Mike O’Brien ’23
The 2019-2020 Champions League campaign amongst the top clubs of European soccer has heated up, with the group stages concluding and the Round of 16 knockout stages beginning on Feb. 18. The first batch of games played was Liverpool visiting Atletico Madrid while Borussia Dortmund played host to Paris Saint Germain.
Coming into these first-leg matchups, it seemed like Liverpool and PSG were the heavy favorites to advance to the quarterfinals. Liverpool, the title holders from last year’s Champions League season, sit atop the English Premier League table by a staggering 25 points over second place Manchester City, and have played like the best team in the world for pretty much the entire season. Meanwhile, French side PSG had the fourth best odds to win the Champions League, behind only Liverpool, Manchester City, and Barcelona.
However, Atletico Madrid came out firing against the Liverpool machine without fear. Only four minutes into the match, Saul Niguez netted a rebound in the back of the net for Atletico, igniting the Wanda Metropolitano stadium crowd into a frenzy. Excluding one game in which the team’s youth side played in, the Liverpool defense and goalkeeper Alison Becker had not allowed a goal in their previous five games in all competitions.
Atletico did not mind playing keepaway from Liverpool, who are known for their suffocating gegenpress style of play, which puts emphasis on pressing the opposition immediately after losing possession of the ball. For the entirety of the night, Atletico defenders did a fantastic job of ensuring they did not give up too many quality chances, despite Liverpool’s staggering 73% possession and completing 723 passes as opposed to Atletico’s 277.
Atletico played economic soccer all night, and only allowed eight Liverpool shots while creating seven of their own. While Liverpool suffocated the Atletico side of the field with possession and passes, this all seemed to be for naught as Atletico walked away with a win while not allowing a crucial away goal. While Liverpool hoped to return to the stadium where they won the 2019 Champions League Final against Tottenham and earn yet another win, that was not to be on Tuesday night.
The second leg at Anfield will be a must watch game, as Liverpool have been almost unbeatable in their home stadium which has been likened to a fortress. With Liverpool likely to come out harder and faster than their previous match, will they see another magical European night at home? Or can Atletico’s style of keepaway soccer best the Liverpool side once again?
With three weeks until the second leg to determine who advances to the quarterfinals, both clubs can turn their focus back to their domestic leagues. Although Liverpool may place a solid amount of prep into their 5th Round FA Cup match-up with Chelsea, the Reds have the Premier League all but locked up. No English team has ever had as much of a lead on the field at this point in the season as this Liverpool team has, and currently have a 99% chance to win the Premier League. At this point, Liverpool’s Champions League aspirations come entirely from the standpoint of a title defense and the hopes of a treble.
As for Atletico, they currently sit fourth in the La Liga table, thirteen points behind crosstown rival leaders Real Madrid, seemingly putting them out of the race for the Spanish league championship. However, Atletico can salvage their disappointing domestic season by coming into Anfield and stunning the soccer world by beating Liverpool again and potentially reaching the Champions League Final, something which they have not done since 2016.
Meanwhile in Germany, PSG and Dortmund played an exceptionally exciting match at the Signal Iduna Park. This game seemed to almost be an inversion of the Liverpool-Atletico match, with all goals coming in the second half and the possession split much more evenly, with PSG claiming 53% and Dortmund 47%.
It took nearly 70 minutes for the game’s first goal, but what followed next was a wildly exciting stretch of soccer. In the 68th minute, new Dortmund signing 19 year-old Erling Haaland tapped in a ball that came off the hands of PSG keeper Keylor Navas. However, this lead did not last for very long as Neymar was able to cash in on a fantastic cross from Frenchman Kylian Mbappe for the equalizer in the 75th minute.
When Dortmund signed Haaland, they recognized his extremely talented offensive capability as he was scoring goals at a torrid rate for RB Leipzig; this trend does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Before PSG could even catch their breath, Haaland scored an absolute rocket of a goal from outside the box to get the lead back to Dortmund not even one minute after PSG had scored. Dortmund held on to win the game by a final score of 2-1.
Haaland’s brilliance is starting to become unprecedented, as the teenage phenom has now scored 11 goals in his last seven matches for Dortmund. Dortmund’s entire squad is starting to become highlighted by their young core, as joining Haaland is the blossoming fellow 19 year-old Englishman Jadon Sancho and even younger still is American Gio Reyna, who became the youngest American ever to feature and assist in a Champions League match at just 17 years and 97 days old.
For Dortmund, they will need to continue to fight if they want to win hardware. Although their win over PSG will give them plenty to feel good about going forward, they did concede an away goal which can prove to be so vital in Champions League fixtures. Additionally, they sit amongst the tightest domestic title race in Europe, currently in third place in the Bundesliga, where first and fifth place is only separated by six points. While Dortmund’s side is young, they have a real chance to do some damage in Germany and beyond.
As for PSG, scoring an away goal is critical; if they can hold on for a 1-0 or better win back in Paris for the second leg, they will advance to the quarterfinals. They sit pretty atop the French League 1 table, with a 99% chance to win the domestic league. However, some doubters believe that that is not enough. It is safe to say that Ligue 1 is the least competitive across Europe’s five major leagues, and PSG has won the title for six of the last seven years. With the amount of money they spend and the quality of players they have, it’s time for them to make a deep run into the Champions League, as they have only made it as far as the quarter finals four times since the 2012-2013 campaign.