Sunday 16 December 2018

Stephen Hunt: Battle of Britain could be won by a Dutchman

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Getty Images
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Getty Images

Stephen Hunt

Forget all the world-class attacking talent that is going to be on show for both teams in the Champions League quarter-final matches between Liverpool and Manchester City. It is a defender who could make all the difference.

The one player who could win it for Liverpool is their record signing Virgil van Dijk. The Dutch centre-half has not been a complete success since his £75m move from Southampton but he is a giant, he has a presence and he has a reputation for standing up in the big games and performing.

Alexis Sanchez has flopped since his move from Arsenal to Manchester United but I felt he had a big game in him and he would perform against Sevilla. Boy, was I wrong about that.

Van Dijk might not be able to guarantee a clean sheet for Liverpool - in fact I would say that is very unlikely for both teams in the two games - but he can have two big influential games for Liverpool, albeit at the other end of the pitch to Sanchez, just by being himself. He is the Rio Ferdinand of the modern day, a defender who can break up the little one-twos and win back possession with his perceptive reading of the game.

What Pep Guardiola and the Manchester City players have created this season has left everyone else standing in the Premier League and it is a real shame that the two remaining English sides have been drawn against each other in the quarter-final stage of the Champions League.

It is the worst possible draw for Liverpool because they get to see, week in, week out, just how good this City team are. If they had drawn Real Madrid, for example, there would not be that same fear factor because they don't have to watch them every week.

Another potential blow for Jurgen Klopp is that the first leg is at Anfield. I know Liverpool can go to City for the second leg feeling under no pressure, but being the home side in the second game suits Liverpool. Anfield is a special place on European nights - there have been some amazing nights at Liverpool over the years, like that victory over Olympiakos, and Steven Gerrard's incredible equaliser to send them through.

There will definitely be goals in the two games, from both teams, and it will be a fascinating battle in terms of the attacking play and the talent on display. It has the potential to be the best ever European game between two British sides.

Going forward, they both fear nobody. But will Klopp be worried about his goalkeeper or how the defence will cope with City? Of course he will.

But the one thing Klopp won't do is put out a Jose Mourinho-style team which will be intended to stifle City. He will still go after them and I suspect it won't bother him if he concedes an early goal in the first leg - and vice versa for City. Away goals could be decisive, and ultimately I think City will just about prevail.

Looking at the other quarter-final ties, I think Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona will go through.

Juventus will be looking for revenge on Cristiano Ronaldo and co after last season's Champions League final and the Italian side have done well to get to the last eight, overcoming Tottenham in the round of 16.

It is going to need another defensive masterclass from Juve to get through,, however, even if Real Madrid are not firing on all cylinders this season and have not matched the standards they set on their way to winning the competition a year ago.

Real are more ruthless than Spurs. I cannot see the reigning champions making the same mistakes as Mauricio Pochettino's team over two legs.

The team that all the other seven will have wanted from the draw was Sevilla after their stunning win over Manchester United at Old Trafford. That result doesn't change the fact that Sevilla are not a very good team. United only had themselves to blame for crashing out. I do not see Bayern Munich making the same mistakes as United.

And where would Barcelona be without Lionel Messi? I can just about remember his magic against Chelsea through the haze of a long day at Cheltenham. He is still capable of rising to a different level when he needs to.

When Messi is in the mood, especially in the Nou Camp, any team can forget it. There is no chance if he is skipping past people as if they are not there or running with the ball, playing one-twos, sticking the ball through keepers' legs.

Rio Ferdinand said last week that no one could lay a finger on Messi when he played against Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final.

And if he says that, you can only imagine what it must be like to face Messi on the pitch.

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