Wednesday February 25th, 2015

The favored teams fell in the Champions League round of 16 first legs on Wednesday, as Arsenal shockingly lost 3-1 at home to Monaco. Atlético Madrid went into its match with Bayer Leverkusen on closer to even odds, but its 1-0 loss still came as a surprise.

Geoffrey Kondogbia scored the only goal of either first half when he took a chance from distance and benefited from a deflection to give Monaco a 1-0 lead. Dimitar Berbatov doubled it just eight minutes into the second half, capping a field-encompassing counterattack with a cool finish.

Substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain slotted home Arsenal’s goal in the first minute of stoppage time in an attempt to make the result slightly less embarrassing and seemingly give Arsenal hope heading to the return leg. However, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco again stunned the crowd with an even later stoppage-time finish.

It took until the second half to find a goal in Germany, but the home team rewarded its fans’ patience with a rocket from Hakan Çalhanoğlu in the 57th minute. Bayer’s hard-working defense did the rest, frustrating Atlético for the remainder.

Here are a few thoughts and observations from Wednesday’s action in the Champions League, wrapping up the first legs of the round of 16:

Player of the Day: Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Bayer Leverkusen

Few individuals stood out in two team-oriented matches, but Leverkusen's scorer Çalhanoğlu exemplified his team’s spirit and work rate throughout the match. He connected the team’s midfield and attack in a rangy No. 10 role, moving from between the attacking midfielders to partner Josip Drmić up top.

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He scored Bayer’s goal early in the second half, moving well off the shoulder of Karim Bellarabi and smashing his shot into the roof of the net past goalkeeper Miguel Moyà. The move started deep in Leverkusen’s own half with a throw, and Bellarabi’s patience waiting for Çalhanoğlu’s run to develop showed the team’s confidence at home. The Turkish international put two shots on target in his 87 minutes, also completing 81 percent of his passes while covering ground all across the top half of the pitch.

Çalhanoğlu created two goalscoring opportunities for his teammates, one before and one after his goal, tied for most for an individual in the match.

Moment of the Day: Kondogbia gives Monaco hope for match and series

Give Monaco credit for its approach in a daunting first leg away to Arsenal. Rather than sitting back and absorbing attacks, Leonardo Jardim’s team went out to pressure. Anthony Martial and Nabil Dirar put in strenuous shifts on the wing, constantly shuttling between the top and bottom lines of defense.

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That left Kondogbia and Fabinho to roam the central channel. Arsenal suffered from its inability to capitalize on creative combination play through the middle just before halftime, as Kongdogbia unleashed his long-range shot that deflected off Per Mertesacker on the edge of the area and flew past David Ospina in goal. 

After the opener, it didn’t seem so strange when Monaco scored again.

Even Oxlade-Chamberlain’s stoppage-time consolation goal couldn’t change Monaco’s hard-earned confidence at the Emirates Stadium as Ferreira-Carrasco scored again for Les Rouges et Blancs before the final whistle.

It all started from Kondogbia’s goal, and Monaco only got stronger as the match went on.

Major Takeaway of the Day: Tactical, defensive battles are entertaining, too

Monaco’s bend-but-don’t-break approach to defending notwithstanding, the match at BayArena provided the most entertaining game of the round of 16 first legs between two teams with defense-first mentalities.

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Besides Emir Spahić rattling the crossbar in the 26th minute and Tiago forcing Bernd Leno into a superb reaction save in stoppage time with a scissor kick, attacking chances were sporadic in the first half.

Leverkusen finally broke through in the second, earning the win in a style Atlético itself has frequently used in underdog situations.

Atlético’s usually methodical low block stifled Leverkusen early, which resorted to long balls in the attacking half to remedy the lack of space in the middle, but the passes proved too difficult to connect. When Atléti won possession, Roger Schmidt’s trademark high-pressing style gave players no room on the ball.

Schmidt’s scientific approach on the training ground has turned Bayer into one of the best-choreographed teams in the competition. Its creative free-kick routines have drawn attention from the start of the season, but the smooth interchange on the goal also showed the players’ intuitive knowledge of each others’ preferences and tendencies.

Atlético didn’t give up many chances, but Çalhanoğlu pounced when it finally did.

How the second legs shape up

Monaco suddenly went from being the overwhelming underdog to going home for the second leg with a significant lead and three away goals. Arsène Wenger’s team again fell flat in a big match, throwing an Arsenal's chances of advancing into the last eight of the Champions League into major doubt for the fifth year in a row.

Arsenal needs a huge result at Stade Louis II to have a chance, and if Monaco can replicate Wednesday’s defensive showing, it probably won’t happen. Now, Monaco can focus completely on defense and commit fewer numbers forward.

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The other match shapes up nicely for Leverkusen, as long as it can weather the storm that always seems to brew inside the Vicente Calderón on match day. Despite an intensity worthy of a big-time European matchup on Wednesday, Bayer played a more disciplined match than Atlético. The passion boiled over into a heated touchline disagreement between Schmidt and Diego Simeone’s top assistant, Germán Burgos, before the break.

The atmosphere on the pitch seemed to most affect Atlético, which sometimes has a propensity to go over the top in situations such as these.

Tiago received his second yellow card late in the game for a rash challenge, and Diego Godín will also miss the return leg through yellow-card suspension. Atlético is used to playing in adverse situations, but the hole it dug in this series could prove too much for last year’s runner-up.

13:20 | Planet Futbol
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