Premier League clubs supplied 50 per cent of the entrants for the Champions League quarter-final draw and there’s every chance they will supply half of the semi-final lineup too.
That’s the conclusion I arrived at with author and journalist Raphael Honigstein when we reacted on-air to the draw and debated its fixtures with the show’s Asia-wide audience. Our picks for the semis? Juventus, Manchester City, Liverpool and Barcelona.
Cue a heated response from Manchester United fans and, to a lesser extent perhaps, supporters of Tottenham Hotspur. The former will rightly feel that after their superb comeback against PSG anything is possible. Under the inspirational Ole Gunnar Solskjaer even more so! But Lionel Messi has tormented United in the later stages of this competition before and he will likely do so again. As for Spurs, well City represents the worst possible draw they could have been handed. On their night, they have shown they can surprise any of the Continent’s elite clubs but City know all about them and have lately made a habit of beating them in Premier League encounters.
So, City to progress and perhaps to go all the way. Rafa, like many others, noted that the English champions’ sheer volume of goals (they have scored 139 in all competitions so far this season) will intimidate anyone they face. Forget all this talk from Pep Guardiola about them not being ready to beat Europe’s battle-hardened elite — they are more than ready and have a squad to cope even with next month’s demanding schedule which includes three meetings with Spurs in 11 days.
Liverpool must be mindful of the quality Porto have shown thus far in this season’s Champions League, and aware also that (until their trip to Munich last week) they have not performed especially well themselves. However, Porto’s form may not extend to the business-end of this tournament. The Reds comfortably downed them the last time they met in meaningful knockout competition (an aggregate score of 5-0 last year) and Jurgen Klopp’s men have developed greater tactical flexibility and steeliness since then.
So, to the final tie, and stepping briefly away from the English angle. Like Spurs fans, supporters of Ajax will have cursed their (bad) luck of the draw. As the rejuvenated four-time former winners of this competition showed in eliminating Real Madrid, they are a vibrant, free-scoring outfit. Yet they are also a team suited to facing opposition that plays an open, flowing game. Grizzled, well-drilled Juventus do not fall into that category. They have the experience and quality to shut a game down at will, to dictate tempo and then to release an attack that is now spearheaded by a man who is almost a walking guarantee of Champions League success.
With Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks and boosted by this draw, Juventus look like the favourites to win the competition in our opinion. One or two (or even three or four) English clubs may take issue with that statement but that’s the conclusion we arrived at on the show. Subsequently, it also occurred to us that this season’s Champions League will be all the more entertaining because the English clubs now have the chance to disrupt the tournament in a way that has not happened in the best part of a decade.