Barcelona – Searching for a Return to Glory
After failing to make it past the quarterfinals the past three years, Barcelona find themselves back in the driver’s seat of the tournament. Though the Blaugrana are an established team in the UCL (having won four times since 2005 and five times total), they have seen major rival Real Madrid hoist the trophy the past three years and four times in the last five years. At the moment, FCB looks to be playing on another level. They currently lead La Liga by 9 points with four games to play. Lionel Messi has affirmed his status once again as the best player in the world with 33 goals and 13 assists in just this La Liga season alone (not to mention his 10 goals more in the UCL). Luis Suarez is the second-highest scorer in the domestic competition with 21 goals and 6 assists. While things seem to be firing on all cylinders for Barça right now, they face a stern test in Liverpool in the semi-finals. It is clear from glimpsing at their roster that they have the horses to overcome perhaps anyone, yet FiveThirtyEight only gives Ernesto Valverde’s side a 49% chance to advance to the final. Messi & Co. will have to keep up their mercurial pace against Jurgen Klopp’s side if they are to get over the hump and take indirect revenge on Real Madrid.
Ajax – Being This Year’s Cinderella Team
By far the most surprising team to make the semis this year is Ajax. Though the Dutch club has a strong history in the UCL (four titles throughout their history), they have been more known in recent years for being a young talent producing factory; a selling club in other words. The makeup of this year’s team does not appear much different than recent seasons, as there are only three players in the squad over the age of 30. The team is led by captain Matthijs de Ligt, a 19-year-old center back who scored against Juventus in the quarter-finals to help Ajax advance, and vice-captain Dušan Tadic, a former Premier League washout. Though the team clearly has young talent, they seem to mostly be riding on momentum heading into Tuesday’s match against Tottenham. Manager Erik ten Hag will hope that his squad can keep the magic going and advance to their first UCL final since 1995-96.
Tottenham Hotspur – Overcoming Injuries and Suspensions
Simply put, Tottenham enters Tuesday’s contest against Ajax undermanned, especially on the attacking front. The Lilywhites will be without top scorers Harry Kane (due to an ankle injury) and Heung-Min Son (due to yellow card accumulation). Though the club has proven throughout the season they can still succeed without Kane on the pitch, Son has typically been the player to fill the scoring void. Though Son will return for the second leg, Spurs must be able to establish the all-important aggregate lead after the first leg and ensure that Ajax do not score an away goal. Without Kane and Son, Spurs will look to Christian Eriksen and Fernando Llorente (the hero of the quarterfinals) to lead the line. Mauricio Pochettino must also be sure not to overlook the Cinderella-esque Ajax. FiveThirtyEight currently gives them a slim 51% chance to advance to their first UCL final in club history.
Liverpool – Balancing the Champions League with the EPL Title Race
With just three games left to play, Liverpool finds themselves one point behind league leaders Manchester City. As they are very much still in the hunt for their first Premier League title, Jurgen Klopp must be contemplating which players he will decide to rest between the UCL and EPL games in the upcoming weeks. Though mainstays Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, and Virgil van Dijk will surely play the full 90 minutes in all competitions, an interesting storyline will be focused on who Klopp decides to start and how much time he will give players like Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi, Naby Keita, and Fabinho. The Reds face lowly Huddersfield and Newcastle in their next two EPL games, so it seems likely that Klopp will rest his superstars in these matches so as to keep them fresh for Wednesday’s contest against Barcelona. Despite the impressive level that Barcelona have been playing at, Liverpool is still predicted by FiveThirtyEight as the more likely team to advance (though only by a 51-49% margin).
Written by Kevin Winiarski