Everyone knows who the stars of the Champions League semi-finals are going to be – or at least, are supposed to be.
Lionel Messi is looking to win the tournament for the first time in five years, while Virgil van Dijk and Liverpool‘s fab three up front want to banish memories of last season’s loss in the final. Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong are looking to sign off from their Ajax careers on a high and Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-min are leading Tottenham’s quest for a first European title in 35 years.
But every side has its unsung heroes, or players who grab the headlines once in a while but aren’t always given top billing. Here’s a look at five such players to keep an eye on during the semi-finals.
The Dutch defender has enjoyed a renaissance since returning to the club where he began his career, having left in 2014 for Manchester United. Blind rejoined last summer in a departure from Ajax’s usual transfer policy which avoids high-profile, big-money – in relative terms – signings, and it’s proven to be an inspired decision.
Now he’s reminding United what they’re missing out on as he plays in a Champions League semi-final in a season where his former club are looking like they’ll miss out on the Premier League top four.
And with fellow centre-back De Ligt set to leave the club this summer, the 29-year-old Blind has a chance to show everyone against Tottenham that there will still be a top-class defender leading this brave new Ajax into the future – which possibly includes lifting a historic Champions League trophy in a month.
2016/17: Daley Blind beats Ajax with Man Utd in the Europa League final— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) April 16, 2019
2018/19: Daley Blind reaches the Champions League semi-final with Ajax; Man Utd get knocked out by Barcelona
He made the right choice. 😉 pic.twitter.com/auYBu9kOF2
Speaking of Ajax breaking their transfer policy to great effect – who saw this Dusan Tadic season coming? 34 goals and 19 assists from a player who never managed double digits at Southampton. The Saints are likely more looking at this season in wonder at how they never experienced such productivity rather than rueing the day they let him go.
Tottenham have seen Tadic before – the Serbian has one goal and two assists in seven previous games against Spurs – but they’ve never seen him quite like this, the standout attacking player in an all-conquering side.
And who knows, perhaps his season ends with a win over another Premier League side or even out-dueling the man who wears his number at Barcelona – a certain Messi.
Ajax are the first Dutch team in history to score 160 goals across all competitions in a single season.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 23, 2019
Dušan Tadić has directly contributed to 53 of them. 🙇 pic.twitter.com/kU7ySGrcHW
Liverpool’s Dutch midfielder has gone under the radar somewhat, with headlines this season centering on the integration of Fabinho and Naby Keita or the form of Jordan Henderson.
Yet, despite scoring only three goals all season, Wijnaldum has been an effective cog in the Reds midfield. Henderson is energetic and Keita and Fabinho can control games, but no-one quite typifies Jurgen Klopp’s energetic, high-press system the way Wijnaldum does.
Though they play in very different styles and roles, it’s akin to what Sergio Busquets does for Barcelona. Wijnaldum’s energy and running from midfield make Liverpool’s system work just like Busquets’ metronomic passing and recycling of possession do for the Catalan side.
Georginio Wijnaldum's game by numbers vs. Cardiff:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 21, 2019
53 passes attempted
51 passes completed
1 successful take-on
1 touch in opp. box
Picked his moment to venture into the box. 😅 pic.twitter.com/y9oVpWm8Ey
A year ago, France were lifting the World Cup. Now, a player who wasn’t in the squad has a viable claim to be the best French defender on current form, and can lead his side into the Champions League final.
Clement Lenglet has benefitted this season from the injuries to compatriot and team-mate Samuel Umtiti, as well as the slight dip in form from Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, but there’s no doubting that the 23-year-old has improved and delivered on the promise that saw Barcelona make him a £35million signing last summer.
And he has previous against Liverpool – he was part of the Sevilla side that came back from 3-0 down to earn a draw in last season’s group stage. The semi-final could be the stage for him to provide an encore.
Lenglet: "I like to have all the information possible, where Robertson likes to cross and which post Firmino prefers."— barcacentre (@barcacentre) April 27, 2019
No Harry Kane. No Son for the first leg. Well, at least Tottenham can rely on a player who scored a hat-trick a little over two weeks ago.
True, Lucas Moura hasn’t scored since putting three past Huddersfield on April 13, and Ajax aren’t Huddersfield. But his goalscoring form in the time since has also been affected by playing as part of a front three rather than as the main man, which is what he’ll be in the first leg of the semi-final.
The Brazilian’s movement and tenacity make him just the sort of striker no-one wants to face, and he has an eye for goal. Could he be the one to lead Spurs into a Champions League final?
Spurs attacker Lucas Moura has now labelled Tottenham Hotspur’s Champions League Semi-Final against Ajax tomorrow evening as the biggest game of his career in the build-up:— Last Word On Spurs🎙 (@LastWordOnSpurs) April 29, 2019
"I need to enjoy this opportunity and to give my best!"
Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk returns to the Nou Camp this week hoping to erase the memory of his only other appearance at the home of Barcelona.
The newly-crowned Professional footballers’ Association player of the year was a member of the Celtic team humiliated 6-1 in December 2013 – they were 6-0 down after 72 minutes.
What was more galling on that night was that Lionel Messi was not even playing.
There is no chance of that happening on Wednesday night, with the Argentina international being handed generous periods of rest by coach Ernesto Valverde in the games leading up to this Champions League semi-final first leg, but Van Dijk is relishing the prospect.
He is also looking to address his history with Barcelona.
“It is a nice stadium, a historic stadium and for me it was a great experience to play over there,” said the Holland captain.
“It was my first time, my only time and my last time so far so I am looking forward to playing them again, one of the best teams in the world, but I think this can be totally different than when I was there the last time.”
Despite Celtic’s result, Van Dijk came away with plenty of plaudits but – despite that – he was not happy with the performance.
“I saw some videos, but if you are losing 6-1, as a defender, you can’t say you had a good game,” he added.
“But the good thing for me personally was I took a lot of experience from that night and that helped me, obviously.”
Van Dijk’s imperious form, and the way he has marshalled Liverpool’s defence this season to concede just 20 goals in 36 Premier League matches, should help in combating the threat of Messi.
However, the Dutchman knows that is easier said than done.
“Yeah, I think he is the best player in the world, I have said that before,” he said.
“But you see how we play, how we defend, we don’t defend one v one, we defend all together and we attack all together as well – so we will see. We will be ready.
“The situation is that we are in the semi-final against Barcelona and we are going to face one of the best players…I think the best player in the world.
“But it is not only him, the whole team has a lot of quality and we will prepare well and that is what we are going to do.
“We have also a very good team so we can compete there as well so it is not like we are going there for a holiday or something.”
It is another huge week for the club, who remain in the title race with the relentless Manchester City, who have a one-point advantage heading into the final two Premier League matches.
Many – including former Manchester United defender-turned-pundit Gary Neville – were sceptical of Liverpool’s capacity to maintain a challenge on two fronts, but they have disproved all the doubters.
“You definitely want to be in the title race and you definitely want to be in the semi-final, and hopefully you get through to the final,” said Van Dijk.
“The situation is how it is and I said many times before, we have to enjoy it, show what we have been doing almost the whole season and keep working hard and never give up.
“I see what we have. I see the players we have, I see the management and the way we play football so it is not really a big surprise.
“But you still have do it and we have to do it on Wednesday as well. It is going to be unbelievably tough.
“You need to be ready for problems and we will be and hopefully we can get a good result or a result we can take with us back to Anfield and we are going to try everything to go through to the final.”
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Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino is dreaming “to infinity and beyond” as he prepares his side for the Champions League semi-final first leg against Ajax.
Pochettino says he is already “living the dream” in taking Spurs to the last four of this competition for the first time in their history, but he borrowed Buzz Lightyear’s well-known catchphrase to urge his team to go for glory.
“I am living my dream, I am already living it – to be in the semi-final with Tottenham,” Pochettino said.
“It was a dream five years ago and we are living it.
“Always you must dream with the moon if you want to get something from the sky. You need to set your dreams to infinity and beyond.
“If you achieve things it is because you dream. When you dream you have it in your mind and then you can get it.”
To be at this stage of the competition with their new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium less than a month old represents what Pochettino reckons is a historic feat.
He believes that competing for top European honours while building a £1 billion stadium is something no other club has ever done.
“What is a thing we feel most?” he said. “Proud, because we can develop two different things in football that no other club could do: the most unbelievable facilities and then put the club on the sports side in a very competitive place, reduce the gap to the top four, be contenders and play Champions League in three or four years.
“Normally it’s to move to the new stadium and then be competitive and look to play in the Champions League. Look how far ahead we are.
“Maybe we didn’t win a trophy, but what we achieve as a club is massive.
“Maybe more than winning a trophy. I don’t think anyone in history has achieved what Tottenham have made.”
If Spurs getting to the last four of the Champions League is a dream for Pochettino, the condition in which they arrive is more of a nightmare.
Tottenham are short of key attacking players in Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, while a lengthy injury list and packed fixture schedule is taking its toll.
Pochettino is counting on the occasion helping his side through.
“It must be important,” he added. “The energy, the semi-final, the chance to play a semi-final for Tottenham does not happen often.
“We are in circumstances that are impossible to change and we must be ready.
“It’s a game where it’s impossible to tire, it’s impossible not to be excited to play.
The fact that Ajax had their domestic fixture cancelled at the weekend to aid their preparation was another issue to frustrate Pochettino, whose players had to contest a London derby against West Ham.
Ajax coach Erik ten Hag, whose side have beaten Real Madrid and Juventus in the last two rounds, hinted Spurs cannot complain due to the amount of television money they receive.
He said: “There are always different circumstances. We play in the Eredivisie, we get €10 million from TV and Tottenham. I don’t know how much they get. They get a lot more.
“Is that still unfair for them or for us? Everyone has different circumstances, you just have to deal with them. That’s the way it is.”
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