Champions League: Is LaLiga dominance under threat?

By Sports Desk February 11, 2019

When a Gareth Bale-inspired Real Madrid overcame Liverpool 3-1 in last season's Champions League final, the triumph merely scratched the surface of LaLiga's recent dominance in Europe's premier club competition.

Having become the first team in the Champions League era to retain the title against Juventus in Cardiff in 2017, head coach Zinedine Zidane made it three in a row before riding off into the sunset.

Madrid have won four out of five, their bitter rivals Barcelona interrupting the streak in 2015. Indeed, Liverpool and Juventus proved to be the only interlopers on a Spanish party during this period – Atletico Madrid were left in anguish by their city rivals in 2014 and 2016.

Five wins out of five and seven of the previous 10 finalists paints a picture of total domination that felt unlikely after Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund in an all-Bundesliga affair at Wembley in 2013.

That experience shows the folly of declaring the beginning and end of eras, but LaLiga's grip on continental supremacy appears somewhat looser as this season's knockout rounds get underway.

No Zidane, no Ronaldo = no party?

That Madrid's struggles post-Kiev seemed, to an extent, so inevitable is a damning indictment of president Florentino Perez and the Bernabeu hierarchy.

Zidane caught them off guard – Madrid head coaches are habitually pushed rather than jumping on their own terms – but the pursuit of Julen Lopetegui was an unseemly mess that counted torpedoing Spain's World Cup campaign among its collateral.

A chequebook that remained tightly bound even after Cristiano Ronaldo's departure to Juventus gave an indication of why Los Blancos were so hasty in wrapping up the Lopetegui deal. They were not presenting a strong hand to any incoming coach.

Being able to rely on an all-time great forward and the inspiration of a club hero in the dressing room had papered over plenty of ills and Lopetegui trudged out of his second dream job in a matter of months following a 5-1 hammering in El Clasico.

Messi carrying Barcelona

Barcelona accomplished that October humiliation of their bitter foes without a sidelined Lionel Messi as Luis Suarez produced a bravura display.

However, recent weeks have added weight to claims of Messidependencia. The mercurial Argentinian was rested for Copa del Rey ties at Levante and Sevilla and had to be recalled to pull around first-leg defeats. He came off the bench in last week's 1-1 semi final draw at home to Madrid despite injury fears.

Those losses and a 2-2 LaLiga draw against Valencia pointed to unaddressed defensive vulnerabilities, exacerbated by Ernesto Valverde's squad rotation – a necessity of the modern game, but the drop-off when the Barca boss rests weary legs is often stark.

Sunday's stalemate at Athletic Bilbao made it three winless games across all competitions, while uncertainty over whether Valverde will stay beyond the end of this season might count against players going the extra mile..

Atletico fluffing their lines

The thrill of Atletico's 2013-14 LaLiga triumph and their Champions League final appearances was how against the odds it all felt.

Diego Simeone's side cannot be so easily cast in that role this time around, given they mark a contrast to the sense of drift witnessed at their city rivals and Barca.

After tying star forward Antoine Griezmann down to a long-term contract, Simeone was reportedly set to follow suit at the end of last year. What he has built in the shadow of two giants is, by any measure, incredible.

But it feels reasonable to ask whether Atleti could be doing more.

Barcelona have left the door ajar in LaLiga, failing to win eight matches this term. But Atleti have now dropped points 11 times and find themselves behind Madrid after Saturday's sapping 3-1 defeat on their own patch in El Derbi.

PSG, Juventus, Manchester City – can anyone take advantage?

If those flaws paint an unconvincing picture for Atletico, Barcelona and Real Madrid, the lack of a solid counter-argument from Europe's pretenders to the throne gives cause for encouragement.

Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham are embroiled in a fierce and sapping battle for the Premier League title, which has magnified flaws with in each excellent team. All face Bundesliga opposition this month and must be wary of becoming over-stretched.

The other Premier League participant, Manchester United, are revelling in a post-Jose Mourinho feelgood factor under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and represent an unappetising prospect for a Neymar-less Paris Saint-Germain, who are still to bring their Ligue 1 dominance to bear on the European stage.

Juventus' move for Ronaldo was the clearest statement yet of their determination to take the final step – an experienced side hitting the sort of peak Bayern Munich now have in their rear view mirror.

The Old Lady's showdown with Atleti is the pick of the last 16 ties and could prove a bellwether when it comes to assessing LaLiga's current strength.

Following a home loss to Real Sociedad at the start of the year, Madrid have rediscovered the winning feeling, something deeply ingrained in their muscle memory where the big trophy is concerned.

Interim boss Santiago Solari came through this week's clashes against Barcelona and Atletico intact, with a reputation enhanced and confidence blossoming within his squad. Ajax are up next, having lost two of their past three Eredivisie outings. It couldn't happen again, could it?

Meanwhile, focusing upon Barca without Messi ignores the terrifying prospect for opponents when he is in full flight.

LaLiga's heavyweights might not swagger as they once did, but the rest will have to walk taller than before to knock them off their stride.  

Related items

  • Tuchel hopeful of new Alves deal at PSG Tuchel hopeful of new Alves deal at PSG

    Thomas Tuchel is hopeful Dani Alves will agree a new contract with Paris Saint-Germain as he confirmed the player is in negotiations with the club.

    Alves has become a key man since joining PSG from Juventus in 2017, but the two-year deal he signed at Parc des Princes expires at the end of this season.

    Reports in recent days suggested the Ligue 1 champions had taken steps to extend the right-back's stay in the capital for another year, though.

    And while head coach Tuchel is not involved in the talks, he is keen to see a positive outcome.

    "[Negotiating contracts] is not my job," he told a news conference ahead of the clash with Nimes. "Dani is Dani. He is very important, and his attitude is great.

    "But I am not involved in these negotiations. I hope the club and his agents will come to an agreement."

    Meanwhile, Tuchel confirmed that only Neymar and Edinson Cavani are certain to miss Saturday’s Ligue 1 clash.

    However, he is wary of risking those who are showing signs of fatigue, with a Coupe de France meeting with Dijon and a league game at Caen to come before the Champions League last-16 second leg against Manchester United on March 6.

    "Only Neymar and Cavani will be absent. All the others are available," he said. "There is fatigue and some small injuries, but nothing serious.

    "[Thomas] Meunier will definitely be back and [Juan] Bernat is available.

    "There are some guys who have played six or seven consecutive matches. We must be attentive and take stock with the medical staff and players.

    "It is hard to do, but we must protect the players."

  • Klopp ponders PSG's Manchester United blueprint Klopp ponders PSG's Manchester United blueprint

    Liverpool will attempt to become the second team to beat Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Sunday following Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League victory at Old Trafford.

    A composed 2-0 win, featuring goals from Presnel Kimpembe and Kylian Mbappe for the Ligue 1 giants, won the admiration of Jurgen Klopp.

    But the Liverpool boss is unsure to what extent the circumstances of that game can be replicated after United were derailed mid-match by injuries to influential attackers Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial – both of whom are in line to return as Klopp's men aim to avoid defeat and return to the top of the Premier League.

    "Result-wise [PSG] were the only team, but Tottenham played a pretty good game against United to be honest," he told a news conference, referencing United's 1-0 win at Wembley where goalkeeper David de Gea excelled.

    "PSG were pretty cool with the ball, passed a lot, they were really confident, good positioning, passing through the lines and scoring in the right moment."

    United returned to winning ways with a superb 2-0 triumph at Chelsea in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Monday.

    Klopp felt that showed how much the injuries to Lingard and Martial hindered Solskjaer when he was forced into changes on the run, in contrast to the smoothly operating game plan he put together for the trip to Stamford Bridge.

    “You saw against Chelsea that United could play pretty well without Lingard and Martial. That was a proper line-up with [Juan] Mata and [Romelu] Lukaku coming in.

    "But changing in the game is different and you cannot really adapt. They played the last six or seven games before that with the same line-up and then they had to adapt in 15 minutes, and it didn't really work out.

    "PSG used that, it was a bit of luck for PSG but they played a really good game. They were very demanding, looked in charge in most situations and didn't give a lot of counter-attacks away, which is a very big thing against United.

    "Whichever line-up they have, whoever they play will attack quickly on the offensive wings. You need to be 100 per cent concentrated, and PSG did well, scored good goals in the right moments and that always helps in football."

    Klopp will welcome back Virgil van Dijk after his star centre-back sat out Tuesday's 0-0 draw at home to Bayern Munich in the Champions League through suspension.

    Fellow defenders Dejan Lovren and Joe Gomez remain sidelined, but the former Borussia Dortmund boss reported fitness concerns are decreasing elsewhere in his squad ahead of a pivotal period in the season.

    "Dejan is not in, Joe is not in, and I think pretty much all the rest are in training," he added.

    "Rhian Brewster is only in little parts, Ox [Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain] is in bigger parts but not ready to play. The rest should be.

    "Usually now I get a message that somebody is ill, so I am a bit nervous about that, but until now I didn't hear anything!"

  • AEK Athens handed suspended European competition ban AEK Athens handed suspended European competition ban

    AEK Athens have been hit with a one-season ban from European competition after fan violence in a Champions League game against Ajax, but UEFA has suspended the punishment for two years.

    Home fans were pictured throwing flares and other missiles into the away section of the Olympic Stadium ahead of November's group game between the sides, which Ajax won 2-0.

    Some images showed flames erupting on the terrace and riot police were also seen striking Ajax fans, some of whom were left with bloodied faces.

    AEK were charged by UEFA following the game and the organisation's Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body announced the Greek club's punishment on Friday.

    A statement said: "The UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body has decided: To exclude AEK Athens from participating in the next UEFA club competition for which it will otherwise qualify. This sanction is suspended for a probationary period of two years.

    "To order the club to play its next two UEFA competition matches as host club behind closed doors. To fine AEK Athens €80,000."

    Ajax were also charged by UEFA after the game but proceedings against the Dutch club have now been closed.

    AEK are third in the Greek Super League after 21 rounds of games, sitting outside the Champions League qualification places.

    "Our club apologised publicly and immediately, and recognised its part of responsibility about what happened," said a club statement in response to UEFA's punishment.

    "The most important thing for all of us is to realise and think about that this decision does not mean the end of this incident, but the beginning of an extremely difficult road of complete compliance with the actual meaning of this decision, along with the need of taking drastic action in order to avoid finding ourselves at this position ever again, because in that case there will be no return!"

© 2018 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.