Ajax took down Spurs on Tuesday in pretty convincing fashion. It was clear that Spurs were missing a few key players and that their gameplan wasn’t good enough to stop Ajax’s total football strategy. Pochettino’s press did not work as Ajax consistently beat it by playing out from the back and not turning it over in dangerous areas. Spurs had trouble with Llorente up top as he didn’t provide any pace or threat on the break, allowing Ajax to maintain their shape defensively. Sissoko coming on before halftime did provide a spark for Spurs but the final product up top wasn’t there. Ajax now go back to Amsterdam with a 1-0 aggregate lead and an away goal.
This Season’s Record: 200-159-46 (+13.9 Units)
Tottenham v. Ajax: 2-0 (+3.2 Units)
I nailed both the Ajax spread and moneyline as I win back most of what I lost this last weekend. Let’s see what we can do with the other Semifinal, Barcelona v. Liverpool.
Liverpool @ Barcelona (TV: TNT) – This is obviously the better matchup on paper of the two Semifinals as arguably the two best teams in the world will face off for the right to play in the Final. Let’s break down what both teams will need to win the first leg.
Liverpool come into this one on a 10-match win streak but are in the midst of an epic title race in the Premier League. They have the best defender in the world right now and should have basically everyone healthy and available for this match on Wednesday. Their only worry is whether or not Firmino will be 100% for the match, which he is expected to be. I think this first leg will come down to three factors; Van Dijk on Messi, Liverpool’s outside backs and the need for an away goal or a clean sheet.
Obviously we all can’t wait to watch the best player of all time (if you disagree, please tweet me @nicodegallo and I will gladly put you in your place) face off against the best defender in the world. It will be crucial for VVD to slow down Messi as he’s been in amazing form especially at home recently. If there’s one defender that can do it though it’s Van Dijk as his combination of size, speed and awareness can all thwart Messi’s effectiveness. But one thing to keep an eye out is whether or not Messi will try to drop deep to avoid being constantly marked by VVD. If he can do that and force the Liverpool center backs/defensive midfielders to commit, expect it to open up some passing lanes for Barcelona going forward.
The last two factors are a little bit more simple. Liverpool’s outside backs are two of the best crossers in the world and they can cause Barcelona’s outside backs hell if they’re given space. It’ll be key for Liverpool to constantly be whipping balls in, something that will surely make Barcelona uncomfortable. They’ll also need to grab an away goal in order to get some sort of advantage or chance before coming back home. If they don’t grab an away goal, then they’ll absolutely need to keep a clean sheet. If Liverpool can muster a draw at the Camp Nou then they will certainly be favored to move on to the Final.
The only problem is that stopping Messi, especially at the Camp Nou, is a very difficult thing to do. He leads the world in combined goals and assists and it’s not even close. He also leads the world in combined goals and chances created. Just over the weekend he scored the game-winning goal to seal another La Liga title, proving the notion that he steps up in big matches at home. He even scored two of the three goals in the second leg at home in the last round against United. Another problem is that if Liverpool don’t see the majority of the ball, which is a likely possibility, they’ll have less time to feed the wingbacks going forward. And if they rely on that too much it’ll make their attack too one-dimensional, making Barcelona’s job much easier. It’s also not easy getting past this Barcelona’s defense as they’ve only let up 6 goals in their 10 matches this year including only 2 at home.
Barcelona will also be completely healthy and in form themselves. They haven’t lost since January 23rd and since the start of April they’ve beaten Atletico Madrid and Manchester United twice. They’ve now clinched another La Liga title and can focus completely on these two legs against Liverpool, something that Liverpool doesn’t have the luxury of. Another reason to worry if you’re Liverpool is that Barcelona have won their last 8 home matches with a goal differential of +16 and those matches include those three tough ones I mentioned earlier.
The keys for Barcelona are a little more simple than Liverpool’s. Barca just need to do what they’ve done all season; play their game. If they can just play the way they usually play at home (sustaining possession, feeding Messi to create, and running defenses ragged), they should see this one through. Another thing that Barca have going for them is the fact that they aren’t just Lionel Messi. They have Luis Suarez, Phillipe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and more. If they can find a way to spread the ball, forcing Liverpool to focus on threats outside of Messi, expect that supporting cast to be effective and/or provide Messi some space to receive the ball and be effective himself.
I think that Barcelona are too good, especially at home, to fade in this match. As for the entire two legs, I think it’s split even but in this first leg I think Barcelona will take care of business and win the match. Even if VVD and Liverpool slow down Messi, they’ll have to deal with Barca’s other threats up top and they’ll also have to live with not having the ball for the majority of the match. I think this all plays into Barcelona’s hands and I’m going to pick them as favorites at home. FC Barcelona (-0.5, -110).
Stay Kickin’ It. Peace.