Stephen Ong reviews the action from the Champions League knockout stages, with Bayern Munich securing their sixth European title.
This year’s Champions League truly delivered, with favourites Liverpool and Real Madrid knocked out in the round of 16, and underdogs RB Leipzig, Atalanta, and Lyon pushing through to the quarter-finals of the competition playing their own brands of pressing football. Despite a glut of goals over the course of the season, it will of course be remembered for the delaying of the competition until the summer, where games resumed in empty stadiums with a shift to single knockout rounds, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The suspension of the competition came directly after the thrilling game between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, which saw a record four goals scored in extra time. In true Simeone style, Atletico set up to defend after leading from the first leg, but Liverpool’s attack pushed the game into extra time with both teams having a goal apiece. In the end, it was a tale of two goalkeepers that settled it; Atletico’s Jan Oblak was magnificent at keeping out the trickery of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, while Liverpool’s Adrian faltered in extra time, making a poor clearance that led to his side conceding a string of soft goals. Such a game set the stage for the rest of the competition after its eventual resumption in August.
However, Atletico’s defensive football had no place in the quarter-finals of the competition, where attacking play was rewarded. Utilising a back three, Leipzig were able to play a style of expansive football against Atletico’s resolute defence that eventually broke through thanks to a header from Dani Olmo and a winner with a fortunate deflection. At the other end of the pitch, Dayot Upamecano stifled Diego Costa, showing himself to be one of Europe’s top defensive prospects. Leipzig, for all the criticism of them being nothing more than a club to advertise a brand, are undoubtedly well run, picking up good, young players for cheap prices and developing them, as seen in Timo Werner’s £47.5 million move to Chelsea this summer. Current manager Julian Nagelsmann is the youngest manager to win a Champions League knockout tie, thrashing Tottenham over two legs. Nagelsmann is a tactician that top clubs will be looking at, with his attacking three at-the-back formation and ability to coach young players.
Indeed, Spanish teams that have showed a reluctance to adapt struggled in the competition. The highlight of the Champions League saw Bayern Munich outclass Barcelona in a resounding 8-2 victory, and the margin of victory would only have been more extreme over two legs. Bayern played a high-intensity game, pressing the Barcelona backline into errors. While moments of intelligence from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi showed that they still have the talent to play at the top level, much of the old guard, particularly Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto and Sergio Busquets, were far too slow and error-prone to cope with this year’s champions. A club in crisis, with both Suarez and Messi looking like leaving (at the time of writing), it is a wonder how Ronald Koeman will be able to rebuild this Barcelona side, where huge money signings Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Phillipe Coutinho have failed to impress. There is a core of young talents that have the potential to be world-class, including Ansu Fati and Frenkie de Jong, but it looks like it will be a few years before they look to be competing at the very top again.
Despite Real Madrid’s loss in the round of 16 to Manchester City, they have much to look forward to. There are still question marks over Eden Hazard, who looks nothing like the player who lit up the Premier League, and an overreliance of captain Sergio Ramos, but Zinedine Zidane has been integrating youth well into the side. Ferland Mendy looks to be one of the top left-backs in the world, and Rodrygo and Vinicius look set to replace Gareth Bale, whilst Martin Odegaard may finally make his mark after being the youngest player to play for Real Madrid, more than five years ago.
Manchester City dispatched Real Madrid assuredly, but their shortcomings came down to Pep Guardiola’s tactical overthinking. Playing a back three and two holding midfielders against Lyon, they lacked the ability to control the game, and it remains to be seen if Nathan Ake will be a starter for the team that have put in so many poor defensive performances this season. Otherwise, City show no signs of slowing down; Kevin De Bruyne is playing at his peak, Raheem Sterling, for all his inconsistency in front of goal, is still a handful for any defence, Phil Foden looks ready to take on a starting role in the team, and City have a wealth of players on the bench like Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez. If they can fix their defensive frailties, the only question left is whether or not Guardiola can finally win the Champions League with City.
Instead, it was underdogs Lyon and Atalanta that lit up the competition. With Moussa Dembele and Memphis Depay up front, Lyon proved to be dangerous on the counter, finding space behind the defences of Juventus, City and Bayern, with young midfielder Houssem Aouar showing creativity and trickery on the ball that are sure to earn him a move to a bigger club. In a two-legged knockout round, Lyon may not have made it as far as they did, but they showed that they are much better than the place they achieved in Ligue 1.
Free-scoring Atalanta proved they could do it over two legs, putting eight past Valencia in the round of sixteen in their first season in the Champions League. Manager Gianpiero Gasperini has put together a side that Can stretch teams and create space for players to run through defences and they were only a minute away from sealing a place in the semi-final of the Champions League. If not for top scorer Josep Ilicic’s absence, Atalanta could have been well ahead before Thomas Tuchel brought on Kylian Mbappe, who turned the tide for Paris Saint-Germain. A joy to watch, Atalanta will be back in next season’s Champions League after securing third place in their domestic league.
It was a year for the French and German’s to remember, as both had two teams each in the semi-finals. The resounding 3-0 victories for both finalists were a testament to the attacking ability of both teams. PSG with the world’s most expensive players in Neymar and Mbappe and Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski, who scored an incredible 55 goals over the course of the season all shone. However, PSG faltered in the final, unable to finish past Manuel Neuer. The pace of Neymar and Mbappe were touted to be the counter to Bayern’s high line, but Neuer proved once again why he is still the best goalkeeper in the world. With club legends Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva gone, PSG will need to invest in other areas of the team if they want to be competing for the Champions League trophy.
Bayern were deserved winners, showcasing their German efficiency in relentless, mechanical fashion. They put nine past Red Star, ten past Tottenham, five past Olympiakos and seven past Chelsea over two legs, before showing their class against Barcelona and Lyon. Striker Lewandowski found the net in every game until the final, and they were able to score goals from all over the pitch, with Serge Gnabry in particular impressing. Thomas Muller was back at his very best, and even Coutinho looked livelier than he has ever been since his move to Barcelona.
The emergence of 19-year-old Alphonso Davies and appointment of manager Hansi Flick was pivotal to their success, with Bayern unbeaten since mid-December, only drawing a game against RB Leipzig in the process. Most impressive of all is the flexibility of Bayern’s players to play in different positions naturally, allowing them to cope with injuries. The addition of Leroy Sane will only make them more dangerous, and it is hard to see how Borussia Dortmund will compete with them in the league next season, even with the duo of Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho. It will take a huge step up from Europe’s top teams to compete at the same level as Bayern next season, especially with Barcelona and Juventus in freefall.