Champions League: Messi, Tevez lift Barcelona, Juventus to quarterfinals
Barcelona and Juventus became the final entrants in the Champions League quarterfinals, completing wins over Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund, respectively, on Wednesday. Barça won 3-1 on aggregate, and Juventus won 5-1 total after both victors held 2-1 advantages heading into their second legs.
Ivan Rakitić finished off Barça’s only goal on the day near the half-hour mark. Barcelona stymied City’s attacks in the second, with goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen saving a Sergio Aguero penalty, and nearly added several more goals were it not for Joe Hart’s heroics on the other end.
Carlos Tévez scored in the third and 79th minutes for Juventus, bookending an Álvaro Morata goal for which he supplied the assist in a 3-0 victory.
The Champions League quarterfinal draw takes place Friday at UEFA headquarters in Switzerland. Here are a few thoughts on the final matches of this edition’s round of 16:
Player of the Day: Carlos Tévez, Juventus
With Dortmund’s struggles in Bundesliga play, Borussia saved its best performances for the Champions League this season. A seemingly reversible 2-1 loss in the first leg set up encouragingly for the return match at the Westfalenstadion.
The fans comprising the stadium’s famous Yellow Wall turned the stadium into its usual ball of inhospitable energy for away teams. They unveiled a massive tifo depicting three of the club’s heroes from the 1997 Champions League final, in which Dortmund defeated Juve, 3-1, in Munich.
Then, moments after kickoff, Tévez silenced them.
He lined up a 25-yard blast into the top left-hand corner of the goal in the third minute. Almost instantaneously, Juve had an away goal of its own and a 3-1 aggregate lead in the tie.
He also assisted on the second goal, a simple tap-in for Álvaro Morata in the 70th minute, and scored Juve’s third just before departing the field with 10 minutes remaining.
After the opening goal and an injury to Paul Pogba, Juventus settled into a five-back system and controlled the rest of the match. What should have been a contentious fight for a place in the last eight turned into a comfortable romp for the Italian champion — and it all started with that early goal in the most hostile of environments.
Tévez has enjoyed a resurgence of form since joining Juve in 2013, becoming the club’s top scorer last season and holding the rank again so far this year despite being left out of Argentina’s squad for the 2014 World Cup.
Moment of the Day: Lionel Messi embarrasses City defenders on the dribble
Cristiano Ronaldo may have won the Ballon d’Or, but Lionel Messi continues to cement his argument for greatest player of all-time.
Nobody could match his level of individual play again on Wednesday, as he dribbled his way through City’s defense and placed incisive passes on a razor’s edge for his teammates.
His individual skills shined through against City defenders too eager to dive into tackles, as he slalomed by them before finding a Barcelona player in open space. Few can create for others as Messi can, drawing multiple opponents with a single move before picking his head up to switch play to the opposite side.
His crowning moment came just before halftime, as he nutmegged City midfielder James Milner on the right flank. Television cameras panned to former Barça manager and current Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola in the stands, who smiled and put his head in his hands in reaction.
The moment personified Messi’s godlike status in modern football, as he left fans—and colleagues—marveling after another stunning show of skill.
On the only goal of the game in the 31st minute, Messi dribbled down the right flank again and looped a pass toward Rakitić on the vacant left side. The Croatian dinked a shot over an onrushing Hart and into the goal.
Messi’s best chance to score one for himself came in the second half, as he ran unmarked down the right on a Barcelona counterattack. Hart remained patient and gave Messi no space in the ensuing one-on-one situation before saving a shot from close range.
Major Takeaway of the Day: English clubs continue faltering in Champions League
As recently as 2011, three English clubs made the last eight of the Champions League, and all four tournament participants were there in 2009. Since then, the league’s participation in the competition has fallen dramatically.
City’s elimination on Wednesday sealed England’s lack of quarterfinalists in 2015. After its recent dominant era, the Premier League failed to get into the last eight of Europe's premier competition for the second time in three seasons.
Only Chelsea seemed to be a legitimate contender to make a run at the title this year, as the level of play continues to fall across the league. Even astute tacticians in England are left to scramble for solutions despite generally high budgets and immense resources with regard to both the transfer market and everyday infrastructure.
Besides an emphasis on gritty, physical play over the nuance expected in European competition, the English calendar does its teams no favors.
Packed schedules around the new year, when other leagues take at least short winter breaks, exhaust players and leave them at a disadvantage.
It’s unlikely the league’s popularity and investment in the game can be blamed for such shortcomings. Top players and managers continue to look for opportunities in England and the Premier League, but the structure of the competition and older training methods of the homegrown players feel outdated when compared to continental Europe.
Not only do teams fail to make deep runs in Europe, but they also rely on vast amounts of foreign talent because of a lack of focus on player development in favor of spending copious amounts of money. It’s time for England to look abroad for models on how to improve its individual clubs and return to the heights it experienced as recently as half a decade ago.
Assessing Juventus, Barcelona as deep-run candidates
Today’s final round of 16 matches produced two serious contenders for the title, as long as they stay in form. Juventus has been the best team in Italy by a large margin this season, while Barcelona seems to be peaking at just the right time to possibly win the treble.
Juventus also defeated Dortmund by three on the road without Andrea Pirlo, the Italians’ talismanic regista who went down with a calf injury in the first leg. His absence couldn’t damper Juve’s midfield dominance, buoyed by a compact back line, despite also losing Pogba midway through the first half.
Meanwhile, Barcelona has only failed to win two matches in the 2015 calendar year, racking up 17 victories in all competitions besides those surprising 1-0 losses to Real Sociedad and Málaga in league play.
After talk of manager Luis Enrique’s perceived incompetence earlier this season, Barça has settled into a groove marked by its usually silky team play.