Make or break: How it’s looking for LaLiga’s representatives in the Champions League
It’s that time of the year again, the Champions League knockout stages are back and we’re as excited as ever. Just three of the five LaLiga teams that started of the competition in September remain, but the luck of the draw wasn’t too kind to Atlético, Real Madrid and Villarreal. Here’s a look at each of the teams heading into each of the decisive ties.
Could Real Madrid be up against their first real test of the season? Despite strong competition in LaLiga this campaign, they’ve managed to brush off most teams with ease - encountering only minor unexpected hiccups against those on the bottom half of the table.
The key is this: when it’s come to facing the top teams, Carlo Ancelotti’s men have proven a tough nut to crack. Los Blancos have felt extremely comfortable when it comes to taking on more competitive sides, showing their willingness to sit patiently at the back and wait for their chances on the counter-attack. We’ve seen this plan executed to perfection against Barcelona (both in LaLiga as well as the Supercopa de España), Atlético Madrid and Sevilla amongst others.
And it’s for that reason that playing Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 may not be Real Madrid’s worst-case scenario. The Parisians have an undoubtedly talented squad, but they’ve shown a lack of cohesion since the start of the season which has led to more than one upset for Mauricio Pochettino’s team. In Real Madrid’s case, however, you could argue that squad unity is one of the main virtues that Carletto has brought to Valdebebas.
While it’s almost certain that any club in the world would lose sleep over having to face Leo Messi, Kylian Mbappé, Neymar Jr. and co., Eder Militão and David Alaba have established themselves as one of Europe’s best defensive pairings this season, and their performances will prove crucial to the outcome of the tie as both men will be in charge of leading the team from the back.
Both Real Madrid and PSG are currently sitting top of their respective leagues with a very similar scored and conceded goals balance. While PSG have 51 goals scored and 19 goals conceded, Real Madrid have scored three fewer and conceded just one more, and this tie will be critical when evaluating whether each club has met, surpassed or fallen short of their season’s expectations.
If Real Madrid display the defensive fortitude that they’ve shown up until now, with Karim Benzema orchestrating the offensive side of things, they are in with of a real chance of causing the French side, including their former captain, Sergio Ramos, an untimely exit.
If the original luck of the draw had paired Atlético Madrid with a difficult rival, the second draw is with an all-too-familiar villain. It’s almost as if Cristiano Ronaldo and Atlético Madrid’s paths are destined to meet every couple of years, no matter where on the continent he’s playing his football.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has played 35 games against Los Rojiblancos throughout the course of his career with an astonishing 25 goals and nine assists. It’s almost impossible to forget the “comeback hat-trick” in 2019 in which he single-handedly turned the tie around to put Juventus through.
Diego Simeone will be looking to keep the Portuguese star quiet and re-instil his own ever so distinctive defensive robustness and impenetrability that’s been sorely lacking in recent months. With Los Colchoneros having conceded an uncharacteristic number of goals (42 in 31 games), especially from set pieces (10) and crosses (nine), this will be their main task at hand come matchday.
A conundrum that Simeone will have been working on in recent weeks is how to revive the spark in Luis Suárez, who’s only found the back of the net twice since the start of November. The Uruguayan is the only Atleti player to have faced the ‘Red Devils’ in the past, with a pair of goals and assists to his name in the nine games played against them. However, Simeone may opt to leave Lucho out of the starting line-up with a few options for who could stand in for the striker and partner up with Antoine Griezmann. While João Félix’s name is the first that might spring to mind, a strong case could be made for both Matheus Cunha and Ángel Correa who have outshone the Portuguese youngster in recent weeks.
With both teams facing critical moments in their seasons and a top-four finish at worst being each club’s primary objective, this could be the tie that really turns things around for either of them after an underwhelming first half of the season. Simeone’s side will need to prove their worth at both ends of the pitch if they want to earn a place in the quarter-finals.
Although it may not be the tie that’s getting as much of the spotlight, this could well prove to be one of the most interesting clashes of the last 16.
Both Villarreal and Juventus have gradually turned around their sloppy starts to the season and have managed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League as well as fighting it out for a spot in next year’s edition in their respective leagues.
With both teams having improved their squads in the winter transfer window, the Italians may now have the upper hand in what seemed like a fairly matched pairing. The acquisition of forward Dušan Vlahović from Fiorentina and defensive midfielder Denis Zakaria from Borussia Monchengladbach could possibly tip the scales in favour of La Vecchia Signora. Both new signings scored in their recent 2-0 win against Verona this past weekend.
On the other hand, the Yellow Submarine have snapped up Argentine international midfielder Giovani Lo Celso on loan from Tottenham Hotspur until the end of the season. This, alongside the fine form in which Gerard Moreno has returned from injury (although another setback to a calf problem may mean he’s in doubt until the very last minute), Arnaut Danjuma having rejoined the squad after two months out due to an ankle problem, and Boulaye Dia who finally seemed to be finding his feet before heading to the Africa Cup of Nations with eventual winners Senegal, really make Villarreal an offensive threat.
More questionable, however, is the back line and goalkeeper. Los Groguets have conceded some embarrassing goals this season resulting from defensive errors, many of which have been of their own doing. Despite the Spanish duo of Pau Torres and Raúl Albiol not offering Unai Emery the same solidity that we saw last year, they remain his go-to starters at centre-back.
The real question though is which full-backs will be chosen for the tie, with up to seven players fighting for only two starting spots. While Emery has used Juan Foyth and Pervis Esptupiñán the most, he’s not chosen the same pair of full backs in more than two consecutive matches all season. Could we see Serge Aurier sneak into the line-up or will Alfonso Pedraza finally regain a place that he’d nailed down last year?
It certainly won’t be a walk in the park for the three Spanish teams and they may all be entering their ties as the underdogs, but nevertheless we’re excited to see what version of themselves turn up in the last 16 of the Champions League.
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