European Giants Plus 1 - Notes From the UCL QF 2nd Legs.

Rip roaring, action packed, drama filled games are exactly what the Champions League is about and why it’s the greatest club competition on the planet. Fantastic matches in Italy and Manchester stole the headlines for the second leg of the quarterfinals and rightfully so.

How good was Spurs? How talented is Ajax? Is it time for an offside rule change? Major stories as always from the Champions League.

 

Poch Pips Pep


Tottenham players think their win has been snatched away at the end. [Reuters]

This is one of the best games I’ve ever seen. Hands down. With only 1 goal scored in the first leg, Manchester City and Tottenham made the second leg “opposite day” with 5 goals in the first 21 minutes and 7 total on the night.


City took the lead.


Spurs equalized. Then took the lead.


City leveled. Then they took the lead.


The second half started a bit calmer until Aguero extended the lead as the home fans exploded with euphoria. And if haymakers from both teams weren’t exciting enough, the two sides ratcheted up the insanity for the final 15 minutes with two crucial VAR calls which ended up benefiting Spurs (more on those later).


Substitute Fernando Llorente scored on 73 minutes from what looked like a possible and probable handball, but, without definitive replay, the goal stood. Spurs’ turn to erupt jubilantly.


Finally, the ultimate agony for both teams. 


In stoppage time, level on aggregate but Spurs ahead on away goals, Raheem Sterling scored the “winner” and the stadium erupted as he got his hat trick and Pep ran around like a mad diabetic looking for candy before passing out.


The Spurs players fell to floor distraught. Dismayed.



Wait! VAR needed to check the goal. And after the most deafening of silences to ever occur at the Etihad waiting in suspense, the referee waved off the goal for offside.


The emotions switch. Relief for Spurs. City fans stunned. 


When stoppage time ended, the Tottenham fans and bench roared in elation. Pochettino and his staff embraced in the biggest of hugs while screaming in pure joy and ecstasy.


An incredible job by Tottenham and their side as they ran with Man City and beat them at their own game. How many teams have successfully traded goal for goal with Pep’s City and won? No one. Maybe Liverpool last year in the same stage, but that’s it. 


Not one team in the world beats City at a high intensity, attack heavy, goal scoring thriller so Spurs deserve massive praise. On top of that, Moussa Sissoko, Spurs’ defensive midfield rock the past few months, came off injured at the end of the first half meaning Dele Alli, not a defensive minded player at all, had to move into the role and help Spurs survive. 


In Sissoko’s place entered Llorente. Talk about the right sub and tactical move. 


This was a game for the ages for Spurs and possibly the biggest win in their history. 


And by the way, Heung Min Son scored two goals in the first half giving Spurs the lead. Once again in Kane’s absence, the South Korean rose to the occasion and proved his worth and place as Tottenham’s most important player. 


Spurs produced an historic performance to reach the last four. [PA]

This year, he’s quietly knocked in 20 goals across all competitions and added 10 assists after missing a month and a half to play with his national side two separate times this year! A remarkable return this year.


He should be in the conversation for Player of the Year in England, but won’t be. For Spurs, he has to be the club’s Player of the Year.


If he’s not, he should invite the North Korean army to have a conversation with Daniel Levy. 

Spurs are off to the next round where the’ll face Ajax, another surprise semifinalist. It looks like an almost perfectly equal matchup between the two clubs and nearly impossible to predict, yet fascinating nonetheless.



UCL Glory Evades City…Again


The big moment has everyone talking about when City thought they had won the match. (CameraSport via Getty Images)

Once again, City fell short of winning the coveted and much desired Champions League and went out in the quarterfinals for a second straight season. A hell of an effort in the second leg as they scored in the 4th minute, exactly what they needed to take control of the game and scored what they thought was the winner in stoppage time only for VAR to cruelly pull it back. 


Watching the second leg, Kevin De Bruyne was fantastic with multiple assists, so why didn’t he play in the first leg? Benjamin Mendy played well at left back, but sat on the bench in the first leg because…? Why did Leroy Sane come on with less than 10 minutes remaining as another late substitution?


Team sport or not, the blame for this loss lies with Pep. His decisions and XI from the first leg hampered his side and put them in a hole which they ultimately didn’t climb out of, ending their hopes of winning not only the Champions League for the first time in history, but also preventing the team from setting history by possibly winning the Quadruple.


Before you or anyone else asks, is Pep overrated? NO. Is he a “fraud” as people will say? NO. He has improved every single player that has come to City and turned the team into a juggernaut. Even with an endless supply of money, he’s spent it wisely getting players for his system he can work with and fit together. 


Granted they didn’t win the European trophy, but still set an incredibly high, almost unattainable bar in England. Centurions, huge goal differentials, unmatched flare and style of play. He is still a master of his craft. 


Pep Guardiola was left stunned. [PA]

In this tie, especially the first leg and away from home as he’s done on occasion in the past, he miscalculated. Remember, City won the match on the night and drew over two legs, but lost on away goals (which I actually like and think is in line with how the Beautiful Game operates, but that argument is for a different day).


At the very end, his team was still in position to win in dramatic fashion; they never gave up when Spurs slugged them square in the jaw with two early goals in the first half. They fought to the end and even scored the ‘winner’ in stoppage time. Unfortunately, Aguero was 3 inches offside and VAR took it away.


City may have started as the favorite going into the tie, and as the better side should feel disappointed they didn’t advance. Man City didn’t “lose” this tie; Spurs barely “won” it with great play and little bit of luck on their side.


Better luck next year. 


Ajax Shock the World


This Ajax side showed their win over Madrid in the last round was no fluke and neither was the first leg draw against Juventus last week. What’s even crazier, Ajax did not play their best, especially in the attacking third, and still won the game. 


Blind celebrates for Ajax. [AFP/Getty Images]

Hakim Ziyech and David Neres could not make a right decision to save their lives. Pass or shoot? Shoot or pass? It was the wrong choice almost every time leading to cheap giveaways. Dusan Tadic, the standout player this year, also barely got into the game.


That’s how good this team is. Taking on one of the super clubs in the world, with World Cup winners and finalists, European champions, the greatest goalscorer of this generation, one of the greatest defenders in the modern game, and not playing their best? It all meant nothing to the Eredivisie leaders. 


They are without a doubt a top 5 side in Europe. 


Ronaldo opened the scoring in the first half heading in a corner for the early lead. But never count out this Dutch side.


Five minutes later, Donny van de Beek equalized unmarked as none of the Juve players ran with him into the box assuming offside. And in the second half, 19 year old captain and starlet Matthijs de Ligt rose up and headed in the eventual winner. 


Ajax ran with Juventus through both legs and thoroughly deserved to win this game and tie. 


They partied in the locker room after the game and earned every moment of happiness.


On to the semifinals to play Tottenham in what should turn into a scintillating 180 minutes in London and Amsterdam. 


Juve were kncoked out. [Reuters]

One last crazy point, if they don’t win the Champions League but win the domestic league, Ajax have to start in the qualifying rounds next summer. And not even the final qualifying round, the penultimate one. 


And if they finish second to PSV in Holland, they’ll have to start in the qualifying round before that! 


A UCL semifinalist, or possibly finalist, will have to start all the way back in the second or third qualifying round in late July or early August, likely before their domestic season starts.


Incredible. Yet unfathomable. 


They are the People’s Team and I’m rooting for them.



Ronaldo Makes Juve Worse?


It’s an interesting question. How can the most successful goal scoring, 5 time Champions League winning, European championship winning forward make a team worse? It’s possible Ronaldo has done just that to Juventus.


Cristiano Ronaldo. [Getty]

This year, Juventus has become over reliant on Ronaldo. He scored all 5 of their knockout round goals and is far and away their top goalscorer with 26 across all competitions.


Second? Paolo Dybala with 10 and no one else has registered double digits. It was a completely different story last year.


Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain both scored over 20 and Mario Mandzukic added 10. Sami Khedira had 9. Miralem Pjanic chipped in 7. Juan Cuadrado 5. Douglas Costa 6. Federico Bernardeschi 5. Blaise Matuidi 4. And Alex Sandro 4.


Every single one of those players has scored less this campaign and most of them significantly less.


Higuain is of course gone on loan and Khedira has missed time with injuries this year, but the production has fallen across the entire team. 


The only player who has contributed a significant goal tally, particularly when compared to his minutes played or last year, is teenager Moise Kean, who made his breakthrough just last month and has subbed on more than he’s started. The academy product is 4th on the team with a whopping 7 goals this year.


Moreover, Juve has regressed defensively since Ronaldo’s arrival. Last year, they notched 22 clean sheets in the league and 5 in the Coppa Italia as opposed to this year where they’ve only recorded 1 in the cup, which they will not win for the first time in half a decade, and only 16 in the league.

With 6 games remaining, they must not allow another goal this season just to match last year. A tough task.


Ajax will face Tottenham in the Champions League semi-finals (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

Juventus invested a massive $400 million in Ronaldo and the hopes of him bringing Champions League glory to Turin for the first time since 1996 and despite all that, they’ve worsened on both ends. 


Ronaldo is without a doubt one of the greatest players of this era and of all time, but doesn’t quite fit into this Juventus team. Should they blow it up and try to win with youth like the team, Ajax, which beat them? No. 


One, I highly doubt they can break their contract with Ronaldo bar spending another half billion dollars in legal fees and payouts. Two, use this year as a learning curve and go at it next year. Figure out the right way to fit everyone else around Ronaldo because he won’t adapt to the rest of the club.

Should they fail again next year, particularly in the same round or earlier, then it will be time to reconsider their plan for winning Europe’s top club competition. 



No Battle for Barca



Messi with two. A brilliant Coutinho curler. 4-0 on aggregate over Manchester United. Easy for the Catalans. 


It’s now 5 losses in their last 7 and the two wins didn’t convince for the Red Devils and their former Norwegian “savior.” Will the fans turn on Solskjaer? They shouldn’t although he should fear it in today’s hyper reactionary Twitter-verse world. 



Liverpool Slay Dragons



Reminiscent of last year’s 5 goal aggregate win over Porto, Liverpool took this game 4-1 and 6-1 over the two legs. The three amigos, Salah, Mane, and Firmino, all scored along with defensive and team leader Virgil Van Dijk.


The Reds are on to their second straight semifinal and will go toe to toe with another present and past European giant, Barcelona. Queue the drama and excitement. 



VAR and the Offside Rule



I’m staunchly against VAR because it is diametrically opposed to the game-the ebbs and flow as well as the game not being about the minute exactitudes.


Free kicks are taken from an estimated location. Stoppage time is an approximation. And throw ins are allowed 17 steps from where the ball went out of play. These infinitesimally small details don’t matter as the game is about the bigger picture. 


VAR though is about the finest of margins which doesn’t mesh well with the game.


Even with that in mind, VAR was never implemented to end debate as some people have suggested because it would get the call right so there’d be nothing to discuss. Instead it simply moved the debate from the call to the review.


The City/Spurs thriller saw two massively critical calls go to VAR – one call stood, the other reversed. In both instances, I believe VAR got the call right both with respect to the laws of the game and the usage of VAR.



Did the ball hit Llorente’s arm, having an impact on the goal? I believe so. Was it a clear and obvious mistake? No. With the laws written as they are, VAR should not overturn this goal. Would the new laws coming this summer take the goal away? I think yes. 


Was Aguero in an offside position when his teammate, Bernardo Silva, last touched it leading to the “winning” goal? Slightly, but still yes. Therefore the goal should not stand. 


Having seen this goal taken away in the manner in which it was, FIFA needs to change the offside rule. The offside rule makes sense to keep a team from cherrypicking and having a huge advantage when receiving the ball from a teammate.


In this case though, City did not have the ball nor did Aguero receive the ball from a teammate. Christian Eriksen passed the ball backwards toward his teammate, Ben Davies, and with the ball moving between the two Spurs players, City midfielder Bernardo Silva stuck his leg out to deflect the ball and unknowingly knocked it straight to his teammate, Aguero.


Sterling's 'goal' was ruled out and City were the team eliminated [PA Wire]

Not only did City not have possession, Silva did not pass the ball nor intend to send it forward to Aguero. There was no willful attempt to take advantage of nor attempt to play the ball to a player in an offside position so in my interpretation of the spirit of the law, it wasn’t offside.


However, it’s irrelevant according to the laws of the game so the call to disallow the goal was correct. 

Because of this, the law needs to change. Was Aguero offside according to the law? Yes. Did he gain an advantage according the spirit of the law? No.


In addition, he continued to move away from goal and back onside before receiving the ball and the defenders at the same time moved backwards between him and the goal.


There was no advantage in the spirit of the law which to me means he should be considered onside.

Moments like this should inspire changes to try and make the game better and FIFA should use this high profile ending to rewrite the offside law to more accurately reflect the intention of the offside law and what it tries to prevent. 


Written By Drew Pells.

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