Ahead of the Champions League semifinals, we’re analyzing the title credentials of the four remaining sides, looking into why each team will – and won’t – capture European football’s most coveted club trophy.
Why they will: Lionel Messi. Seriously, that’s it. The game’s ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card has carried an oft-laborious side this season, pulling tricks out of his infinite bag whenever Barcelona are stuttering. There will be plenty of fascinating tactical wrinkles when the freshly minted Spanish champions meet Liverpool. (Whose full-backs will be more aggressive? Will either side dictate the midfield battle?) Still, this really comes down to Messi. If he’s on – and every shred of evidence this season suggests he will be – Barca will like their chances of hoisting Ol’ Big Ears for the first time since 2015.
Why they won’t: Both internally and via the transfer window, Barca have already taken steps to rectify their aging midfield; Frenkie de Jong is going to be an instant hit when he arrives at the Camp Nou; much is expected of La Masia product Riqui Puig; Adrien Rabiot may be on the way, too. But none of that helps right now. Sergio Busquets still reads the game superbly, and Ivan Rakitic can do a little bit of everything, but against teams like Liverpool, Ajax, and Tottenham who are uber-athletic and can swarm you in midfield, those two stalwarts’ lack of mobility is worrying.
Why they will: It’s being overlooked somewhat because Liverpool will likely fall short in the race for Premier League supremacy, but this team is historically good. With Sadio Mane making another leap in his development – he’s enjoying the best scoring season of his career – the Reds can beat you in a multitude of ways. Meanwhile, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson form the spine of a defensive juggernaut – Liverpool have the third-best defense across Europe’s top leagues this season, based on their Expected Goals Against total of 26.96. And the midfield is malleable thanks to an ideal mix of personnel. Quite simply, this is the most balanced of the four teams remaining.
Why they won’t: It’s legitimately difficult to find faults in this side. An injury worry for Roberto Firmino, their lynchpin up front, is concerning given the lack of depth behind him, but if Jurgen Klopp has a full contingent of players available, there aren’t any real weaknesses to exploit. If we’re nitpicking, the ultra-attacking duo of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson can leave too much space behind them at times, which forces the aforementioned Van Dijk to put out any potential fires. Of course, he’s been near-flawless in doing just that so far this season. Getting isolated against Joel Matip instead of his towering Dutch partner could be a path to success, but that’s easier said than done when Van Dijk seems to be everywhere at all times.
Why they will: Doubt Mauricio Pochettino at your own risk – seriously, reaching the Champions League semifinals while relying heavily on Moussa Sissoko as your midfield anchor is among the most impressive managerial feats in recent memory. One of the most tactically flexible coaches in the world, Pochettino continues to rack up marquee wins with Spurs. He’s proven adept at crafting a plan that is specific to his opponent, be it from the opening whistle or with some shrewd in-game management. There’s a guile about Tottenham that seems to start with the celebrated bench boss, and that might just be enough for them to claim an improbable European crown.
Why they won’t: That Spurs have gotten this far despite a staggering spate of key injuries is remarkable in itself. Talisman Harry Kane, nursing his latest ankle problem, won’t feature in the semifinals and isn’t assured of returning even if they reach the showpiece match in Madrid. A midfield already short on bodies is ravaged both by absences and players who aren’t quite at 100 percent. Heung-Min Son being suspended for the first leg against Ajax just seems like cruel and unusual punishment at this point. Calling Tottenham a ragtag group would be overstating Pochettino’s selection headaches – this is still a supremely talented squad – but the prospect of starting a 34-year-old Fernando Llorente on Tuesday isn’t exactly encouraging.
Why they will: As evidenced by their evisceration of both Real Madrid and Juventus, no team plays with quite the same joie de vivre as Ajax. Crucially, they also have the ruthlessness to finish off their foes when they’re on the ropes; this isn’t beauty for the sake of beauty. Their effervescent style, full of quick movement, interchanging of positions, and ferocious pressing high up the pitch, has bewildered opponents this season. Combine that ability to pull the opposition apart with sheer individual quality, and European football’s newest darlings are well equipped to cap this enthralling run with a title.
Why they won’t: In theory, a side that starts Daley Blind at center-back should be susceptible to crosses into the area from both open play and set pieces. Smooth as the Dutchman is with the ball at his feet, he’s not exactly an imposing physical presence. In the quarterfinal tie, for instance, both of Juventus’ goals were headed home by Cristiano Ronaldo. The colossal Matthijs de Ligt has often been able to hold things together when the Ajax press gets bypassed, but if they can’t dictate play and are instead forced to defend for large portions of a match, are they built to withstand an onslaught of aerial pressure?