As we come on to the last day of fixtures for the round of 16, let’s look at one of the most interesting games of the group stages. The 2016 finalists Atletico Madrid against the 2017 finalists Juventus. While they were both very good in those respective seasons, a lot has changed since then, so let’s look who will come out of this round victorious.
Let’s start with Atletico Madrid, who have arguably had their worst seasons in recent years. While that may be a strange statement considering they are still in the top 4 and have advanced to the round of 16, but elaboration is needed. Let’s start with the summer. This was arguably one of their biggest summers of the decade. It seemed with Barcelona showing vunerability, Real Madrid losing Ronaldo and Sevilla having a poor season, it meant it could be Simeone’s time to reclaim the title. They brought in Lemar for more than £60m, Rodri, Arias, Kalinic and Gelson Martins. All of these players were hopefully going to improve an already good side, and finally make a title challenge, so why hasn’t it happened? The signings should instantly looked at. While Rodri and Arias have worked out, Lemar and Martins have not worked out. Lemar might go down as one of the worst signings of the season. In 21 games in La Liga, he has only contributed to 3 goals. Considering how good he was for Monaco, especially during their title winning season, it’s just not good enough. His numbers aren’t good to see either. When they declined last season, it was just presumed that his numbers dropped because Monaco lost a lot of their key players, Like Mbappe, Silva and Mendy. A team getting worse is going to make the players look worse too. Soon as he went to Madrid however, me and many others thought he would improve because the team was better, but that’s simply not happened. His chance creation has halved from the title winning Monaco season, going from 2.2 to 1.1. He’s also shooting so much less, from 1.7 to 0.7. While the player does need to be questioned, Simeone is the one who truly needs to be questioned. I think he is an excellent coach, but his handling of some of these huge signings needs to be questioned. Gelson Martins has already left the club, to join Monaco on loan, Kalinic has only started 6 games, Diego Costa has been awful this season and Vitolo has only played 428 minutes. Out of the 18 players that were involved in the 2016 final, 12 of those players are still at the club. My point is that Simeone has a problem with finding replacements for some of these players. Vrsaljko, one of the best players at the 2018 World Cup, was allowed to leave. Carrasco was great for Simeone, yet was still allowed to leave. My point is that the club are spending a lot of money on players, only for their manager to not play them. It’s now getting worse because that solid defence is finally starting to show its cracks, with their 4-0 defeat to Dortmund earlier on in the season being their biggest ever defeat under Simeone. He has to adapt and fit these players in, or all this work he’s done will feel like a waste.
When talking about their key players, there is no one else to mention other than Antoine Griezmann. The World Cup winner is one of my favourite players currently playing, because there is so much to his game. While I think he would easily score more goals in another team, playing in this more defensive side has brought out qualities in him not any other coaches would find. He is just a perfect player to lead the line or play as a second striker. His ability to find space in the box and between the midfield and defence is expectional. He also does plenty of defensive work and is willing to drop deep, because he is still incredibly useful when he does this. He is currently taking 3.2 shots a game, which is solid. What makes this even better is that he’s creating 2.2 chances a game, the highest in the squad. This is what I meant when saying different qualities have appeared. In other sides, he wouldn’t have to create these chances , but playing for Atletico has revealed just how good he is at chance creation. For the first time in his career, he isn’t massively overperforming xG. Last season he scored 19, yet was meant score 14. This season he’s only overperforming by a couple of goals. He plays for a very defensive side so it’s expected that he will always run a little hot. He’s been great in the Champions League too, getting a goal contribution in every game he’s played. He will be the key for dealing with one of the best teams in Europe. With Koke missing for this game, it means there is a lot of pressure for the other midfielders to step up, mainly Rodri. He has been one signing that has worked out so well from their spending spree last summer. He came in to replace their former captain Gabi, and has filled his boots with ease. He is averaging 60 passes a game, making 4.5 tackles and interceptions a game and is even winning 2.2 aerial duels. He is so solid defensively, and is able to distribute the ball so effectively. This is a difficult match for any player, never mind someone who has never played in the Champions League knock out rounds before. Let’s hope he brings all these qualities into this round.
Juventus have been very good this season. After a season that saw them pushed to the very edge by Sarri’s Napoli side, they seemingly wanted to bring back their domiance, and after signing Emre Can, Joao Cancelo, Perrin and of course Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s Juventus in a good position to earn instant success , and it’s meant a lot of pressure for them. What makes this side very lucky is they have one of the Top 5 managers in the world in Max Allegri. The Italian’s ability to change and adapt to whoever he’s playing, and bringing the absolute best out of any player he has, makes his teams so difficult to play against. Serie A this season has went back to its predictable self, thanks to Juventus just walking away with it so far. Ronaldo, Dybala, Manzukic and Pjanic are all performing as good as ever to make sure they win their 8th Scudetto in a row. What I like most about this side is how quickly they have learnt to play to Ronaldo’s strengths. While Dybala and Mandzukic aren’t playing as good as they have in the past, they have been so selfless in making sure Ronaldo gets all the chances like he did in Madrid. The 3 of them are just so flexible. They are all able to play on the flanks, and through the middle. It means Allegri is given so many options in how to approach these big games. I truly do think that this is their chance to take advantage of weaker competition. Juventus have a striker who gets in amazing positions and knows how to turn up on the big stage, and have a defence with incredible full backs and 2 defenders who are some of the best of the modern era. While losing Buffon is a massive blow, Szczesny is more than good to play for this side. Juventus couldn’t have picked a better time to sign the 5x Champions League winner in Cristiano Ronaldo, but it has put a lot of pressure on them to succeed instantly. This squad’s average age is 28.3, with only 2 other sides in Serie A having older teams than the Champions. While Ronaldo still has a couple of years left at the top level, players like Chiellini, Bonucci, Matuidi, Cuadrado, Khedira and Mandzukic are all over 30. This could be the last chance for Allegri to win the Champions League with this set of players, which makes this arguably the most difficult season of his career to date.
Ronaldo is definitely the biggest threat in this game. Atletico is one of his favourite sides to face, a team in which he has scored 21 goals against. It’s a game where he usually able to turn up against, so it’s important to create as many chances as possible for him. He is already taking nearly 7 shots a game in Serie A, which is just outstanding for a 34 year old. The problem is he has had one of his worst Champions League campaigns for a long time. He is the competition’s all time top goal scorer, yet he only managed a single goal. Having that red card early on did not help him, but it puts even more pressure on him now. He came to Juventus for the sole reason of winning this compeition, so he has to go back to his scoring ways. Another who could be a massive threat is Paulo Dybala. With Ronaldo not performing, it put a lot of pressure on the Argentine to carry the side, and he did. He scored 5 goals in the compeition in only 4 starts. While he won’t be as much of goal threat as his teammate, his chance creation and movement in the final third will be key in finding goals against such a solid side.
My money would be on Juventus to advance. I just think Ronaldo’s goal record against Atletico is too good to ignore, and with their defence finally starting to weaken, it has made them arguably the worst they’ve been in a long time.