The Champions League draw is done and the path to the finals has now been laid, revealing that Barça will have to face some of Europe’s top pedigree at every stage if they are to reach the final. How do things look for the Catalans?
The whole world anxiously looked on as Paulo Sousa drew ball after ball at the UEFA headquarters at Nyon. Both club representatives and fans around the world watched alike, from the comfort of their localities. With every ball drawn, the framework of the mega event grew clearer and clearer. As always, the Champions League draw lived up to the astronomical expectations it is often associated with. For the neutral football fan, there are some dazzling fixtures scheduled for the next month. Things for Barcelona though don’t look very promising.
A novel format of the Champions League
The world has been going through extremely difficult times. Every country has had to face the brunt of this devastating pandemic. Amid all the chaos, the UEFA along with the cooperation from the national football federations worked out a formula to keep European football going. It was never going to possible to play it with complete normalcy.
After the Champions League draw, Barcelona already know how their path to the trophy looks like | Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images
The committee decided to conduct the entire Champions League in a 12-day event in August. With international travel not being as facile as before, the entire tournament from the quarter-finals stage will be conducted in the Portuguese city of Lisbon. Unlike the trademark two-legged fixtures that the Champions has been known for, this year the games will only be single-legged. Go big or go home!
A massive boost to Barcelona, however, is that the second leg of the round of 16 fixture against Napoli will be played at the Camp Nou. The other changes announced include a maximum of five substitutions at three intervals in the game, and an extra substitution permitted in the event of extra time.
Reliving Barcelona’s run so far
It has been a fairly long while since the glorious Champions League anthem rattled through the stands of stadiums across the world. After a five-month long hiatus, the competition returns and it is necessary to know how Barcelona got where they are.
The Catalans were initially drawn into Group F alongside Inter Milan, Borrusia Dortmund and Slavia Prague. It was certainly the most difficult group on paper, and the fixtures testified. The blaugranas remained unbeaten throughout the group stage, winning four of their six fixtures. They pulled out some stunning displays like the 3–1 win over Borrusia Dortmund at home. At the same time, there were some not so pretty fixtures, particularly the goalless home draw with Slavia Prague. Barcelona finished at the top of the group.
At the round of 16 draw, the European giants found themselves drawn against Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli. The first leg at the city of Naples was an enthralling night of football. Antoine Griezmann’s precious away goal cancelled out Dries Mertens’ opener before Arturo Vidal was sent off in the 89′. After the 1–1 at the Stadio San Paolo, both teams prepare to face each other on Saturday 8 August at 21:00 CET for the second leg.
The all-important second leg
The Champions League path from the quarter-finals for Barcelona looks to be a doozy. But it is all based on one assumption: that they overcome the test against Napoli at the Camp Nou. The San Paolo Stadium in Naples witnessed an extraordinary night of football with both the home side and their Spanish guests taking part in a gritty battle. Barcelona came back home with an all-important away goal scored by their star signing from the summer, Antoine Griezmann.
“First we must focus on beating Napoli. We will play at home, which is fair. It’s good to know our future opponents”
SSC Napoli currently sit sixth in the Serie A, and are on a good run of form. They took down the mighty Juventus in the final of the Coppa Italia to take home the silverware. It would certainly be foolish of the azulgranas to take Gattuso’s men lightly. They will also be without the services of Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal, through suspension, and Martin Braithwaite, who isn’t registered to play in European contest. The game at the Camp Nou will be a test of strength, both physical and mental. All that can be said right now is that Barça do not have their ticket to Lisbon yet.
The team that comes on top at the Camp Nou has been drawn against the victor of the clash between Bayern Munich and Chelsea.
After the first leg at Stamford Bridge in February, Bayern Munich hold a three-goal lead over Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. More importantly, a three-away-goal lead. In the Champions League, the first rule is to never write a team off. Chelsea on their day can rip through opposition defences with their combination of talented youth and experience. However, the chance of that happening is bleak indeed.
With the domestic double sealed, Bayern Munich now aim at the second treble in their history | Photo by Michael Sohn / Pool via Getty Images
The Bundesliga and DFB Pokal champions have all eyes set on the treble. After an extremely rusty start to the campaign and a managerial change in the process, they look in better form than ever. With manager Hans-Dieter Flick they are unbeaten in their last 26 games across all competitions. The team has been scoring goals at free will, with Robert Lewandowski enjoying one of his most stellar seasons to date.
Barcelona’s recent history at the European stage has not been very pleasant. Facing a team so high in confidence would be a difficult hurdle to get past. There is no doubt that the team has the quality, but do they have the mindset to see them past the German champions? No doubt, it will be a very difficult hurdle to get past. Nevertheless, it is only 90 minutes of football that decides the fate of a team. Neither side can be written off.
The victor of quarter-final 3 find themselves drawn up against the winner of quarter-final 1.
The first quarter-final tie of the Champions League will be played between the winners of the Manchester City vs Real Madrid and Juventus vs Olympique Lyonnais. A battle of the giants indeed. As things stand, Man City has a 2–1 lead over Los Blancos, with captain Sergio Ramos suspended for the return leg at the Etihad Stadium. One would expect Pep Guardiola’s side to go through, but Zinedine Zidane’s men can never be written off.
Elsewhere, Juventus, who haven’t been in the best form themselves lately, are a goal down against Olympique Lyonnais. It is anyone’s game to win, and thus it is difficult to make any prediction.
Pep Guardiola looks to win his first Champions League title since leaving Barcelona | Photo by Ángel Martínez via Getty Images
If Barcelona makes it to the semi-final, they could face any of the four clubs, all of them steep mountains to climb. Manchester City has been rejuvenated since the return of football, even seeing off Premier League champions Liverpool in a dominant 4–0 victory. Real Madrid have not dropped a point since the return of football and have virtually sealed the La Liga title for the season.
Juventus have been in quite a poor form, and haven’t hit their stride yet, but expect them to stand up and deliver when it matters. Underdogs Lyon are always a low key threat. A physical side that knows how to soak up pressure and hit on the counter, exactly the type of team Barcelona often loathe.
On the other half of the draw are Atlético de Madrid, Atalanta, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig. The favourites to reach the finals may indeed be the kings of France PSG, who have a relatively easy route to the finals, at least compared to the other bracket.
At the same time, this could also be the year of redemption for Diego Pablo Simeone. After a rather underwhelming season, Atlético de Madrid found their stride after annihilating Champions League winners Liverpool in their own backyard. They are undoubtedly the dark horses to this year’s trophy.
Barcelona’s recent history in the Champions League has not been very charming for its supporters. If an easy draw is what culeé were hoping for, it is most certainly not what they wanted. If Barça are to lift the trophy this year, it will be a long and gruelling path. Every hurdle gets bigger than the previous one. With the topmost European sides waiting for the Catalans at every step, a captivating journey begins. It is most certainly not impossible, but it will need a herculean effort which the team is certainly capable of.
Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
In collaboration with Anurag Agate.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.
A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.
Barcelona structure and formation
Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.
Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.
Atletico structure and formation
Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.
Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.
The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.
Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.
The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :
Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.
Buildup to shots and goals
Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.
Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.
Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.
Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.
In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:
Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.
Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.
For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.
Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.
The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:
Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :
Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.
Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.
The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.
Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.