Ronaldo returns to haunt Atletico, Ajax have hold on Benfica – Champions League in Opta numbers

By Sports Desk February 23, 2022

The Champions League returns on Wednesday as the first legs of the round of 16 come to an end.

Manchester United travel to the Wanda Metropolitano to face Atletico Madrid, with the visitors aiming to become just the fourth team to 500 goals in the European Cup and Champions League combined.

Erik ten Hag's Ajax thrilled in the group stages with their high-scoring and free-flowing football, and they make the trip to the Estadio da Luz to face Benfica in the other first-leg meeting.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of the Opta data behind the pair of knockout fixtures in Europe's premier club competition.

Atletico Madrid v Manchester United

United and Atletico have somehow only faced each other in the same European campaign once previously, when the Spanish side were 4-1 victors on aggregate in the last 16 of the 1991-92 Cup Winners' Cup.

The Red Devils, on their only previous visit to Atletico, lost the first leg of that tie 3-0 at the old Vicente Calderon stadium against Luis Aragones' team.

Ralf Rangnick's away side will be hoping for happier returns on their next visit to Spain, where they have won just one of their last seven trips in the knockout stages of the Champions League (D4 L2).

But Diego Simeone's team have also tasted defeat in each of their last four matches against English teams in the competition, double the number of losses they suffered across their first 12 such matches (W4 D6 L2).

Atletico have won just four of their last 14 in the Champions League. Additionally, they have lost more times in their last four home games (three) than they did in across their previous 37 (two) in the competition.

The LaLiga outfit will have to contend with an old foe Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored 25 goals in 35 matches against them, only managing more versus Sevilla during his entire career.

Indeed, four of the forward's club hat-tricks have come against the Spanish side, two of which have been netted in this competition – no other player has recorded more against a single opponent in Europe's top club tournament.

Benfica v Ajax

Benfica may have won the first European meeting with Ajax, a 3-1 win in the first leg of the 1968-69 European Cup quarter-finals, but they are winless in their six games against them since.

Ajax are unbeaten in their previous three away games at Benfica in the European Cup and Champions League (W1 D2), with the most recent of these coming under Ten Hag’s stewardship, a 1-1 draw in November 2018.

The reigning Eredivisie champions are unbeaten in their four meetings with Portuguese sides in the competition (W3 D1), while Benfica have won just two of their last 11 clashes with Dutch opponents across the European Cup and Champions League (D4 L5).

To reach this stage, Ten Hag's men recorded six wins from six, which is the longest winning streak by a Dutch team in the European Cup and Champions League.

Should they manage victory in Portugal, Ajax's seven-game winning run would be the longest in the history of the two competitions by a team outside of the current big five European leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain).

Sebastian Haller fired his side into the knockout stages with 10 goals in six European outings, the most by any player in his opening six matches in the competition.

Playmaker Dusan Tadic has also created more chances from open play than any other player in the competition (77) since his debut in September 2018, but Benfica will not just roll over given they have recorded clean sheets in five of their last seven Champions League games.

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  • FIFA president Gianni Infantino shows the red card to blue cards FIFA president Gianni Infantino shows the red card to blue cards

    FIFA president Gianni Infantino has emphatically ruled out the prospect of blue cards playing any part in a future sin bin trial.

    The cards were set to be the signal which would be used by referees to show that a player had been temporarily dismissed in sin bin trial protocols which were due for publication on February 9, and had been signed off at a board meeting of the game’s lawmaking body, the International Football Association Board, earlier that week.

    However, when reports about blue cards circulated on February 8 they received a largely negative reaction, and the IFAB pulled the plug on the day scheduled for publication, citing the need for further talks at the organisation’s annual general meeting this weekend.

    On the eve of Saturday’s meeting in Loch Lomond, Infantino said: “There will not be any blue cards used at elite level. This is a topic that is non-existent for us.

    “FIFA is completely opposed to blue cards. I was not aware of this topic. I’m the president of FIFA, and I think FIFA has a say in the IFAB. So, I don’t know if you want the title, ‘It’s red card to the blue card’!

    “Every proposal and every idea has to be treated with respect, of course. But, once you look at it, you also have to protect the game, the essence of the game, the tradition of the game, and there is no blue card.”

    The introduction of a blue card at the level initially envisaged in the trial would have been the biggest single change in the management of player discipline since the introduction of red and yellow cards at the 1970 World Cup.

    It is understood the trial itself will continue to be developed, but it is expected it will now take place at a much lower footballing level than was anticipated by the original February 9 protocol, which was set to encourage applications from all but the very top-level competitions.

    The Football Association, one of the five bodies which makes up the IFAB, had been understood to have been interested in running a trial in the men’s and women’s FA Cups in the future, before the furore around blue cards.

    The trial will also require a new signal to be used instead of the blue card. In grassroots football, referees show a yellow card and point to the touchline.

    There are also set to be further talks on Saturday about whether any sin bin trial should include tactical fouls, as well as dissent. Also under the original protocol, all players on the pitch, including goalkeepers, could be temporarily dismissed.

    Sin bin trials were one of four protocols set for publication last month before the blue card story broke.

    The IFAB is also seeking to trial allowing referees the option of creating a ‘captain-only zone’ around them when they feel threatened or intimidated, and a trial where referees can send teams to their respective penalty areas to cool off in the event of mass confrontations.

    All of these, including the sin bin protocols, are ultimately intended to improve player behaviour at higher levels, something Infantino has said is essential to set the right example to young players and ensure people still feel safe, and encouraged, to be referees.

    Another trial that had been set for publication on February 9 concerned how long goalkeepers can handle the ball, and how play should restart when they hold on too long.

    Currently keepers can hold on for six seconds and anything over that is supposed to be penalised with an indirect free-kick, but lawmakers are concerned this is not being properly enforced which is why a trial has been developed.

    The management of head injuries is also on the AGM agenda.

    The World Leagues Forum and world players’ union FIFPRO have again written to the IFAB asking for permission to trial temporary concussion substitutes, something which was again rejected at last year’s AGM in London.

    The player union and domestic league in Scotland, this year’s host nation for the AGM, are among those seeking the right to conduct such a trial.

    “From our perspective, we have a responsibility to those former players who are sadly living with dementia,” PFA Scotland chief executive Fraser Wishart said.

    “But we also have to take responsibility as a game – whether it’s the unions, leagues, the government bodies – for current players and future players, to minimise the chances, as much as we possibly can, of players getting dementia. We’re involved in this initiative because we do feel that temporary concussion subs are the next step forward.”

    Trials of permanent concussion substitutes were first approved by the IFAB in December 2020.

  • Carlos Corberan hails ‘important result’ as West Brom strengthen play-off spot Carlos Corberan hails ‘important result’ as West Brom strengthen play-off spot

    Carlos Corberan recognised the significance of West Brom’s win over Coventry as they moved seven points clear of the play-off chasing pack.

    Mikey Johnston’s stunning strike handed Albion an early lead before Grady Diangana put them two up at the break.

    Coventry came back and Haji Wright halved the deficit from the spot but despite late pressure Albion held out for a key three points to stretch their to-six cushion ahead of Saturday’s fixtures.

    Baggies boss Corberan said: “An important result, it was important to win today.

    “We were dominant in the first half, we found solutions to break the press and we controlled the ball in the middle of the pitch, without having too many opportunities.

    “But the opportunities we had we finished them with a lot of accuracy.

    “I knew the second half was going to be a challenge because they were aggressive in the middle in the first half and we lost the ball, and we needed to avoid that in the second half, it would be one of the keys of the game.

    “Little by little we started to lose control of the ball and control of the game. They found options to be more in our (half) than the way we wanted to play.

    “In the penalty they achieved an action in one minute when there was a lot of time to play.

    “We then rediscovered control of the game when we changed to play with a five.

    “We know that every game is going to be key with the value of every game being the same with three points.”

    Sky Blues boss Mark Robins said his side’s first-half display was a “nothing performance”.

    He said: “I think in the first half we were too passive. We couldn’t get out and gave them too much of the ball and they are a quality team, let’s face it.

    “They’re in the play-offs for a reason, they have a strong squad with players who have know-how and little bits of nous, good quality and confidence.

    “We did have three good chances in the first half but in the second we were more aggressive, the mindset changed.

    “We didn’t move well enough, it was a nothing performance in the first half.

    “In the second it was much, much better, we managed to get hold of the ball, got back in it with the penalty, and we had enough time to get back in the game but we conceded two poor goals.

    “We had bodies in there for Johnston’s goal and Diangana ghosts in too easily.

    “And we didn’t lay a glove on them in the first half – but Ben (Wilson) hasn’t had a save to make.

    “Then late on we didn’t have a calmness.”

  • Kylian Mbappe heads for stands after half-time exit in draw with Monaco Kylian Mbappe heads for stands after half-time exit in draw with Monaco

    Kylian Mbappe was substituted at half-time as runaway Ligue 1 leaders Paris St Germain were held to a goalless draw at his former club Monaco.

    France star Mbappe, who is set leave PSG in the summer, waved to home supporters at Stade Louis II as he emerged from the tunnel to take a seat in the stands for the second period.

    The 25-year-old forward had little impact on the opening 45 minutes and it was unclear whether his premature departure was due to an injury.

    He was pictured grimacing and holding his right leg at one stage.

    Mbappe was also withdrawn by head coach Luis Enrique 25 minutes from time in last weekend’s 1-1 draw with Rennes.

    PSG were indebted to a string of first-half saves from goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma in securing a stalemate which extends their lead over second-placed Brest to 12 points.

    Monaco, who also hit the crossbar through Wissam Ben Yedder in the second half, remain third, a point behind Brest.

    Yet the major talking point centred on PSG captain Mbappe, who opted against sitting alongside team-mates after being replaced by Randal Kolo Muani.

    The reigning French champions arrived in the principality seeking to return to winning ways having required a last-gasp Goncalo Ramos penalty to salvage a point at home to Rennes five days ago.

    Enrique’s side were second best for much of the opening period.

    Impressive Italy international Donnarumma repelled former Arsenal forward Folarin Balogun early on before producing two fine saves to deny ex-Liverpool man Takumi Minamino.

    PSG also survived a major scare in the 25th minute when the hosts had the ball in the net. Monaco captain Ben Yedder coolly rounded Donnarumma and rolled home after the lively Balogun caused problems for the visitors’ defence, only to be flagged offside.

    Marco Asensio, who limped off injured before the break, had PSG’s best chance of the first half but he directed his effort too close to Monaco keeper Radoslaw Majecki.

    Following the headline-grabbing scenes of Mbappe walking around the stadium’s running track to take up position among the crowd, PSG actually looked a greater threat.

    However, they narrowly escaped just before the hour mark when Ben Yedder cracked the woodwork with a sizzling volley.

    Poland international Majecki was busier in the second period and produced a strong save to deny PSG midfielder Vitinha.

    Despite applying sustained late pressure, the away team could not snatch victory as they switch focus to their Champions League last-16 second leg at Real Sociedad amid question marks over Mbappe.

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