Atletico Madrid had one last chance to save themselves and get the better of a historically poor Champions League group stage for La Liga.
The final whistle had already sounded at the Estadio Metropolitano, with Atletico and Bayer Leverkusen locked at 2-2, a result that condemned the hosts to Champions League elimination this season.
But referee Clément Turpin immediately put his finger on his ear, after receiving a VAR alert of a possible handball from a Leverkusen player when a 96th-minute corner had been cleared.
After that decision was finally confirmed, Yannick Carrasco put the ball on the penalty spot – knowing that if he scored, Atletico would win and keep their Champions League hopes alive.
This is where the evening turned into a farce: Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky saved the Belgian’s poorly struck penalty and midfielder Saul Niguez headed the rebound off the crossbar. Reinildo latched on to the loose ball and kicked it towards goal, but Carrasco inadvertently deflected it to safety. Atlético was absent.
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Meanwhile, in Catalonia, Barcelona had already been knocked out in the group stage for the second year in a row – with less drama but even more pain. Their fate was sealed by Inter Milan’s 4-0 victory over group underdogs Viktoria Plzen early in Wednesday’s game, but there was not to be a consolation triumph against Bayern Munich, who outclassed the Xavi’s team.
Goals from Sadio Mane, Eric Choupo-Moting and Benjamin Pavard sealed a 3-0 victory – Bayern have now scored the last 15 goals in meetings between these two sides.
With Sevilla also joining Atletico and Barcelona in the Europa League, these are dark times for La Liga. Heading into the final round of Champions League group games, the standings suggest England will have four teams in the last 16 and Germany, Portugal and Italy three. Spain are expected to join Belgium and France with just one (reigning champions Real Madrid).
It is the lowest number of Spanish teams at this stage for more than two decades and the first time that three Spanish teams have been knocked out in the group stage of the competition.
It’s a turnaround, given that La Liga used to dominate Europe’s premier club competition. Madrid won four of the five Champions Leagues from 2013-14 to 2017-18, and Barcelona won four more trophies between 2005-06 and 2014-15.
Between 2006 and 2018, La Liga teams have won the Champions League more times than all other European leagues combined. Atletico also reached two finals in a four-year span in which Diego Simeone’s side could beat anyone outside Spain but continued to fail against the Clasico duo. Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal and Malaga also had deep runs.
Still, this year’s problems should come as no surprise. The warning signs were there last season when, after five out of six group games ended, there was also a real risk of just one La Liga team making it through. Athleticism spoke to figures in Spanish football who generally agreed that La Liga clubs are struggling to compete financially with their main continental rivals, especially in the physically intense Premier League. An ability to outmaneuver and outmaneuver wealthier and bigger rivals had served them well, but the odds were growing less and less favorable.
As it happens, Atletico and Villarreal picked up last-minute wins in the last group games to make the last 16 of last season. They did pretty well there – Simeone’s side knocked out Manchester United and then pushed Manchester City close to the quarter-finals. Emery’s Villarreal knocked out Juventus and Bayern, before scaring off Liverpool in the semi-finals.
Madrid’s roller-coaster road to lifting the trophy was perhaps the most dramatic and unlikely in history. They could easily have been knocked out by Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and City en route to the final, although they then outclassed Liverpool in the decision.
But La Liga’s decline has been in fashion for some time. Real’s win in Paris was the first time a La Liga side have contested a Champions League final in the past four seasons, and Barcelona are slipping away from the highest level since lifting the trophy to the last time in 2015.
Barca’s results and performances this season, both in Europe and in their loss to Madrid in the Clasico de la Liga, should have everyone at the club wondering what they are up to, including the president of the club. club Joan Laporta and head coach Xavi. The lever last summer was to borrow from the club’s future to ensure immediate success this season. Laporta confidently said it would trigger a virtuous circle where the club’s income would grow so fast they could easily pay off their debts. This will not happen in the Europa League.
It’s not at all clear that Barca officials are really aware of the depth of their problems. After losing 2-0 at Bayern earlier in the group, Barca sporting director Jordi Cruyff said the performance sent a message that Barca were back. Speaking on Spanish TV on Wednesday after Inter’s result was confirmed but before his side’s game started, Barcelona director of football Mateu Alemany said they would still be in the competition but for “inexplicable refereeing decisions” that caused the crucial 1-0 loss. to Inter in the third game.
Atletico haven’t really challenged in the latter stages of the competition since their two final defeats against Real in 2014 and 2016. They can deliver epic performances at times – like against Manchester United last season and Liverpool in 2019-20 – but those are the only two Champions League knockout ties Atletico have had in the last six seasons.
This time, Simeone has worked with a team that seems increasingly out of step with his ideas about the game. The Argentine has too many inconsistent attacking players and not enough teak-resistant defenders. That was shown again on Wednesday when stylish but error-prone defender Mario Hermoso was responsible for Bayer’s first goal; he was hooked at halftime. Meanwhile, starting centre-forward Alvaro Morata didn’t manage a single shot before being taken off on the hour mark, and the €127m (£110m, £128m) striker dollars) Joao Felix remained on the bench until three minutes remained.
There were also similarities in how the two nights ended at the Metropolitano and Camp Nou on Wednesday night.
Some Atletico players – including Antoine Griezmann, Rodrigo De Paul, Jan Oblak, Saul and Geoffrey Kondogbia – remained on the pitch for 10 minutes after the final whistle, each standing alone, staring at die-hard Frente Atletico fans bounce and sing. on their dedication to the club.
In the Catalan capital, a similar scene was unfolding. The Barça players had already disappeared into the tunnel, before their ultras Grada d’Animacio ordered them to return to the pitch. The players dutifully returned, with Xavi also emerging, to stand and watch those fans wave their giant flags and cheer in unison.
While the player support has been admirable in some ways, it’s also been pretty futile. This shouldn’t be the time to blindly support your team no matter what, but to think deeply about the pinnacle of Spanish football.
The past week has also seen more endless political wrangling at the top levels of Spain’s football administration – with La Liga president Javier Tebas and Real Madrid chief Florentino Perez and their proxies battling to sway Spanish politicians who are drafting a new sports law that will govern the operation of football and all its related activities in the country. Tebas and Spanish FA chief Luis Rubiales are also embroiled in a shadowy parallel struggle for money and power. Meanwhile, Perez and Laporta cling to their supposed magical European Super League saviour.
Some of Tebas and Perez’s complaints about the issue of state-owned clubs and the huge wealth of the Premier League have some merit. But not every conflict at the top can help teams keep up with rivals elsewhere.
Even taking into account Madrid’s fantastic success last season, La Liga sides have fallen from their previous position at the top of European play. And that should be a major concern for everyone involved in Spanish football.
(Top photo: Alex Caparros – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)
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