Monaco sets tone early, ousts Manchester City; Atletico Madrid coasts to UCL quarters
Monaco overcame a two-goal deficit to progress by Manchester City and reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League on the away goals rule after a riveting 6-6 aggregate draw. Monaco was 2-0 up by halftime thanks to goals from Kylian Mbappe and Fabinho, but City took the lead again on 71 minutes through Leroy Sane's finish off a rebound. Six minutes later, though, a Tiemoue Bakayoko header gave Monaco the advantage again, delivering the final punch to City and ensuring Leicester City would be the only Premier League team remaining in the competition.
In the day's other game, Atletico Madrid also progressed, drawing Bayer Leverkusen 0-0 to protect its 4-2 lead from the first leg, with help from some incredible heroics by goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Here are three thoughts on the conclusion of the Champions League's round of 16:
Monaco blows City away with first-half display
Pep Guardiola had never previously gone out of the Champions League before the quarterfinals, but his side was emphatically beaten by Monaco. City mounted a second-half comeback but never seemed to have the conviction or energy of its opponents, who played with great verve and pace and could easily have had the game wrapped up by halftime.
From the offset, City looked defensively suspect. It had taken a fine save from Willy Cabellero to deny Mbappe after seven minutes, but City couldn’t stem the tide. A forward surge from Benjamin Mendy was eventually ended by an excellent tackle from John Stones but the ball broke for Bernardo Silva, and his low cross was touched in by Mbappe, his 11th goal in his last 11 games.
In those early stages, Monaco just seemed stronger and quicker, overwhelming City, which struggled at times to break through the first press. Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Aguero were all but irrelevant in the first half. By halftime, City had completed just 10 passes in the Monaco half. For Monaco, Mendy, who had eviscerated Tottenham in the group stage, was a particular threat, driving forward from left back and forcing Raheem Sterling and Sane to switch flanks. But it didn’t help, and 29 minutes in, Mendy was freed on the overlap and pulled the ball back for Fabinho to slam home.
De Bruyne dropped much deeper at the start of the second half as City switched from a 4-1-2-3 to a 4-2-1-3, and the nature of the game changed. Aguero fired over an open goal as he stretched to get to a Sane cutback and was then denied by the outstretched boot of the goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. The goal that had seeming on its way did come with 19 minutes remaining, with Sane following into an empty net after Subasic had parried an effort from Sterling, who had been superbly released by De Bruyne.
But just as City seemed to have got back into it, Monaco regained the lead with 13 minutes remaining. Thomas Lemar’s free kick picked out Bakayoko, who headed powerfully past Caballero. Again, the defending was poor, too poor for City to survive.
The downside of juego de posicion
City had prevailed in the first leg because, ultimately, it was able to dominate possession and move Monaco’s holding midfielders out of position, but here it never had enough of the ball to do that, its own defensive shortcomings being brutally exposed. Guardiola’s theory is always that if his side’s movement is good enough, it will be able to manipulate the opponent, possession being a byproduct of that, but Monaco never allowed it to settle on the ball and that meant that City was never able to from the balanced structure–Guardiola says it takes 15 passes to get the shape set–to take control.
Playing attacking, technically gifted players may help generate that control, but when the control isn’t there, the lack of innate defensive ability of City’s front five becomes a major problem–particularly against such athletic, proactive opponents as Monaco.
The question, then, is why Monaco faltered after halftime: was it the tactical switch of pushing De Bruyne deeper? Was Monaco simply exhausted having played at too high a tempo? If so, then perhaps there isn’t too much to worry about on a structural level: bring in a couple of better defenders and all will be well. But it could equally be that Leonardo Jardim instructed his side to sit deeper in the second half and so surrendered the initiative, making City’s comeback less the result of its own resilience that of a tactical error.
All systems have fragilities and perhaps that vulnerability to an aggressive, high-pressing side is inherent in Guardiola’s interpretation of juego de posicion, which is more idealistic than that of other devotees such as Louis van Gaal or even his great mentor Johan Cruyff. That’s a theoretical argument; more practically, if the sides had swapped fullbacks, City probably would have gone through.
Oblak stars as Atletico drifts through
Atletico Madrid reached the quarterfinal of the Champions League for the fourth successive season in a series that was settled in the first leg when Atletico won 4-2 in Leverkusen. No side has ever gone through after conceding a two-goal deficit in the first leg and Leverkusen never really looked like doing so.
This game was surprisingly open, a sprightly pleasing game, and Jan Oblak, happily recovered form his dislocated shoulder, was called on to make one astonishing triple save midway through the second half. First he blocked from Julian Brandt, then recovered to save not one but two follow-ups from Kevin Volland.
Nonetheless the whole game was suffused with the sense that it didn’t really matter.