Case for Atlético defence looking shaky
Even while getting ready to return to the Wanda Metropolitano, where they lifted the trophy in June, Liverpool would normally be preparing for a battle royale.
Facing Atlético Madrid in the knockouts of European competition has implied a titanic struggle throughout the Diego Simeone era, with bravery and an indefatigable spirit as important as inspiration.
This, however, is not a normal Atleti season. After Friday’s draw at Valencia, Los Colchoneros are in fourth place, but 13 points adrift of top spot. Simeone has consistently preached that this is a transitional season for his side, with an extraordinary amount of turnover in his squad and character lost as much as quality. There is still a degree of frustration among the club’s support that they haven’t been scoring the goals (a mere 25 in 24 Liga games) to challenge an uncommonly vulnerable big two.
Auspiciously for Liverpool, Atleti don’t look as well-drilled at the back as before either. Despite having the second-best defensive record in La Liga they let two points slip at Valencia by giving away a couple of incredibly cheap goals from set-pieces, and Jürgen Klopp will fancy his team’s chances. Atlético’s extraordinary record in European competition under Simeone affords them more credit in the market than current form merits, and Liverpool are available at an attractive price.
Leipzig can put temperament questions to bed for good
Julian Nagelsmann couldn’t have asked for a better tune-up for the Champions League as his team brushed aside Werder Bremen, whose leaky defence put up little resistance to Leipzig at the weekend – and allowed his team to conserve energy, with the third goal by Nordi Mukiele to finish the game off coming seconds after half-time.
Tottenham won’t have learned much from that game, but nor can one harvest a catch-all picture from any individual Leipzig performance. If we go back a few years to when they originally took the Bundesliga by storm, they could just press and counter – and, as Timo Werner said, they could be stumped by a reactive side just letting them have the ball, which would have worked brilliantly for this current Spurs incarnation.
Under Nagelsmann they have more than one gear, with the pace of Werner, the technical skills of Christopher Nkunku, the midfield drive of Marcel Sabitzer and even wing-backs in the mix following the recent switch to three at the back. The recent goalless draw at Bayern also suggested that they have found a way to master their big match nerves. They finished that game very well after a tepid start. José Mourinho will be thoroughly tested here by his celebrated junior counterpart.
Wolves must beware of improving Espanyol
Rarely has the perils of judging a UEFA club competition knockout tie when the draw is made – rather than when the match is played – been as apparent as with this one. Wolves deserve to be counted among the dark horses for the Europa League. Nuno has managed his resources superbly and that his team is still able to finish matches strongly, 42 games into the season, is a tribute to their level of physical and mental preparation.
With that said, Wolves will be facing an entirely different team to the one that exited the hat back in December, leaving Molineux regulars rubbing their hands of the prospect of facing La Liga’s wooden-spooners. Espanyol are still heavily embroiled in a relegation struggle, and it would be a huge surprise if they weren’t still in a fight at the season’s climax, but they have done as much as could have been asked at Christmas by dragging themselves back into contention
They are not just figuratively transformed under new coach Abelardo, their third boss of the season. who has them on a run of just one loss in six La Liga games. The board finally gave the man in charge the backing that he needs (and that his predecessors could have done with) by forking out for a defensive leader in Leandro Cabrera and a proven goalscorer in Raúl de Tomás. There is a question over whether de Tomás will risked after suffering a minor hamstring injury last week, but Sunday’s excellent performance to draw at Sevilla showed that Espanyol possess the quality to hurt Wolves even without their star turn, as Wu Lei and Jonathan Calleri linked superbly in attack.