Barca, Juve firmly focused on Champions League

Updated April 10, 2019

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MANCHESTER United players attend a training session at the Carrington ground in Greater Manchester on Tuesday. — AFP
MANCHESTER United players attend a training session at the Carrington ground in Greater Manchester on Tuesday. — AFP

LONDON: With the completion of their domestic title defences seeming a formality, Barcelona and Juventus can now focus on the Champions League with both sides in action on Wednesday in the first legs of their quarter-final ties. Both are on the road with Barca travelling to Old Trafford to face Manchester United and Juve facing Ajax in Amsterdam.

The quarter-finals have been the end of Barca’s Champions League journey for three successive seasons since winning a fifth European title in 2015, when they beat Juve in the final. They have also not won in six away matches in the knockout rounds, scoring just once in that time.

The tie against United is a repeat of the finals of 2009 and 2011. Both of those were won by Barca, and the Catalans are heavy favourites against a United side sixth in the Premier League and in their first Champions League quarter-final since 2014 when defeat helped spell the end of David Moyes’ reign as Alex Ferguson’s immediate successor.

Victory at Paris St Germain last month, though, contributed to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being handed the United job on a three-year contract after convincing the ownership of his credentials during a three-month audition after Jose Mourinho’s firing.

These are slightly strange times for Solskjaer, the match-winner when United beat Bayern Munich in the 1999 final at the Camp Nou. He may have just been anointed as permanent United manager, but his team have lost three of their last four games.

At least the Old Trafford club had a weekend off to help prepare, allowing manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to travel to take in Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid on Saturday which put them 11 points clear at the top of La Liga.

“We will have less rest but on the other hand we will be more motivated by the victory over Atletico,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Juve are hopeful Cristiano Ronaldo will be able to play some part in the match against Ajax after injuring a right thigh muscle on Portugal duty last month.

The forward participated in training on Sunday and coach Massimiliano Allegri has insisted there are “good signals” from the 34-year-old forward, whose hat-trick did for Atletico Madrid in the last round.

However, Juve will take no risks on Ronaldo’s fitness and Moise Kean is ready to step in. The 19-year-old Italy forward has scored five goals in his past five matches for club and country.

While Juve are one win away from securing a record-extending eighth Serie A title, Ajax are only leading the Eredivisie from PSV Eindhoven on goal difference. But it promises to be a fascinating clash between the experience of Juve and an Ajax side carried by the club’s latest batch of young talent.

With the likes of Matthijs de Ligt and Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong, alongside older heads such as Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind, Ajax dumped out the holders Real Madrid in the last round, setting up a repeat of the 1996 final, which Juve won on penalties.

Midfielder De Jong was substituted as a precaution during Ajax’s 4-1 victory over Willem II Tilburg on Saturday after hurting an ankle. “We want to show Europe what we’re worth,” he said. “I think we’ve already done that, but we want to confirm it.”

Ajax won the Champions League in 1995 but the Amsterdam club haven’t contested the quarter-finals since 2003, when they lost to AC Milan, and had to start in the qualifying rounds in July this season.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2019