If last week's Champions League ties provided drama with lots of goals, Tuesday's encounters were nail-biters for the lack of them. Monaco edged past Arsenal despite losing 2-0 at home, going through on away goals, while Atletico edged out Bayer Leverkusen after a nervy penalty shoot-out at the Vicente Calderon. Here are the main talking-points:
Player of the Day: Mario Suarez, Atletico Madrid
It was enough of a surprise that Mario Suarez popped up on the edge of the Leverkusen box and scored off of a deflection to give Atletico Madrid a 1-0 lead in the first half. A defensive midfielder with one goal to his name this season, Suarez isn't considered one of the team's bigger scoring threats.
So for him to score in Atletico's most important game of the season was, well, unlikely. But that's what Diego Simeone specializes in: he threw a curveball with his team selection too, handing midfielder Cani a first start in the team since his January move from Villarreal and leaving captain Gabi on the bench. In a match short on drama (until the end) and high on midfield battle, it proved a good decision. As the game wore on, Atletico looked more likely to score, with Raul Garcia and Fernando Torres both having extra-time efforts saved by Leno.
But Suarez's scoring was not over: he took Atletico's third penalty, when the score was 1-1, and succeeded impressively, his right-footed shot sailing high to his non-natural side off a short run-up. He celebrated by waving his arms above his shoulders, as if exhorting the crowd to will the next penalty out. Studies have shown that goal celebrations after scoring in a shootout provide an emotional contagion, which affects both teammates and opposition players, and increases chances of ultimate success. And so it proved: Omer Toprak, next up, missed for Leverkusen. It may not have been because Suarez raised his arms. But the pressure certainly got to him.
Moment of the Day: Atletico triumph in a shoot-out
Who doesn't love a penalty shoot-out with a huge amount riding on it? I must confess that I do, and not just because I wrote a book dedicated to the subject: Twelve Yards: The Art & Psychology of the Perfect Penalty (which is coming out in the USA in a few months).
What we saw in Madrid is that pressure can do strange things to players, especially with the first two penalties of the night: Raul Garcia has scored big penalties this season against Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid and Barcelona. And yet first up, he took a short run-up, aimed for the middle of the goal and missed the target. Next up was Hakan Calhanoglu, one of Leverkusen's stars of the season and a set-piece specialist. But he's not a penalty expert, having not taken them regularly since his Karlsruhe days (2012-13) though he did score from the spot against Benfica in the group stage. Not so here: his run-up was short, he waited for the goalkeeper to commit himself, known as the Goalkeeper-Dependent method, and when Oblak stayed central, he just rolled the ball straight at him. It was an example of a player who had no strategy: he was too focused on the outcome to think about his routine. And it failed.
Antoine Griezmann and Simon Rolfes both scored, then came Suarez's smart kick and Toprak's miss. But Leverkusen were soon back in it when Bernd Leno dived full-length to stop Koke¹s penalty. It was a super stop and explained why the German has Europe's best penalty-saving record of 37% (the average in-game saving rate for goalkeepers in the top five leagues is 22%).
It was sudden death, and Atleti winger Arda Turan could not watch. He sat on the center line facing the other way (a good thing he didn't take a penalty, that type of gaze avoidance is a surefire sign of someone who doesn't react well to stress). Fernando Torres was up fifth. His last penalty for Atletico was in May 2007, and he rolled back the years with the best spot-kick of the night, to his preferred non-natural side, right into the side-netting.
Stefan Kiessling was fifth for the Germans. He needed to score to stay in the shootout. This is where the advantage for kicking comes in; because the conversion rate for kicking to avoid defeat drops from 74% to 62%, as the pressure increases. Kiessling had seen Calhanoglu and Toprak stumble under the spotlight. He did the same, blasting over to send Atletico into the last eight. Only five of the ten penalties were converted: like the match itself, it was not a master-class, but it was still compelling.
Major Takeaway of the Day: History repeats as Arsenal falls short
This was textbook Arsenal: it did the same in 2012, beating AC Milan 3-0 after losing the first leg 4-0, and in 2013, beating Bayern Munich 2-0 but going out on away goals. And so we can add 2015 to that list: when a first-leg last-minute brain-freeze allowed sub Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco to score a third goal at the Emirates; it was a goal that changed the whole complexion of this tie.
Arsenal spent much of the first half in Monaco knocking on the door, and there was a ten-minute period after Olivier Giroud's smart opener on 35 minutes when Monaco was seriously wobbling. And Arsenal had its chances to add a second goal before halftime. Danny Welbeck's had a shot blocked by Aymen Abdennour and the ball trickled just wide of the post, Giroud could not turn a Welbeck's cross from the right, and Alexis Sanchez claimed a penalty but was booked instead things might have been different.
As it was, coach Arsene Wenger's decision to bring on Aaron Ramsey for Francis Coquelin after an hour helped the visitors. Arsenal's second was down to both substitutes: first Theo Walcott struck the post, and the ball rebounded to Layvin Kurzawa, whose woeful clearance went straight to Ramsey. The Welshman drilled the ball into the corner of the goal. With ten minutes left to play (plus another five of added time), Arsenal started to believe.
Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic had other ideas: Giroud had a fantastic chance to win the tie but his close-range header was clawed away off the line. In a frantic finale, Monaco could not hold onto the ball, or its opponent: Nabil Dirar escaped punishment for a gridiron-style tackle on Nacho Monreal, while its inexperience was summed up in minute 94: from a free-kick just inside its own half, Bernardo Silva tried to take it quickly (why?) and Ferreira-Carrasco was caught offside.
Once again, Arsenal depart a gallant loser, but it's one thing losing to Bayern Munich and another to Monaco, currently fourth in Ligue 1. Even if Wenger claims the away goals rule is outdated and unfair, as he told UEFA at a managers meeting in December 2013, it should not disguise Arsenal¹s failure in this tie. Perhaps the news that FIFA president Sepp Blatter, as recently as last October, called for a rethink on the rules will cheer Wenger, but not tonight.
How the winners shape up for a deeper run:
Is Monaco really one of the top eight teams in Europe (while the likes of Chelsea, and one of Manchester City or Barcelona, are not)? Of course not, but this is the beauty of the knockout stage of this competition; and once you reach the last eight, you begin to believe. Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim almost paid for his players' inexperience, but Ricardo Carvalho, a winner in this competition with Porto in 2004 (ironically beating Monaco in the final) should be back in defense, while Dimitar Berbatov was masterful at keeping possession in his typically languid style. Monaco may be ranked eighth of the teams in Friday's draw, but if it avoids one of the big three (Bayern, Real Madrid and if it goes through, Barcelona), the adventure could continue. Does anyone else wonder what Radamel Falcao makes of it all?
After drawing its last three games, Atletico put in another gritty performance to come out on top. Last year¹s experience may have helped but it was a different Leverkusen approach to three weeks ago; this one was less confident, more cowed by the atmosphere. Can Atletico repeat last year's run to the final? This is a team that can win playing well, and win ugly too. Perfect, and dangerous, for a knockout format.