Last midweek I discussed the four first legs to some degree or another, spoke about how they had historically played out and put up two outright selections ........
For those Barcelona comments, they largely apply to Real Madrid and still to some degree Barce. All the big clubs had extended domestic campaigns in 15/16, Barce played their Copa final in late July, Real and Atletico the Champions League decider on May 28th, they started high profile warm up games in late July and most of their players were at Copa America or Euro 2016 inbetween. That is a very short, almost no break and as winners, Real had that World Club commitment in Japan in December. It has to take a toll somewhere and usually for defending champions in this competition, that comes around this stage.
Barcelona's poor performance in Paris where they were forutunate to score nil has been largely swept under the carpet by the incredible events of the return leg, but we can add domestic defeats against Deportivo la Coruna and Malaga in the last month into the mix and there are clear signs of fatigue and that is as much mental as physical. We have not seen losses from Real, but they have made things very hard for themselves at times and have conceded in 16 of their last 19 starts and I feel both are vulnerable.
Atletico had far fewer commitments on players in the summer and some feel they have something to prove by being left out of Euro 2016, their season has played out differently in that they have pretty much been out of the title race since November. That IMO was a blessing in disguise with regard to Champions League, it took the balancing act between league and european glory largely out of their hands and we spoke after New Year about this and also their "failed" offensive minded shift and switch back to what they do best, this was covered ahead of their game last midweek ..............
Atletico are now up to third, level with Sevilla on points and holding on to that will be their La Liga ambition now. A three point edge will be hugely valuable ,as Sevilla travel to Barcelona tomorrow and Atleti play the Madrid derby away to Real at the weekend, so the win today could take the pressure off that and should as a minimum, preserve the status quo.
The hosts look pretty much back to their best at present, ahead of a trip to Leverkusen in the Champions League in late February I spoke about how they tried to play a little differently this season, a little more offensive minded and they were perhaps more "fun", but they lost four times before Christmas and battling/chasing Barce and Real , that is about three too many ! There was a clear shift back more to the old Atleti around the turn of the year ............
My preview of an Atletico group stage game are reproduced at the foot of this email and contain notes on two games played with Bayern Munich in the last ten months. They have actually met Bayern four times in that time frame, had the better of three and only lost the last, once the group stage was already won, they beat Barcelona over two legs in the quarter finals and only lost out to Real Madrid on penalties in the final. They were also a minute away from beating Real in the 2014 final and a very strong case could be made for them being the best team in two of the last three runnings of the Champions League and a win in the premier club competition being overdue.
In Europe this season they have looked at their defensive best, conceding a competition (joint) low two goals and we have spoken of them often as the most disciplined side and best defensive unit in world football and one who would run through a brick wall for head coach Diego Simeone . Simeone is known for his uncompromising nature, however, he did change things around a little domestically this season and we saw a more adventurous approach from his team. It has not been an unqualified success and whilst Atletico have scored 9 goals more than at this same stage last season, they have conceded eight more and have six points less. That might not sound like a huge difference, but in La Liga when Real and Barce lose so infrequently and with Sevilla having upped their game, it has left Atletico playing catch up for much of this campaign and they are still four points adrift of third, a (minimum) place they would now see as theirs by right.
We have seen a shift back more to their old style since the turn of the year and the hard, high and especially wide press that was such a hallmark of their game and which has worked so well in Europe. They will be desperate to finish top 3 in La Liga and earn that automatic CL group stage place, but 4th looks safe and is a fall back option and in reality, this season is now solely about the Champions League and maybe, their league position has done them a favour and they can go all the way this time round. They would have been happy with the draw, having got the better of Bayern twice, there is no real need to fear Leverkusen who were 28 points behind the Bavarian giants last season and already trail them by 20 after 21 games this time round. Bayer have won just 9 of those Bundesliga games and have been treading mid table water all season long in what, it has to be said, is not a league with great depth. They finished above Tottenham and CSKA Moscow to qualify behind Monaco, but a lot went their way there, especially the draw and a Spurs team who were defensively in a mess and struggling with Wembley as a home venue.
These two met at the same stage two seasons ago and Bayer won the home leg 1-0, but Atletico were forced into major changes early, with two players leaving the field before the break with injuries and they played the final 15-20 minutes with ten men. I would consider the German side fortunate winners that night in terms of all the luck going their way and that was their sole win in nine CL knockout games and I have to favour the very motivated visitor for whom this is a season defining game and Atleti would have learned a lot from that last visit.
They are 9-3-1 in the league since the mini winter break and have coasted into the last eight of the Champions League, they are more like their old selves defensively, but have retained a little of that increased offensive threat and that feels like a good trade off.
They edged that 1-0 and came from behind to draw 1-1 away to Real at the weekend, a result which would have served them well in terms of a confidence boost and local bragging rights ! Atletico would still like to secure third, but know they will be in the Champions League regardless and are not involved in the title race this season and it should all be about that first CL win, they could easily be looking for a third and were incredibly unlucky to lose to Real in both 2014 and last year. The draw has been kind and Leicester's issues have been well documented in my notes since pre season, they have picked up under their new coach since the departure of Claudio Ranieri and relegation fears have evaporated, but it has been a dire title defence. They are european novices, so have overachieved to reach this far , but were helped by a good draw in the group stage and by riding their luck. They could easily have been 4 down at the half to Sevilla in the Round of 16 game and if they play to the same level tomorrow, this will be over and quickly . Atletico will take little for granted and will know they will face a motivated opponent in the return leg and saw how different the Foxes were in the second game with Sevilla, so I feel they will want to try and do the hard work in Madrid and look for a two goal + lead. This is another huge step into the unknown for City and I think they will be found wanting by one of Europe's most experienced teams.
With regard to tonight's games, Dortmund- Monaco could really be fun and the visitors served us well in both games with Manchester City and were attacking without fear and like a breath of fresh air until a month ago, but have gone off the boil a little and I think the heavy cup final defeat to PSG knocked them off kilter and whilst they might be reinvigored by a return to CL action and I hope for football's sake they are, I would like to see them first and will pass on that game, but it is the one quarter final tie I am most looking forward to watching.
Juventus- Barcelona is no less interesting, it must surely be all about the Champions League for Juve this season, they are in more of a battle domestically, but hold a six point lead over Roma and in the middle of an easy run of league games and can win Serie A anytime ! They lost in the 20154-15 final to Barcelona and were unfortunate last season to drop out at the last 16 stage to Bayern Munich with the match decided in extra time, a sixth Scudetto in a row will be great, but they will be not considered a truly great Juve team down the generations unless they win this competion and it is this year it looks do-able. They rested key players at the weekend and will be defending a fearsome home record in Turin, three games away from completing their second 100% record in four seasons (67-5-1 overall), they have also not lost here in 17 Champions League games. I feel they have played all season with today in mind and take them to beat a vulnerable visitor who will miss suspended Sergio Busquets in midfield.
I have spoken in the past about the lack of domestic competition at this stage of the Champions League hurting Bayern Munich and I do still have concerns about that, but they have a winning head coach in Carlo Ancelotti and he is firmly targeting a fourth CL with a third team, which will put him in an elite group of one ! Bayern have a ten point Bundesliga lead and we have seen Ancelotti step up the intensity before european ties, winning three domestic games by a combined 14-0 before the second leg with Arsenal and a season best performance in a 4-1 win over Dortmund at the weekend, with the game pretty much over inside 10 minutes. Bayern have their veteran stars all firing for the first time in years, Arjen Robben could have scored four before the break against Dortmund and Franck Ribéry has found a time machine and stepped back four years or so to a period we thought might have long passed and even got a big sloppy kiss from Ancelotti at the weekend. Right now they look hot and ready for Real, who were the previous team that Ancelotti coached and one he knows as well as his own.
Three home teams I think are a little overpriced or under matched and two "favourites" for the competition with issues.
Last four seasons have seen the 16 quarter final first legs result in nine home wins and just one victory for the away side, six of those wins have come by 2+ goals , with an even split of eight over and under games. The away team has failed to score in 8 and, by more than a single goal only twice (both teams also scoring in 8), hosting teams have scored in 14, 2+ goals in 9 and there is, as you might expect, a heavy home bias, which suits our purposes.
In terms of the outright winner, I feel that Atletico and Juve are overpriced at a combined 4.33 and both are overdue in the competition . I have already voiced concerns about Barce and Real and whilst I favour Bayern tomorrow and to qualify, the lack of competition week in, week out and age of key players is an issue and will be more so down the line and their odds are sub what we can get for the pair below combined .
2.5 units Atletico Madrid to win outright 6.50-7.0 general quote.
1.25 units Juventus to win outright 11.0 general quote.
Barcelona again showed their vulnerability and lost 3-0 in Turin, Real Madrid showed far more resolve and fought back from 1-0 down to win 2-1 in Munich. Bayern missed a penalty which would have put them two up before the break, then conceded as the second half started and were then reduced to ten men and it was game over, but that could have played out very differently . However, we are certainly in a good position with these outright bets and hopefully Atletico can defend/improve upon their 1-0 lead over the Foxes at the King Power tonight against the european novices and make it through once more to the last four and we can start there....
City felt hard done by with the Atletico "penalty" looking outside the box, but the Spanish side dominated, also hit the woodwork and looked by far the superior team, which they are. The hosts restricted the supply to Jamie Vardy and won most (pretty much, all) of the tactical battles across the pitch and importantly, did not allow City the away goal which was their lifeline against Sevilla.
Already without suspended centre back Robert Huth, the Foxes might have to chance Wes Morgan , who has sat out the last six games, in central defence. That is far from ideal, but neither is the alternative, which, with Molla Wague out for the rest of the season, would probably be Yohan Benalouane, who played well in Madrid, alongside Marcin Wasilewski. The last named is 36 yo and has made just one Premier League start this season ( 2-0 home loss to Everton) and one CL outing, a 5-0 defeat to FC Porto, in neither did he pair Benalouane (who was forced off early at Palace). Without Huth this season, City are 0-2-4 and in the two and a half seasons since he joined, they are without a clean sheet in the 16 games he has missed, allowing an average of 1.875 goals per game and they were champions in one of those campaigns.
City felt or were unable to make many changes for the weekend game at Crystal Palace, with nine starting both there and in Madrid, with head coach Craig Shakespeare who is a complete novice at this level, just making two substitutions in the first game, one of which was enforced. His other four outfield options on the bench included three youngsters and highlights the lack of depth available. Atleti rested Koke, Saul Niguez, Gabi and Antoine Griezmann for their weekend league fixture and also get fit again striker Kevin Gameiro back .
There is not much point in looking at how these second legs have played out in the past, as there have been so few away wins in the first legs and/or teams winning 1-0 and of course, it is pretty much the first leg result which determines how teams approach the return.
Atletico will be confident of keeping City, or pretty much any team for that matter, scoreless for 90 minutes, that is always a dangerous game, but with a 1-0 lead, you are not trailing overall if the worst happens. The hosts will have to open up at some stage and that is when they will be out of their comfort zone and vulnerable. The visitors will be pressing from their 4-4-2 or double six, the "front " six pressing hard and the top two positioned so that they will "always" be pushing City wide (Atleti play the touchlines better than anyone) and there will be a lot of pressure on the home centre backs, whomever they are .
I have spoken often of Atletico as the best defensive and most disciplined team in Europe and it is the discipline and hard working aspect which is so impressive, for example watch the front one or two, when they press they also position their bodies to shadow potential outlets and then the midfield push up to cover and use the touchline as a block. We all love to watch all out attacking football, but this is no less beautiful and skillful to watch in it's own way, maybe not for 50 games per season, but in the really big domestic and european ties , this is all new for city and a massive test and ask and I expect them to be found wanting. City play similarly to Atleti but do not do it half as well and this is/was a bad match up for the Foxes IMO. They will be space for the visitors to exploit at some stage.
1.25 units Atletico Madrid -0.75 ball 2.49 asian line/Sportmarket.
In Madrid, Real are in a great position score wise, but a difficult one in terms of how to play this second leg. They are certainly not set up to defend any lead and are only too aware of their defensive shortcomings, but bring an army of gunslingers and offensive options to the gunfight they are always happy to let any game develop into . Their nine Champions League games this season have all produced at least three goals with both teams scoring in each (Real at least twice !)and Sporting Libon, Legia Warsaw, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli have all notched a goal here at the Bernabeu and three of them have taken Real close. The last two of those will be of particular interest to Bayren, Napoli really exposed the hosts at times and Dortmund came away with a 2-2 draw and that offers encoragement to the Bavarian giants who need only go one goal better than that scoreline to progress. I say "only" but when you are talking about looking for positives you have to start somewhere and at least get yourself into the correct way of thinking.
The home crowd not only look to be entertained, they demand it and even if Real were capable of sitting back for 90 minutes, it would only take about 15-20 for the booing to start ! Real are 34-4-2 in their last 40 home CL starts which sounds and is daunting, but some teams have come not needing to win and others with fear and little self belief, but surely Bayern do not fit that mould. There kind of has to be goals, Bayern need to score at least twice (more likely three times) to have any chance and that has to ultimately decide how this plays out and if Ancelotti gets them into the correct mindset arriving at the stadium, even conceding first should not overly change that. Both teams to score twice feel about right.
Real have conceded first and early in all three knockout stage games.
1.5 units "over" 3.75 goals 2.34 asian line/Sportmarket.
Also, if you can find it, 1 unit both teams to score in the first half at circa 3.0-3.25 feels too big, especially at the upper end of that price band.