These have been a memorable few weeks for Tottenham. I have not been to their stadium but the images online look incredible and the Spurs supporters’ response to it has been extremely positive. In two games there they have two victories and they are yet to concede a goal. On Tuesday they took control of their Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City, with Son Heung-min scoring another vital goal.
At this time of year talk starts to turn to the player of the season award and there seems to be a consensus that the decision will be between Raheem Sterling and Virgil van Dijk. Those players would be in my top three and rounding out the trio would be Son. He is a wonderful player, extremely consistent, and when the pressure is on he seems to flourish.
When Harry Kane went off against City Son appeared to step up, as if motivated by the extra burden he carries when the Spurs striker is absent. Son is a special player, in terms of his technical ability and mental strength. He speaks several languages, has a wonderful smile, scores incredible goals, works extremely hard and can deal with any amount of pressure. He is generally a bit of a superhero.
Spurs need him now, with Kane likely to be absent for perhaps the rest of the season with an ankle injury. This is not new for him: when Kane missed seven matches through injury in January and February Son played in four of them, scored in each and Spurs won all four. He has 18 goals in all competitions, three away from his all-time best of two seasons ago with plenty of games to get them.
Despite Son being able to bear the frontman responsibility on his shoulders, it is important for any team, especially at this stage of the season, not to be over-reliant on a single player for goals. Mohamed Salah is crucial for Liverpool but when he is not scoring Roberto Firmino or Sadio Mané step up; Manchester City have the Premier League’s top scorer in Sergio Agüero but Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sané also contribute. A couple of years ago Dele Alli was scoring a goal every other game for Spurs but with him now playing further from the forward line Son’s goalscoring contributions are vital.
Pep Guardiola did not appear overly bothered by the 1-0 away defeat, obviously believing City have a great chance of winning the second leg. Despite the likely absence of Kane it should be a tense and closely fought match. Liverpool took control against Porto with another display of great fluidity but the other quarter-finals are very finely balanced, set up nicely for next week’s return fixtures.
With Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool likely to be in the hat and one team certain to come from Tottenham’s tie, it seems England will have at least two teams in the Champions League semi-finals. Manchester United could provide a third, though at 1-0 down after the home leg against Barcelona their task is extremely difficult.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær feels United can score at the Camp Nou and given the way his team got past Paris Saint-Germain I am sure they can. But I would be very surprised if Barcelona do not score. United frustrated them well at Old Trafford, with a 4-1-3-2 formation which made sure Lionel Messi was suffocated in the pocket between United’s midfield and their backline and had to keep coming deeper to get the ball.
But it was hard to be sure whether Barcelona were quiet because of United’s tactics and discipline, or because having scored an early goal they were happy to play within themselves and take their advantage back to Spain. Messi was very quiet – still influential in the key moments, and inevitably he played a part in the goal, but less vital and less dynamic than he can be. He did not do a lot of running, waiting for play to come to him and perhaps conserving his energy for other challenges.
Messi’s way sometimes is to walk around and wait for teammates such as Sergio Busquets to find him with penetrating passes in pockets of space, which is where he comes alive. There were only glimpses of that player, with United packing those areas. United will have worked on squeezing that space as much as possible, so that even if Messi gets the ball he has to lay it off, denied the space to turn and launch one of his slalom dribbles.
United had no shots on target. Perhaps they would have accepted that as a price worth paying for containing Barcelona and staying in the tie but they could have got more from the game and need to do better going forward. Marcus Rashford had a chance when he tried to score with a difficult volley when he had enough time to bring down the ball. They need to find that composure, because when you come up against opponents such as Barcelona, chances and even half-chances are rare. Barcelona know that at the Camp Nou they are a very different beast and that United will have to be a little bit more expansive, and they will be confident of completing the job.
Of the Premier League teams Liverpool look the most likely winners. They have a confidence about them, a dynamism among the attacking trio that is so hard for opponents to contain, plus the advantage of the experience gained from reaching the final last season. None of this is unfamiliar territory to them. They also have the easiest quarter-final opponents, which helps. Champions League nights next week are firmly in my diary.