And then there were four. Liverpool, Barcelona, Ajax Amsterdam and Tottenham Hotspur are headed for the semi-finals of the Champions League. If that list makes you do a double-take, it is perfectly understandable. Liverpool and Barcelona, with their rich European heritage (the teams have both won the European Cup five times each), are no surprise. But most of the usual suspects are missing. There’s no Real Madrid—who’ve won the Champions League the last three times—no Bayern Munich, no Juventus, and no Manchester City. Barcelona are now the favourites, purely because of the out-of-this-world genius of Lionel Messi. But they will face a Liverpool side, which is stronger and more obdurate than the one that made it to the final last season. And then there are the two dark horses. Ajax’s young team, led by their 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt, are lighting up Europe this year. They’ve dispatched both Real Madrid and Juventus, chew on that! Tottenham, after their incredible victory over favourites Manchester City, now have momentum on their side.
Not that any of this was clear after the first leg of quarter-final matches, played on 9 and 10 April. Tottenham had registered a shock 1-0 home victory over Man City in a cagey encounter. Liverpool had hardly broken any sweat in a 2-0 home victory over Porto. Ajax and Juventus had traded a 1-1 draw in Amsterdam, with the Italian champions securing an all-important away goal. So had Barcelona, in their 1-0 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford. The ties were evenly poised, and pundits were lamenting the fact that this year’s quarter-final matches were short on drama and excitement.
Then came the second leg, over 16 and 17 April. And that is when the screws were tightened, but not as anyone would’ve expected. Ajax travelled to Turin, and before half an hour of the match was run, had fallen behind to a goal scored by Cristiano Ronaldo. There seemed to be a sense of inevitability about this. After all, Ronaldo was bought by Juventus for over a €100 million (or around ₹780 crore now) to win them the Champions League. But the fearless and skilful young Ajax team had other ideas. They were soon running rings around Juventus, outplaying them in every part of the pitch. Donny van de Beek, 21, equalized within 6 minutes of going behind. And their inspirational teenage defensive colossus, de Ligt, put the side ahead in the 67th minute with a towering header. At full-time, Ronaldo was distraught, Ajax delirious. It was no more than they deserved. It was clear that their 4-1 trouncing of Real Madrid in Madrid in the round of 16 was no fluke.
Manchester United travelled to Barcelona, buoyed on hope and the good vibes spread by their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær. But they encountered Messi, who, at 31, continues to play football from another planet. He scored two goals, the first sublime, and the second farcical, both within the first 20 minutes. United were left chasing shadows for the remainder of the match. By the time Philippe Coutinho added a spectacular third just after the hour mark, the gulf in class between the two teams had long been exposed.
But this was tame compared to what followed the next night. Pep Guardiola’s quadruple-chasing Manchester City lined up against Tottenham at the Etihad Stadium, looking to overturn the deficit and take another step on the way to lifting the European Cup. Cue mayhem. Before anyone had even settled down, Raheem Sterling was wheeling away in celebration. The fit-again Kevin De Bruyne, fed Sterling on the left of the Spurs penalty area. Sterling swept in an unstoppable, curving shot past the fully-stretched goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. In less than 3 minutes, Spurs’ charming Korean assassin with a dazzling smile, Son Heung-min, had put them level. In the 10th minute, Son put Spurs 2-1 up with a sumptuous sweep of his right foot. That lead lasted a minute, as City’s Bernardo Silva squeezed in an equalizer at the other end. And in the 21st minute, Sterling was there again, converting a pin-point assist from De Bruyne. 3-2. 3-3 on aggregate. Then in the 58th minute, a moment of genius. De Bruyne, rides two challenges at full speed, lays it on to Sergio Agüero, who blasts a shot into the Tottenham goal. 4-2. 73rd minute. Spurs swing in a corner, and substitute striker Fernando Llorente hips it into the City goal. City claim Llorente handled the ball. The referee decides to do a goal check and rushes off to a TV monitor. After what seems like ages, he decides the goal stands. 4-4, and Tottenham is edging the tie on the away goals rule. Then comes stoppage time. A mesmerizing Manchester City move brings the ball to Sterling, who scores expertly. The stadium goes berserk. But the video assistant referee (VAR) rules it offside. It is Tottenham’s turn to celebrate.
In comparison, the Liverpool-Porto second leg was a relatively sedate affair. Porto threw the kitchen sink at Liverpool for 25 minutes. Then Mohamed Salah found a pocket of space and fed the onrushing Sadio Mané for a tap-in. Porto continued to huff and puff, but Liverpool held firm, and added three more goals, giving Porto a lesson in cold-eyed clinical finishing.
And so, now there are four. On 30 April, the two favourites, Liverpool and Barcelona, play each other. The dark horses, Tottenham and Ajax, face off at the same time. There’s more drama to come, but what’s clear is that the four most deserving teams are in the semi-finals.