It was a night at Old Trafford where Manchester United were reminded how far they are off the top level, but that level suddenly didn’t seem as high as in previous years.
Barcelona beat them without having to do too much, but also not looking like they had all that much themselves beyond Leo Messi. The Spanish champions are the favourites for the Champions League, expected to lead the way, but really only led the way in the context of the somewhat underwhelming nature of the quarter-finals so far.
In a break from the brilliantly entertaining last three years of the competition, this was a last eight without fireworks. It was mostly quite mundane.
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Perhaps some of this is a product of the particularly ties drawn out. Two had clear favourites in Barcelona and Liverpool, the other two had the favourites playing away first in tighter ties. There is at least tension there.
But some of that tension comes from the significant weaknesses of the sides.
There is no truly outstanding side, who look the “super favourites” – to use an Arsene Wenger phrase – in the way all of Ajax 1995, Manchester United 1999, Barcelona 2008-11, Bayern Munich 2013 or Bayern Munich 2013.
All however seem to have more flaws than some of the best teams of the last few years.
Barcelona are a controlled and compact team, but that almost seems necessary because of a somewhat stretched squad behind the two forwards. Many talk up Juventus, but there are a few contradictions within their complexion, that should undercut their status. They have for quite a while now looked like their famous defence is creaking, and don’t have so much going forward. Cristiano Ronaldo has actually in an odd way hastened that progress because it now feels like his guarantee of goals means they don’t have to do as much. They are however much more defensively susceptible than they were even a few years, and can be got at.
At the same time, a basic functioning unit and a star like Messi or Ronaldo ahead can still be a potent force, and is why it feels they could be destined to meet in the final.
Manchester City are probably a superior and more highly sophisticated all-round side than both, but their problem is not their profile. It’s the manager’s neurosis with the Champions League, and how – against all the evidence of his career, bar European knock-out ties – he seems to actually make things more complicated for them. That was the source of a first-leg defeat to a good Tottenham Hotspur team, but a slightly jaded-looking one.
It may well take the missing fireworks so far to get them through.
Then there’s Liverpool. Their fixation on the domestic title has dominated all discussion around Jurgen Klopp’s side but it could yet mean they are something of a sleeper hit for the Champions League. They undeniably have all the ingredients, from a strong defence to difference-making strikers, not to mention that experience of actually getting to the final last season.
Ajax have the least experience of all, but there is a distinctive spirit there, as well as a precedent from the competition’s history. They are one of those young sides – like Dynamo Kyiv 1999, like Porto 2004, like Monaco 2017 – who suddenly realise how good they are and how much of an opportunity is there, and seize it, lifting them to the level of much better-resourced teams.
Juventus should be wary there. Ajax could well provide the fireworks missing from the quarter-finals so far, just as they did in the last 16 against Real Madrid.
Then again, perhaps this isn’t about fireworks. Maybe this will be a season about control, of the type Barca displayed.
Their previous sides provided some of the most explosive displays of recent seasons – against Arsenal in 2015-16, against Paris Saint-Germain in 2016-17, against Chelsea in 2017-18 – only to ultimately be too open. Their strengths had corresponding flaws, that saw them go out at this exact stage.
Ernesto Valverde is trying to find a balance. They at least had that at Old Trafford. They were on the level. Perhaps that is what this season will be about.