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Five lessons from the Champions League first legs

by Joshua Doering

For the first time in over two months, the Champions League returned to action with the beginning of the knockout round on Feb. 16. The storylines were plentiful, from the brilliance of Kylian Mbappé and Erling Håland and Juventus’ loss to Bayern Munich’s dominance and Olivier Giroud’s bicycle kick. Now that all eight first legs have been completed, here are five takeaways:

1. “Road” teams are thriving

All eight first legs ended with a winner, and the lone home team to come out ahead was Porto. There are several factors to take into account here. PSG, Bayern and Manchester City all playing the away leg first has something to do with it. Of course, not having tens of thousands of screaming fans does as well. It’s also fair to wonder how traveling to a neutral arena to be the “home” team impacted RB Leipzig, Atlético Madrid and Borussia Mönchengladbach. 

All told, “home” teams were outscored 18-6 and every single “road” team left with at least one away goal. In last season’s round of 16, home teams scored 13 more goals than road teams over the two legs. Three teams trailed after playing the first leg at home. One was playing the eventual champions and another was up against Manchester City. It’s impossible to determine what factors contributed most to this bizarre set of results (other than the lack of fans), but it is unlikely something like this will ever happen again once things are back to normal. 

2. Last season’s run to the final changed PSG on a fundamental level

When Barcelona beat PSG 6-1 to overturn a 4-0 deficit from the first leg in 2017, it was unbelievable because of the miniscule odds yet unsurprising to a degree because of the pedigree of the two clubs. The Spanish giants losing by four at the Parc des Princes and failing to get an away goal felt fluky. There was nothing fluky about what happened in the same stadium this time. Mbappé was the best player on the field and got plenty of assistance from the likes of Moise Kean, Mauro Icardi, Marco Verratti and Leandro Paredes. 

While Barcelona’s ineptitude was a key factor in PSG’s 4-1 victory, the significance of putting together that kind of performance without Neymar and Ángel Di María should not be lost in the game’s aftermath. The dramatic comeback against Atalanta in the quarterfinals broke down the mental barriers that had hindered PSG for so long in the Champions League. Their full potential finally unlocked, they proved to themselves and everyone else they really could play with any team in the world. The dominant first leg felt different than the one in 2017 because it was produced by a tougher, more confident, more mature team.

3. Julian Nagelsmann’s taken Leipzig as far as he can

Having gifted Liverpool two away goals and with defensive stalwart Dayot Umpmecano on his way to Bayern, Leipzig’s window to capitalize on the excellent team Nagelsmann’s built is closing rapidly. Barring an unexpected miracle in the second leg, Nagelsmann will be forced to face the reality at least part of him was already aware of: He cannot fulfill his grand ambitions in his current job. 

Leipzig have cemented themselves as a top 15 team in the world by following up their appearance in the semifinals with their performance in the group stage and challenge for the Bundesliga title this season. Moving forward, they will be a team capable of making a deep run in Europe and pushing Bayern Munich domestically from time to time. Expecting anything more than that is unrealistic, and their coaching phenom almost certainly knows it.

4. Diego Simeone tried to have it both ways

Atlético Madrid are on pace for their most prolific scoring season in La Liga since they last won the league in 2013-14, which points to Simeone’s willingness to evolve and ability to do so without sacrificing the stout defense his teams are known for. They are conceding almost exactly the same number of goals per game in La Liga than they did last season. The problem lies in the decision Simeone has to make against elite opposition that won’t allow Atléti to attack and defend the way they want to.

Bayern Munich put four past them in the first game of the group stage. Atléti beat Red Bull Salzburg 3-2 at home and conceded twice in their league meeting with Real Madrid. Simeone sent an attack-minded lineup to execute a defensive game plan against Chelsea and the result was rather disastrous. While Simeone’s options were limited without Kieran Trippier, Yannick Carrasco and José María Giménez, Atléti didn’t have a shot on target and conceded because of Mario Hermoso’s errant backwards kick. El Cholo’s goal was to get the exciting attack and sound defensive base. In the end, he got neither.

5. The defending champions aren’t going to beat themselves

Between their fifth European Cup triumph in 2013 and their sixth this past summer, Bayern were knocked out before the final every season. The teams that eliminated them are as follows: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid, Real Madrid and Liverpool. All six of those teams reached the final and five of them won the competition. No matter where the Bavarians might stand in the hierarchy of Europe’s elite clubs, they do not lose to teams they’re not supposed to in the Champions League. 

Lazio’s array of mistakes allowed Bayern to pour in four goals before eventually conceding, but the gap between the teams was clear even without the devastating miscues. The captivating performance is interesting when viewed in the context of Bayern’s draw with Arminia Bielefeld and loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga. This is not the unstoppable machine that was clearly the best team in Lisbon over the summer. While they are vulnerable and certainly not the favorites, somebody is going to have to outplay them for the trophy to change hands. 

Photo by Werner100359 / Wikimedia Commons

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