The UEFA Champions League semifinals, where the last four remaining teams will duke it out to decide who will be crowned Europe’s best, is quickly approaching.
Liverpool will be taking on Barcelona while Tottenham Hotspur will face Ajax. With these two matchups in mind, which players might prove to be the difference and push their team to the final in Madrid?
Liverpool’s Key Player – Virgil van Dijk
Virgil Van Dijk playing for the Netherlands
Virgil van Dijk, or “Big Virg” as he has been affectionally called by Liverpool supporters, has been immense for the club since his arrival in January of 2018.
Before the Dutch center back joined the Reds, the team struggled in defense. Comparing his first 50 games for the club to the previous 50, Liverpool earned six more clean sheets and conceded 16 less goals with him in the defense.
His leadership allows him to keep the back four organized and his calmness seems to radiate to the other defenders around him.
Under his guidance, Liverpool have become an assured and study team that can rely on their defense to keep them in games. In the past, the Reds had to rely on their menacing attack to compensate for the goals they were certain to concede.
Since the move from Southampton, he has established himself as one of the best defenders in the world. At 6 feet 4 inches, he has an areal prowess that allows him to not only head away danger, but also become a threat to opposing defenses off of set-pieces.
One of the most impressive stats this season, van Dijk has still yet to be dribbled past when playing for Liverpool. Having come up against players like Eden Hazard and Neymar, he has managed to stop anything coming his way. Coming up against Los Cules in the UCL, Liverpool fans will hope he can maintain that stat as he will be coming up some of the world’s best offensive talent.
Now, largely thanks to van Dijk, Jürgen Klopp’s men are a balanced team that are once again fighting for their sixth European trophy.
Barcelona’s Key Player – Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi celebrating scoring a goal for Argentina during the 2018 World Cup
Who else was it going to be? The Argentine magician will be critical for Barcelona if they are to beat Liverpool to a spot in the final.
He has 33 goals and 13 assists in La Liga this season and an additional 10 goals and three assists in the UCL. What really makes that impressive is that it’s not even a surprise anymore. His greatness has become the norm and makes football fans around the world take it for granted. To put his goal contribution into perspective, he is ahead of second place Karim Benzema by 12 goals in La Liga, tied for most assists in the league, and two goals ahead of Robert Lewandowski in the Champions League.
Arguably the best player in the world, Messi will be the most dangerous player on the pitch during these semifinal games. He has so many tools at his disposal to hurt the Reds, whether it’s his trademark dink to an incoming Jordi Alba on the left hand side of the field, a free kick which he has seemingly perfected this season scoring seven so far, or a mesmeric run that leaves opposing players in the dust, the man can do it all.
After missing out on the semifinals of the UCL for the past three seasons, Messi will be determined to go all the way and win his fifth Champions League trophy.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Key Player – Christian Eriksen
Christian Eriksen playing for Tottenham Hotspur
From almost costing his team a spot in the semifinals, to becoming their most important player, Christian Eriksen will hope to lead Tottenham Hotspur to their first ever UEFA Champions League final.
With the injury to Harry Kane and the suspension of Heung-Min Son for the first leg against Ajax, Eriksen looks set to be Tottenham’s key player. The Danish midfielder, who formerly played for the Dutch side, must perform if Spurs are to make it to the final.
His defense-splitting passes and ability to play measured balls over the top into space for wingers to exploit may prove the difference. In addition, he has an eye for goal from shots outside the box, including free kicks.
In the Premier League he has seven goals and 12 assists and he has an additional four assists and two goals in the UCL. As mentioned before, with Kane and Son out, Eriksen will have even more responsibility on his shoulders to produce in the final third.
Ajax’s Key Player – Frenkie de Jong
After impressing in the Eredivisie and the Dutch national team, it was only a matter of time before Frenkie de Jong began making a name for himself in the UEFA Champions League.
However, no one would have expected it to happen at Ajax. Their run to the semifinals has been a huge shock to the football world, especially after the eliminations of three time defending champions Real Madrid and the Cristiano Ronaldo led Juventus side.
Debatably the key component of it all has been de Jong. The 21-year-old plays a role in the Ajax team where he dictates play and orchestrates the game from the midfield. His contribution through the pressing has also been impressive. It’s no wonder why Barcelona invested $85 million so he can join the club after the end of the season.
After coming up against some of the world’s best midfielders in the world during this UCL campaign, de Jong has emerged as a player beyond the wildly handed out “wonderkid” label. He is a certain star for years to come.
The UEFA Champions League semifinals begin April 30th and end on May 8th.
Photo credits in order of appearance:
By Little Savage – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27032084
By Ailura, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT, CC BY-SA 3.0 at, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55287637
By Кирилл Венедиктов – https://www.soccer.ru/galery/1055457/photo/733486, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70293546
By Дмитрий Голубович – soccer.ru, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66063611