The quarter final conundrum
Being a diehard Manchester United fan, here is my take on the recent UEFA Champions’ League quarter-final draws, and how I feel it might shape up
Europe’s most prestigious football competition, the UEFA Champion’s League is at its final stages, with the quarter-finals set to be held in April. The riveting pre-quarters came to a close just last week, and the dreaded quarter-final draws were held, and the fate of all the eight teams were decided — as to who will face whom in the next stage of the competition, and eventually what the semi-final clashes will be.
United’s uphill battle
Let’s get one thing straight. I have been supporting Manchester United since the age of nine, and as my friends point out, whenever I speak of United, I always speak in the first person — for me it’s not ‘United won’ but ‘We won’. For years under Sir Alex Ferguson, we have won countless trophies, produced players like Beckham, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo — and most importantly always played the typical attacking brand of football, what in the footballing world is referred to as the ‘United way’.
So, it was difficult to see what my team had been turned into under the regimes of Moyes, van Gaal and especially Mourinho. The players seemed lacklustre, the team had lost confidence and there was no identity on the pitch. The United way was lost.
However, it had to be a club legend to take us back on track. After the arrival of Ole Gunner Solksjaer, we seem like the United of old, and that was visible right from his first match as interim manager. We scored five goals in a match for the first time since Sir Alex left. We scored goals, won matches, and teams started to fear us. In fact, since Ole’s arrival at Old Trafford, we have lost only twice. We have won against teams like Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, that too at their own grounds.
In the first leg of the Champion’s League round of 16 match against Paris St Germain — one of the five top teams in Europe — we lost 2-0. But the way they played, they deserved to win, and frankly with the likes of Mbappe and Di Maria, they were a far better team. So, when the second leg came about in Paris, everyone expected PSG to win. But this was a new United — under the man who has won us the 1999 Champions League with his last minute goal — we believed, and if we went down it would not be without a fight. And we did it. We scored three goals, courtesy a last-minute penalty by Marcus Rashford and two early goals by Lukaku, and we won. A team which was dismissed by pundits across the world beat one of the favourites to win the tournament, and progressed to the quarter finals. Boy, that night in Paris was special.
However, a steeper challenge awaited us. In the quarter finals, by virtue of the draw, we have been pitted against FC Barcelona. A team which consists of Lionel Messi, a team which has been tipped by many to win the whole tournament. When the draws were announced, I saw people all around social media making fun of us. Some Barca fans even said that they have the easiest draw in the group and they will easily beat us. But, as a United fan, I am not disappointed or demoralised. I was a bit at first, but then it was our manager who came up with these words: “If you want to be the best, you have to face the best”. This was a manager who was not scared, and that increased my confidence also.
I have faith in my team, and I know it will be difficult. But nothing is impossible. It was in Barcelona itself, that Solksjaer scored that goal to help us lift the Champions League. The man returns to Camp Nou as the manager this time, and I believe that like magical night 20 years ago, a miracle awaits us.
Yes, it will be difficult. But even if we lose, we will make sure Barcelona have the toughest fight of their lives. We are no more a weak team. If we can beat PSG with a depleted squad, and with academy players on the field, we can sure as hell do the same to Barcelona. This is the United of old.
And with Ole at the wheel, who knows, we might hear those magical words on commentary once again: “And Solksjaer has won it for United”
English clubs’ dominance
As a fan of the English Premier League, it is heartening to see four clubs from England make it to the last eight. But it is also feels a tad bit disappointing to see our archrivals Liverpool face the easiest draw in the group. The reds from Merseyside go head-to-head against Portuguese champions FC Porto, a team which in terms of quality is far far behind Liverpool.
I hate to admit it, but Liverpool are currently on a fantastic run of form, and might probably go on to win the EPL. With players like Virgil Van Dijk at the back and the pairing of Mane and Salah upfront, it will be difficult for Porto to gain ground. If we win against Barcelona somehow, we will go on to face Liverpool in the semis, provided they beat Porto, which they most likely will. What a clash that will be!
Our other rivals Manchester City face Tottenham Hotspurs in an all-English quarter final. With the current form City are in, they are probably one of the favourites to win the whole tournament, something that is still elusive to the Citizens since the Sheikh Mansoor takeover. Under Pep Guardiola, City are a force to be reckoned with, them being the best proponents of possession based football in the world right now.
However, Tottenham too are no pushovers. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham have transformed from an upper-mid table club to one of the top contenders of the EPL. They have in their ranks, in my opinion, the best centre-forward in the world right now, Harry Kane. In 2018, Kane had more goals than anyone in the world, even greater than Messi and Ronaldo. But of late Tottenham have suffered a slump in the EPL, losing to rather weak teams, and dropping points. A team like Manchester City will definitely look to exploit this recent dip in form. However, City are still favourites to win this clash.
And if City win and progress through the finals, and also if United can manage to reach that stage, we will have a Manchester derby on our hands for the Champions League final. How satisfying will it be to lift the Champions League by beating our city rivals.
All eyes on CR7
The last Champions League quarter-final will all be about one man: Cristiano Ronaldo. After being 2-0 down in the round of 16 first leg match against Athletico Madrid, Ronaldo scored a magical hat-trick to clinch it for Juventus, and progress to the quarter-finals. Ever since moving to Juventus, Ronaldo has been instrumental for the Old Lady in topping the Italian Serie A. In a post-match press conference, when asked about how it felt to win the match for Juventus, he answered, “That’s what they bought me for: to win games”. Ronaldo’s confidence is at an all-time high as they face Dutch champions Ajax in the quarter finals.
Being a United fan, I always have a spot for Ronaldo. He is a legit United legend, as he has given us countless memories —numerous league wins and a Champions League — throughout the six years he has spent with us. He is still respectful about his former club and still shares a great bond with Sir Alex. So, in some corner of my heart, I definitely would like to see Ronnie progress.
But one can’t help but like the team that Juventus are up against. Ajax are a team of literally youngsters. Among the teams in the quarter finals, Ajax are the team with the youngest average age- just 24 years. Their captain, Matthijs De Ligt, is just 19 years old. They might not have experience in their squad, but they certainly have the quality and the hunger to win. They did the unexpected and routed Ronaldo’s former club Real Madrid in the round of 16 second leg. They scored four goals in the second leg at Bernabeu and literally bossed the 13-time Champions League winners.
Ajax have a tough task ahead, but if they can rout Real Madrid like that, they certainly have the capability to triumph against Juventus. Though the Italian champions are favourites, Ajax is certainly not to be considered pushovers. If there is one team apart from United I would lie to see lift the trophy, it is Ajax. They are literally the underdogs — like Rocky in the Sylvester Stallone movies, whom everyone loves to support.
However, what I would like to see is Manchester United lifting the trophy in Madrid. It may seem an impossible dream right now, but as our manager Ole Gunner Solksjaer has said, “Mountains are meant to be climbed.”