Questions facing each Champions League quarterfinalist after 1st leg
Can Spurs progress without Kane?
Tottenham celebrated a latest continental soiree in topping Manchester City, courtesy of Heung-Min Son’s solo effort against the run of play. Still, the evening was overshadowed by Harry Kane’s latest ankle worry. The England star required the help of two staffers to make it down the tunnel prior to leaving on crutches with a protective boot in tow, and with days until the return leg at the Etihad, it’s clear Spurs will be forced to cope without their star striker. There is good news, however; Tottenham have progressed in each of the last nine occasions following a first-leg victory, and Son is in the form of his life, scoring as many goals in 40 matches in all competitions this season as he managed in 53 outings the previous campaign.
Can Guardiola help himself?
Pep Guardiola, if you’re reading this, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Catalan coach’s side arrived in north London on Tuesday with 21 victories in 23 tries, and the majority of those results were governed by a 4-1-4-1 formation with Fernandinho playing backline buffer. Against Spurs, Guardiola opted for a 4-2-3-1, with Ilkay Gundogan alongside Fernandinho – a lineup that has been employed just thrice since Boxing Day – and it was all a bit middling. That’s not the only reason City lost (Sergio Aguero missed a penalty, Fabian Delph was Fabian Delph, etc.) but it did continue a trend of Guardiola’s sometimes unnecessary manipulations in massive matches, like when he opted for the same switch a year ago in a quarterfinal defeat to Liverpool.
Will Henderson keep his place in midfield?
The only variable in Jurgen Klopp’s starting XI is the midfield, where the German has a number of options available. Fabinho and Naby Keita have regained Klopp’s confidence in recent weeks, but Jordan Henderson has also earned praise in the attacking role he’s always wanted. Henderson set up Roberto Firmino’s goal against Porto and looked at ease going forward, prompting Klopp to admit he may have made a mistake in the past by playing the 28-year-old as a holding midfielder. All signs indicate that Henderson will continue to play to Fabinho’s right, forcing Georginio Wijnaldum to the bench.
Can Marega kick-start a comeback?
Moussa Marega cooled off at the wrong time. Coming into Tuesday’s first leg with a goal in each of his last six Champions League matches, the Porto striker missed a pair of golden opportunities to cut into Liverpool’s lead. One was sent right into Alisson’s eager arms, an unforgivable miss for a team that produced only a handful of chances. Porto now need to score at least twice in next week’s second leg at the Estadio Dragao to mount a comeback, and Marega has to be a protagonist. He’s also playing for a better future. At 27 years old, Marega could feasibly attract more summer suitors with a spectacular performance in Portugal.
Can United pull off a second straight road smash-and-grab?
Fortune favored the Red Devils a month ago in the French capital when a contentious Presnel Kimpembe handball saw United bounce hosts Paris Saint-Germain. Happenstance may again need to benefit Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s charges ahead of a visit to Barcelona’s daunting Camp Nou digs, especially considering they failed to register a single shot on target at Old Trafford despite a positive second-half showing. Down a goal, United will be forced to chase the result rather than cede possession and attack on the counter as they have under the Norwegian tactician, an approach that could expose vulnerabilities. Away wins this season at Juventus and PSG should embolden Solskjaer’s lot.
Can Valverde get a better midfield performance?
United’s Scott McTominay was arguably the best midfielder on the pitch during the narrow defeat, which doesn’t speak wonders for Barcelona’s usually dominant midfield. Blaugrana boss Ernesto Valverde will certainly need more from his midfield three. Flat-footed Sergio Busquets was lucky to remain on the pitch after an early rash tackle on McTominay escaped a carding before he was shown a yellow moments later for another foolhardy challenge. Ivan Rakitic was for large spells of the match off the pace, and Arthur was somewhat overrun after the interval, prompting his 66th-minute exit. Had Paul Pogba spurned cleverness for industry in the final third, Valverde’s underwhelming midfield may have proved ruinous.
Will Ajax create as many chances in Turin?
Ajax were relentless in the first leg against Juventus, treating the home supporters to a gripping 90 minutes of football that should give them hope of progressing to the semifinals. It’s not a surprising development – Ajax have lost just one of five matches against Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Juventus this season – as the breathless Dutch again showed how credible of an opponent they are. Whether they can repeat Wednesday’s performance at the Allianz Stadium remains to be seen. Hakim Ziyech mustn’t be so wasteful with his myriad shots from distance and Ajax can’t give Cristiano Ronaldo as much space as they did on his opening goal. As the great Johan Cruyff once said: “Italians can’t win the game against you, but you can lose the game against the Italians.”
How can Juve counter Ajax’s ferocious press?
Leaving the Dutch capital with an away goal should be considered a moral victory for Juventus, who struggled to match Ajax throughout the first leg. With the hosts pressing so high, the seven-time defending Serie A champions found it difficult to get out of their own half. Miralem Pjanic was dispossessed on numerous occasions and the usually reliable Joao Cancelo was irresponsible with the ball. Ajax made sure Juventus never had an easy pass to make. But there are reasons to believe the Bianconeri will hit back in the reverse fixture. Considering Douglas Costa’s impressive cameo off the bench, Massimiliano Allegri may feel empowered to use Costa from the start. A little more sharpness on the counterattack could go a long way.