The top clubs in Europe return to Champions League action in a few weeks, and we’ll be previewing a lot of the matches over the next month. The Round of 16 kicks off with leg one action, beginning on February 18.
Up first in our series of previews is English club Liverpool traveling to Spain to face off against Atletico Madrid. Liverpool has been absolutely unbeatable in the domestic league. Atletico Madrid has something to prove after turning in a disappointing season so far already surpassing last year in losses. Action kicks off from Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid at 3:00pm EST (9:00pm CET) on Tuesday, 18 February.
Here’s a look at the clubs:
Typically when we talk about unbeatable teams in sports, it’s figurative. This year, it may very well be a real thing, with the current league leaders having won their last 16 games. In fact, only one side has even managed to draw with Liverpool in the Premier League. The team they drew with is Manchester United, but most of the other games haven’t been close. Barring an absolute collapse, Liverpool should already have the Premier League title on lockdown. The gap between their nearest competitor (Manchester City) in the Premier League continues to increase, with a 22-point cushion at this point. Liverpool actually trails Manchester city in terms of goals scored, but Liverpool has been substantially better defensively.
Liverpool finished at the top of their group after securing 13 of 18 possible points after securing four wins, a draw, and a loss. The difference for first and second place in Group E came down to a solitary point between the eventual champions and Napoli. I really struggle with saying that any team that has won its last sixteen league games is even “weaker” in one location or another, but their lone loss came away from Anfield. I can’t imagine that Liverpool expects anything less than a win from this match, but they need to make sure they can get up for the game. If they don’t want it, Atletico will.
Players to Watch:
(The obvious play here is Mo Salah, but he’s been the focus of everything for a long time. So without discounting his value to the team, I made a conscientious decision to move from Salah to some other members of the team.)
Sadio Mané: Mané has been prolific in the Premier League, falling just short of Salah’s goalscoring numbers (by scoring three fewer goals). However, he’s actually recorded more Man of the Match award wins. They are also tied as far as assist numbers go through the Premier League season so far. In the Champions League, Mané falls all the way to third in scoring (and assists); however, he’s been one of the most consistent players on the pitch for them. Mané’s goalscoring statistics are dwarfed by Salah’s goals, but also by the number of shots Salah takes, which is more than double Mané’s attempts.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: Oxlade-Chamberlain has found himself on the pitch less for the Reds, but his impact in the Champions League can’t be overstated. Despite making half the appearances of Mane and Firminho, he’s the second-leading scorer, only a single goal behind Salah. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performances during the Premier League haven’t been particularly poor; they just haven’t been great either. For some reason, he really seems to like the biggest stage (and so do his performances). I can’t guarantee he’ll start against Atletico, but if he does — I think he’ll be a player on a mission to justify his inclusion and I could see it being on the end of a Firminho pass.
Roberto Firminho: Firminho is another of the “men up front” for Liverpool, and he is in third place behind Salah and our first player to watch in terms of goal scoring. He’s contributed eight goals and seven assists in the Premier League. And although he’s yet to open up his Champions League goalscoring account, he’s been far from absent. He’s the team leader in assists and provides several key passes in every matchup they’ve had. I think it’s only a matter of time before Firminho gets back in the scores column, and this is an excellent opportunity because of the focus that will be demanded by Salah. This fact, coupled with Atletico being a much better team at home, puts all the pressure on Atletico to secure a win here, which likely means a tolerance to higher risk.
Atletico Madrid (Spain)
Last season, Atletico and Barcelona ran away with the top two spots in the league. However, this season we’ve seen Atletico be less dominant falling to sixth place in the league. The last six games they’ve played, provides a great example of their recent form, with three wins, two losses, and a draw. At a little over the halfway point, Atletico has already lost almost as many games (4) as they had in the entirety of last season (6). Atletico did get a win this Saturday when they beat tenth-ranked Granada 1-0. The team has a small, positive goal differential. In addition, they have almost exceeded their draws total from the prior season. Perhaps the one major positive, if you are an Atletico fan, is that both of the traditional powerhouses in the competition, Barcelona and Real Madrid, were both eliminated in the recent past.
Ironically, Atletico’s last six group stages game in the Champions League exactly mirror their previous six in the league (since the original post, they’ve added another win). Three wins, two losses, and a draw were able to earn them second place in a weak group. Only one team in that group finished above twelve points, and that was Juventus, who earned 16 points to Atletico’s 10. Liverpool is a big step up in competition and that Atletico will need to have a similar increase in quality. Atletico is tied for the lowest goals scored in the group stage of any advancing team.
In contrast, their opponent has scored the fourth-most goals of advancing teams. Atletico is averaging 1.33 goals per game and is averaging about 0.8 concessions per game. When Atletico travels to their opponents’ home stadium, they are tied with three goals scored and three goals allowed, securing only three points in three tries. Ultimately, this means that a large portion of Atletico’s opportunity to advance will likely come down to how they play at home in this first leg.
Players to Watch:
Alvaro Morata: Morata joined Atletico after a falling out with Antonio Conte, and the former-Chelsea man has stepped up in a big way for the Madrid-based team. He is the team’s league scorer with seven goals and an assist in nineteen total appearances in La Liga. Although his production has been less in the Champions League, he still co-leads the team with two goals in five appearances. Atletico will need Morata to step up for his role at home, a place where he has been better in both the Champions League and La Liga this season.
Saúl Ñíguez: Ñíguez has remarkable versatility across the whole backline, however, despite this — he’s spent most of his time acting in a midfield role (again, anywhere in it). He’s played to a whole new level in the Champions League, building on his already strong form in La Liga. Ñíguez has been more involved in the attack at home but has actually recorded more shots on goal in away games. However, at home, he is recording more key passes, dribbles, and is fouled slightly less.
Thomas Partey: Partey has secured a Man of the Match honor once at home and once on the road. So far, his only goal has come away from the Metropolitano, but he’s averaging the same number of shots at home and away. He’s also fouled a lot more at home, and he contributes to the team cause with key passes. It will be interesting to see if he can use his prowess at intercepting the ball to put Liverpool on the back-foot with a swift counter-attack. It seems like Partey has been working really hard, and so far, he doesn’t have a goal or an assist (at home) to supplement his stats. Atletico would love for this game to be the time that he opens his home scoring account.
What to Expect:
Atletico has been much better at home and they will need to bring the game to some very dangerous opponents. There’s a reason that Liverpool hasn’t lost in their last 16 league games in the Premier League. Despite being the away team to start off this home and away series, Liverpool is a decent favorite, despite playing at Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid. With Liverpool’s tremendous run in England, I think there is some potential for them to underestimate their opponent, especially if they have their eyes set on the next round(s). I think that this home game will show off some goals for both sides, although it could become very one-sided if Liverpool shows up in their dominating form.
Last Updated: February 13, 2020