The world might be upended by coronavirus but the Champions League is set to march on. So do we with our previews.
RB Leipzig v Tottenham Hotspur
The good news for Spurs is that they’re only down a goal. The bad news is that Leipzig were very good value for the away goal they scored. Spurs’ problems have been well documented over the past month, with the side basically giving back all of the performance gains that new manager José Mourinho initially brought with him The team’s injury crisis is apparent with January signing Steven Bergwijn joining Harry Kane and Son Heung-min on the sideline. Domestically, especially against teams with less talent, there’s room for debate about whether or not Mourinho could make certain tactical choices to get the most out of his remaining squad. Against Leipzig, however, the team is in a bind. With so few healthy attackers, and no true forward to speak of, Spurs simply cannot execute Mourinho’s desired approach of bending but not breaking and then counterattacking at lightning speed. They have no one to counterattack through. Conversely, if they try to hold the ball against Leipzig, they’d have both trouble moving it up the field and a lack of presence in the box to act as a focal point. Meanwhile, they’d expose themselves to a lightning-fast and efficient counterattack from the German side. Meanwhile, for Leipzig, while it’s the team’s attack that often garners attention, their defense is what will likely be on display as they attempt to see out the tie. And the team defends very very well. They’re a classic shot-suppression side, conceding the second-fewest shots in Germany. Leipzig want to defend far from their own goal, and to force teams to beat an aggressive press to create chances. That’s why this task is so daunting for Mourinho. He’s a manager that normally is happy to play against an aggressive pressing team. He wants to invite pressure and then beat it through the combination of a target forward and a speedy attacking winger executing fast and efficient counterattacks. Unfortunately for Spurs, their target forward and fast creative winger won’t be playing. For Tottenham to have a chance at staging a comeback they’ll have to solve the exact problem that’s been hounding this side for weeks. They’re going to need to break a press without press breakers.
Valencia v Atalanta
Sometimes there are more important things than sports. And for the northern Italian side this is one of those times. Amidst the coronavirus crisis, the squad has played only one match since beating Valencia 4–1 at home on February 19th, breaking apart Lecce 2–7 on the first of the month. The good sporting news for Atalanta is that they have clearly been the better side, and they travel to Valencia with quite a cushion after their 4–1 victory in the reverse fixture. Valencia do have something to hang their hopes on though, and it’s that the first leg wasn’t nearly as lopsided as it seemed. While Atalanta scored early and put the game to bed shortly after halftime, Valencia really did find a lot of attacking joy over the final half hour. The usual pattern of a match like this would be Valencia, trailing at home, would have a ton of the ball and Atalanta would try to defend against a desperate onslaught and put the game away on the counter. A number of famous comebacks over the last few seasons have followed this pattern and resulted in the trailing team getting a needed result. But neither Valencia nor Atalanta fit that mould. Atalanta are addicted to having the ball. And Valencia are one of the deepest defending teams in the world. If Valencia do stage a major comeback it would be because Atalanta simply don’t have the capacity to play cautiously and Valencia manage to take advantage three times. The team does have the fourth-highest expected goals per shot value in La Liga, so a comeback is not out of the realm of possibility. The most likely outcome is that Atalanta just keep on scoring and win this battle easily. The side puts up the kinds of attacking totals that any team in the world would be proud of. It’s hard to imagine they won’t put one or two past Valencia unless they end up confronted with a terrible finishing streak. Stranger things have happened, but there’s no reason to expect it. One of the challenges of analyzing this Champions League season is the fact that some teams are simply much better than their reputations. Atalanta tops that list. They’re just so beyond Valencia that it’s hard to imagine them blowing this lead without a whole bunch of luck going against them.