La Liga Lowdown
Will a LaLiga side win the Champions League this season?
Written by Matt Clark
Before Christmas, all four LaLiga sides confirmed their places in the knockout stages of this season’s premier European competition. This is usually an effective measuring stick for the strength of the league, and Spanish teams have dominated the competition over recent years, with Barcelona and Real Madrid winning a combined seven of the last 11 titles. The question is: will one of them win it in 2020?
In this article, their respective chances will be assessed, based on recent history, the luck or otherwise of the draw, and their current situations this season. REAL MADRID History and reputation alone put 13-time champions Real Madrid high on the list of favourites every season. Their historic ‘three-peat’ was unprecedented in the Champions League era and even more impressive, given that no side had even won back-to-back titles since Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan in 1990. But Madrid clearly struggled initially with the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, and then 2019’s humiliating exit at the hands of Ajax stunned the Bernabéu, so they will be desperate to put it right this time around.
One perhaps lucky omen is that Zidane has won the Champions League in every season he has coached Los Blancos. But perhaps a little more unexpected in this latest chapter is that Real Madrid are much better defensively under his stewardship. They have set club records in LaLiga, won the Supercopa de España and went unbeaten for 21 matches from October until their surprise Copa del Rey defeat to Real Sociedad. Crucially, they are sitting at the summit of LaLiga, and Zidane has made deliberate comments about the fact that he is determined to win the title as confirmation of their superiority. Can they go for the double, as they did in 2016-17? History suggests that it won’t be easy, given that the previous occasion they won a LaLiga and European Cup double was way back in 1957-58, illustrating the challenge of carrying the weight of both competitions for a full campaign. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will be the first hurdle to overcome if Real Madrid want to celebrate a 14th title, and he is no stranger to facing the men in white. With the Premier League title race already over, once again there is pressure on City to deliver in Europe. The Champions League as an ‘obsession’ for Guardiola has been widely discussed, but he has never taken this expensively-assembled side beyond the quarter-final stage, despite their domestic dominance. It remains a fact that he has not won the trophy without Lionel Messi, the last of which came nine years ago. Some will say he is overdue, others argue that he has become so fixated on these knockout games that he overthinks and tries left-field formations to outfox opponents. Despite that, City will still be a stern test for Real Madrid in potentially the tie of the round, and despite injury worries surrounding Raheem Sterling, they possess awesome firepower, including former Atlético Madrid forward Sergio Agüero. Real Madrid’s newly-found defensive mettle will be tested, but defence is where City are weakest so Zidane may opt for pace in transition involving the likes of Vinícius Júnior to unsettle City’s exposed central defenders. The long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte has required Fernandinho to play there, meaning he is away from his usual protective role. In solving one problem, Guardiola has inadvertently caused another, as teams can now get at the back line more easily without the experienced Brazilian shielding it. It should be a close if nervy encounter over two legs, but one that Real Madrid should relish. There are barely any teams with more experience and nous when it comes to big European nights, and if they do overcome City, they will see that as a massive step towards winning the trophy in May. BARCELONA To say it has been an eventful start for Quique Setién would be an understatement, with early signs doing little to convince anyone that Barcelona are any better off than they were under Ernesto Valverde. It is those Champions League horror shows from Rome and Anfield that have most haunted those “culés” in recent years – not just causing widespread embarrassment, but also preventing them from narrowing the gaping chasm to their eternal Clásico rivals, who undoubtedly have superiority in this competition with 13 European Cups, compared to Barcelona’s five. Domestically there have been defeats at Athletic Club, Granada, Levante and Valencia before being knocked out in the Supercopa and Copa, with Barça looking especially uncomfortable away from home. The season-ending injuries to Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé have not helped, neither has the curious transfer activity in January, allowing promising young talent to leave without bringing in ready-made replacements and being linked with underwhelming options. They are still in touch with Real Madrid in LaLiga, but there are some huge games coming up and many believe that Los Blancos have already played their harder fixtures, whereas Barça have more tough assignments ahead.
Winning their group did at least prove advantageous for the Catalan side. In the last 16 they drew Napoli, who themselves are having a mixed season with off-field issues. Like Barça, they have ended up changing coach – as Gennaro Gattuso replaced the experienced Carlo Ancelotti – and also playing style. Despite their struggles this season, Napoli are second in Serie A for average possession, and had a higher share when beating leaders Juventus in January. However, having the lion’s share of the ball against Setién’s Barcelona is improbable, so how will they cope without the ball? A few statistics may give us a clue. Napoli took four points off Liverpool in the group stage, restricting the defending champions to less than 1.0 xG in each game, despite having 48% possession at home and only 28% at Anfield. More recently, they beat Sassuolo in Serie A and Lazio in the Coppa Italia despite having less possession. This suggests that they are able to trust in their defence without the ball and can frustrate opponents by setting up in a solid block. This serves as a note of caution to Barça, but of course none of those opponents had Lionel Messi. What about lifting the trophy overall? With Messi, it would be foolish to rule them out, but Barcelona are far weaker this season, and internal problems at the club are beginning to affect confidence and performances. Even for Messi himself, the criticism of sporting director Eric Abidal was a rare public airing of his thoughts, and his body language on the pitch has appeared somewhat negative lately. At Anfield last season, Andy Robertson seemed to get under his skin, and the tactic could be repeated, so if there is any sign that Messi is not at the optimum level, Barça’s perceived mental fragility could be exploited. Assuming they progress, the challenge for Barcelona is how they perform further into the competition. Finding a way to cope in away games will be critical to overcome those psychological blocks which have clearly hindered them in the last two seasons. An away first leg in any potential quarter- or semi-final would certainly be the preferred scenario, with the relative sanctuary of Camp Nou for the return leg, but this is rather a lot to rely on to be confident of safe passage, so it is hard to see Barcelona going all the way. ATLÉTICO MADRID Diego Simeone’s side have endured repeated heartache in the continent’s premier competition. In between winning the Europa League in 2012 and 2018, they suffered bitter defeats in Champions League finals to city rivals Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016, going agonisingly close in both. In Simeone’s time in charge, they have overcome Tata Martino’s Barcelona, José Mourinho’s Real Madrid and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich over two legs, so they know how to manage these big battles. However, the majority of that team from the height of their success have moved on or retired, and this is now a transition period for Atleti. Their form has nosedived since they lost the Supercopa on penalties in Jeddah: being knocked out of the Copa by a third-tier side was humiliating, and they find themselves well off the pace in LaLiga, 13 points behind Real Madrid after the derby defeat. As such, securing a top-four finish and qualifying for next season’s competition is realistically their domestic aim.
It’s not just about the summer departures of Diego Godín, Juanfran, Filipe Luis, Lucas Hernandez, Rodri and Antoine Griezmann. Atlético’s attempted transition hasn’t been helped by severe injuries, with key players missing a significant number of games. Their forward line is looking particularly bare following the injuries to João Félix and Álvaro Morata, but at least they hope to have Diego Costa in contention for the return of the Champions League. Atleti got one of the toughest draws possible in Premier League leaders Liverpool, who have collected 73 out of 75 points in their campaign so far and who won the Champions League in the Spanish capital in June 2019. Given Atleti’s injuries and general lack of consistent goal threat, few are willing to seriously consider the idea of Los Rojiblancos progressing. Simeone’s blueprint will probably be similar to that of last season’s round-of-16 tie with Juventus where they won 2-0 in front of a raucous home crowd, a lead they tried to defend in Turin. However, their old adversary Cristiano Ronaldo had other ideas and Juve completed the remontada. Simeone should have learned from that humbling experience, and he will be aware of Liverpool’s forward threats. Keeping it as tight as possible at home is essential before travelling to Anfield for the return. In any event, it seems imperative that Atleti must score there, which Barcelona failed to do last season. In terms of a tactical approach, Atleti will be used to not having the ball, as they are 11thin LaLiga for average possession. An option for Simeone could be to play a high defensive line and push Liverpool’s forwards back, but one of the problems with this approach is that they are not adept at winning the ball high in the opponent’s defensive third, only doing so 83 times in LaLiga – a long way behind pressing kings Eibar (131), Real Madrid (119) and Barcelona (113). The other issue is vulnerability to pace in behind from the wide forwards. Starting high generates more space to run into, and Atlético are not blessed with pace in their back line. To reiterate, Atleti will be no pushovers and Liverpool will have to be at the top of their game to win, but it is hard to make a strong case for the Madrid side. VALENCIA Getting an accurate read on Valencia is hard at the best of times, but this season they have defied expectation on numerous occasions. Following the debacle of replacing Copa-winning coach Marcelino with Albert Celades less than a week before the start of the group stage, Valencianistas were fearing the worst in the ‘group of death’ alongside Chelsea, Ajax and Lille. Los Che recorded a bizarre pattern of early results: winning at Stamford Bridge before being comprehensively beaten by Ajax at Mestalla. They went into matchday six with the odds stacked against them, but they defied belief by beating Ajax at the Johan Cruyff Arena to progress as group winners.
They have been steadily progressing through the season, sitting in amongst the European positions, but the turn of the year has brought four disappointing results: the Supercopa elimination by Real Madrid, the 4-1 mauling at Mallorca and 3-0 reverse at Getafe, and their Copa quarter-final loss at Granada, as they surrendered their crown. As such, the Champions League remains Valencia’s only realistic chance of winning anything this season, and the tie with Atalanta is fascinating. The competition debutants lost their first three matches in the group but recovered to progress, and Gian Piero Gasperini’s side are Serie A’s great entertainers, having scored at least five goals in three separate league games since the end of the group stage. Indeed, only Manchester City have scored more than Atalanta’s 61 goals in Europe’s top five leagues. The clash is hard to predict, but goals are almost guaranteed. Valencia have not made it to the quarter-finals since 2007, but they are slight favourites to quality with the bookmakers. That said, Atalanta are an unknown quantity and have the ability to surprise, so expect Valencia’s defenders to be kept busy, especially after the loss of Ezequiel Garay to an ACL injury which is a severe blow to their backline. If Valencia do progress, they will grow in belief and they can look back to recent experience of winning as underdogs from last season’s Copa final. The potential momentum of qualification and progression into a quarter-final should not be understated, and this is where another intangible comes in: Mestalla will be rocking for the home leg, and when team and fans are united, Valencia are a force to be reckoned with. After suffering heartbreak in back-to-back finals at the turn of the century, Los Che want to be back among the elite at the business end of the tournament. If they can beat Atalanta, they will begin to believe that they are capable of something special. Overall, there is a case for all four Spanish teams to progress to the last eight, but that is going against the odds and most expectations. It is reasonable to expect three and certainly two clubs to represent LaLiga in the quarters, while Real Madrid currently look the best equipped side to be lifting the trophy in Istanbul in May.
MATT’S PREDICTIONS Most likely to progress to the Q/F: Barcelona Spanish sides in Q/F: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia Most likely to win the UCL: Real Madrid
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