The dark La Liga night should lead to serious questions at the top

Atletico Madrid had one last chance to save themselves and move away from the historically poor group stage of the Champions League in La Liga.

The final whistle had already sounded at the Metropolitano Stadium, as Atletico and Bayer Leverkusen drew 2-2, a result that saw the hosts eliminated from this season’s Champions League.

But referee Clement Turpin put his finger on his ear immediately after receiving a warning from the VAR of the possibility of a handball from a Leverkusen player after clearing a corner kick in the 96th minute.

After this decision was finally confirmed, Yannick Carrasco put the ball on a penalty kick – knowing that if he scored, Atlético would win and keep their Champions League hopes alive.

This is where the evening descended into a farce: Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky saved the poor Belgian penalty and midfielder Saul Niguez scored the rebound off the crossbar. Renildo grabbed the loose ball and hit it in the net, but Carrasco inadvertently pushed it away to safety. Atletico is out.

Meanwhile, in Catalonia, Barcelona have already exited the group stage for the second year in a row – with less drama but more pain. Their fate was sealed with Inter Milan’s 4-0 win over out-of-group Viktoria Plzen in the first match on Wednesday, but there was no consolation victory over Bayern Munich, who outperformed Xavi’s team.

Bayer Leverkusen’s Lukas Hradecky saves a Yannick Carrasco penalty (Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marco/AFP via Getty Images)

Goals from Sadio Mane, Eric Choupo-Moting and Benjamin Pavard have secured a 3-0 win – Bayern have now scored the last 15 goals in meetings between these two teams.

With Sevilla also joining Atletico and Barcelona in the Europa League, these are bleak times for La Liga. With the final round of Champions League group matches looming, the arrangements indicate that England will have four teams in the Round of 16, and three teams in Germany, Portugal and Italy. Spain is preparing to join Belgium and France with only one (Real Madrid, the defending champion).

It is the lowest number of Spanish teams at that stage in more than two decades, and the first time ever that three Spanish teams have been knocked out in the group stage of the competition.

There has been some transformation, given that La Liga has become accustomed to dominating Europe’s premier club competition. Real Madrid won four of the five Champions League titles from 2013-14 to 2017-18, and Barcelona won four more titles between 2005-06 and 2014-15.

Between 2006 and 2018, La Liga teams won the Champions League more times than all other European leagues combined. Atlético also reached two finals in a four-year period during which Diego Simeone’s team managed to beat anyone outside Spain, but remained behind against the Clasico duo. Valencia, Seville, Villarreal and Malaga also had long runs.

However, this year’s problems should come as no surprise. The warning signs were there last season, when five of the six group matches were completed, and there was also a real danger that only one La Liga team had made it through. the athlete I spoke with figures in the Spanish game who generally agreed that La Liga clubs struggle to compete financially with their main continental rivals, especially in the Premier League physically. They were served by the ability to excel in thinking and outperform the skills of richer and larger competitors, but the odds were getting less favorable than ever.

As it happened, Atletico and Villarreal racked up last-minute wins away from home in their last group game to reach the last 16 last season. He did well there – Simeone’s side knocked out Manchester United and then pushed Manchester City to close in the quarter-finals. And Villarreal eliminated Emery’s Juventus and Bayern before frightening Liverpool in the semi-finals.

Madrid’s reckless road to the title was perhaps the most dramatic and unexpected in history. They could have easily lost by Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and City on their way to the final, although they outsmarted Liverpool in the play-off.

But La Liga’s decline has been trending for some time. Real Madrid’s win in Paris marked the first time a La Liga team had reached the Champions League final in the past four seasons, and Barcelona are drifting away from La Liga since they last won the title in 2015.

Barcelona’s results and performance this season, whether in Europe or when they lost to Madrid in the La Liga Clasico, should prompt everyone at the club to question what they are doing, including club president Joan Laporta and coach Xavi. Pulling the lever last summer was all about borrowing from the club’s future to ensure immediate success this season. Laporta confidently stated that this would start a virtuous cycle as the club’s income would increase so quickly that they could easily pay off their debts. This will not happen in the European League.

It is not at all clear whether the officials at Barcelona really realize the depth of their problems. After losing 2-0 to Bayern earlier in the group, Barcelona sporting director Jordi Cruyff said the performance sent a message that Barcelona are back. He spoke on Spanish television on Wednesday after Inter’s result was confirmed, but before the start of his team’s match, Barcelona director of football Matteo Alemani said they would remain in the competition but due to “inexplicable refereeing decisions” that caused the decisive 1-0 defeat at Inter in the third match. .

Atletico have not faced real competition in the latter stages of the competition since their last two defeats to Real in 2014 and 2016. They can produce epic performances at times – like Manchester United last season and Liverpool in 2019-20 – but that’s the only one. Atlético has played two Champions League knockout matches twice in the past six seasons.

This time around, Simeone was working with a team that seemed increasingly incompatible with his ideas about the game. The Argentine has a lot of inconsistent attacking players and not enough strong teak defenders. That was shown again on Wednesday when elegant and foul-prone defender Mario Hermoso made the mistake of Bayer’s opening goal. He was hooked half the time. Meanwhile, main striker Alvaro Morata had no shots before being sent off after the hour, and striker Joao Felix €127m (£110m, $128m) remained on the bench until just three minutes left.

There were also similarities in how the two nights at Metropolitano and Camp Nou ended on Wednesday night.

Some of the Atletico players – including Antoine Griezmann, Rodrigo de Paul, Jan Oblak, Saul and Jeffrey Kondogbia – remained on the field for 10 minutes after the final whistle, each standing alone, staring as the die-hard Atletico fans bounced up and down and sang. for their loyalty to the club.

Saul Niggis

Saul looks sad after Atletico Madrid’s Champions League exit (Photo: Alvaro Medranda/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

A similar scene was unfolding in the Catalan capital. The Barcelona players had already disappeared into the tunnel, before the Gradá Danemacio Ultras cheered for them to return to the pitch. The players wholeheartedly returned, with Xavi also showing up at the end, to stand and watch as these fans waved their giant flags and applauded in unison.

Although the player support was somehow impressive, it was also useless. This should not be a time for blind support on your part whatever happens, but for deep reflection on the pinnacle of Spanish football.

The past week has also seen endless more political wrangling at the top levels of Spanish football management – with La Liga president Javier Tebas and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and their agents fighting to influence Spanish politicians writing a new sports law that will govern the conduct of football and all business. associated with the state. Tebas and the president of the Spanish Federation, Luis Rubiales, are also involved in a dark parallel struggle for money and power. Meanwhile, Pérez and Laporta have been dreary holding on to their supposed magical savior in the European Premier League.

Some of the complaints from Tebas and Perez over the issue of state-owned clubs and the immense wealth of the Premier League have some merit. But all the struggle at the top can’t help teams keep up with competitors elsewhere.

Despite Real Madrid’s impressive success last season, the league teams have fallen back from their previous position at the height of European matches. This should be a major concern for everyone involved in Spanish football.

(Top image: Alex Caparros – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

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