Fine margins make for open Champions League | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 10.04.2019
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Fine margins make for open Champions League

With all four first legs played, the Champions League quarterfinals are in the balance, especially in this season of comebacks. But none of the eight remaining teams has truly laid down a marker this week.

"Life is just a game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small.

"I mean, one half step too late or too early you don't quite make it. One half second too slow or too fast and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in every break of the game every minute, every second."

Al Pacino's rousing prematch speech in 1999 film 'Any Given Sunday' is aimed at the American Footballers under the charge of his character, Tony D'Amico. But its message applies equally to many of this week's high profile clashes in the Champions League quarterfinals.

On Tuesday, Tottenham's Son Heung-min kept the ball on the pitch by an inch, while Fabian Delph, of Manchester City, mis-read that same patch of turf and allowed the South Korean to lash in the only goal of the game 12 minutes from time. An hour or so earlier, Sergio Agüero's penalty went a few inches too close to Hugo Lloris. 

Nearly 200 miles (321 kilometers) north and 24 hours later, Luis Suarez' joy turned to frustration as his deflected header was flagged offside. A mercifully quick VAR review then showed the Uruguayan was an inch or two onside. The game's only goal was awarded.

Such fine margins are not unusual in high pressure knockout matches like these. But with all the remaining eight sides just three games from the final in Madrid, the 2018-19 Champions League doesn't yet seem to have found an outstanding team. So those inches matter even more.

Of course, individual class has its part to play. Son's finish was emphatic and the ball Lionel Messi dug out to enable Suarez' header to bounce in off Luke Shaw was the sort of superhuman intervention he's made so routine. Almost inevitably, Cristiano Ronaldo wrote himself in to the script with the header that gave Juventus the lead and a critical away goal against Ajax.

But Barca were sloppy on Wednesday, troubled by a fired-up United side who didn't quite have the quality or composure to move from unsettling their opponents to landing a blow. Better sides might. City were similarly off color, as Pep Guardiola's terrible recent away record in Champions League knockout ties continued. Juve were somewhat fortunate to escape Amsterdam in the driving seat. Only Liverpool, 2-0 winners over a Porto side a notch or two below the rest, looked convincing.

“Negative events like Agüero’s penalty miss always set us back far too much,"Ilkay Gündogan told Sky Sports after City's loss. "Had we scored from the penalty, we’d have taken Tottenham apart. But instead we withdrew from the game. That must not happen to a big team. That’s why we’re not there yet.”

Son Heung-min celebrates his winner for Spurs on Tuesday (picture alliance/AP Photo)

Son Heung-min celebrates his winner for Spurs on Tuesday

If City, one of the favorites for the competition, are not ready yet, then what hope Spurs (16 points back from their opponents in the Premier League) or United (19 points)? Jürgen Klopp seems to have a problem winning finals but after their win at Anfield should at least reach the last four this term. While Ajax have dazzled, they may just have missed their best chance, though many thought that in the last 16 against Real Madrid.

WIth the masters of winning without impressing watching on TV having been dumped out by the Dutch side, there'll be a new winner of this competition for the first time since 2015, when Barcelona last triumphed. 

Their scrappy 0-1 win on Wednesday, when even Messi struggled to make a sustained impact, makes the Catalans favorites to make it a sixth Spanish Champions League winner in a row, while Ronaldo's record in this competition is not to be dismissed lightly.

Given the staggering second leg comebacks we've seen this season, neither are any of the remaining clubs. But no side has truly laid down a marker in the last eight. They may not feel they need to just yet. But as the competition progresses and the pressure ramps up, those inches will count for even more. Though having Messi or Ronaldo on your side never hurts.

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