recent form, TAA has been on fire, and Robertson, while still excellent, looks a little gassed –so he’s left off.
Everett: This is a stout foursome who can also threaten an opponent with Alba and TAA’s speed on the flanks.
Chops: Midfield I thought would be more of a debate, but we actually saw eye-to-eye on this one. Tactically, the way Liverpool uses their midfield (with TAA and Robbo booming up the wings as offensive fulcrums) somewhat discredits the work the Reds do in that portion of the field. Fabinho has been excellent after a slow start. Naby Keita has started to find his form. James Milner is steady and Klopp’s choice on the road. But the true standout recently is Jordan Henderson. After meeting with Klopp and asking to have the freedom to play higher up the pitch, he’s been a revelation. All season, the one nitpick complaint about the Reds has been a lack of creativity in the midfield. Henderson has helped unlock the offense and has gotten the front three back in sync.
Everett: I won’t get too groundbreaking or analytical here regarding Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets: both have been really good for a long time and their experience is a huge asset for the Catalans. Neither has the notoriety of a Messi or Pique, but their intelligence and poise have helped buoy this team. Henderson is deserving of the third midfield spot, especially considering Arthur’s ups and downs for Barça.
Chops: With Liverpool, it’s hard not to think of their forwards almost as a singular entity, greater than the sum of their parts (each part, by the way, is pretty great). However, you just can’t ignore the individual brilliance of Barcelona’s firepower. I mean, we’re out of adjectives for how absurd this is getting with one particular player.
Everett: Messi, at this point, is a lock. Is there anything more to say about (probably? definitely?) the best player we’ve ever seen?
The discussion regarding the two players who should join him up top is much more interesting. Mo Salah is not scoring at the clip he did a year ago, but that says much more about his absurd ‘17-18 campaign than anything negative about his output this year. Salah and Messi are easy choices.
The selection between Luis Suárez and Sadio Mané is likely divisive. But the Uruguayan just plays too well with Messi for me to leave him out right now. Messi’s vision and talent as a facilitator must make it a dream to play with him, but that doesn’t mean Suárez’s recent work alongside him should be totally discounted. With 21 goals in La Liga and six assists this season, Suárez remains one of the most dangerous attacking players in the world at the age of 32. WhoScored also rates him higher (the site rates Suárez at 7.44, compared to Mané’s 7.22) in the UCL this season, and that’s despite Suárez having no UCL goals, while Mané has four. Suárez should have at least one UCL goal already, (I disagreed with the scorekeeper in the first leg against Manchester United, who ruled his header into the net an own-goal by Luke Shaw), and I expect him to find the net again soon.
Chops: Yeah, Mané has been in EXCELLENT form of late and has been a key contributor in the Champions League. Suárez, though, is just a tick better and more seasoned overall, particularly in the center forward role.
Finally, the manager spot goes to Jurgen Klopp. He’s got Liverpool peaking at the right time. They haven’t lost since early January. They’re showing no signs of strain from the dual trophy runs. He’s mostly pulled the right strings for line-ups and tactics, and when he hasn’t, he’s course-corrected quickly.
Everett: I’ll add that Ernesto Valverde has been better than people have realized this year, but I would go with Klopp as well.
Before Tuesday, my plan for this piece was to react to all four of this week’s Champions League quarterfinal results.
But before Tuesday, Juventus planned to be in the semifinals, and it was perfectly reasonable to expect the UCL final four to consist of some combination of the usual suspects.
What I’m trying to say is that my plans changed after Ajax went out and obliterated another financial powerhouse. Once again, it was hard to tell – if you could look past the favorites’ iconic jerseys – who was David and who was Goliath. Though Ajax won the second leg just 2-1, they could have easily scored four or five second-half goals.
So Lionel Messi’s dismantling of Manchester United and Tottenham’s thrilling win over Manchester City are going on the backburner. Instead, I’ll become the latest to gush about the young Dutch club, which has already been the subject of one fawning tribute after another.
And I now think I was actually underestimating them. Before they knocked off Juventus, the win over Real Madrid could have been dismissed as Ajax merely handling a flawed team missing Cristiano Ronaldo in the worst way. But no matter how vulnerable Juventus may have looked in the round of 16 first leg against Atlético Madrid, they are a veteran, proven squad led by the UCL’s all-time leading scorer.
The reasons to discount Ajax, for those who remain unconvinced, can’t possibly still include any variation of, “Who have they beat?” They’ve now played 16 (!) Champions League games since last July, including qualifiers. Their record in those matches is 9-6-1. More impressively, in six games against Real Madrid, likely Bundesliga champ Bayern Munich and runaway Serie A winner Juve, Ajax is 2-3-1, with a combined score in those games of 12-9.
Ajax was not the least bit impressed by their Serie A foe in the quarterfinals. Not by the Italians’ on-field pedigree, and not by their massive financial advantage. As ESPN.com’s Gabriele Marcotti pointed out, “The €112 million Juventus spent on acquiring Ronaldo is €20m more than Ajax’s annual revenues. The team’s wage bill is €4m short of what the five-time Ballon d’Or winner makes before tax.”
Not worried about a thing
Apparently, the PA system at Amsterdam Arena played Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” at halftime of the first leg vs. Juventus – no word on whether that’s a staple or a one-time thing. Either way, it was apt, as Ajax answered Juve’s opener in that game, which came just before halftime, immediately after the break.
On Tuesday, Juve scored first on a header by Ronaldo in the 28th minute, which would have broken a lesser team’s spirit. But Ajax equalized just six minutes later on a goal by Donny van de Beek.
When people talk about how fearless this team is, yes, they’re referring to Ajax’s overall approach and particularly their offensive flair. But more importantly, Ajax refuse to go into the tank after falling behind. They needed 15 minutes to equalize after falling behind 1-0 in the round of 16 first leg against RM. They’ve made a habit of staying collected and relaxed, no matter the score. The composure it takes to shake off a goal and respond quickly is something much more experienced teams often lack on the biggest stage. At this point, it seems safe to say that Ajax’s unwavering sense of calm, whether because of or despite their inexperience, would impress even Bob Marley himself.
Substance complements style
Plenty has already been said about all the opportunities Ajax created with their precision passing, and rightly so. But the way they stifled Ronaldo and Juventus after halftime was remarkable, even if it went somewhat unnoticed because of their dazzling play when in possession.
Matthijs de Ligt and his teammates along the back line and in the midfield won 50-50 ball after 50-50 ball against one of the most physical teams in Europe. We were well aware before Ajax knocked off Juventus that the Dutch club was young and flashy. Now we can add stubborn and stout to the growing list of adjectives for Ajax, which does not lack anything other than the proper amount of respect – they’re currently road underdogs for leg one of the semifinals at Tottenham.
If you’re a believer in Ajax now, finally, look at their +410 at FanDuel Sportsbook NJ — these kids can play.
Juventus hosts Ajax at 3 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday with a trip to the 2019 UEFA Champions League semifinals on the line. The first leg ended in a 1-1 draw thanks to a vintage first-half goal from Cristiano Ronaldo and a tremendous individual effort, and finish, by Ajax’s David Neres. Below are three things to watch in Turin as Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. set out to end the young Dutch club’s dazzling run.
- Will Frenkie de Jong be available and/or effective? The bad news for Ajax coming into this game is that their star midfielder may not be able to start due to a hamstring injury he suffered on Saturday. There have been conflicting reports about the severity of the issue, but it seems unlikely to sideline him for the entire match. As one of the two or three most important players on the field, though, de Jong being anything less than 100% fit is a massive hurdle for his team. The future Barcelona star was arguably the best player on the pitch in both legs against Real Madrid and excelled against Juve last week as well. The Italians will be catching a massive break if he is limited.
- Can Ronaldo be contained? Few teams on the continent are better defensively than Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid, which arrived in Turin up 2-0 going into the round of 16 second leg. Los Rojiblancos are as familiar with Ronaldo as anyone, and all they had to do was keep CR7 somewhat in check and … here Juventus is in the next round, on the verge of a trip to the semifinals. It’s much easier said than done, and his opponents sound like a broken record when talking about the importance of denying him opportunities, but that’s the only way to contain Ronaldo. Ajax controlled the first game and largely limited the Portuguese star’s impact, but doing so for 90 more minutes is a tall order, especially in front of a raucous crowd.
- How much of an impact will the absence of Giorgio Chiellini have? The Italians are expected to be without the veteran defender again Tuesday. Ajax enjoyed no shortage of opportunities in the first leg, piling up 19 shots, including six on goal, as Juventus struggled to defend against Ajax’s collective creativity and fearlessness. The Dutch club found the back of the net just once, though, as the clinical touch they displayed against RM eluded them. The Italians are as seasoned as any team left in the UCL field, so the absence of Chiellini should not be too detrimental. That being said, having your captain unavailable for the biggest game of the year is far from ideal, no matter how battle-tested you are.
Oddsmakers at FanDuel Sportsbook NJ view Juventus as a reasonable home favorite at -150. Ajax is getting some respect at +440 (the draw is +280). FiveThirtyEight view this almost as a coin-flip, with Juventus favored 58-42% to advance. At +440, there is definitely some value worth exploring with Ajax.
Barcelona hosts Manchester United at 3 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday with a chance to advance to the 2019 UEFA Champions League Semifinals for the first time since 2015. Below are three things to watch as the Catalans look to protect a 1-0 lead.
- Can United generate scoring opportunities? The EPL side outshot Barcelona 10-6 in the first leg, but did not record a single shot on target. Barcelona’s defense has been tough to crack when it counts this year, and Marc-André ter Stegen has been up to the task the few times he’s been challenged. Man United have plenty of talent up top, but they were largely stifled last week. Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team could give itself a massive boost with an early goal like the one Romelu Lukaku scored in Paris to spark his team’s improbable comeback.
- What version of Ousmane Dembélé will we see? Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez are playing so well that the Frenchman’s recent five-game absence was not exactly pronounced. But nobody watching this team closely can deny that Philippe Coutinho was a clear downgrade during that stretch. When Dembélé is at his best – his injuries have been about the only thing that have slowed him down – Barcelona’s attack goes from potent to unstoppable. The fact he started and played 67 minutes in Saturday’s scoreless draw at Huesca while Barça’s top players rested is a sign he’s fit for Tuesday.
- Will Tuesday be all about Messi? We at High Press Soccer are among a few soccer outlets that have not been able to say enough about the Argentine’s current season. In the UCL round of 16, Lyon managed to keep him – and his teammates – quiet in the first leg. The 0-0 draw at home gave the French club hope as it traveled to Camp Nou for the second leg. By halftime, Lyon was down 2-0 en route to a 5-1 blowout loss, as Messi scored twice and added two assists. Against ManU’s shaky back line, the Argentine is poised for another huge night. I’m not predicting he’ll be quite as dominant as he was against Lyon, but expect to be reminded, once again, that we’re watching the G.O.A.T.
Oddsmakers like FanDuel Sportsbook NJ view Manchester United as a longshot at +750. Barcelona is priced at -280 (the draw is +420). FiveThirtyEight only give United a 9% chance to advance. Having said all of that, United have faced these long odds before–as in, just the previous round. Stranger things have happened.
Following Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Atlético Madrid last weekend, the Catalans are now 11 points clear of Atleti and focused on their Champions League quarterfinal match against Manchester United. With seven La Liga games remaining, there is not much to say about the title “race.” La Liga does, however, still have a compelling fight for its fourth Champions League spot.
The race for the final UCL spot
Fourth-place Getafe (50) has a narrow lead on Sevilla (49), Valencia (46) and Alavés (45). Neither Athletic Bilbao (43) nor Real Betis (43) is in the thick of the UCL battle, but a hot streak by either could change that in a hurry.
FiveThirtyEight loves Sevilla, giving them a 50% (!) chance to qualify for the UCL, while pegging Getafe at 30% and Valencia at 17%. While I’m concerned with Getafe’s recent form – they’ve earned just five points on one win in their last four games – that shouldn’t make them such an underdog to a team they’re ahead of in the standings.
Sevilla is certainly the hottest club in this race, as it has won four of five in La Liga and allowed just one goal in its last four games. Neither of their next two games is a gimme, as they host Real Betis on Saturday before traveling to Getafe on April 21. Wins in both matches would not only justify FiveThirtyEight’s faith, but also put Sevilla at least two points ahead of Getafe.
Getafe will have a tough stretch following Sunday’s match at 17th-place Real Valladolid. The Sevilla match will be followed by a home game against Real Madrid and a trip to 10th-place Real Sociedad.
Relegation battle: Who’s coming and who’s going?
The bottom of the La Liga table is currently occupied by last-place Huesca, with 24 points. They trail Rayo Vallecano (27) and Villarreal (30). Real Valladolid is tied on points with Villarreal, but would stay up if the season ended today on head-to-head results.
Villarreal would appear to be the team in this group that is most likely to get hot, as their goal differential of minus-7 is the same as Real Betis’ minus-7 or – is this a misprint?? – Alavés minus-8. Is it just me, or is it absurd that two teams with the same differential could be 15 points apart in the table, with one still alive for a UCL spot and the other worried about staying up?
Anyway, on to the teams in line to secure promotion: La Liga 1|2|3 leader Osasuna (64), second-place Granada (61) and third-place Albacete (60) all must like their chances to finish in the top two, which means automatic promotion.
The three teams that would join Albacete in the playoff for the final spot in the ’19-20 La Liga season if the season ended today are Málaga (55), Deportivo La Coruña (54) and Mallorca (54). Seventh-place Cádiz (53) will also be a factor.
With nine games remaining, Cádiz is not the only team that will have a say at the top of Spain’s second tier.
Before Ajax hosts Juventus in the Champions League quarterfinal first leg on Wednesday, let’s look at what both teams need to do to win, as well as the key players to watch.
Ajax will win if …
They play with the same enthusiasm and fearlessness they displayed when they stunned Real Madrid in the second leg of the Round of 16. We at High Press Soccer liked Ajax’s chances to upset Los Blancos going into that match. But even as believers, we were overwhelmed by the way they picked apart RM on March 5.
Against Juventus, the Dutch club will need to remain creative with its passing and clinical with its finishing in the final third. How it plays without the ball, though, will be even more important. Atlético Madrid was shredded in Turin as the Italians recovered from a 2-0 deficit thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s most recent Champions League magic. Midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek, as well as defender Matthijs de Ligt and the rest of the back line, will need to do what Atleti failed to in their loss: prevent service to Ronaldo. Any ball in the air in Ronaldo’s vicinity is trouble for Ajax, so they must limit those opportunities.
Juventus will win if …
Is it too obvious to say Juve is advancing to the semifinals if Ronaldo has another game anything like his last UCL performance? I think so. Juventus has a massive advantage in experience, so as long as they’re on a level playing field going into the second leg in their backyard, they’re going to be dangerous. That means a draw in Amsterdam, especially if they can produce an away goal or two, would be huge.
The clash of styles between these teams is why many are calling this match-up the most intriguing of the quarterfinals. When Ajax has the ball, will they be able to take on Juve defenders with the same success they enjoyed against RM? Or will the physicality and experience of players like Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini — whose status is reportedly unclear after he injured his calf in practice on Monday — neutralize Ajax’s young talent?
Ajax’s most important player and secret weapon are de Ligt and Dusan Tadic, respectively.
De Ligt is about to be a very rich man this summer, and he can ratchet up the demand for his services even further if he’s able to help Ajax contain Ronaldo. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be asked to do so single-handedly, but he’s the leader of a back line facing CR7, so his importance cannot be overstated. Skeptics will point out that Ajax is not nearly as battle-tested as the other seven teams still alive in the UCL. The doubters will have to find a new criticism of this team if it advances past Juve.
Tadic lit up Real Madrid in memorable fashion the last time we – excluding those of us who regularly watch the Eredivisie – saw him. Can he do to Juventus what he did to the winners of last year’s UCL? It’s hard to imagine him humiliating the likes of Bonucci and Chiellini for an entire afternoon, but a moment or two of brilliance could be all his team needs.
Juve’s most important player and secret weapon are Ronaldo and Moise Kean, respectively.
Say what you will about whether Ronaldo still has as much all-around impact as Lionel Messi – he does not, IMO – but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous in front of the net. His strength and leaping ability make him a nightmare in the box. Those gifts, coupled with his ever-so-understated confidence from owning Europe’s top competition for a while now, mean he is – in shocking news – easily the most important player in this game.
The 19-year-old Moise Kean is red-hot right now, with five goals in his last five Serie A matches. He did not play in the first leg of the UCL Round of 16 in Madrid and did not come on until the 80th minute in Turin. He figures to see more action against Ajax, unless Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri is too concerned his lack of experience will be a factor on the big stage. Whether he starts or not, though, expect a player with seven (!) goals in his last eight games for club and country to make an impact at some point in one of these games.
Latest Ajax vs Juventus Odds
|Ajax +230||Draw +220||Juventus+130|
Also Read: Champions League Quarterfinal Predictions
Ahead of the Barcelona–Man United Champions League quarterfinal first leg Wednesday at Old Trafford, here’s a look at what both teams need to do to win, as well as the key players to watch.
Barcelona will win if …
It avoids crucial injuries. Man U is talented, but was lucky to beat a PSG team that was missing Neymar in the Round of 16. Barcelona is much deeper and more balanced than the Parisian club, and it’s going to show. As long as Barça’s top players are fit, I expect a fairly one-sided affair.
Lionel Messi (who somehow keeps getting better with age) and Luis Suárez have dominated the headlines in recent weeks, but their team also lacks any clear weakness. In addition to the Argentine and the Uruguayan up top – who have combined for an absurd 14 goals in Barcelona’s last six matches – Barça is stout defensively. Gerard Piqué and Marc-André ter Stegen, among others, have been excellent all season in big games. Yes, there have been hiccups like last week’s 4-4 draw against Villarreal — when Barcelona was by no means playing its best XI. But the Catalans have been tough to crack when it matters. They allowed a total of one goal in the two round of 16 matches against Lyon and in three recent games against Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, they were not scored on.
Man U will win if …
They score quickly on Wednesday and David de Gea has a performance for the ages. It’s going to take several players turning in incredible efforts for the Red Devils to pull this off, but the most likely scenario for an upset involves an early goal followed by the Spaniard doing something unforgettable (something he is certainly capable of doing). Man U does not lack for dynamic weapons who can create chances. Those players’ fresh legs – their last game was April 2, while Barcelona is coming off a physical battle with Atleti on Saturday – could allow the Red Devils to strike first at Old Trafford.
The EPL club has not, however, been sound enough defensively – and honestly, who has been, considering Barcelona’s form? – for me to expect them to stifle Messi and Co. That means they’ll need de Gea’s A-plus game. We saw in Man U’s upset of PSG that if they keep things close, anything could happen in the closing minutes. Could they get another fortunate bounce at the right time to make an improbable appearance in the UCL semifinals?
Barcelona’s most important player and secret weapon are Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho, respectively.
The case for Messi as the most important player on the pitch goes without saying at this point.
There are plenty of candidates when thinking about the X-factor for Barcelona, but why not the former Liverpool star? With Ousmane Dembélé sidelined due to injury, Coutinho has started his team’s last three games in place of the Frenchman. To this point, Coutinho hasn’t presented Ernesto Valverde with a conundrum – when Dembélé is available, he’ll be right back in the starting lineup – but he should have a massive opportunity on Wednesday (as long as Dembélé remains out). At this point, Barcelona’s opponents should sell out to limit Messi and Suárez, which should mean space for the Brazilian. Can he capitalize?
Man U’s most important player and secret weapon are Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, respectively.
Pogba has to play smarter than he did in the first leg against PSG, when he got himself suspended for the return leg in Paris. We saw last summer during the World Cup that at his best, he’s one of the most dangerous players in the world. This season, he’s been credited as a big reason for his team’s turnaround under OGS. Barcelona’s midfielders and defenders are skilled but are not blessed with the same physical tools as Pogba. If he’s able to take over the game and facilitate for Lukaku and Co. — while occasionally threatening Barcelona’s back line himself — Man U may have a shot after all.
Most fans came away from this team’s comeback win in Paris fixated on the French club’s mistakes, the call that resulted in a spot-kick for Marcus Rashford and the Englishman’s subsequent game-winner. But it was Lukaku who got his team a 2-1 lead with some opportunistic finishes in the early going. Like Pogba, Lukaku has the raw physical ability to give even a well-organized defensive team like Barcelona problems.
Latest Manchester United vs Barcelona Odds
|Manchester United +280||Draw +250||Barcelona -105|
Odds are from FanDuel Sportsbook NJ
Also Read: Champions League Quarterfinal Predictions