The return of Europe’s premier competition is upon us, and LaLiga has a full quartet in the knockout stages.
With seven of the last 12 trophies heading to Madrid or Barcelona, the Spanish contingent will be keen to reassume their dominance by making the quarter-finals at least. In a season as open and unpredictable as 2020/21, all four might just fancy their chances of going all the way.
But, which club in the south-west of Europe is best-equipped to do just that?
A steamroller in LaLiga, Atleti must be among the favourites to progress. Diego Simeone’s men have been so close to winning the Holy Grail in 2014 and 2016, but have fallen well short since then. Their 4-0 defeat in Munich last October illustrates the level they must aspire to reach if they are to win it.
Their sensational performance against Liverpool last season is still fresh in the memory as they prepare to take on English opposition once more in the shape of Chelsea. Marcos Llorente has been a revelation since that night at Anfield, and Luis Suárez has looked determined to prove the doubters wrong this season.
Atleti made hard work of the group stage, winning only two of their six matches, but they made it and that’s all that matters. Simeone sides are well-suited to two-legged knockout ties, because they are compact, defend as a team and are always a goal threat at any stage.
Los Rojiblancos know how special it would be to win LaLiga once more, but they won’t be taking the Champions League lightly. They’ll be hoping Suárez can score away from home, something he hasn’t done in the competition since September 2015. If he can get firing on the continent, Atleti may be dark horses to win it.
Synonymous with glory in this competition, you can never write off Real Madrid. Not least when few really fancy them to do anything special this season. They seemed destined to be knocked out in the group stages for the first time ever.
After losing their opening game to Shakhtar Donetsk and finding themselves 2-0 down to Borussia Mönchengladbach after 87 minutes, all looked hopeless. But they found a way to dig out a result, and then beat Inter twice to recover. They ended up winning their group with a comfortable victory on matchday six.
Fitness has been a crucial factor in their season, with Eden Hazard and Sergio Ramos missing for large parts of the campaign. The squad has looked thin and they have struggled to create many chances, relying predominantly on the old guard.
But, the likes of Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos have been superb, and Los Blancos often do just about enough to get over the line. Against an attacking powerhouse like Atalanta, even despite the departure of Papu Gómez to Sevilla, that might not be enough, but if anyone knows how to come through the knockout stages, it’s Zinedine Zidane’s side.
In contrast to the Madrid clubs, Barcelona sailed through the group stage and looked set to top the group. But a woeful performance at Camp Nou on matchday six saw Juventus usurp them.
The punishment was a tougher tie in the form of Paris Saint-Germain, even if Barça won’t be renewing acquaintances with Neymar as the Brazilian is missing through injury. But there is still plenty of spice between the two clubs. The incredible 6-1 remontada after an opening-leg 4-0 reverse in Paris was only four years ago, and now there are added subplots of the open courting of Lionel Messi and ex-Espanyol player and coach Mauricio Pochettino in the PSG dugout. A delicious narrative.
Ronald Koeman’s side have had a promising start to 2021, winning seven out of seven in LaLiga since the turn of the year. Messi looks fresh and hungry once again, Antoine Griezmann has hit a rich vein of form, and young talents like Pedri, Riqui Puig and Francisco Trincão are improving game by game.
Defensively there are issues, however. Injuries have seriously hampered the Catalans, and any team will fancy their chances of scoring against them. The prospect of Kylian Mbappé running at Samuel Umtiti is enough to give culés nightmares.
With so much speculation about Messi and his future, he will be determined to showcase his talents in the greatest club competition once more. He wants a fifth Champions League winner’s medal, and it would mean far more to him if it arrived with blaugrana ribbons this season.
Sevilla are the embodiment of a ‘team’ at the moment. Last season’s Europa League winners have kicked on again and look comfortable mixing with the best in Spain. Julen Lopetegui has resoundingly silenced any remaining critics with a stellar run of form at the start of 2021. They have won nine games in a row in all competitions, conceding just a single goal in the process, and beat Barcelona 2-0 in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final.
They boast one of the strongest defences in Europe and Youssef En-Nesyri has been scoring for fun. With the January arrival of Papu Gómez, the creativity vacuum has been filled. Monchi has worked his magic to create a deep squad which has all bases covered. Make no mistake, they will be a tough opponent for any European side.
Their tie against Borussia Dortmund will pit Erling Haaland directly up against Jules Koundé – a mouth-watering match-up between two colossal talents, easily among the best young players on the planet. That battle could be the key to unlocking this tie.
Given the struggles of the German side, Sevilla will be favourites to reach the last eight for just the third time in their history. Beyond that, they wouldn’t be too high on any list of favourites, but they will be confident of beating any team on their day. Write off this side at your peril.
So, who is best-equipped?
Overall, all four Spanish sides have testing matches ahead of them, but all have the capability to progress. If Atleti keep up their domestic form, this could be the only remaining chance of silverware for Real Madrid and Barcelona, so they will be all-out for success. This competition has conditioned their campaigns for many years now, and more failure could bring about seismic repercussions.