Champions League – Quarter Finals

250px-Logo_UEFA_Champions_League
Via WikiCommons

 

Sport is full of unpredictability, which seems like an understatement on a day when the Golden State Warriors squandered a 31-point lead, at the Oracle Arena (home court) against the eighth seed, L.A. Clippers. Yet, this may be the week of sporting upsets with four closely fought Champions League Quarter Finals about to take place over Tuesday and Wednesday across Europe.

Here’s a look at the four games, and where it may be won and lost.

Barcelona vs Manchester United

Barcelona lead 1-0 after winning in Manchester, thanks to an own goal from Luke Shaw. 

Manchester United are returning to the scene of their most memorable triumph in the Champions League (They beat Bayern Munich of Germany in the final of the 1998-99 competition thanks to two late goals from Teddy Sheringham, and current head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer). The English club will feel confident having knocked out Paris St. Germain in the last round despite losing the first leg in Manchester. However, even the most fanatic United fan could admit that they were a little fortunate in victory.

Similarly, Barcelona haven’t looked all that comfortable despite their 5-1 win against Lyon in the last round. What was once considered to be the best midfield in Europe is starting to show more and more cracks. They are more reliant on their talisman Lionel Messi – 13 goals in his last nine appearances against English sides in the Champions League – who hasn’t really had the support of his teammates. The only player who has played at a high level this year apart from the Argentine, is the Spanish defender Gerard Pique. Long gone are the days when teams would fear the Barcelona midfield. Yes, they can still play keep ball, but they don’t have the same penetration as they once had.

I realise that most people will have ruled out United in this game, and I can understand why, but this Barcelona side can be beaten as long as Solskjaer’s team don’t lose their cool. Barcelona will likely try to use the 90,000+ fans packed into their famous Nou Camp stadium to put pressure on the match officials, and before you know it, Sergio Busquets (Barcelona Midfielder) will start throwing himself all over the ground in his usual heinous way. If the English club can avoid frustration, then they may just be able to upset the odds again, as unlikely as it may be.

Verdict: Barcelona 3 – Manchester United 2 (Barcelona go through 4-2 on aggregate)

Juventus vs Ajax

First leg was a 1-1 draw in Holland. 

Ajax are proving to be the dark horses of the competition this year. They dumped reigning champions Real Madrid out of the tournament with an amazing display of clinical finishing in the previous round. A similar display would have put them clear against Italian champions Juventus in this round. The side from Amsterdam were absolutely fantastic in the first game, but ended up missing chance after chance against a lacklustre Juventus before falling behind to a goal from none other than Cristiano Ronaldo.

These two teams are the complete antithesis of one another, which makes for an interesting match. Juventus have the experienced players, who have proven themselves to be amongst the world’s elite. On the other hand, Ajax will supply the youthful exuberance and in Frenkie De Jong, a player who is seen as the next big player to come out of the Ajax factory.

Verdict: Juventus 1 – Ajax 3 (Ajax go through 4-2 on aggregate)

Porto vs Liverpool

Liverpool lead the tie 2-0 thanks to goals from Naby Keita and Roberto Firminho).

I expect the second-leg in Lisbon to be end-to-end. Both teams definitely favour an attacking style of football, so expect plenty of goals. Although Porto possess some excellent players, well three of them to be precise (Jesus Corona, Octavia and Moussa Marega), they are no match for Liverpool.

Porto, in the last round against Roma, notched up a total of 23 shots (11 on target and 12 off), but ended up needing extra time to make it through. All throughout this year’s competition, they have tried to suffocate teams with their relentless attacking display at home, but Liverpool will be licking their lips at the prospect of seeing the huge spaces that will be left for the likes of Mane, Salah and Firminho to exploit. I expect the tie to be all but over by half-time with Porto coming out to salvage some pride in the second-half.

Verdict: Porto 2 – Liverpool 4 (Liverpool win 6-2 on aggregate)

Manchester City vs Tottenham

Tottenham surprised everyone by winning the first leg 1-0. 

Man City came into the tie as the favourite but were completely outworked in the first leg by a Tottenham side that didn’t stop forcing their will on the opposition throughout the entire 90 minutes. Yet, they only take a slender one-goal advantage into the second-leg which will be played in front of a packed Etihad Stadium. Tottenham will be without captain and top scorer Harry Kane, meaning that the likeable Heung-Min Son will prove the biggest threat to the home side.

Manchester City will definitely come into the game the more nervous out of the two teams as they attempt to achieve a historic quadruple by winning the English Premier League, League Cup, F.A. Cup and Champions League. The omens are not in favour of Pep Guardiola’s team, though. Man City have been eliminated by English clubs on all three occasions and have never managed to over-turn a first-leg defeat.

This is definitely going to be nail-biting tie in which the lack of an away goal for Manchester City will prove costly.

Verdict: Manchester City 2 – Tottenham 1 (Tottenham go through on the away goals rule)

 

Misunderstanding My A*#e

“Kepaze”

Surprisingly, the first word that came into my mind was the Turkish word for “shameful,” and/or “scandalous”. This word has the perfect letters and meaning to describe the actions of Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.

(Ironically, Kepa’s surname is very similar to the Turkish word Ariza, meaning “defect”.)

Look, we have all have moments in our lives when we haven’t wanted to do something our boss wanted us to do, but like most people, we end up doing it, because that’s what grown-ups do. Yet, football players seem to think that normal rules don’t apply for them.

What happened?

For the people living under a rock, or who have no interest in sport, the basics are that, during the Carabao League Cup Final on Sunday between Chelsea and Manchester City, the Chelsea goalkeeper, in an act of defiance, refused to come off the pitch in the face of head coach Maurizio Sarri’s clear annoyance. Roughly 82,000 fans packed into Wembley Stadium, and the millions watching on television, caught a glimpse of what can only be seen as disrespect.

With extra time coming to a close, and penalties beckoning, Maurizio Sarri and his team wanted to make a tactical substitution by bringing on Willy Caballero. This was clearly a pre-determined decision, and one that could definitely be vindicated when considering Caballero’s excellent reputation as a specialist at saving penalties. The only problem was that Kepa clearly didn’t get the memo, or more likely, didn’t care about the memo.

(Via SkySports Football’s page on Youtube)

Maurizio Sarri was overcome with rage, and who could blame him? He was shown great disrespect in front of millions.

(Via SkySports Football’s page on Youtube)

Sarri wasn’t sure what to do, and he ended up having to give in. This was yet another example of a player’s defiance paying off, and Sarri was not happy about it, to say the least. (The faces of the players on the Chelsea bench say it all.)

Screenshot 2019-02-26 at 13.27.09

(Via SkySports Football’s page on Youtube)

As soon as the final whistle went, it was clear which team was feeling more like a collective. Kepa wouldn’t even look at Sarri, and Sarri was out for blood. Most importantly, Caballero had to be consoled by the team coaches.

The Outcome and Aftermath

Screenshot 2019-02-26 at 14.09.57
Man City win the first of a possible FOUR trophies (Via SkySports Football’s page on Youtube)

Man City went on to win 4-3 on penalties. Kepa saved one penalty, but made a huge mess of another, which he should have saved from Sergio Aguero. But the talking point was clear, and the  press were waiting for Sarri with questions about his goalkeeper’s refusal to come off.

Sarri, as expected, came out and faced a bombardment of questions about the incident. He said that Kepa was right to want to stay on, but wrong to conduct himself in the way he did.

Sarri went on to say that it was a substitution based on injury, because he thought Kepa was injured, and he wanted a fully-fit keeper in goal for the penalties. Apparently, Kepa wasn’t injured and hence refused to come off.

Sounds plausible.

Yet, before the penalties, even after the doctor’s words, both Sarri and Caballero were very upset. Caballero was having to be consoled by team coaches, while Sarri was being held back by Anthony Rudiger.

It was clearly a tactical substitution.

Still not convinced?

There is footage before the penalties of Kepa studying information on a phone. I guess he got a very important message from his mother about something. Or, more likely, he was being given the information that Caballero would have memorised and trained for throughout the week leading up to the game.

Screenshot 2019-02-26 at 17.36.07
Just some revision, maybe… (Via The Ultimate Chelsea Fan TV on YouTube)

After the loss, Sarri reportedly went back to the changing room and sat there by himself for a good amount of time before going to receive his runners-up medal.

What happens next?

Coming into the game, Sarri was under huge pressure. He made changes, and his team played fantastically. But that refusal has over-shadowed the entire performance. In professional football, when your number comes up, you go off and that’s it. What kind of message does this send to the rest of the footballing world?

The Chelsea board have some huge decisions to make regarding Sarri and Kepa Arrizabalaga. They seem to have sided with Maurizio Sarri at first glance, and rightly so. Kepa – Chelsea’s record signing at £71.6m –  has been fined a week’s wages (a reported £195,000), which will be donated to the Chelsea Foundation. An amount that is, truthfully, just a drop-in-the-ocean for the Spanish goalkeeper. But this will not be the end of this debacle, and many people will be interested to see who starts in goal in the next few games.

Next up for Chelsea is a big game against local rivals Tottenham in the league on Wednesday evening (Feb. 27). Tottenham are currently in third, while Sarri’s team – including Kepa, I guess – are in a battle for fourth (the final Champions League spot) with Arsenal and Manchester United. A defeat could signal the end for Sarri, especially after the incident on Sunday.

I guess if Maurizio was to depart, not everybody would be Sarri to see the back of him.

 

Title Decider?

We are only half-way through the season, yet the game tonight between Man City and Liverpool has the ring of a title decider.

A win for the Reds (Liverpool) will put them nine points clear of a very inconsistent Tottenham, and ten ahead of Man City, who are the only serious challengers. I realise that there are still 17 games after this one, with a total of 51 points to play for, but that will not be enough for the chasing pack to pass a formidable Liverpool side (that have only failed to obtain six of the 60 available points possible so far).

Mohamed_Salah_2017
Mohamed Salah

More importantly, Liverpool are playing with freedom, and a swagger that no other team seems to have this year. In Salah, Mane, and Firmino, they have goals. Defensively, they are stronger, and there is a lot of force and doggedness in midfield. Shame about the lack of quality on the bench.

Will a win secure the title with half the season to go?

Short answer: Yes, I believe so!

Looking ahead to Liverpool’s fixtures, they play both Chelsea and Tottenham at home, which is a great advantage. The only tough-looking away fixture is to Old Trafford – to face a rejuvenated Manchester United – on February 24th (a trip that Manchester City also have to make on March 16th).

So, if Liverpool win, the title is theirs.

Can Manchester City stop Liverpool?

Manchester City will be defiant going into the game, despite being on a bit of a bad run of late. Three defeats in the last five league games has put them in a bit of a precarious situation in terms of the title, yet they can go into the game knowing that they dominated Liverpool at Anfield. On that day, surprisingly the game ended goalless. The recent lack of points for Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola shouldn’t surprise anyone. Even at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, it was well-known that if you could get past the initial pressure exerted by Pep’s teams, you had a chance to catch the defence short-handed – something that Chelsea, Palace and especially Wolves have done.

Liverpool are a cut above all three of those teams, and have the ability to demolish what feels like an ageing Manchester City side. Fernandinho doesn’t seem to be able to recover as quickly. David Silva is missing more games than usual. De Bruyne isn’t quite fully fit yet, and Aguero isn’t his usual prolific self.

Sergio-aguero-manchester-city-man-united_1jck7w5dllp0e19ltd3wyn3mby
No time like the present, Sergio!

Recent history isn’t looking favourably on Man City’s chances either. Liverpool beat their rivals three times during the last campaign, and have only lost twice in their last 11 meetings.

What will happen?

Whatever way you look at it, this is a huge game in the title race. Both Man City and Liverpool are gunning for the trophy, and if Liverpool win, they will all but secure it in my eyes. And yet, I see Man City showing up and closing the gap to the top with a convincing 3-1 win. Eventually, Man City will be able to grind down Liverpool as the season progresses. The expected cries from Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool’s coach) will be about how his players are tired, especially if they progress to the latter stages of other competitions. That’s the reason they weren’t able to secure the title.

Or …

Liverpool win tonight.

They then go on to lift the title …

… And I look like a fool!