Unlike the electric and fast-paced matches in this round as of late, the mood was nervous and pragmatic as Atletico Madrid hosted Chelsea for their first leg of the Round of 16. While Atletico were technically the host team, they were unfortunately not allowed to play in their home stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano. Instead, the game was played at a neutral venue in Bucharest, Romania due to COVID-19 travel restrictions between Spain and England.
This match is a perfect example of how ever-changing football is as a sport. Rewind to one month ago: Atletico Madrid were in the best form they had been in years, going on an eight-match winning streak in La Liga which gave them a 10-point lead at the top of the league table. On the other hand, Chelsea had just sacked their manager, Frank Lampard, after a string of inconsistent and disappointing results which saw them struggling to make it into the Premier League top four.
Fast forward a month later to now: Not all has been smooth sailing for Chelsea under new manager Thomas Tuchel, but he has been able to stabilize the situation and piece together a run of good form. Meanwhile, fatigue has set in in the Atletico ranks. After two sluggish draws and a loss, their 10-point lead has shrunk to three points (although it must be said that they have a game in hand). A month ago, many expected Atleti to blow away Chelsea, but heading into this recent match, the predictions were much more balanced.
As the match kicked off, Atletico Madrid simply could not patch together their attack and midfield. Historically a defensive team, coach Diego Simeone has tried new things this season, offering a dynamic attacking side to his game, which so far has worked well in league play. Against Chelsea, however, the midfield could not hold on to the ball, the fullbacks were isolated far up on the pitch and the strikers weren’t seeing enough of the ball.
As a result, Atleti simply reverted back to the resolute defensive strategy they are stereotypically known for. Because of this, Chelsea were given much more freedom on the ball, dominating possession and utilizing the wings to cross balls in. But Atleti’s defensive prowess in the backline was unbreakable; center-backs Mario Hermoso and Felipe were fantastic on the night, cutting off passing lanes and intercepting crosses left and right, leaving Chelsea with barely any chances on goal.
This defensive emphasis is unsustainable as long as the attack was not going anywhere, though. When on the ball, Luis Suarez got in good areas and created several chances, but he wasn’t getting the ball enough, while Joao Felix was largely invisible. You can defend the whole game, but all it takes is one small mistake to crash the system, which is exactly what happened.
Olivier Giroud, the continually underrated striker for Chelsea (who seems to only score beautiful goals), was lurking in the Atletico penalty area late in the match before a ball was crossed in. The ball bounced around in the box before luckily ricocheting off Hermoso’s shin and in Giroud’s path. With his back to goal, Giroud flung his body into the air, sinking the ball into the net with a flawless bicycle kick and giving Chelsea a valuable lead which they would hold on to. While Atletico still have a great chance to turn this tie around, Chelsea fans will sleep well knowing the odds are in their favor.
Lazio (Italy) 1-4 Bayern Munich (Germany)
Heading into this match, Lazio were preparing themselves as potential giant killers in the face of Bayern Munich, the team who won the Champions League last year and are the reigning World Champions after winning the Club World Club earlier this month. While their record speaks for itself, Bayern have not been in the best of form lately, as lingering defensive issues saw them concede three goals in a draw with Arminia Bielefeld and lose to Eintracht Frankfurt in their two most recent matches. Meanwhile, excepting a loss to the Italian league-leaders, Inter Milan, Lazio have not lost a league match since December of last year, leaving them with great hope that they can topple the Bavarian behemoths. But fortunately for Bayern (yet unfortunately for Lazio), David was not able to take down Goliath in this instance.
If the match between Atletico Madrid and Chelsea was a tense affair with great defending and subdued attacks, this match was the complete opposite. Defensive mistakes and electric attacking moves resulted in a goalfest as Lazio welcomed Bayern Munich to their famous Stadio Olimpico in Rome. From the first minute to the last, Bayern’s relentless pressure instilled fear into Lazio’s backline, forcing them into huge blunders.
It did not take long for this to pay off; only nine minutes in, a mishit backpass from Mateo Musacchio was pounced on by Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski, easily making it 1-0 to the away side. Just over 10 minutes later, 17-year-old Jamal Musiala doubled Bayern’s lead after he was gifted way too much space at the top of the penalty box. Right before the half ended, Bayern would make it 3-0 in their favor when a gut-bursting run and cut-back shot from Kingsley Coman was easily turned in by Leroy Sane, after the desperate save from Lazio’s keeper, Pepe Reina, was parried out.
The beginning of the second half was more of the same as Bayern dominated the midfield. Their wingers shredded Lazio’s defense to small slices with their pace and power, all while the Lazio defenders made life extremely hard for themselves with mistake after mistake. The misery was further piled on in the second half after a dangerous run and low-cross from Sane was accidentally turned into the goal by Lazio’s own Francesco Acerbi, making it 4-0.
It was not all bad for Lazio on the night though, as immediately after that goal, great linkup play by Luis Alberto and a mazy dribble from Joaquin Correa saw Lazio get a goal back with a wonderful strike. In fact, throughout the match, Lazio was actually very dangerous on the attack, forcing Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer into several last-ditch saves. If Lazio’s defenders did not shoot themselves in the foot with their erroneous performances, Lazio could have gotten something out of this match.
But in the end, Bayern leave Italy with an already insurmountable 4-1 lead, further proving why they are the best team in the world by far. While crazier things have happened in football, it seems that Lazio need nothing short of a divine miracle to organize a comeback in the second leg.
Atalanta (Italy) 0-1 Real Madrid (Spain)
Real Madrid enter the tie barely needing any introduction, as they are the most successful club in Europe and have been crowned King of Europe on 13 occasions—more than anyone else—including three consecutive victories from 2016 to 2018.
However, history and experience can only take you so far. These past few seasons, Real Madrid have been far from that perpetually winning, monstrous side of years past. By their extremely high standards, Los Blancos have had a subpar season so far, sitting in second place in La Liga. They have looked especially vulnerable at times; in fact, they barely made it out of their Champions League group, which they were expected to win easily. Extra problems have been piled on for manager Zinedine Zidane as his team has been hit by a devasting injury crisis, forcing key players like Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Fede Valverde and Eden Hazard out of this match.
On the other hand, Atalanta was the fan-favorite team for their beautiful playing style and underdog status, and they were loving life heading into this match. Atalanta are a team that truly enjoy playing football, and as a result, they are a joy to watch. Despite not having much footballing pedigree nor a massive budget, Atalanta lit up the Italian league for the past several years before making a name for themselves in last year’s Champions League season, almost reaching the semifinals in their first-ever appearance in this tournament. The sale of Papu Gomez, arguably their best player, to Sevilla last month was a huge blow to the side, yet they still soldiered on, scoring goals at will, leaving many to believe they would capitalize on Real Madrid’s weaknesses and march on at their expense. But so far, fate seems to desire otherwise.
At times, football can be a cruel and fickle sport, and this first match was clear evidence of that. In a game where goals were expected, the biggest talking point of the match was not a goal but rather a controversial red card occurring early in the first half. With a burst of speed, the Real Madrid left-back, Ferland Mendy, galloped deep in Atalanta’s half. With a tough yet tactical foul, Remo Freuler stuck out a leg, sending Mendy to the ground. Hardly hesitating, the referee pulled a straight red, ejecting Freuler from the match. The Atalanta players were understandably upset, as Mendy’s touch took the ball away from goal at a tight angle—not to mention that Freuler had Cristian Romero to cover his back, meaning he wasn’t the last defender in front of goal. Therefore, Freuler’s foul was not denying a goal-scoring chance and shouldn’t have been red. But the referee saw otherwise and sent him off.
Atalanta attempted to continue as usual until shortly after, their star striker, Duvan Zapata, picked up a knee injury and was forced off the pitch. For a team that heavily relied on free-flowing attack, being a man down and missing your main striker completely destroyed their game plan. Coach Gian Piero Gasperini decided to make a desperate strategic decision and just play for a draw. Sensing this, Real Madrid pushed for a victory, but due to their own shortcomings mentioned before, they were not effective, resulting in an overall drab match.
But Atalanta’s bad luck continued, and with only four minutes left in regulation time, Ferland Mendy received the ball after a corner and curled in a magnificent shot from far out, granting Real Madrid a precious lead in the tie. As Atalanta travel to Madrid for the return leg next month, they still have a great chance to overturn this result, so it’s not all over just yet.
Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany) 0-2 Manchester City (England)
Out of all the matchups in this round, this one was seemed to be the most straightforward, and as this game unfolded, those predictions seem to be spot on. Borussia Monchengladbach hosted Manchester City in a neutral venue in Budapest due to travel restrictions, looking to find some stability in a season which has largely been a mixed bag for them. Monchengladbach pulled off some great performances in this tournament, absolutely blowing away Shakhtar Donetsk and shocking Real Madrid in the group stage. However, their form in the Bundesliga has been lacking, as a slew of inconsistent results sees them sit in eighth place.
Meanwhile, Manchester City are easily the best team in England at the moment. After fixing some defensive shortcomings and injury problems early on, Pep Guardiola has found the perfect system, stomping all opposition. His methods have placed the Citizens at the top of the Premier League with a 10-point gap and the best defensive record in the country.
The match was no surprise as Man City dominated possession, choking Monchengladbach. Man City created numerous chances and really could’ve embarrassed their opposition, but the gap in quality was so apparent that they barely needed to break a sweat as they easily ensured victory.
Joao Cancelo had an undeniable world-class performance, pulling the strings from left-back. After a perfect cross from Cancelo, Bernardo Silva was able to effortlessly steer the ball into the net with his head, opening the score. In the second half, Silva turned provider, setting up Gabriel Jesus to poke in City’s second and solidifying their triumph.
Borussia Monchengladbach by no means played badly, Manchester City were just so good that the Germans stood no chance. Looking ahead to the rest of the season, City are on course for a deep run in this tournament, so far looking like the only team able to challenge Bayern’s claim to the throne.