Grand ambitions collide on Wednesday when Tottenham Hotspur seek a definitive end to quadruple, or “quintuple” in manager Pep Guardiola’s estimations, talk for hosts Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals.
The London outfit travel 200 miles north emboldened by last week’s 1-0 victory, earned via South Korea forward Son Heung-min’s nimble feet and Ederson’s questionable goalkeeping. This picture, however, could have been entirely different had Argentina striker Sergio Aguero not seen a timid 12th-minute penalty saved by grateful France No1 Hugo Lloris.
For City to still experience historic success come season’s end, they must snap a damaging run of five-successive European losses against English opposition. Spurs, in contrast, have to force home this advantage in the absence of stricken talisman Harry Kane and avoid a third-consecutive reversal at Etihad Stadium:
Here are the talking points as both aim to make the semis for just a second time:
DARE TO DREAM
A tie far from decided awaits this midweek.
Spurs will kick-off safe in the knowledge that if they avoid defeat, progression is theirs. Yet Mauricio Pochettino’s charges have lost six of their last seven away matches, in all competitions, and were hammered 4-1 by their imminent opponents the last time they strode out in east Manchester.
They will also have to manage the psychological trauma of being without skipper Kane because of a rolled ankle caused when challenging England team-mate Fabian Delph last Tuesday.
The 4-0 weekend thumping of relegated Huddersfield Town moved their 2018/19 win percentage up to 70 without him from 10 matches, an intriguing improvement on the 62 per cent recorded with Kane from 39 games.
They’ve also won five of their last six Champions League outings, keeping clean sheets in the previous three.
City’s pursuit of untrammelled success has not been in such peril since an early 2-0 lead was handed to the Championship’s Swansea City during last month’s sodden FA Cup quarter-final.
Raw memories of a 5-1 aggregate humbling by Liverpool at this stage in 2017/18 could provide further trepidation.
Guardiola’s troops, however, have won 24 of 26 home matches this term – drawing none.
They’ve also scored at least two goals on seven of the last eight times they’ve welcomed Spurs to the Etihad.
Centre-back John Stones labelled this challenge on four fronts – of which, likely, defining Premier League meetings with Spurs and Manchester United immediately follow – “the dream” during Tuesday’s pre-match press conference.
Surge past Spurs and it will take another significant step towards becoming reality.
Guardiola’s reputation as a footballing savant ensures scrutiny is rare.
His approach at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, however, merited introspection. Uncharacteristic caution and a questionable decision to start Algeria Riyad Mahrez, among five changes, contrived to produce an unconvincing performance.
The Champions League has generated brutal experiences for Guardiola since 2010/11’s triumph with Barcelona; 2013/14’s 4-0 semi-final home reversal to Real Madrid, Barca’s imposing 5-3 aggregate semi triumph in 2014/15, agonising away goals elimination by Atletico Madrid at the same stage in 2015/16, Monaco’s comeback from a 5-3 round-of-16 first-leg loss in 2016//17 and 2017/18’s aforementioned hammering by Liverpool.
He cannot countenance another indignity being registered in 2018/19.
PEP 💬 I know how focused the players are. The desire to get to the semi-finals. Will it be enough? I don't know.— Manchester City (@ManCity) April 16, 2019
I got to the final once with one shot on target, and once I had 33 shots on target and didn't. Football is that game.
Seeing a Spurs player on the ball will be a rarer sight than a dry day in Manchester.
City have averaged 64.2-per-cent possession in the Premier League this season, while lost 1-0 in north London last week recording 59 per cent.
Tottenham supremo Pochettino, however, has the perfect weapons to make this characteristic work against the hosts.
Lengthy injury to Kane has left a spot vacant in Spurs’ attack. Lucas Moura filled it with aplomb against Huddersfield, netting a hat-trick.
The Brazilian forward’s searing pace, allied with Son’s, makes the counter-attack a dangerous proposition.
Even one away goal could have an enormous influence on a tie of great significance.
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With just six goals being scored across four matches in the first leg of the quarter-final Champions League, it’s fair to say that the games are in fair balance and no team has a massive advantage over its opponent going into the second leg.
We take a look at some of the players whose performance could decide the outcome of the ties.
Barcelona – Sergio Busquets
Sergio Busquets has been one of the most important players for Barcelona in the past decade. It’s no surprise that the Spanish giants have suffered heavily in midfield whenever the Spaniard has had an off-day.
In the first leg, a Scott McTominay led United midfield suffocated Barcelona and pushed them very deep. The first few minutes of the second half were the hosts’ best period of time and it came as a result of some intense pressing and crucial interceptions in midfield.
Usually press resistant and a good passer of the ball, Busquets had one of his worst games of the season. He was not reacting well to the United press and was under-hitting his passes.
In fact, Barcelona were lucky to not conceded in the first half, especially with Busquets committing some careless mistakes.
United are most likely to press from the word go in the second leg and the Spaniard’s performance can shape the nature of the game.
Whether Busquets repeats his performance from the first leg or gets his mojo back can definitely affect the outcome of the match.
Manchester United – Marcus Rashford
It’s not likely that the visitors will be creating a plethora of chances at the Camp Nou. There major source of shots will be achieved through counter-attacks.
Hence, Marcus Rashford will have to strike with caution, knowing that shots from promising areas on the pitch are a luxury.
He needs to be alert and poach on any mistakes from the Barcelona back-line. He failed to do the same in the first leg and ultimately, that proved to be a massive talking point.
The Englishman’s pace will come handy in counters and his ability to combine with Paul Pogba has the potential to make the night a memorable one for United.
The forward was lacklustre in the first leg. Will he be able to assert himself and make the difference at the Camp Nou? He does have the talent, but he needs it to combine well with confidence and a winning mentality.
Juventus – Joao Cancelo
Of Course the focus will be on Cristiano Ronaldo who has been a scoring machine in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. The Portuguese had scored Juventus’ only goal at Amsterdam through a brilliant power header.
However, Joao Cancelo could be the player you would want to keep your eyes on in this crucial fixture. The right-back will encounter mixed challenges in defence and in attack.
In defence, he will be tasked to keep David Neres – who scored an impressive solo goal in the first leg – at bay. This could turn out to be a key-battle in this close tie.
In attack, Cancelo will be up against Daley Sinkgraven. With Nicolas Tagliafico serving suspension, the Portuguese will be relishing the prospect of the increased freedom on the wing.
With all due respect to second-choice Sinkgraven, he is no Tagliafico and is susceptible to Cancelo and Federico Bernardeschi devouring him, hunting in pairs.
Cancelo needs to find the balance between attack and defence. If he does, Juventus could be well on their way to the semis.
Ajax – Kasper Dolberg
Having conceded an away goal to Juventus, Ajax need to score at least one goal to stay alive in the tournament. Kasper Dolberg will be looking to provide the visitors the edge at Turin.
Frenkie de Jong suffered an injury during Ajax’s league engagement against Excelsior and is doubtful to start in the second leg.
This means that Donny van de Beek could drop deep into the double pivot to partner Lasse Schone. Dusan Tadic is likely to drop into the number 10 role and have Dolberg take his position as the number nine.
The 21-year-old has scored 11 goals and assisted twice in the Eredivisie this season despite featuring in the starting line-up just 14 times.
In the Champions League, the Denmark international has failed to score or assist a single goal despite playing 230 minutes.
Goals are the need of the hour for Ajax and Dolberg must render these stats meaningless by dropping a master-class. His performance can have a huge bearing on the result of the game.
Having overturned a 2-0 deficit in the previous round against Paris Saint-Germain, they will have the belief that they can do something similar again. But Barcelona at home are a different beast – they are unbeaten in 30 straight European games at the Camp Nou.
Here’s a look at the talking points for United as they look to break that run.
POGBA NEEDS TO BACK UP THE TALK
Paul Pogba had a decent game on Saturday, not just because he scored two penalties – without the funky run-up – but because he was actually trying to dictate play in midfield and demanding the ball, even if it didn’t always work.
After the game, he was candid about the team’s performance, acknowledging that they would need to improve against Barcelona. He’s also been quoted saying that United should believe they can pull off a comeback, regardless of how good their opponents are.
Which is true, of course – a side that has won away at Juventus and PSG this season, the latter result a historic, miraculous win that got them into this round, should believe they can repeat the feat at the Camp Nou. But for them to do it, they’ll need their best player on his best form.
Pogba often talks a good game. Now, he needs to back that up.
Pogba: “A Champions League quarter-final is just beautiful. We just have to enjoy it, give our best and trust ourselves. The game is not done, it's not closed. I know it's Barcelona, we're playing in their home, but it's never closed. It's still 90 minutes.” #mufc [Mail]— United Xtra (@utdxtra) April 14, 2019
WILL SOLSKJAER DITCH THREE-AT-THE-BACK FORMATION?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has taken to deploying three at the back in recent big games, with mixed results. It worked in the comeback against PSG, but in other games, it’s left United’s defence looking confused and vulnerable. The players aren’t used to the formation and it shows.
It’s likely that United’s poor defending is exactly why Solskjaer has opted to add a defender to his formation, but after it backfired against Wolves two weeks ago and wasn’t quite effective last week against Barcelona, perhaps it’s time to ditch the experiment and revert to a back four.
Plus, United need to score, and that urgency should bring them out of their shell. Playing an attacking formation against Barcelona is fraught with risk, but does Solskjaer have any other choice?
UNITED’S ATTACK NEEDS TO START FIRING AGAIN
Though United acquitted themselves well in the first leg, for that to be a sign of their potential rather than a missed opportunity their attack needs to start firing again.
Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Romelu Lukaku have managed a combined three goals in United’s last six games, with the scoring runs they’d enjoyed earlier in Solskjaer’s reign having disappeared into memory. Lukaku is scoreless in five straight appearances and Martial has managed one in his last seven, though Rashford at least is in some semblance of form, scoring three in his last six games.
The young Englishman is also probably the least fit at the moment, carrying an injury he picked up in February against Liverpool and looking short of 100% since then. He needs his colleagues to regain their touch in front of goal; otherwise, the man who scored the winning penalty in Paris will be fighting a lone battle.
Paul Pogba #mufc's top scorer again on 16 goals. Eight of them have been penalties. Lukaku's got 11 goals fewer than he had at this stage last season.— Samuel Luckhurst (@samuelluckhurst) April 13, 2019