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La Ligas Champions League decline must prompt seriousoul-sea

2022/11/23 21:00

Atletico Madrid had one last chance to save themselves and take the edge off a historically badChampions Leaguegroup stage forLa Liga.

The final whistle had already gone at the Estadio Metropolitano, with Atletico andBayer Leverkusenlocked at 2-2, a result that condemned the hosts to elimination from this seasons Champions League.

But referee Clement Turpin immediately put his finger to his ear, after receiving an alert from VAR of a possible handball by a Leverkusen player as a 96th-minute corner had been cleared.

After that decision was finally confirmed, Yannick Carrasco placed the ball on the penalty spot knowing that if he scored, Atletico would win and keep their Champions League hopes alive.

This is where the evening descended into farce: Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky saved the Belgians poorly struck penalty and midfielder Saul Niguez headed the rebound off the crossbar. Reinildo latched onto the loose ball and hit it goalwards but Carrasco inadvertently deflected it to safety. Atletico were out.

Yannick Carrasco misses a late penalty that ultimately sealed Atletico Madrids Champions League exit ❌

Meanwhile, in Catalonia,Barcelonahad already been knocked out at the group stage for the second year running with less drama but even more pain. Their fate had been sealed by Inter Milans4-0 victoryover group outsiders Viktoria Plzen in Wednesdays early game, but there was to be no consolation triumph against Bayern Munich, who outclassed Xavis side.

Goals from Sadio Mane, Eric Choupo-Moting and Benjamin Pavard sealed a 3-0 win Bayern have now scored the last 15 goals in meetings between these two sides.

WithSevillaalso joining Atletico and Barcelona in theEuropa League, these are bleak times for La Liga. Going into the final round of Champions League group games, the standings suggest thatEnglandwill have four teams in the last 16 andGermanyPortugalandItalythree.Spainare set to joinBelgiumandFrancewith just one (Real Madrid, the reigning champions).

It is Spains lowest number of teams at that stage in more than two decades and the first time ever that three Spanish teams have gone out in the competitions group stages.

It is some turnaround, given La Liga had been used to dominating Europes premier club competition. Madrid won four of five Champions Leagues from 2013-14 to 2017-18, and Barcelona won another four trophies between 2005-06 and 2014-15.

Between 2006 and 2018, La Liga teams won the Champions League more times than all the other European leagues combined. Atletico also reached two finals during a four-year spell in which Diego Simeones team could beat anyone outside Spain but kept falling short against the Clasico duo. Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal and Malaga also had deep runs.

Yet this years problems should not be a surprise. The warning signs were there last season when, after five out of six group games had been completed, there was also a real risk that only one La Liga team would make it through.The Athleticspoke with figures within the Spanish gamewho generally agreed that La Liga clubs were struggling to compete financially with their major continental rivals, especially in the physically intensePremier League. An ability to out-think and out-skill richer and bigger rivals had served them well, but the odds were growing ever less favourable.

As it happened, Atletico and Villarreal pulled off last-gasp away wins in the final group games to make last seasons last 16. They did pretty well there Simeones team knocked outManchester Unitedand then pushedManchester Cityclose in the quarter-finals. Emerys Villarreal eliminatedJuventusand Bayern, before givingLiverpoola scare in the semi-finals.

Madrids rollercoaster road to winning the trophy was perhaps the most dramatic and unlikely in history. They could easily have been knocked out by Paris Saint-Germain,Chelseaand City en route to the final, although they then outclassed Liverpool in the decider.

But La Ligas decline has been trending for some time. Reals victory in Paris was the first time a La Liga team had made a Champions League final in the last four seasons, and Barcelona have been sliding away from the top tier since they last won the trophy in 2015.

Barcas results and performances this season, both in Europe and when they lost to Madrid in the La Liga Clasico, should lead everyone at the club to question what they are doing, including club president Joan Laporta and head coach Xavi. Last summers lever-pulling was all about borrowing from the clubs future to ensure immediate success this season. Laporta confidently stated this would kick-start a virtuous circle where the clubs income would so quickly increase that they could easily pay off their debts. That is not going to happen in the Europa League.

It is not clear at all that those in charge at Barca are really aware of howdeep their problems are. After losing 2-0 at Bayern earlier in the group, Barcas sporting director Jordi Cruyff said that the performance had sent a message that Barca were back. Speaking on Wednesday on Spanish TV after theInterresult was confirmed, but before his teams game began, Barcelona director of football Mateu Alemany said that they would still be in the competition but for inexplicable refereeing decisions that caused the crucial 1-0 defeat at Inter in game three.

Atletico have not really challenged in the latter stages of the competition since their two final defeats to Real in 2014 and 2016. They can deliver epic performances at times as against Manchester United last season and Liverpool in 2019-20 but these are the only two Champions League knockout ties Atletico have come through in the last six seasons.

This time, Simeone has been working with a squad that seems increasingly out of step with his ideas about the game. The Argentinian has too many inconsistent attacking players and not enough teak-tough defenders. That was shown again on Wednesday when stylish but error-prone defender Mario Hermoso was at fault for Bayers opening goal; he was hooked at half-time. Meanwhile, starting centre-forward Alvaro Morata had zero shots before being removed on the hour mark, and €127million (110m, $128m) attacker Joao Felix remained on the bench until there were just three minutes left.

There were also similarities in how both nights ended at the Metropolitano and Camp Nou on Wednesday evening.

Some Atletico players including Antoine Griezmann, Rodrigo De Paul, Jan Oblak, Saul and Geoffrey Kondogbia remained on the pitch for 10 minutes after the final whistle, standing each alone, staring up as the hardcore Frente Atletico fans bounced up and down and sang about their devotion to the club.

Up in the Catalan capital, a similar scene was unfolding. Barcas players had already disappeared down the tunnel, before their Grada dAnimacio ultras chanted for them to return to the pitch. The players dutifully came back out, with Xavi also eventually emerging, to stand and watch as those fans waved their giant flags and clapped in unison.

Though the support for the players was admirable in a way, it was also pretty futile. This should not be a time for blind support of your side no matter what, but for deep reflection at the top of Spanish football.

The last week has also seen more of the interminable political squabbling at the upper levels of Spanish football administration with La Liga president Javier Tebas and Real Madrid chief Florentino Perez and their proxies battling to influence the Spanish politicians who are writing a new sports law that will govern the running of football and all its related businesses in the country. Tebas and Spanish federation chief Luis Rubiales are also involved in a grim parallel struggle for money and power. Meanwhile, Perez and Laporta hang on grimly to their supposed magic saviour of the European Super League.

Some of the complaints from Tebas and Perez about the issue of state-owned clubs and the Premier Leagues huge wealth have some merit. But all the strife at the top cannot be helping the teams keep up with rivals elsewhere.

Even allowing for Madrids fantastic success last season, La Ligas teams have fallen from their previous position at the very peak of the European game. And that should be a major concern for everyone involved in Spanish football.

(Top photo: Alex Caparros UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

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Irish-born Dermot Corrigan has spent more than a decade living in Madrid and writing about Spanish football for ESPN, the UK Independent and the Irish Examiner and now for The Athletic.Follow Dermot on Twitter@dermotmcorrigan