Heading into the final round of Champions League on Paramount+ the pressure is firmly on La Liga’s representatives with four of them facing a battle on the final day to book their place in the last 16. Once the great power of European football, Spain could find itself with just Real Madrid in the hunt for the continent’s greatest prize in the new year. Below we assess the prospects of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla (Villarreal are also playing and on the brink, but their situation is much more clear cut. They wish to defend. They are in Italy facing Atalanta who wish to attack. If Atalanta win, they advance, otherwise Unai Emery’s side goes through):
Porto vs. Atletico Madrid: Los Rojiblancos failings are punished
Perhaps it is for no other reason than the never changing figure in the dugout that Atletico Madrid still find themselves viewed through the obdurate, diligent lens of those sides in the mid-2010s that were perennial contenders in the latter stages of the Champions League. Diego Simeone has not changed but Atletico’s standing in Europe has, quite without anyone noticing. Over the last four years they have as many group stage exits as their solitary knockout round win, a remarkable smash and grab over Liverpool that the last few weeks would seem to prove is beyond them this season.
Atleti’s one group stage win so far in 2021-22 came after AC Milan, who had been outplaying them for most of the game, had a man sent off. Across five games they have scored three non-penalty goals, all by Antoine Griezmann, whose brief stirring in defeat to Liverpool was one of the rare moments this team looked like one that could test top sides.
Their underlying numbers point to a team that would do well to get out of the group. They have the group stage’s 22nd most non-penalty expected goals (xG) and the competition’s 20th best defense by that same metric. This competition has been as much a tale of self-inflicted wounds on the defensive end as it has been their failure to click into gear in attack. The Atletico of old certainly left their mark on opponents but never in the self destructive fashion that saw Mario Hermoso hand Liverpool a penalty and a win in the Wanda Metropolitano.
There is some irony then that Atletico’s fate could be decided by a team who look far more like the fighters of Simeone’s past sides. Porto have proven to be a hellish opponent for almost every top side since the start of the 2020-21 Champions League; only Liverpool could be said to have had an easy ride against Sergio Conceicao’s men, perhaps because they are the only team with quite enough firepower to truly overwhelm Pepe and company.
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Even with the seven goals they let in against Liverpool, Porto sit 10th among group stage teams in terms of non-penalty xG allowed. They may not be the most devastating of attacks but they have a plan that has brought them success this season and in years gone by: keep the game tight, don’t make sloppy errors and pounce at the other end.
It very nearly paid off last time they met Atletico. Only the slightest of inadvertent hand balls from Mehdi Taremi denied Porto a winner when Renan Lodi undercooked his back pass. Time and time again crosses would come into Jan Oblak’s box with a visiting attacker totally unmarked. Chancel Mbemba in particular could have won the game with an unmarked header late on. That is not all that rare for Atletico. Only six teams have given up more low pressure non-penalty xG in the group stages than Simeone’s.
Games like this one, where the winner is guaranteed qualification, tend to be decided by mistakes more often than they are by moments of magic. Right now if you were to pick a defense more likely to make that critical error it would have to be Los Rojiblancos.
Bayern Munich vs. Barcelona: Dembele gives visitors a chance
In all likelihood Barcelona’s task is a forlorn one. Only a win away to Bayern Munich guarantees them qualification for the knockout stages; the side that lost 1-0 to midtable rivals Real Betis at the weekend hardly looks likely to win away to one of Europe’s top sides.
If there is cause for hope it might just come in what an Ousmane Dembele firing on all cylinders could do to Bayern in transition.
That is where Julian Nagelsmann’s side look at their relative weakest. Against opponents in the Bundesliga and the Champions League they do not give up many shots nor many goals. When they do come it is often because Bayern have committed so many men forward that there simply is not time to get back. That was how Augsburg got their second goal in a shock win late last month, how Benfica punctured the bubble in a 5-2 defeat where they gave the Bundesliga giants more difficulties than the score might suggest.
If there is any player in Barcelona’s ranks well suited to that it is Dembele, rested from the starting XI on Saturday with a possible eye on the visit to Bavaria. Certainly he earned his starting spot with a dangerous cameo off the bench, registering more shots in 32 minutes than Xavi’s starting front three combined for across the entire game.
As soon as he entered the contest he added pace to the Barca attack, invariably looking to run at his full back, commit them and attack from there. There was nothing Alex Moreno could do to deal with the France international in full flight, dummying to go inside before flying down the flank and fizzing a low shot wide of the far post.
Without the ball he would make the run that might stretch the Betis defense, when he gave possession up he would immediately look to attack the spaces on the pitch. As Memphis Depay struggled and with Philippe Coutinho having sputtered out Dembele shouldered the attacking load rather impressively.
It was the sort of performance that might not justify Joan Laporta’s bold claim that Dembele is superior to Kylian Mbappe, but could at least convince you that Barcelona’s president was not mad to be saying it. The issue is rather that it was a brief cameo against Real Betis and Xavi now needs something this good, perhaps better, against Bayern Munich for the full 90 minutes, almost as much football as Dembele has played in the entirety of this season.
Meanwhile at the other end there is still a defense consistently vulnerable to counter attacks that will have to deal with the fact that their team need to chase a win in Munich. It will surely all prove to be too much for Barcelona but if they are to come close to the win they might need — Dynamo Kyiv could always do them a favor against Benfica — Dembele must surely shine.
Salzburg vs. Sevilla: Veteran nous carries the day
Did Red Bull Salzburg fly too close to the sun in Group G? With three games played they looked to have done the business, picking up seven points from their first three games with Karim Adeyemi and Noah Okafor the latest breakout stars of the competition’s group stages, catching eyes just as Erling Haaland and Dominik Szobszlai had done in years gone by. They could have had a knockout berth wrapped up with two games to spare. Then the wobble set in, a marginal game shaded by Wolfsburg followed by one of their most underwhelming recent Champions League performances against Lille. Qualification is still in their hands as Sevilla arrive in Austria but there is no room for further slip ups.
Salzburg head coach Matthias Jaissler would rather focus on the former of those two facts. “We are very excited,” he said. “This is now an all or nothing game against a top European team in the Champions League. What could be better for a footballer?
“Before the final game we have it in our own hands to reach the last 16. I don’t know if a lot of people would have thought we could do that.” It is a fair point to make. Champions of Austria were hardly perennial figures in the business end of the competition prior to Salzburg’s dominance of the league. And this season’s competition, in which they set the pace in Group G, has certainly seen them take a step forward on past years. The issue is rather that they have looked capable of so much more than scrapping with Sevilla in the final game.
Throughout this competition they have put up impressive statistics, attacked dangerously but seemed to let opponents off the hook in key moments. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Seville, where they missed two penalties in a 1-1 draw they should have won comfortably. In terms of what Opta classifies as big chances, Salzburg rank 26th in terms of the percentage of shots that hit the target and 31st in shooting goals added, a metric that assesses how much more likely a shot is to find the net after it has been taken.
Such statistics are perhaps reflective of a team that one might suggest freezes on the big stage. That is only natural for a young squad that are used to sweeping all comers in domestic play. The quality of their players is such that they look more than capable on the Champions League stage but they never look entirely at ease on it. It, of course, does not help that those who carry Salzburg one year tend to be picked up by Bundesliga or Premier League clubs before the next comes round.
It makes for a harsh comparison with the settled squad of Sevilla, riddled with the veterans of numerous deep runs in the Champions and Europa League. Julen Lopetegui’s side have rarely translated their La Liga form into continental matches but they have done enough so far to stay in the hunt. The likes of Jesus Navas and Ivan Rakitic know exactly what is required at this stage. Expect them to deliver it.