The Champions League goes on a hiatus for a couple of weeks with the quarterfinals promising plenty of action with some familiar rivals facing each other and some stalwarts on the rise.
Tottenham vs. Manchester City
This is a battle of football ideologies. Pep's mantra has been if Plan A is not working, make it better. Mauricio Pochettino, on the other hand, has shown a diverse range of lineups and formations with a relatively thin roster. Soon to be completing his fifth season with the North London club, their ability to seamlessly change between a side that can defend with numbers and switch to playing with a high press that is coupled with their efficiency with the ball should be the biggest takeaway of his tenure. Aside from the 2014-15 season, Spurs have always finished in the top-four and are once again projected to do so. However, the closest they have come to winning a trophy since the Argentinian's appointment was when they made the League-Cup Final in 2015 and when they should have won the 2015-16 league title.
Shocking defensive performances anytime they made leeways into genuine contention have left the Spurs faithful to question if Poch is the man to lead the club. Their record against other top-six sides on the road is torrid and is a thorn on Poch's otherwise excellent spell with Spurs.
They have performed relatively better against the elite teams of Europe having bested Real Madrid at home and given Juventus a run for their money last season. Understanding their limitations and relative inexperience in the Champions League, Poch is more than happy to let his teams sit back and waiting for the perfect moment to counter. Son Heung-min is devastatingly quick, Alli's run behind lines are timed to perfection, and his ability to play with his back to the goal is invaluable.
Despite their repeated success, Spurs did not sign a single new player over the summer. In a footballing world that is governed by deep pockets, Poch is attempting to summit the mountain of cash that Pep Guardiola sits on. It might be beyond the thoughts of your Average Joe to beat his City-side at their own game. But in their first meeting, Poch had his team play some of the best football under him as they prevented City from getting a rhythm and outmuscled them to a dominant 2-0 win. While they laid out a blueprint to stifle an otherwise juggernaut of a team, Spurs have yet to try to replicate that same formula. They have parked the bus on several occasions since and have resulted in them being second fiddle to City.
Just like the Golden State Warriors, there should be nothing in the way of stopping Manchester City except the face that stares back at them off the mirror. Numbers aside, the eye test alone will attest to the fact that they have played some of the best football over the past two seasons. The only chink their otherwise impenetrable armor would be their inability to prevent teams from beating them off the counter. While Fernandinho is still injured, Ilkay Gundogan has stepped up and displayed the tactical defensive discipline that some thought he lacked. He is far more dynamic than his Brazilian counterpart and bolsters an already overwhelming City attack. The defending Premier League Champions are clearly the superior side.
Nevertheless, Spurs are always capable of replicating a physical and unrelenting press that broke down City two season ago. Ederson, however, was not a member of the Citizens. Poch will have to wary of the fact that the 25-year-old keeper can always ping an 80-yard ball that can send a City attacker straight on goal.
Regardless, this iteration of Manchester City is among, if not the, greatest sides to ever grace England. Seeing Spurs best them across two games is incredibly difficult to envision.
Barcelona vs. Manchester United
This one brings back painful memories of 2009 and 2011 and Messi has not taken a step back.
Despite playing with the likes of Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry, there was something special about the Messi-Suarez-Neymar triumvirate with Luiz Enrique steering the ship from the touchline. Guardiola success and philosophy draws parallels to that of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight. Nolan's masterpiece set the bar so high every DC movie since has failed to live up to the bar it set. The same almost happened to Barcelona post-2012, but their leadership was smart enough to pave a new path rather than be defined by their past.
The inability to match the heights set by Pep's successors was at a time when football was evolving under their feet. Defending changed with the press becoming a more effective and efficient way to play without the ball. Other European teams began to replicate Barca's formula and succeed with it. Enrique took the best of previous iterations of the Blaugrana and modernized it such that his team would not spasm when they did not possess the ball.
Their current manager, Ernesto Valverde, has changed Barcelona to mirror the conservative approach that he implemented with Athletic Bilbao. Barcelona has variations of the 4-3-3 for most of the century, and the veteran Spaniard brought back a classic with a modern twist. The rigid 4-4-2 of old was replaced with a flexible midfield than adapt to a diamond shape or flatline depending on the situation they were in. They can break down teams by either pressing or sitting back. Pep's mantra of improving Plan A if it is not working to par was replaced with the much-needed versatility that defined these past few years.
Interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has brought about life to a team that was otherwise spiritless for the first half of the season.
United did not add any new pieces over the January transfer window. This version of the team was always there, and it required the right gaffer to steer the ship. They are playing better than expected, and it has resulted in them coming back into the fold of top-four contention.
Unlike the Barca teams of yore, this side will not completely dominate the ball though they are expected to have the majority of possession. Solskjaer is in many ways a foil to Valverde. The veteran Spaniard manager looks to avoid risks while Solksjaer encourages his players to gamble on chances. This brings about a new twist among rivals who last faced each other in 2011. Barcelona are devastating off the counter and could broil down United by sitting back and lulling them to sleep before springing on the break. Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, and Phil Jones are nowhere near the Manchester United centre backs of yesteryear. The only thing stopping Messi, Suarez, and others from finding the back of the net is one David De Gea. But let's face it, the diminutive maestro is one the best of his generation - possibly ever - and at the age of 31 is looking at his best yet.
Despite Barcelona on the precipice of winning their third La Liga title in four seasons and eight in the past 11, their accomplishments have been shadowed by Real Madrid winning three straight Champions League titles. With the Los Blancos eliminated, they are looking to bring back the trophy after four years. It's not often than people get in the way of Lionel Messi. He has destroyed careers before. Just hoping that he doesn't do the same this around.
Liverpool vs. Porto
Porto was the one team everybody wanted to get drawn against, and it makes for the most lopsided fixture of the quarterfinals. Liverpool is looking to repeat the run that took them to the final last season, and they should have some familiarity when facing them. Like many of the lesser Premier League signs, the Portuguese side plays a defensive 4-4-2 and are more than happy to concede possession to the Reds. Their ability to grind a game to a halt presents a significant roadblock for Liverpool as Klopp lacks a ball-playing midfielder who can break them out of a deadlock.
Unlike Manchester City, many of Liverpool’s goals this season have come from the excellence and talent of their front-three instead of being a product of the system they play in.
Even though van Dijk is the center back on form, his partner in crime is an undecided, and Liverpool’s fullbacks lack the defensive fortitude that can match their offensive prowess. Trent Alexander-Arnold is likely to get exposed by either Yacine Brahimi or Alex Telles. Oliver Torres can carve up Liverpool in the middle of the park and is expected to be the most dynamic midfielder across both legs. Sérgio Conceição has gotten the best out of the 24-year-old Spaniard who could very well determine Liverpool's European fate.
Regardless, Liverpool as is still the heavy favorites despite not replicating the same flair of last season. With the additions of Van Dijk and Fabinho, the Klopp is less reliant on an aggressive press as his primary defensive scheme. Instead, he chooses to allow teams to break past his forward line. Taking conservative sides out of their comfort zone, Liverpool invites teams into exchanging flurries of attacks. Even against the best of the best, they do come out on top.
Salah's dry spell might be exaggerated by the fact last season's incredible run could be a fluke, but he is still on set to have a productive season. Sadio Mane has since stepped up having scored 11 Liverpool's past 11 games and is their biggest attacking threat this season. Van Dijk might be one of the best defenders in football though is offensive prowess is often looked over. He can tower over any man marking him and score goals off of set pieces. Even if his numbers do not pop up on the stat sheets, he can easily ping a longball to Liverpool's front-three and can send them straight to goal.
Ajax vs. Juventus
The Dutch giants are no longer the dominant European force of old though their ability to churn out young talent, and their recent triumph over Real Madrid was a display of Ajax's brilliance. The blend of a young core, select castoff veterans who still have much to offer, and an excellent gameplan were all used to knockoff the defending champions. Despite being one of the minor teams left in the last eight, they play a fearless style of football that is reminiscent of other European giants. Erik ten Hag sets out his 11 in a 4-3-3 that is utterly relentless with their press and excels when they dominate possession. Their unapologetic approach to attack, attack, attack makes draws parallels to Manchester City.
Dusan Tadic is having a renaissance in his return to the Netherlands after a couple of stale seasons with Southampton. Tadic has the complete freedom to roam the final third, and his ability to create chances ensures that he is delivering on the promise that first got him the move to the Premier League. While the 30-year-old Serbian leads Ajax's scoring chart, charismatic stalwarts David Neres and Hakim Ziyech are not far behind are the perfect succession plan to Tadic. Frenkie de Jong is the glue that holds everything together and already has a taste of success at his soon-to-be training ground.
Juventus could be the worst possible team for the young Dutch side to draw. They have drawn the tandem of Cristiano Ronaldo and Massimiliano Allegri that were tasked to bring the Champions League crown back to Turin. More than two decades after their last European crown, Allegri has led La Vecchia Signora to utter dominance over Italy and twice to the Champions League final. The addition of Ronaldo gives Juventus the trump card they were missing in previous campaigns. In a sport filled with chaotic and unpredictable events, Ronaldo eliminates the need for having luck on Juve's side. He does not leave anything to chance.
But let’s not really out how astute of a manager Allegri can be. He is among the most innovative tacticians in the club game. He is more than flexible to tinker with his lineups even if it means hurts the egos of some players. The inclusion of Federico Bernardeschi over Paulo Dybala in the second leg against Atleti gave the provided the Old Lady the direct attack needed to take the fight to Spanish giant. Allegri is more than happy to change his tactics and lineups if it means he can exploit the weaknesses of any opponent they face.
Juve cannot take Ajax lightly. While this young group may not have the clout or hype of previous generations, they are going to leave a mark on the next decade of football. They upset the defending champions. With March Madness fever running through me, Ajax is most likely to make a Cinderella run and could upset get another formidable European team.