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Dublin: 1°C Saturday 28 November 2020

Lionel Messi out of sorts and more Champions League talking points

Plus, master strategist Diego Simeone enhances reputation following another impressive win.

Lionel Messi walks on the pitch during the Champions League second leg quarter-final match between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
Lionel Messi walks on the pitch during the Champions League second leg quarter-final match between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
Image: Paul White

1. Lionel Messi out of sorts

IT MAY SEEM harsh to castigate Lionel Messi for failing to inspire Barcelona on Wednesday, but the best players will always be judged by the highest of standards and over the two legs against Atletico, the 28-year-old attacker failed to live up to what’s expected of a world-class superstar.

Even his perpetual rival Cristiano Ronaldo hitting a hat-trick couldn’t motivate the Argentina international to end a goal drought that has now seen him go five games without scoring.

Some critics, including RTÉ pundit John Giles, have suggested that the star’s involvement in the Panama Papers controversy could be affecting his performances on the field.

Whatever the case, Messi was not his usual sharp self, as Barcelona surrendered a 2-1 first-leg advantage to exit the Champions League at the hands of Atletico.

Like the rest of his Barca teammates, Messi struggled to break down the hosts’ stubborn defence. Several passes uncharacteristically went astray, while the Argentine superstar’s shots lacked their usual conviction.

Clearly, Luis Enrique’s side badly need their main man to get over this slump, as aside from their European disappointment, they now sit just three points ahead at the top of La Liga. And surely, football needs it too.

2. Godín epitomises brutal and brilliant Atletico

Atletico Madrid were full of dogged, determined characters that saw them over the line against Barca last night, so in a sense, it seems unjust to single out any individual.

Yet if anyone represented Diego Simeone’s battling on-pitch persona, it was surely Uruguay international Diego Godín.

A mainstay of Atletico’s defence since 2010, Godín was superb at the heart of the hosts’ backline against the Catalan outfit, guiding them to victory despite his side having just 23% of the possession throughout the match.

As his regular tussles with international teammate Luis Suarez highlighted, there was a degree of cynicism to Godín’s display, but there was also no shortage of heart and soul, as Atletico became one of the few teams to keep a clean sheet against a normally irrepressible Barca attack.

3. Hard to look past Bayern

Portugal Soccer Champions League Bayern's Arturo Vidal celebrates his side's equalising goal. Source: Armando Franca

Of the four sides left in the Champions League, Bayern now appear best placed to go on and win the competition.

After a minor recent rocky period, they seem to have recovered and look almost certain to claim another Bundesliga title at the very least, having gone seven points clear at the top of their domestic league.

And after establishing a slender 1-0 first-leg advantage, the German side showed admirable character and resolve to bounce back from going a goal down in Portugal and ultimately advance to the semis at Benfica’s expense last night.

Pep Guardiola’s side are more consistent than Real Madrid and Man City, and more talented than Atletico, so it seems fair to label them as ‘favourites’ out of the remaining teams in the competition.

Furthermore, perhaps most crucially, Bayern have experience on their side — they have reached the Champions League semis in a phenomenal six of the past seven seasons.

4. Diego Simeone enhances reputation

Wednesday night’s match was the eighth game between Barca and Atletico over the past 15 months.

Of those encounters, the Catalan side have won seven, but it seems that Atletico have the Indian sign over their rivals in Europe, having also knocked Barca out of the competition at the same stage two years previously.

Wednesday night’s result was consequently a triumph of collective unity over individual brilliance, and no one deserves more credit for this unexpected outcome than Diego Simeone.

Simeone’s men were superbly organised with two banks of four consistently frustrating Barca’s star-studded attack, hassling and harrying them into desperate submission. And Wednesday evening was far from an anomaly — in 10 Champions League matches this season, they have conceded just five goals in total. Moreover, in 32 La Liga matches, Atletico have conceded only 16 times — a far superior record to any other side in Spain.

So clearly, Simeone has a strong understanding of how to make a team defensively sound and difficult to beat, as results in recent times have proven.

The former Argentina international’s reputation is, therefore, likely to grow even further after his side’s latest achievement, and Simeone will undoubtedly continue to be linked with a number of high-profile jobs in the coming months.

But given the commitment, courage and fight his players are invariably willing to show on his behalf, it seems legitimate to question whether the 45-year-old coach would even want to leave his current post any time soon.

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Paul Fennessy

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