Man United failing to capitalise on vulnerable Barcelona could be the tie-deciding factor

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It’s not often that Barcelona have an off day. It’s not often that Lionel Messi has an off day. But on Wednesday, the Catalan giants looked out of sorts after they netted an early goal to take the lead. Manchester United could have just missed a huge opportunity to book their spot in the semi-final after failing to capitalise on their lack of form.

When Barcelona lost 4-0 away against Paris Saint-Germain in the 2016/17 season, they were suffocated and dominated in midfield, forced to play poor passes –often in their own half – and Messi was kept silent throughout the game. Also, unlike his usual self, Sergio Busquets was really lacklustre on the ball.

On Tuesday, United managed to bring out the same version of Barcelona through intense pressing and midfield dominance. Fred and Scott McTominay ran the midfield show and pushed Barcelona deeper and deeper. Busquets – who has looked way off his usual brilliance this entire season – produced one of his worst performances.

The fact that United failed to capitalise on Barcelona’s mistakes could very well turn out to be the turning point of the tie. The Red Devils were handed three golden chances in the opening period, with Busquets’ under-hit passes producing two of those. Marcus Rashford – who was expected be a menace for the Spanish giants – failed to make the best of any of the chances.

Jordi Alba’s poor touch after he received the ball during a set-piece allowed Ashley Young to race down the wing and create a two-on-two opportunity. But the full-back squandered the chance with a poorly hit cross, similar to most of his deliveries on the night.

Despite being on the front foot for the final 25 minutes, United failed to test Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The home side failed to register a single shot on target and that speaks volumes about their attack on the night.

Winning the midfield battle against Barcelona is not easy and once a team manage to do so, they must ensure they finish the job. This has to be the most notable difference between the PSG side that defeated Barcelona 4-0 and the current United side that lost 1-0. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men squandered their chances and the consequence could prove to be more dire than they think.

It’s worth noting that United had a week’s rest before the crucial game whereas Barcelona faced Atletico Madrid only on Saturday. An underwhelming Barcelona playing three days after engaging themselves in the most demanding fixture in the league were bound to be most vulnerable and United should have struck against a fatigued side.

This weekend, Barcelona face bottom-placed Huesca and are hence present the luxury of rotation, especially with one hand on the trophy already. United – on the other hand – are still fighting for a top-four spot and will be under pressure to win against West Ham, a team they failed to beat in the reverse fixture back in September.

Barcelona are a different beast at the Camp Nou, especially in Europe. They currently hold the record for the longest unbeaten streak at home in the Champions League at 30 games. The Spanish giants have not tasted defeat since their 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich in 2013.

It would take something extra-terrestrial for United to progress to the last four of the competition. If they don’t, they have their performance in the first leg to blame.

Whether they go down fighting or get hammered at the Camp Nou, failure to punish Barcelona when they were at their most vulnerable will go down as the turning point of the tie.

Things would have been – and it can’t be stressed upon enough – completely different had United punished Barcelona’s mistakes in the first half.

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Man City too nervous in big Champions League games, says Ilkay Gundogan

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Gundogan battling with Tottenham goal-scorer Son Heung-min.

Ilkay Gundogan believes Manchester City are too nervous and making too many mistakes in the Champions League.

The City midfielder feels City were guilty of trying too hard as they were beaten 1-0 in the first leg of their quarter-final against Tottenham on Tuesday.

The Premier League champions were undone by a late Son Heung-min goal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, leaving them with a deficit to overturn in next week’s return leg.

After exits in the last 16 and quarter-finals in the past two seasons, transferring domestic dominance on to the European stage remains a challenge for City under Pep Guardiola.

Gundogan told Sky Deutschland: “We were not brave enough in the game and we made a lot of simple mistakes.

“I have the feeling we are nervous in important Champions League games. We always make the wrong decisions.

“In these matches we always want to do something special because it means (going through to the) Champions League semi-finals. Sometimes less is more.”

Gundogan believes City reacted badly to an early penalty miss by Sergio Aguero.

The Argentinian was denied by Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris after City were awarded a controversial spot-kick when Danny Rose was adjudged to have handled in the box.

Gundogan thinks the game would have been much different had Aguero scored.

The 28-year-old said: “Negative events like that always set us back far too much.

“Had we scored from the penalty we’d have taken Tottenham apart.

Aguero missed from the spot for City

Aguero missed from the spot for City

“But instead we withdrew from the game. That must not happen to a big team. That’s why we’re not there yet.”

Gundogan remains confident City can turn the tie around when the sides meet again at the Etihad Stadium next Wednesday.

He said: “Unfortunately for us we were not able to score the penalty or create chances to get the goal which would have been important, but we take it as it is. We know we are able to beat Tottenham at home, there is still hope and a chance for us.”

City now switch their focus back to their Premier League title defence as they return to London to face Crystal Palace on Sunday.

Despite the Spurs loss, City’s bid for an unprecedented quadruple remains alive, although Gundogan claims the players are not thinking about how many trophies they might win.

He said: “You guys talk all the time, we don’t really talk about it, not even in the dressing room or at the training ground. I don’t think that will change in the upcoming weeks.

“We have to deal with what people are saying on this topic but it’s up to us to be successful and do what we want to achieve.”

Provided by Press Association Sport

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Hakim Ziyech, David Neres give Ajax Champions League semi-final hope after battling draw with Juventus

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David Neres and Hakim Ziyech starred for Ajax.

Ajax gave themselves a fighting chance of a spot in the Champions League semi-final after coming from behind to get a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the quarter-final at home against Juventus.

The Dutch side dominated the game in a way that belied the gulf in experience between the two sides, as Juve were left hanging on after David Neres’ equaliser after half-time cancelled out Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener. Ajax may wonder how they didn’t end up the winning side.

Here, we rate the Ajax players’ performances.

STARTING XI

Andre Onana 6 – Could do nothing for Ronaldo’s goal, as Ajax’s defence was simply broken down by the Portuguese’s movement. Onana’s distribution was poor at times, which was cause for concern.

Joel Veltman 7 – Given that his chief task was to deal with the dual threat of Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic, Veltman acquitted himself well on Wednesday. Stood up to Juve’s feted attackers.

Matthijs de Ligt 6 –  Matured display from the Dutchman. Read the game well and moved at the right time without getting caught out of position. Bernardeschi and Mandzukic had nothing to work with such was his overall dominance.

Daley Blind 6 –  The former Manchester United man led by example at the centre of the defence. Kept Ronaldo in check for most of the game.

Nicolas Tagliafico 6 – Lucky to not have given away a penalty for a second-half foul that would also have seen him sent off. But he’ll also rue his team-mates’ inability to find him in space – there were plenty of times Tagliafico had stolen a few yards on the left wing only to go unnoticed.

Lasse Schone 6 – Not the best display from one of the stars of the last-16 win over Real Madrid, as his set-piece deliveries were lacking their usual quality. Helped Ajax control midfield but it was no surprise when he was taken off.

Frenkie de Jong 8 – Produced one brilliant last-man tackle that showed a side to his game many may not have seen before. His usual qualities were on display as well.

Hakim Ziyech 7 – Ajax’s most consistent threat on the ball, and on this display a club looking for a right-winger should definitely have perked up. Sent one wild shot wide, but drew a smart save out of Wojciech Szczesny and was lively throughout.

Donny van de Beek 6 – An eager presence in Ajax’s attack, though his runs lacked the timing that could have made this a lethal display instead of merely an encouraging one. But his ability on the ball had Juve on their toes.

David Neres 7 – This game showed the best and the worst of the Brazilian winger. His goal was supremely well-taken, an excellent finish that gave Ajax a deserved leveller. But on other occasions, Neres’ inexperience showed in his eagerness and poor decision-making on the ball.

Dusan Tadic 6 – A quiet night from the man who has graced Ajax’s best performances of the season with his own sprinkles of stardust. This was not one of those occasions, as Tadic was well-marshalled by Juve’s defence and looked off-colour throughout.

SUBSTITUTES

Jurgen Ekkelenkamp 6 – It may not have been a surprise when Schone was taken off but the identity of the substitute certainly was. The 19-year-old’s most significant contribution was to haul down Ronaldo on a break, but it was certainly an eventful Champions League debut.

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