La Liga’s Champions League decline must prompt serious soul-searching

Atletico Madrid had one last chance to save themselves and take the edge off a historically bad Champions League group stage for La Liga.

The final whistle had already gone at the Estadio Metropolitano, with Atletico and Bayer Leverkusen locked at 2-2, a result that condemned the hosts to elimination from this season’s Champions League.

But referee Clement Turpin immediately put his finger to his ear, after receiving an alert from VAR of a possible handball by a Leverkusen player as a 96th-minute corner had been cleared.

After that decision was finally confirmed, Yannick Carrasco placed the ball on the penalty spot — knowing that if he scored, Atlético would win and keep their Champions League hopes alive.

This is where the evening descended into farce: Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky saved the Belgian’s poorly struck penalty and midfielder Saul Niguez headed the rebound off the crossbar. Reinildo latched onto the loose ball and hit it goalwards but Carrasco inadvertently deflected it to safety. Atlético were out.

Meanwhile, in Catalonia, Barcelona had already been knocked out at the group stage for the second year running — with less drama but even more pain. Their fate had been sealed by Inter Milan’s 4-0 victory over group outsiders Viktoria Plzen in Wednesday’s early game, but there was to be no consolation triumph against Bayern Munich, who outclassed Xavi’s side.

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

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

With Sevilla also joining Atletico and Barcelona in the Europa League, these are bleak times for La Liga. Going into the final round of Champions League group games, the standings suggest that England will have four teams in the last 16 and Germany, Portugal and Italy three. Spain are set to join Belgium and France with just one (Real Madrid, the reigning champions).

It is Spain’s lowest number of teams at that stage in more than two decades and the first time ever that three Spanish teams have gone out in the competition’s group stages.

It is some turnaround, given La Liga had been used to dominate Europe’s premier club competition. Madrid won four of five Champions Leagues from 2013-14 to 2017-18, and Barcelona won another four trophies between 2005-06 and 2014-15.

Between 2006 and 2018, La Liga teams won the Champions League more times than all the other European leagues combined. Atletico also reached two finals during a four-year spell in which Diego Simeone’s team could beat anyone outside Spain but kept falling short against the Clasico duo. Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal and Malaga also had deep runs.

Yet this year’s problems should not be a surprise. The warning signs were there last season when, after five out of six group games had been completed, there was also a real risk that only one La Liga team would make it through. The Athletic spoke with figures within the Spanish game who generally agreed that La Liga clubs were struggling to compete financially with their major continental rivals, especially in the physically intense Premier League. An ability to out-think and out-skill richer and bigger rivals had served them well, but the odds were growing ever less favorable.

As it happened, Atletico and Villarreal pulled off last-gasp away wins in the final group games to make last season’s last 16. They did pretty well there — Simeone’s team knocked out Manchester United and then pushed Manchester City close in the quarter-finals. Emery’s Villarreal eliminated Juventus and Bayern, before giving Liverpool a scare in the semi-finals.

Madrid’s rollercoaster road to winning the trophy was perhaps the most dramatic and unlikely in history. They could easily have been knocked out by Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and City en route to the final, although they then outclassed Liverpool in the decider.

But La Liga’s decline has been trending for some time. Real’s victory in Paris was the first time a La Liga team had made a Champions League final in the last four seasons, and Barcelona have been sliding away from the top tier since they last won the trophy in 2015.

Barca’s results and performances this season, both in Europe and when they lost to Madrid in the La Liga Clasico, should lead everyone at the club to question what they are doing, including club president Joan Laporta and head coach Xavi. Last summer’s lever-pulling was all about borrowing from the club’s future to ensure immediate success this season. Laporta confidently stated this would kick-start a virtuous circle where the club’s income would so quickly increase that they could easily pay off their debts. That is not going to happen in the Europa League.

It is not clear at all that those in charge at Barca are really aware of how deep their problems are. After losing 2-0 at Bayern earlier in the group, Barca’s sporting director Jordi Cruyff said that the performance had sent a message that Barca were back. Speaking on Wednesday on Spanish TV after the Inter result was confirmed, but before his team’s game began, Barcelona director of football Mateu Alemany said that they would still be in the competition but for “inexplicable refereeing decisions” that caused the crucial 1-0 defeat at Inter in game three.

Atletico have not really challenged in the latter stages of the competition since their two final defeats to Real in 2014 and 2016. They can deliver epic performances at times — as against Manchester United last season and Liverpool in 2019-20 — but these are the only two Champions League knockout ties Atletico have come through in the last six seasons.

This time, Simeone has been working with a squad that seems increasingly out of step with his ideas about the game. The Argentinian has too many inconsistent attacking players and not enough tough-tough defenders. That was shown again on Wednesday when stylish but error-prone defender Mario Hermoso was at fault for Bayer’s opening goal; he was hooked at half-time. Meanwhile, starting centre-forward Alvaro Morata had zero shots before being removed on the hour mark, and €127million (£110m, $128m) attacker Joao Felix remained on the bench until there were just three minutes left.

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

Some Atletico players — including Antoine Griezmann, Rodrigo De Paul, Jan Oblak, Saul and Geoffrey Kondogbia — remained on the pitch for 10 minutes after the final whistle, standing each alone, staring up as the hardcore Frente Atletico fans bounced up and down and sang about their devotion to the club.

Saul Niguez

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

Up in the Catalan capital, a similar scene was unfolding. Barca’s players had already disappeared down the tunnel, before their Grada d’Animacio ultras chanted for them to return to the pitch. The players dutifully came back out, with Xavi also eventually emerging, to stand and watch as those fans waved their giant flags and clapped in unison.

Although the support for the players was admirable in a way, it was also pretty futile. This should not be a time for blind support of your side no matter what, but for deep reflection at the top of Spanish football.

The last week has also seen more of the interminable political squabbling at the upper levels of Spanish football administration — with La Liga president Javier Tebas and Real Madrid chief Florentino Perez and their proxies battling to influence the Spanish politicians who are writing a new sports law that will govern the running of football and all its related businesses in the country. Tebas and Spanish federation chief Luis Rubiales are also involved in a grim parallel struggle for money and power. Meanwhile, Perez and Laporta hang on grimly to their supposed magic savior of the European Super League.

Some of the complaints from Tebas and Perez about the issue of state-owned clubs and the Premier League’s huge wealth have some merit. But all the strife at the top cannot be helping the teams keep up with rivals elsewhere.

Even allowing for Madrid’s fantastic success last season, La Liga’s teams have fallen from their previous position at the very peak of the European game. And that should be a major concern for everyone involved in Spanish football.

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


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