Philippe Coutinho conundrum as Barcelona roar into Champions League semi-finals

Andy West 17/04/2019
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Barcelona made it through to the Champions League semi-final for the first time since winning the trophy in 2015 with a 3-0 second leg victory over Manchester United, advancing 4-0 on aggregate.

United will go away wondering what might have been after making a great start and twice coming close to taking the lead, but in the end they were comprehensively outplayed by Barca over the two legs.

Lionel Messi delivered another masterclass to propel his team into the last four, and the Catalan club must be confident about their chances of going all the way.

Let’s look back on all the key action from a topsy-turvy nighty at the Camp Nou.

VALVERDE OPTS FOR CONTROL…AND GETS IT, BELATEDLY

The first tactical blow was struck before kick-off when Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde opted to field Philippe Coutinho on the left wing and Sergi Roberto at the right, with Ousmane Dembele and Nelson Semedo restricted to the bench.

In doing so, Valverde was probably expecting a closely contested and cagey opening half, with United getting plenty of men behind the ball, and therefore expecting the more careful skills of Coutinho and Roberto to provide a greater sense of control – with the option of introducing Dembele, in particular, if the game opened up in the second half as United upped their efforts for a goal.

If that was the expectation, though, the reality was very different because United’s start was anything but cagey, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men flying out of the traps with crisp, confident and incisive passing which could have yielded two goals in the first three minutes.

Firstly, Marcus Rashford – lining up on the right with Jesse Lingard surprisingly playing through the middle – raced clear to shoot against the crossbar after 35 seconds, before Scott McTominay failed to control when wide open inside the penalty area.

Barca’s start to the game was woeful and they looked dazed for the opening ten minutes…but then a familiar face stepped up to restore the anticipated state of affairs and the rest of the game was a breeze.

MESSI DOES IT AGAIN

Messi

United’s fine early work was undone with a flash of genius from Lionel Messi, who opened the scoring after 15 minutes to give his side total command of the tie: he took advantage of some sloppy work from Ashley Young to win the ball on the right corner of the box, beat Fred with a sublime nutmeg and cut inside to unleash a brilliant strike into the far corner.

Messi pounced again minutes later, although his second strike owed a lot to a terrible error from United keeper David De Gea, who somehow allowed Messi’s half-hit right-footed strike from the edge of the box to squirm through his grasp and roll apologetically over the line.

Having effectively settled the contest, Messi proceeded to torment the visiting defence with a motivated and high-tempo display, with a particular highlight coming just before half-time when he twisted Phil Jones inside-out with a sensational dribble which nearly led to a goal for Roberto.

This must have been the hardest he was worked off the ball in a long time, giving weight to the idea that he is reserving his energies for the competition Barca crave more than any other. With Messi in this mood, they must be favourites.

COUTINHO STATES HIS CASE

Valverde’s decision to start with Coutinho ahead of Dembele will have been badly received by many Barca supporters considering the Brazilian’s ineffectual form during the majority of the campaign, but he responded with an excellent performance capped by a magnificent third goal, thundered into the top right corner from long range.

There has never been any doubt over Coutinho’s talent, but the question of where he fits into the team tactically has been less clear. On this occasion, though, he looked perfectly comfortable on the left of the front three, linking well with Jordi Alba on the overlap and regularly coming inside to team up with Messi and midfield general Arthur.

With the end product of his outstanding goal added in, this was undoubtedly one of Coutinho’s best performances in a Barca shirt and it gives Valverde an interesting and welcome dilemma ahead of the semi-finals.

Dembele is regaining full fitness and was in the team on merit before getting injured, but Coutinho playing like this is also well worth a start – and if Liverpool also advance, he will naturally be desperate to shine against his former club.

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Why Donny van de Beek was star of show as Ajax leave Juventus to pick up pieces

Chris Bailey 17/04/2019
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The youngest-ever captain in a Champions League knockout game rose into the heavens like Cristiano Ronaldo and came back down with a fairytale semi-final berth for Ajax in Turin.

Matthijs De Ligt, who turns 20 in August, scored a thunderous header in the second half to deservedly secure safe passage for his side in a 2-1 victory against an underwhelming Juventus.

Ronaldo had opened the scoring with a header of his own after a unfortunate coming together between De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong from a corner, but Donny van de Beek soon levelled with a smart finish.

Juve well and truly lost their way in the second half as Ajax spurned a hatful of chances, but De Ligt had the final say.

DARING DONNY

Acres of internet space have been dedicated to the rising fame of Dutch starlets De Ligt and De Jong, with Donny van de Beek the footnote.

Not any more – not after this performance. While De Ligt delivered a headbutt to Juventus’ Champions League dreams for another year, and a half-fit De Jong imposed his will in midfield, Van de Beek drew most of the eyeballs.

Though usually a No6, Erik ten Hag has pushed the 21-year-old up-field in the Champions League knockouts thus far and Juventus couldn’t cope up with his hyperspeed decision-making.

Indeed so high did Van de Beek play he was the furthest forward at times, finding pockets of space behind Daniele Rugani and Leonardo Bonucci, with the central pairing drawn into Hakim Ziyech and David Neres’ bursts on the wings.

Van de Beek took down Ziyech’s errant shot expertly – and remained onside – to slot past Wojciech Szczesny.

Neres, Ziyech and Dusan Tadic were also superb, but if they had shown half the composure of Van de Beek in the final third, Juve would have been utterly humiliated.

JUVE GOT PROBLEMS

The year 1996 should be a joyous one in Juventus’ history, but time has tinged it with bitterness. It’s been that long since the Old Lady lifted the Champions League trophy – the irony that it came against Ajax should not be lost – and not even Ronaldo could take them all the way during another futile campaign.

This one could mark the end of Max Allegri, despite building a fine reputation in Turin. Ultimately, Juve looked bereft of ideas and their tactics were puzzling to say the least.

The Bianconeri committed to attacking from out wide despite the absence of Douglas Costa and Joao Cancelo, and a sluggish Mattia De Sciglio at right-back.

Federico Bernardeschi had one of the poorest games he’ll ever have in a central midfield that were so ponderous up against a vibrant Ajax.

Where they’ve added Ronaldo they’ve also lost Paulo Dybala, the nominal striker who was only nominally on the pitch. Wonderkid Moise Kean added some impetus in the second half but it was all disjointed behind him.

Where to next for Juve?

REFRESH BUTTON

With the clamour from fat cat clubs for a European Super League building by the week, it is always a refreshing sight to see relatively impoverished sides punching above their weight.

Except Ajax aren’t defying the odds. At least not in terms of their playing personnel. De Ligt is every inch the peer of any defender left in the competition,

De Jong is as metronomic as a (soon-to-be) Barca midfielder at his best, while Tadic, Van de Beek, Neres and Ziyech are options any top side would crave.

Thanks to savvy spending and a once-in-a-generation academy output, Ajax should be seen as the equals of any club in Europe.

It’s a shame that the inevitable break-up will start this summer, with De Jong’s departure to Barca only the start of an inevitable exodus.

As it is though, Manchester City or Tottenham would be foolish to think that a semi-final against Ajax is an easier prospect than facing Barca or Liverpool.

Ajax fans, and neutrals the world over, should dare to dream like it’s 1995 again.

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How Pep Guardiola's tactics can put Man City on the front foot and expose Tottenham

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Kevin De Bruyne

Tottenham travel to the Etihad with a 1-0 first-leg advantage over Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Pep Guardiola must mastermind a victory for his side on the night by creating more opportunities in attack if they are to progress to the semi-finals.

Here, we look at the key tactics he may employ.

Click here for Spurs’ key tactics.

DE BRUYNE IN MIDFIELD

The onus is firmly on City to be on the front foot in this encounter. A one-goal advantage, the absence of Harry Kane and the fact that they’re playing away are all factors that will influence Spurs into absorbing pressure and looking to attack on the break.

Pep Guardiola’s side should enjoy even more than the 59 per cent share of possession they had at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and, in order to capitalise on that, they’ll need the play-making ability of Kevin De Bruyne in the middle of the park.

Guardiola was criticised for benching the Belgian for the first leg who then responded with two assists at Crystal Palace.

MORE WIDTH IN ATTACK

With the amount of possession City are likely to have at the Etihad Stadium, they will need to stretch Tottenham’s defence in order to create openings. As such, Guardiola may be tempted to retain the left flank he deployed at Palace on Sunday. Like De Bruyne, Sane was also a substitute for the first leg with Riyad Mahrez preferred instead.

The Germany international would generate ample width down that left side while Benjamin Mendy’s overlapping runs could do the same and ask more questions of Spurs’ defence.

More importantly, the left-sided duo could force the defence to shuttle across, leaving space for Raheem Sterling to exploit on the far side or open up gaps between centre-backs for David Silva and De Bruyne to take advantage of.

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