Champions League Semifinal Preview
Who will get the advantage on the first leg?After going through a roller coaster of a quarterfinal, with comebacks and controversial video assistant referee (VAR) decisions, the final four of the Champions League is settled. Barcelona cruised past a very permissive Manchester United defense, scoring three goals past David de Gea in Camp Nou, with Lionel Messi netting two more to set him as the current top scorer of the competition (10 goals). Their next task is another team from England that also wears red.
After eliminating Bayern Munich, Liverpool easily got past FC Porto, who couldn’t hold the stellar attacking routines of Jurgen Klopp’s men. The enthusiastic semifinal fixture will start Wednesday, with the Merseyside Reds going to Barcelona, before Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho return to Anfield the following week.
The day before is the other semifinal clash: one that would have been hard to predict in the beginning of the season. Tottenham Hotspur has never reached the semifinal of the Champions League, in its modern era, but the Spurs finally did it two weeks ago after a goal festival against Manchester City at the Etihad. Their following task, however, will be tricky.
Ajax is not a newbie in the Champions League. The Dutch club has won the trophy four times, but it hasn't been in a semifinal since 1997, when it was eliminated by Juventus. The current golden generation looks ready to exorcise the demons from the past, though. Ajax kicked out "The Old Lady" in the last stage, stunning Cristiano Ronaldo and company, making Ajax a potential dark horse to win it all. Their perfect combo of experience and youth might be enough to take them to the final in Madrid.
Let’s look at the two fixtures in this week’s Champions League and see who will head into the second leg with an advantage.
Tottenham vs. Ajax, April 30Ajax seems set for history. The team from Amsterdam became the first to defeat both Real Madrid and Juventus on their own turf in a single Champions League edition, and they have scored an astounding 111 goals in their current Eredivisie campaign.
Let’s not forget also that Ajax faced Bayern Munich and Benfica in the group stage without losing any game to both teams, drawing three matches and winning at home against the Portuguese. This means they have gotten past four previous Champions League winners, and they did it in style, with comebacks and astoundingly paced counterattack football that would make legend Johan Cruyff shed a tear of joy.
Spurs must be on top of their game if they want to have a shot at getting past Ajax, which seems to be in peak form. Tottenham is less experienced at this stage than the young, fierce Dutch team. They have never gotten this far in the competition, and their main star, Harry Kane, is out with injury until the end of summer. Bummer.
Nonetheless, the Spurs seem to be focusing on the shot they have at Champions League glory, with their Premier League top-four place almost settled. Their first defeat at the new home, against West Ham this weekend, shouldn't bother them, since the most direct rivals are all too concerned with taking points from each other.
Spurs could use some inspiration from their star Son Heung-min, who seems to have made the Champions League his own playground. But since he is suspended, because of a double yellow card, the odds do not seem to be in the Spurs' favor. It will definitely be a special match for Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, each of whom played for Ajax in their early careers.
Looking at the previous first legs, Ajax seems to play safely and doesn't take many risks. They lost to Real Madrid at home in the round of 16 (2-1), just to come back at Santiago Bernabeu (4-1). They repeated the feat in the quarterfinal, drawing at home with Juventus (1-1) but coming back to win (2-1) in Turin.
Even though the first game is being played away from home, where Ajax apparently doesn't feel threatened, do not expect it to take too many risks in this match. Unless Lucas Moura or Fernando Llorente have the game of their lives, Spurs won’t pose much threat to Andre Onana’s goal. Betting on a draw or a slight Ajax win would be the best option on the table.
Tottenham to win (+150) Draw (+235) Ajax to win (+190)
Barcelona vs. Liverpool, May 1For the second year in a row, Liverpool has reached the semifinals of the Champions League. Last year Liverpool defeated AS Roma and headed to the final, where Real Madrid stole the crown. Now, to get back into the spotlight and possibly add a sixth Champions League trophy to the cabinet, Liverpool will need to get past another Spanish giant: Barcelona. The first leg will be at Camp Nou, where Barcelona just reconquered the La Liga title this weekend after a win over Levante.
Taking the energy from this recent conquest, Barcelona will be motivated to achieve the treble this season, seeing as it has already earned a place in the Copa del Rey final too. Messi is enjoying one of his best seasons, and with Cristiano out of the Champions League race, he knows a win would practically secure him a sixth Ballon D’Or. Is all of this enough for Barcelona to get through Liverpool on its own field?
The Reds are enjoying one of their best seasons ever. But unlike Barcelona, they haven’t gotten a trophy yet, and the Champions League might be their best chance at silverware this season. The Premier League battle isn’t lost, but Manchester City likely won't lose any more points until the end of the season, while Liverpool still has a tough game against Wolverhampton in the final matchday.
Dutch center back Virgil Van Dijk, who commands the Reds' backline, just conquered the PFA Player of the Year award and will have additional incentive to prove he his worthy when he faces his most challenging task to date: stopping Messi.
Who should you back up to get the edge on this first leg? Barcelona is not known to bottle it at home. It would take a truly standout performance from Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino to break down the walls at Camp Nou. Also, Klopp might want to play his cards well and not take risks, considering being trashed away would mean a heroic battle at Anfield. Betting on Barcelona to win by minimal numbers (1-0 or 2-1) is playing it safe, but waging on a draw might be a risk you should be willing to take.
Barcelona (-115) Draw (+275) Liverpool (+315)
Follow more soccer coverage at BetAmerica Extra.