Game to watch: Barcelona v Liverpool
‘In all the fundamentals of football competitiveness Liverpool had transformed themselves into the superior team for whom this conquest in Barcelona was only natural,’ read the last line in this Guardian match report from Liverpool’s last trip to Barcelona in 2007. Translation: They were the best team on the night. And Liverpool usually are the best team on the night in the Nou Camp, a stadium in which they have never lost. Indeed, Liverpool have never lost to the Spanish giants over two legs. Which feels like the kind of omen to which even the most cynical Liverpool fan can cling.
Before the ‘golf club game’ that ended 2-1 in 2007, Liverpool had drawn 0-0 in the Nou Camp in March 2002 as part of the short-lived (because it was an awful idea) Champions League second group stage, a year after another 0-0 draw in a UEFA Cup game improbably delayed by ten minutes because all of Britain wanted to watch EastEnders and find out who killed Phil Mitchell.
This year, nobody will want to wait a second longer than they must to see Liverpool take on Barcelona again. Look at the form table and you find two incredibly evenly matched teams (both have won eight and drawn twice in their last ten games), look at the teamsheets and you see sub-plots all over the pitch – Lionel Messi is facing one of only three teams to twice stop him scoring (Inter and Rubin Kazan are the others), Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez face their old, beloved club and Mo Salah plays against a team who would gladly add him to their ranks this summer.
But forget the narratives, this is football. This is the passing of Barcelona against the pressing of Liverpool, with some reports suggesting Barca’s preparation for this fixture has seen them study the Reds’ aggregate defeat to Liverpool in the Premier League this season in which Pep Guardiola instructed his players to eschew style points and occasionally simply knock the ball long. This is their first semi-final in four years and Barcelona have gratefully watched Tottenham and Ajax remove their rivals from the other side of the draw; they can almost smell victory, and if that means lobbing the ball over the head of the onrushing Jordan Henderson, they will not hesitate.
Over to Erneste Valverde: “It’s a very attractive game for them, for us and for the public. It will be very hard, for them and for us.”
Exactly. In the midst of a domestic season which has become a two-team march, this feels refreshing as we have not the first clue what might happen.
Player to watch: Moussa Sissoko
Didn’t think the day would come where I’d be punching the air at the news that Moussa Sissoko is fit, but here we are.
— RIP Cheese Room 2017-2019 (@bankruptspurs) April 29, 2019
First he made Luka Modric and Toni Kroos look old, and then he made Emre Can and Blaise Matuidi look sluggish; just think what horrors Frenkie de Jong could have inflicted upon Victor Wanyama and Eric Dier if Moussa Sissoko had not proved his fitness ahead of Tuesday night’s semi-final. Tottenham will need energy to combat the 21-year-old, and energy is the one thing Sissoko has in abundance.
“If we play like that against Ajax then for sure we will lose,” said Fernando Llorente in what we presume was a faux-Dutch accent after Tottenham were deservedly humbled at home by West Ham on Saturday. It was something of an understatement because if Spurs repeat that performance against Ajax, they will not just lose, but lose in the most alarming of fashions. Without either Harry Kane or Son (scorers of 44 goals in all competitions this season), they could easily ship two or three goals without reply. In order to triumph, they may have to consider themselves the underdogs and approach the game accordingly, which makes Sissoko just as important as Christian Eriksen. The good news? The stats show that playing the first leg at home is actually an advantage.
Manager to watch: Unai Emery
Too little has been made of the fact that we are entering European semi-finals week and the Premier League still has four representatives. By our reckoning, this has never happened before, and yet the media would have you believe that both Arsenal and Chelsea are wildly underachieving, despite both having two viable routes into next season’s Champions League. Both clubs would have taken this scenario at the start of the season.
It feels like an age ago (though it was only actually 12 days) that Arsenal completed an incredibly impressive 3-0 aggregate win over Napoli, with three subsequent defeats showcasing the unforgiving and relentless nature of the Premier League. But Europe is Emery’s playground and the Gunners are favourites to progress in this tie largely because the Spaniard has lifted this trophy three times. But he is going to have to pull off some practical magic to get a tune out of this Arsenal defence, which has conceded nine goals in its last three woeful appearances.
Win a trophy with this motley crew and the man will be hailed a hero and hopefully backed to continue the evolution this summer. For all the talk of the Europa League being the ugly stepsister of the Champions League, you would rather be an Arsenal fan winning in Baku than a Spurs fan losing in Madrid. And that makes this week very, very interesting indeed.
Team to watch: Chelsea
“We played the final of the League Cup. We are fighting for the top four and in semi-final of the Europa league. We have done a good season,” said Maurizio Sarri, another manager utterly failing (with one defeat in eight games), according to a British press who have no interest in these quietly spoken foreign managers who speak English only as a second or third language. On Thursday, Chelsea face Eintracht Frankfurt, who match Chelsea’s fourth-place standing in the Bundesliga. As underwhelming as they were against Manchester United on Sunday, the manner in which they refused to go for the jugular suggested that they were leaving at least some of their powder dry for Thursday.
One prediction: We will not see Gonzalo Higuain on Thursday; that can surely be the only reason he stayed on the Old Trafford pitch for 90 minutes.
Other games to watch: The National League play-offs
Why would you watch European semi-finals when you could watch National League teams vying for a chance to be 180 minutes away from League Two? Yes, these are the Eliminators, with fifth-placed Fylde taking on sixth-placed Harrogate for the chance to face Solihull in Saturday’s semi-final, while fourth-placed Wrexham play host to seventh-place Eastleigh, with Gary Neville’s beloved Salford City waiting in the other semi-final.
👊 We've got previous with @HarrogateTown in the playoffs!
Back in the 15/16 season, The Coasters recorded a win over two legs to progress to the NLN Playoff Final.
— AFC Fylde (@AFCFylde) April 29, 2019
Facts to impress your dullest friends: Fylde are managed by former throw-in specialist Dave Challinor; Harrogate Town have been training full-time for less than two seasons and were only promoted last summer; Wrexham’s top scorers have netted only six goals this season; Eastleigh FC are called The Spitfires and they are piloted by Benin international Reda Johnson.
It's @JohnsonReda's world and we're just living in it 😎
1️⃣ goal ⚽
1️⃣ clean sheet 💪
1️⃣ man of the match 🍾
— Eastleigh FC (@EastleighFC) April 13, 2019