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With Manchester City Out, The New Champions League Favorite Is …

Eight days ago, the FiveThirtyEight Soccer Power Index (SPI) gave Manchester City the best chance to win the Champions League. On Wednesday, Manchester City crashed out of the competition in spectacular fashion, conceding three goals at home to Premier League rival Tottenham Hotspur. The series finished 4-4 on aggregate, but Spurs get to play on because of the competition’s away-goals rule. Remember all that talk about City winning the historic quadruple? That’s all over now.

Pep Guardiola’s Sky Blues got off to a quick start, grabbing the lead via a strike from Raheem Sterling in the game’s fourth minute. Sterling’s goal canceled out Tottenham’s 1-0 aggregate lead, and the tilt was on. But it wasn’t long before Son Heung-min struck to give the lead back to Spurs, and it wasn’t long before he struck again. At that point it looked like City was doomed, but then they stormed back, scoring twice to tilt things back in their favor. Spurs were not done, however, and got the series-winning goal from unlikely hero Fernando Llorente in the 73rd minute. They still had to survive some end-of-the-game drama: City scored what appeared to be the winning goal, but VAR ruled that forward Sergio Aguero was offside in the buildup, and Tottenham was on to the semifinals to face Ajax.1

City is out, but the favorites to win the whole thing still hail from Northern England. According to our SPI, Liverpool has the best chance to conquer Europe. The Reds followed up their very professional 2-0 win over Porto at Anfield last week with a very professional 4-1 win over Porto at Estadio de Dragao on Wednesday. Porto needed to score at least two goals to send the series to extra time — and at least three to win it outright — and the first 35 minutes of the match reflected that: Porto completed twice as many passes in the attacking third as did its opponents from Merseyside en route to outshooting them 14 to 3.

But then Liverpool scored a goal in the 26th minute, and it was all but in the bag for Jurgen Klopp’s side. Eder Militao, future center back for Real Madrid, scored a late goal for Porto, but it was merely consolation. And Liverpool’s reward for its 6-1 aggregate victory? A date with Barcelona in the semifinals.

Speaking of the Catalonians, they made relatively light work of Manchester United in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. Lionel Messi did Lionel Messi things at Camp Nou, scoring twice from outside the box — one shot with his left foot, the other with his weaker right — in a matter of four minutes. The first was vintage Messi, a left-footed effort driven low that curled past the outstretched body of Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea and into the bottom left corner of the goal. The second was less spectacular, a speculative effort that de Gea whiffed on uncharacteristically. Gift or not, the goal put Messi two clear at the top of the Champions League Golden Boot race. A goal in the 61st minute from old United foe Philippe Coutinho put the series out of reach for the Mancs. And now the soccer world can salivate over a Messi-vs.-Salah showdown in the semifinals.

If the result in Barcelona felt like a forgone conclusion, the result in Turin felt like anything but. Ajax’s 2-1 Tuesday win (3-2 aggregate) marked a sort of long-fermented revenge: In April 1997, the last time the Dutch giants played in the Champions League semifinals — a month before the team’s current best player, Frenkie de Jong, was born — they were eviscerated by Juventus, losing by an aggregate score of 6-2. That Ajax team featured club and country legends Edwin van der Sar, Frank de Boer, Marc Overmars and Danny Blind,2 but Lucky Ajax wasn’t very lucky on that occasion.

This time around, Ajax took the game to Juventus from the opening whistle, a strategy that should have stunned exactly no one who watched the team embarrass Real Madrid last month. Total shots and shots on target were nearly equal Tuesday in Turin, but Ajax created more big chances and completed a higher percentage of passes in the attacking third than Juventus. Crucially, the Dutchmen didn’t panic when Cristiano Ronaldo scored to give the Italians the lead in the 28th minute. They kept pressing, kept playing on the front foot, and midfielder Donny van de Beek bagged an equalizer just six minutes later. And even after it took the lead on a header from team captain Matthijs de Ligt in the 67th minute, Ajax didn’t sit back. The side smelled blood and attempted more passes inside the penalty area in the final 23 minutes plus stoppage time than its opponents. Ajax could have scored a couple more — and now it has a 16 percent chance in our SPI model to win the whole thing, up significantly from before the quarterfinal’s second leg.

It’s hard to predict whether Ajax pups like de Jong, de Ligt and van de Beek will go on to have the kinds of long, fruitful careers their elder countrymen did, but there’s little doubt that they’ve cemented themselves as club legends. They’ve made Ajax relevant again. Now all that’s left for them to do is to make Ajax champions again.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Footnotes

  1. At the sight of the goal, a blissful Guardiola sprinted down the touchline like a man possessed. After the VAR ruling, a doleful Guardiola looked as though he’d just been given a bad diagnosis. Bring on the memes.

  2. Danny Blind is the father of current Ajax star Daley Blind.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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