FOR the second night running, the Champions League delivered an intriguing tie that kept the stay-at-home crowd on the edge of their sofas and underlined the competition’s ability to thrill.
Leipzig, the much-discussed product of corporate football, edged their way to the last four of the Champions League at the expense of a club that has lived on the fringe of the elite for the best part of a decade.
To some extent, Atlético’s defeat signals the end of an era, they don’t seem to have the appeal of old even though they have all the ingredients of the Simeone way, as their two victories over Liverpool in the round of 16 suggested.
Atlético finished the La Liga season in third place after two years in which they were runners-up. They were 17 points behind champions Real Madrid and they lost just four games but drew 16. Goals have been a problem for Atlético Madrid and their haul of 51 was their lowest since 2007.
Have Atlético passed their peak and how much longer will Simeone remain at the helm? The Argentinian has been with the club since December 2011 and is the most successful manager they have had in their history. But in a league dominated by the financial might of Real and Barca, has he achieved all he can with Spain’s number three club? There will be no shortage of takers for Simeone’s services.
The 2019-20 Champions League was arguably their best chance of winning the Champions League. One-off games, where Atléti could “do a job”, possibly gave Simeone the possibility of finessing his way to the final once more – especially in the weaker half of the draw.
The opportunity was there for every club in that half, Atalanta, PSG, RB Leipzig and Atléti all had the chance to pull off a surprise or two. PSG and RB Leipzig will now meet in the semi-finals thanks to late goals and dogged determination.
Leipzig overcame the loss of Timo Werner – why was he allowed to move on before the season was out? – and had to thank 21 year-old American substitute Tyler Adams and a deflection for their winner with just a couple of minutes remaining.
While defeat may be the end of something, Leipzig’s victory is an extension of the spectacular progress made by the club in recent years. Unpopular largely because they do not conform to German football’s convention, Leipzig are not a club that throws around cash on big signings. They have certain advantages, but their record signing is just € 24.5 million, the amount they paid to another member of the Red Bull portfolio, Salzburg, for Naby Keïta in 2016-17. Leipzig’s squad has the youngest average age in the Bundesliga (24.7 years), underlining the club’s emphasis on young talent as opposed to expensive seasoned players with lengthy track records.
Atlético’s future was supposed to be built around younger players like João Félix, who is still only 20 but has found the transition from Benfica to Madrid challenging, possibly due to the enormous price tag (€ 126 million) paid by his employer. Félix scored six goals in 27 La Liga games but Marca magazine named him one of the disappointing transfer signings of the season, even though he suffered a series of frustrating injuries.
After Dani Olmo gave Leipzig the lead in the 51st minute in Lisbon, Félix – a 58th minute substitute – equalised from the penalty spot on 71. Félix improved Atléti’s attacking efforts, but generally, Leipzig were comfortable and controlled. Even Simeone had to admit that the German side deserved to win. “I am convinced we gave everything we had…we have to lift our heads and try again next season,” he said after the game. Meanwhile, Julian Nagelsmann, Leipzig’s coach, believed his team was the better side overall and deserved their “lucky winner”.
The semi-finals between RB Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain brings together two of Europe’s most controversial clubs. Leipzig’s Red Bull ownership and PSG’s Qatari-backing are both disliked in certain quarters and are seen as artificially creating success in a manner which goes against the spirit of the game. Leipzig have yet to win a major prize, but they are getting closer. PSG, long-time overlords of French football, are obsessed with gaining European credibility. Only once – 2012 and Chelsea – has a team from the cluster of “new money” clubs won the competition. Manchester City are still in there but have to win two games to get to the final, but one team from that group is guaranteed a place in the decider. 2020 could be the season where football’s new economic model really does reap rewards.