Both of Tuesday night’s second leg games in the Champions League saw the two teams who were underdogs going in their quarter-final ties prevail.
Liverpool would hold onto their 3-0 first leg lead and even secure a 2-1 win over Manchester Ci
ty which meant the two legs finished 5-1 on aggregate. Meanwhile, Roma stunned Barcelona, winning 3-0 at Stadio Olimpico in an astonishing comeback which saw them go through on away goals after the tie finished 4-4.
In each of these two ties, the key for the victors was an intense high-pressure brand of football that suffocated their opponents more measured and controlled passing games.
In the all-Premier League matchup of Liverpool and Manchester City, much of the pre-match build-up focused on the two managers, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, and their contrasting styles of play. In simple terms, where the two coaches’ philosophies differ the most is in how they create and use space.
Guardiola’s City tends to dominate possession just as his great Barcelona team did, moving the ball at speed to find space and exploit the oppositions weak spots. Even in the two Liverpool games, the champions-elect had 66 percent and 68 percent respectively.
Liverpool under Klopp, however, are all about the closing down and the eradication of space. They focus instead on trying to limit their opponent’s time and space on the ball, and on winning the ball as high up the pitch as possible.
In the first leg, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s long-range strike for his side’s second goal was made possible through this high press, and in particlular, James Milner’s crunching tackle on İlkay Gündoğan midway inside the City half.
Despite being counter reactive, Liverpool’s brand of football is an attractive and exciting one with them then aiming to use the pace of Salah, Mane and Firmino to start direct and fast counter attacks after winning the ball. The first goal in that Anfield first leg which saw James Milner’s through ball set Salah away to start the attack being a prime example of this.
With the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne not being afforded the space to get their sharp passing game going, City became stifled. Their usual fluid attack dissipated as Liverpool snapped at their heels all over the field.
The league leaders were left with no response and resorted to just constantly giving the ball to the tricky and speedy Leroy Sáne on the left wing in the hope he could beat his inexperienced marker Trent Alexander-Arnold. City ended up not even recording a single shot on target, which shows the extent of Liverpool’s dominance.
The second leg did admittedly see a sharp first half performance from City and they were unfortunate not to be 2-0 up at the break after Sáne’s goal was wrongly adjudged to be offside. However, Liverpool’s press succeeded once again when Firmino nicked Nicolás Otamendi on the way to scoring the winner.
Tuesday’s win brought the number of wins Klopp has over Guardiola to seven, which more than any other manager has notched up against the Catalan and shows how Guardiola’s system can come unstuck against the former Borussia Dortmund manager.
Much like Liverpool, Roma in their second leg adopted the high press and ended up convincingly dismantling Barcelona 3-0.
The ferocity of the Giallorossi’s tackling was almost frightening. Their treatment of Lionel Messi was particularly intense as demonstrated by a clip shown on TV3’s highlights show which was talked through by Brian Kerr. Time and time again, the world’s best player wasn’t given an inch as he harried and hacked, albeit sometimes illegally, by the Roma backline.
It was Roma who surprisingly ended up on top throughout nearly the entirety of the game, and they were perhaps even unlucky not to win by more. Barcelona, on the other hand, looked tired and old especially in midfield where Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets found it difficult to keep up with the game’s relentless pace.
Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson suggested the reason why Barcelona struggled when Roma got in their faces was that their league matches are usually a cakewalk and thus they have forgotten “how to fight”. Due to this, Wilson suggests sides like Barcelona and Manchester City have forgotten how to defend when a team attacks them. The way Barcelona failed miserably to cope with the presence of Edin Dzeko, who scored Roma’s first goal and won the penalty for the second, would certainly add credence to his claim.
Perhaps another issue is that Barcelona and Manchester City usually face teams who sit extremely deep in their respective leagues. As a result, they may simply forget how to cope when they face a team that actually tries to take the initiative and attack them. It is worth noting that only one of the leaders (Bayern Munich) from Europe’s top five leagues have reached the final four and this could be partially due to them not being tested enough domestically.
Liverpool and Roma will remain underdogs with Bayern and Real Madrid also still in the mix but if their quarter-final displays are anything to go by they should not be taken for granted.
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