Tottenham, and the ceiling of their potential
The perfect storm for Tottenham? Perhaps. This was the first big game in their brand spanking new stadium, and the atmosphere was incredible enough to give Spurs a boost. The doubts over their fatigue were eased after a weekend in which they were given a break while Manchester City were forced to fight until the end at Wembley against Brighton. Harry Winks returned to the side to add much-needed control in midfield. And their opponents missed a penalty at 0-0.
There will be pessimistic Tottenham supporters who believe that a one-goal lead heading to Manchester is not enough, but it’s worth shaking those fans and asking them to look at the bigger picture. A club with the sixth biggest wage bill, sixth biggest budget and a squad eroded by tiredness is still capable of competing with, and beating, the very best.
Until last season we saw the height of Tottenham’s potential in the Premier League, but they have been unable to maintain a title challenge deep into the season due to the size of the squad and the financial gap to their competition. Now Tottenham’s peak comes in Europe. Since the beginning of last season, Spurs have beaten Real Madrid, Manchester City, Inter, Borussia Dortmund (four times) and drawn with Barcelona and Juventus away from home.
Spurs don’t yet have one foot in the semi-finals; Manchester City’s supreme form means that they barely have their little toe over the line. But Tuesday was about more than just one game. This was emphatic reiteration, at the perfect time and in the perfect place, of Mauricio Pochettino’s brilliance in creating a team that is far, far greater than the sum of its individual parts.
So ignore the ‘what has he won?’ army as they bleat their familiar lament. Tottenham now have a stadium befitting of the grandest stage that they can call home. They’ve long had a manager who deserves the same billing.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions.
Porto were the club that everyone wanted to draw, but you still have to make it count. Champions League quarter-finals are not supposed to be this comfortable, particularly when this is only your second in nine seasons.
But then Jurgen Klopp’s success has normalised nights such as these; they arrive not with nerves and fear, but anticipation. There was a serenity to Liverpool’s victory on Tuesday despite Porto’s resolve, as if it was never really in doubt and merely following an inevitable script.
In places, Liverpool are now joint favourites for the competition, something they never were at any point last season.
It might seem a little odd to praise a team after a home knockout draw that makes their eventual exit more likely, but this was a night on which Ajax proved that they truly belonged on this stage. Against Real Madrid they pulled off the miracle. Against Juventus, Ajax threatened to make it look like less of an exception to the rule.
Against a team with far more recent Champions League heritage, Ajax played as equals. Juventus scored from their only shot on target, while their hosts had 17 efforts and forced five saves. They can count themselves unfortunate not to be taking a lead to Turin.
Most impressive was the manner in which Ajax stayed so true to the principles that have got them this far and that Johan Cruyff was so determined to instill back into his beloved club. Ten of the 11 outfield players they used had shots on Wednesday, while six players created at least two chances. Not quite Totaalvoetbal, but a damn fine impression with a young team.
Ajax are strong second favourites to reach the semi-finals, but they were strong second favourites to reach the quarters after a first-leg home draw against Real. Now they get to play with nothing to lose. That is when this team is at its most dangerous.
Hard not to talk in pure figures, given just how ridiculous they are. Ronaldo’s goal on Wednesday took him to 125 in 161 Champions League appearances. He is 17 ahead of Lionel Messi.
Let’s put that into some context. If Ronaldo never scored another Champions League goal, Sergio Aguero – one of Europe’s greatest strikers of the last decade – would need 90 more to surpass him. Harry Kane needs to average ten goals in every Champions League season between now and the age of 36 to match Ronaldo, and again, that depends on the great man never scoring again. Gonzalo Higuain, with 75 Champions League appearances for Real Madrid, Juventus and Napoli, has scored as many Champions League goals as Ronaldo has scored Champions League headers.
This is pure silliness, the like of which we haven’t seen before in the modern era. Like him? Plenty don’t. Caveat the praise with the ongoing charges labelled against him? Absolutely. But bow down at the sporting achievement? Oh yes.
They didn’t even have to play at anywhere close to their highest potential in Manchester. And still they won.
Barcelona’s recent away record in the Champions League knockout stages is wretched. Stretching back to a win at the Emirates in 2016, Barcelona had lost five and drawn one of their last six, losing by an aggregate scoreline of 13-1. And still they won.
Sergio Busquets was never truly in control, a rare occurrence. Luis Suarez slashed at most of the chances that came his way. Messi dropped deep until he was almost playing as central-midfield quarterback and only once put down his head and dribbled at a United defender. And still they won.
Liverpool’s midfield contribution
Goals and assists are not an accurate measure of a central midfielder’s contribution, but questions were being asked. Before Liverpool’s trip to Southampton last Friday, Liverpool players had scored 83 goals this season. Their front three plus Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi had scored 62 of those. From midfield, James Milner and Xherdan Shaqiri had six each but Milner’s had predominantly come from penalties and Shaqiri was out of favour. Next came Georginio Wijnaldum with two.
No sooner had the question been asked was it answered. Naby Keita has scored in two consecutive games, while Jordan Henderson has been pushed further up the pitch by Klopp and flourished in an all-action box-to-box role that suits his desire to get on the ball and lead by example. In two games, central midfielders have contributed three goals and two assists. It’s a lovely time to learn a helpful new trick.
A backwards step for Manchester United, but a giant leap forward for McTominay. Alongside two big-money signings, it was the academy graduate who did more than any other United player to try and wrestle his team into a position of relevance in the tie. Well in, young man.
We should make no apologies for having favourites. The accusations of bias from supporters of every Big Six team are usually wretched nonsense, but it is inevitable that we have players we warm to. The appreciation of footballers is what pushed us to pursue this job in the first place.
Winks is one of my footballers. He is a controlling, patrolling central midfielder, but one of a new breed of English players who are distinctly continental in style. He can track back and tackle, harry and press, but is just as comfortable playing passes through the lines and surging forward with the ball.
The great shame is that Winks’ career to date has been stalled by regular injuries, but the maturity in his game betrays that. At the age of 23, Winks has somehow started fewer than 30 league games in his career. But watch him hold his own against Manchester City, possibly even as the best player on the pitch, and you would not know it. Stay fit for an extended period, and he is a shoo-in for Gareth Southgate’s England plans.
Pep Guardiola, overthinking it
It is the multi-million-pound conundrum: Is Guardiola’s relatively poor recent Champions League knockout record because he overthinks things, or does he overthink things because of his poor recent Champions League knockout record?
It is the only stain on Guardiola’s CV. Since leaving Barcelona and the majesty of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta et al., he has underperformed in Europe’s premier competition. In 2013/14, Bayern Munich were dismantled by Real Madrid in the semi-final. In 2014/15, Bayern were beaten in the quarter-finals by Barcelona. The following season, they lost to Atletico Madrid on away goals.
At Manchester City, a similar pattern. Guardiola’s team were knocked out by Monaco in 2016/17 and Liverpool in 2017/18. Including Tuesday evening, Guardiola has managed in eight quarter-final and semi-final away legs with a record of P8 W0 D2 L6. That highlights a definite weakness.
We must take care not to write off City’s European chances this season. They are still the joint favourites for the competition overall and still odd-on shots to overcome their deficit against Tottenham in the second leg. But that doesn’t mean the questions that followed the first-leg defeat carry no weight.
Because the team selection was odd. Guardiola picked four central midfielders against Liverpool at the same stage last year and was punished. On Tuesday, Fabian Delph’s dual role overestimated his ability to cope, John Stones might well have started over Nicolas Otamendi, leaving Kevin de Bruyne on the bench did not pay off, Sergio Aguero wasn’t really fit and starting Riyad Mahrez was a bizarre decision from leftfield.
The suspicion is that Guardiola second guesses his opponents, when the niche strategy of picking your in-form XI might just do. They have work to do next Wednesday, and Guardiola would do well to revert to what has worked so spectacularly between January and April.
It’s not his fault. Young is a jobbing veteran who gives his all and tries to ignore the sounds of the Old Trafford crowd groaning when things go wrong. Don’t get me wrong, Ashley’s a lovely bloke; but should he be working here?
Young is 34 this summer, was signed as a winger, converted to full-back and was asked to play as a wing-back in a Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona. That’s as ridiculous as it sounds. At his age, Young should be coasting towards retirement as a bit-part player who is in a comfortable groove. Only the very best stay important at his age.
Instead, Young is United captain and a regular starter in all manner of positions. In the Premier League and Champions League alone this season he has started at right-back, left-back, centre-back, right wing-back and right winger. Any deficiency in his performances is indicative of Manchester United’s flaws, not his. A club with their budgets should be embarrassed.
Manchester United’s Champions League participation
This wasn’t a humiliation, even if that owed more to Barcelona playing in second gear having secured a lead than United’s aptitude. But nor was it enough to believe that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side can win the tie. United failed to have a shot on target, and will likely have to score twice in the Nou Camp. They already pulled off one miracle, but even the uber-optimistic manager conceded that a second would be far harder.
United have now lost four of their last five matches, a run that coincides with Solskjaer’s permanent appointment. If they are not going to win this competition – and it seems highly unlikely – they must find a way to remain in it because their summer transfer ambitions will depend on it. That will take a dramatic improvement in their away form of the last month.
Being gradually frozen out with his new contract still left unsigned on a table, gathering dust.
The list of opponents that Sane has started against since the win over Liverpool on January 3: Burton, Wolves, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Everton, Newport County, West Ham, Schalke, Swansea, Cardiff.
The list of Premier League and Champions League opponents that Sane has not started against since the win over Liverpool on January 3: Arsenal, Chelsea, Bournemouth, Watford, Schalke, Fulham, Brighton, Tottenham.
The tale of two penalties
You can plan everything as a manager, but sometimes things boil down to a few crucial moments. Manchester City have now missed a late penalty at Anfield that would surely have given the title race a dramatically different slant, and missed a penalty against Tottenham to give them the huge advantage of a lead and an away goal. Sloppy.
Harry Kane’s ankles
Most immediately, Kane’s absence is a huge issue for Tottenham. He has looked a little laboured since returning from his latest injury, but Kane has the ability to turn any game in Tottenham’s favour in an instant. Pochettino’s exasperated prediction that his star striker will miss the rest of the season said it all. The options in reserve just aren’t good enough.
But for the long-term, there must be concerns about Kane’s wellbeing as these ankle injuries become more frequent. Alan Shearer is the most prominent English example of a striker who adapted his game to deal with the impact of physical weakness, but it is a damn difficult thing to do without losing part of what makes you special. It would be a bloody shame if Kane faced the same prospect.