La Liga returns this weekend, and it will surely be a lot of fun to see our footballing icons running again. However, the Champions League is set to relaunch after the leagues, and these are the five favourites to win the coveted title.
The Champions League is a festival of football many are eager to see in action again. The hundreds of actors that are going to participate in it could not wait more for the competition to resume. After the first legs of the last 16 were played, some teams came out as clear favourites, and others showed glimpses of their talents. From those teams, five are clear favourites for the Champions League title.
Atlético de Madrid
Diego Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid is the clear favourite for the title, and there are three reasons for it. The first one is that Real Madrid lost at home against Manchester City in the first leg. So the team that knocked out Atleti the most in recent Champions League history is on the verge of elimination and the Rojiblancos have already booked their ticket for the quarter-finals after beating last year’s champions Liverpool.
Secondly, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus are also in an uncomfortable position to qualify after losing 1–0 to Olympique Lyonnais at the Groupama Stadium. A little reminder that Atleti have always failed to qualify for the next round after playing a Cristiano-led side. If Juve gets eliminated before playing Simeone’s squad, the Colchoneros‘ chances could increase.
The third reason is that Atlético look like fierce rivals this season, especially in the Champions League. Of course, their superb win against Liverpool showed the world that they had everything to win the cup. Atleti fans would be excused if they fancied their chances a little more this year.
Bayern Munich are the best team in Germany, and their form suggests that they are the best in the world. The Bavarians have a team that could win it all come the end of the campaign. With a 3–0 advantage over Chelsea, they are inevitably going to advance to the next round, and they have got the most in-form striker in the world. Robert Lewandowski is having the best season of his Bayern career, and the team around him doesn’t look too bad either.
❛ He’s having the best year of his career. Everything goes in. He’s an animal – the best number 9 in the world ❜
on teammate Robert Lewandowski
Manuel Neuer is back to his best, Jérôme Boateng is finding his feet again, David Alaba is proving to be a superb centre-back as 19-year-old Alphonso Davies is shocking everyone at left-back, Joshua Kimmich and Thiago Alcântara are pulling all the strings in midfield, Thomas Müller is reaching his peak form as Der Raumdeuter or space explorer, and Serge Gnabry is playing at the top of his game.
Hans-Dieter Flick’s side has recovered from Niko Kovač’s underwhelming stint and is now feared all over Europe. The return of the Bundesliga has shown no slowing down from Bayern, and the confidence they had displayed against Borussia Dortmund two weeks ago and Bayer Leverkusen this weekend was frightening for any team in Europe. They will be a force on the next rounds of the continental tournament, and they are undoubtedly favourites.
Manchester City are also the best team in England left in the Champions League and one of the best in the world. This season in Europe and England, they have showcased their talents even if they are only second in the league. However, it is worth noting that Liverpool have obliterated the league this season and City still have had stellar games. Under Guardiola’s leadership, they have scored eight against Watford, three against Arsenal and have won against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Now, with the Premier League surely out of reach, they can focus solely on their primary goal, the Champions League. Beating Madrid is a step forward in their bid for European success and City have one of the best elevens in the world on their day. The likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Agüero and Raheem Sterling have the experience of big matches and will want to avenge last year’s demons.
Barcelona haven’t shown the kind of football that was expected of them regularly this campaign but have demonstrated at times that they what it takes in big games. Being first in La Liga shows that the culés have been somewhat consistent and the returns of Luis Suárez, Ousmane Dembélé and Arthur Melo to full fitness in August the latest will boost the team as they looked physically and mentally drained in February.
Their performance against Napoli in the last of 16 first leg, which ended in a 1–1 draw, wasn’t that complete, but that’s partly because of Gennaro Gattuso’s style. More importantly, the away goal they got in Naples showed that players not called Lionel Messi could score away from home in the Champions League. In that case, it was Antoine Griezmann.
Are Quique Setién‘s expectations of Barça winning the Champions League realistic? | Photo by Michael Steele via Getty Images
The quality the Catalans possess in their squad is frightening, and the rest could benefit them a whole lot now. With Quique Setién‘s tactics now instilled in the squad, good football might come back at the Camp Nou. The position in which Barça are in isn’t too bad, and the break will have a considerable benefit on the squad as they will look on to win a double this campaign.
Paris Saint-Germain is another team that advanced to the quarter-finals before football was halted. The Parisians finally have it easy in the Champions League. First, they topped their group after humbling Real Madrid in France. Then, they got a manageable tie in Dortmund, and they completed the comeback in Paris to advance to the next round, and now they find themselves in the best position.
Already crowned Ligue 1 champions, they can entirely focus on the Champions League to finally get to the final and ultimately win it. Also, this time Neymar Júnior is fully fit, and every player will be at its best physically. It’s up to them to own up to the status of one of the five favourites. Their main problem: with the Ligue 1 cancelled, they will have no official games of preparation until the Champions League resumes.
All in all, this year’s international content is more open than ever, especially with Liverpool being knocked out already. With the coronavirus break and the inconsistent form of many of the European giants, predicting a winner had never been harder. The next weeks of competition will determine how teams return to action, but it’s not one or two sides anymore who are the favourites to lift the big trophy in August.
Despite the 1–2 loss to Man City, Real Madrid are still alive, and if they come back against the Citizens their options will increase exponentially. Similarly, Juventus were defeated by Lyon in the first leg, but the 1–0 by no means is a definitive result. Other contenders like RB Leipzig or even Atalanta will put up a fight in the next stages. With the 2020 Champions League final expected to take place in Lisbon, instead of Istanbul, and with the remaining matches all being behind closed doors and one-legged, nothing truly is predictable anymore.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.