We might just be two semifinal return legs away from a mouthwatering Champions League finale between two clubs with a mutual history: Barcelona and Ajax. With La Liga champions conquering Liverpool 3-0 at the Camp Nou and the Eredivisie leaders beating Tottenham Hotspur 0-1 away, it’s the Dutch side that seemingly has more to do to set up what would be a romantic finale. It would be hard to bet against either side losing out to their Premier League opponents in the return legs this midweek.
For Barcelona, it was Lionel Messi who once again provided the moments of magic, scoring twice at a time when the visitors seemed to be in command of the proceedings. While Messi’s first goal was a result of Luis Suarez’s masterful movement inside the box, who had earlier opened the scoring for Barca with a deft finish, the Argentinian’s second goal was one of the most glittering moments of the entire season. Messi’s eight free-kick of the season was one of the absolute best of his career, especially considering the distance from which it was struck – around the 35 yard mark – and indeed the stage at it was delivered.
Messi’s brace took the game – and perhaps the tie – away from Liverpool at a time when the visitors looked likelier to score, and were clearly dominating the game. Jurgen Klopp accurately said after the game that his side couldn’t have played much better than that they did in the second half prior to Barcelona’s second goal. Liverpool might rue their failure to score, including the gilt-edged chance that Mohamed Salah missed even at 3-0 down. At 3-1, Liverpool could’ve eyed a 2-0 at home to qualify, and indeed 3-1 was also the scoreline that Barcelona failed to capitalise on during last year’s quarterfinals defeat to AS Roma.
Where Liverpool would understandably feel hard done by following the 3-0 defeat in Spain, Spurs would actually consider themselves fortunate to only be 1-0 down after the first leg at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium. The rampant Ajax juggernaut which has already stampeded over three-time defending champions Real Madrid, and eight-time Italian champions Juventus in the previous two rounds, drew circles around a hapless Spurs side, which was visibly short of energy and ideas to respond to the Dutch challenge.
Granted Tottenham were without their two leading attacking options, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, owing to injury and suspension respectively, but the team selection reflected Mauricio Pochettino perhaps wanting to damage control even at the start of the home match and looking to be in the tie for the second leg at the Johan Cruijff Arena.
For Ajax, it was Matthijs de Ligt who kept things beefed up at the back, Frenkie de Jong who ran the show in the midfield and Donny van de Beek who notched up the winner on the night. Spurs would now need heroics similar to the ones they demonstrated away to Manchester City in the quarterfinals second leg, to have any chance against this rising Ajax side, which also seems to be at its best on the road.
Barring the unlikeliest of unlikely four goal win for Liverpool at the Anfield, Barcelona would be through to their first Champions League final since 2015. If they’re joined by Ajax, this year’s Champions League final would be a meeting between upholders of a similar footballing philosophy, amidst clubs that share a unique bond, even if the matchup on paper would feature a European behemoth and its young pretender.
Barcelona-Ajax links are rooted in Rinus Michels’ managerial spells in the 60s and 70s, along with the playing and management tenures of Dutch maestro Johan Cruyff – the Ajax stadium is named after whom – collectively spanning almost the entirety of the final third of the 21st century. It was under Cruyff that Barcelona resurged in the 90s, eventually resulting in the dominance that has ensued in the first quarter of the 21st century.
We will further explore the commonalities between the two giants of European football history if they do the needful in their return legs and setup the meeting. Right now, it’s all about getting the job done midweek, with both Barcelona and Ajax completing most of the task in the first legs.
For the English sides, European setbacks would put their domestic aims back in focus. At the time of writing, Liverpool are two games away from becoming the most prolific league runners-up in English football history – if Manchester City win both of their remaining games. For Spurs, meanwhile, a third-place finish is becoming increasingly likely given the abject refusal of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United to win any games.
Even so, what is also extremely likely is that Liverpool and Spurs – for all the plaudits the teams and their managers garner – would finish trophy-less once again. How long would the fans and the clubs continue to be happy with that remains to be seen.