Tottenham aim to seal their Champions League quarter-final berth against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, with what Mauricio Pochettino believes is an unfair advantage.
Spurs are leading 3-0 from February’s first leg at Wembley, but Pochettino is unhappy that the Bundesliga leaders have had more time to prepare for both games.
They played 24 hours before them for the first leg and then played on Friday night compared to Spurs’ lunchtime kick-off ahead of the second leg in Germany.
Pochettino has called on the authorities in England to help their clubs in the Champions League by giving them better domestic fixtures ahead of big fixtures.
“I think we need help from the FA, we need help from the Premier League, I don’t know because I am not involved in the decisions,” the Argentinian said.
“I don’t know whether to blame the FA or to blame the Premier League or to blame Tottenham because we changed the day because we still not deliver our new stadium or the TV because they wanted us to play live on Saturday.
“Look what happened with Rennes in the Europa League. They cancelled their game at the weekend to help or provide Rennes to play against Arsenal.
“In Europe, the FAs are more sensitive to help the club to compete in the best way in Europe.
“I would like to play in the same situation as your opponent. That is the most important, you have the same day to prepare for the game.
“I think that is not fair and it is a problem that in the future it is a thing we need to change if we want to help the English clubs be stronger in the competition.
“We need to be more sensitive to the clubs who play in Europe to provide better condition to have the same possibility to arrive to the games.”
Pochettino will not allow that Red Letter Day at Wembley three weeks ago, where his side blew Dortmund away in the second half, to come into his thinking ahead of the return leg.
The Argentinian is demanding that his side go on the front foot against Lucien Favre’s side.
“We need to play like always we play, trying to win, that is important,” he said.
“We need to forget the first leg, it’s important to be aggressive, fight from beginning, high tempo, that is going to be the key.
“We know Borussia Dortmund is a great team, top of the Bundesliga because they deserve to be there.”
Dortmund boss Favre knows turning the tie around is going to be a big ask.
“We know it will be very difficult but you never know,” he said. “We have already played many games in this stadium where we have written history and we are in a position to achieve the impossible.”
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Real Madrid‘s players have to dust themselves down after their dismal last week, in which they lost to fierce rivals Barcelona twice to see their hopes of winning the Copa del Rey and/or La Liga both extinguished.
Attentions turn now to the one trophy they still can win, as they hold a 2-1 lead over Ajax in the Champions League round of 16 heading into Tuesday’s second leg at home, an advantage that puts them in the driving seat.
For the Ajax players, this fixture is the chance to make history as they try to produce a famous win and comeback to knock out the side that has won this competition three times in a row.
Here’s a look at the key player battles that will decide the game.
Luka Modric vs Frenkie de Jong
Luka Modric may be the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, but his performances this season haven’t been up to that high standard. The 33-year-old’s ability to take the game by the scruff of its neck and dominate it, seen to such brilliant effect during Croatia’s stunning run to last year’s World Cup final, has seemingly waned, and whether it’s fatigue after a long summer and short preseason, or just the beginning of a natural decline, Madrid haven’t seen that version of Modric often enough this season.
But perhaps this is the occasion. A tight Champions League clash against a young pretender in midfield may be just what Modric needs to raise his game.
Frenkie de Jong isn’t quite at the stage where he can be considered the same level as Modric, but there’s no doubting his talent. The 21-year-old has been the backbone of the Netherlands’ resurgence in international football and for Ajax at club level.
Modric dethroned Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; whether De Jong can do the same and beat the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe to the Ballon d’Or remains to be seen. For now, the intrigue in this potential rivalry is this: unless Modric moves this summer, De Jong will face the Croatian plenty of times in El Clasico after completing his move to Barcelona. Tuesday’s clash provides a tantalising preview.
Vinicius Junior vs Hakim Ziyech
The greatest compliment that can be paid to Vinicius Junior at the moment is that Barcelona’s defensive gameplan on Saturday was centred around stopping him. It worked, to an extent, as his impact was reduced and his finishing let him down, but that an 18-year-old playing only his third El Clasico can command such attention is testament to his potential.
Vinicius is unlikely to struggle as much against Ajax – though struggle is a relative term; despite a subdued performance against Barcelona he still led Madrid in shots and chances created.
If he brings his shooting boots as well, the Brazilian could bring the cheer back to the Santiago Bernabeu.
Hakim Ziyech could be forgiven for looking across the pitch on Tuesday and wondering what could be. The Moroccan has long been touted as one of the best young players in Europe, someone who could easily thrive at the continent’s elite clubs. Seeing a player seven years his junior in Vinicius get the chance to do just that might sting, if only a little.
No matter. Ziyech has blossomed into a star at Ajax and may still get a move to a bigger club. In the meantime, the 25-year-old can use Tuesday as an audition, showing what he’s capable of on one of football’s grandest stages.
Sergio Reguilon vs Nicolas Tagliafico
There weren’t many positives to take for Madrid while they were losing to Barcelona twice in four days, but, along with Vinicius, young left-back Sergio Reguilon was one of them.
Asked to step up as Marcelo’s form began to decline, the 22-year-old academy product has answered the call. Among players with at least 10 La Liga appearances for Madrid this season, only Casemiro and Sergio Ramos have more combined tackles, interceptions, clearances, and blocks per game than the deputy left-back.
And he’s no slouch going forward, either – only Toni Kroos and, coincidentally, Marcelo, have more key passes per game, while on Saturday Reguilon had the most dribbles for Madrid, topping even Vinicius. Los Blancos may have unearthed a gem.
Much like the battle between Vinicius and Ziyech, the clash of left-backs also provides a transfer-related subplot. Though Reguilon has performed admirably in Marcelo’s stead, Madrid are said to be looking at the transfer market for players at the position – and Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico is one of the players to be linked with a move.
The Argentine may be determined to put on a show for his prospective future employers, though simply trying to help Ajax pull off a stunning win will no doubt be motivation enough for the 26-year-old. But if he does outshine Reguilon, Tagliafico could soon be playing at the Bernabeu much more regularly.
Real Madrid are in charge of their Champions League round of 16 tie against Ajax having won the first leg 2-1 away from home, but recent losses to Barcelona will have dented their confidence and could leave them vulnerable against the Dutch side.
Santiago Solari will have his work cut out to ensure the team which has won this competition for three years running doesn’t suffer a shock exit in front of its home fans.
Here’s a closer look at the tactics Solari could try as he looks to coax a better result from this Madrid side and seal a quarter-final berth. Check out our Ajax tactics piece here.
SOLARI CAN GO BOLD WITH FORMATION CHANGE
Solari hasn’t quite shown his tactical acumen during his time as Los Blancos boss, as he’s played it safe and stuck to tried-and-tested formations – the 4-3-3 mixed with the occasional 4-2-3-1.
But after two losses to Barcelona in four days, perhaps Solari has started to wonder if he should be doing anything different.
A radical option would be to switch to three at the back, drafting in young centre-back Javi Sanchez to play alongside Nacho, who will deputise for the suspended Sergio Ramos, and Raphael Varane.
That may be a step too far for Solari but what he could consider is a midfield diamond. Casemiro will be at the base, with Kroos and Modric the middle two.
And there is, of course, one player perfectly suited to the role at the tip of the diamond: Isco. The Spaniard made a surprise appearance off the bench on Saturday and perhaps Solari believes it’s finally time to give the playmaker a chance.
ASENSIO CAN EARN RIGHT WING SPOT
Vinicius Junior has made himself a first-choice player under Solari, with his displays so far in a Los Blancos shirt enough to become an automatic starter. But his emergence has created a problem for Marco Asensio, who also prefers playing on the left wing, a berth that Vinicius has made his own.
But perhaps it is time for Solari and Asensio both to look to a different position for the young Spaniard. Gareth Bale is likely to be dropped after his poor showing in El Clasico on Saturday, leaving the right winger’s spot open. Asensio has played on the left far more often than on the right, but in this era of inverted wingers, one wonders why that is the case.
Bale’s middling form means Asensio has the opportunity to make the right-sided attacking role his own, and thus force himself back into the first XI. That should begin with Tuesday’s fixture.