Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla: Can Spain reign again in the Champions League?
With Atletico Madrid’s early elimination and with other top sides looking vulnerable, can a Spanish side lift the trophy this season?
The dominance of La Liga sides in European competition in recent years has been unquestionable.
Each of the last four Champions League titles and 11 of the last 12 European trophies have been won by Spanish clubs while only once in the past nine years has the Champions League and Europa League been won by non-Spanish sides in the same season.
Indeed, for a spell the only elimination for La Liga clubs was against their native rivals – at the end of the 2015/16 campaign, teams from the division had won 47 of 51 knockout ties in Europe against teams from other nations.
This season there has been a shift in power, one which has strands of tangibility but also a sense that Spain’s finest are no longer untouchable in Europe’s premier club competition.
The most marked piece of evidence was Atletico Madrid’s elimination from the Champions League in the group stages. Diego Simeone had guided his side to the competition for the fifth consecutive season and they had reached two finals, a semi-final and quarter-final in that time.
Remarkably, the only side who had previously eliminated Simeone’s Atletico from the competition were city neighbours Real.
A disappointing campaign
The failure of Los Colchoneros to beat Azerbaijani side Qarabag over two games was the headline from the group stages, were their La Liga rivals also failed to convince.
Elsewhere, Real Madrid were well-beaten by Tottenham at Wembley and were somewhat fortunate Borussia Dortmund were not at their vintage best.
Meanwhile, aside from a 3-0 victory over an injury-hit Juventus, Barcelona did not stand out as one of the stage’s best performers while Sevilla suffered a 5-1 loss at Spartak Moscow and were fortunate they were drawn in arguably the most straightforward group.
Turning things around in Madrid
Predictions that Real Madrid would hit form as winter turned into spring have so far played out – with 13 points and 23 goals from their last five La Liga outings, alongside a 3-1 first leg victory at home to Paris Saint-Germain in Europe.
Zinedine Zidane’s side did not overly convince in the victory but showed they could match the Parisians – earlier viewed as competition favourites – before using their know-how to obtain a potentially decisive triumph.
Unai Emery’s side have won every game they have played in Paris this season but Madrid’s goal-scoring prowess suggests they will have to score at least four times to advance automatically should they fail to keep a clean sheet.
The advantage is very much with Los Blancos, and with no title or domestic cup distraction in the next three months, they must be considered as one of the competition’s notable favourites.
Barcelona the favourites
El Clasico rivals Barcelona have dominated domestically this season but, having negotiated a gruelling path to the Copa del Rey final, legs may be beginning to tire.
They face a massive test against Chelsea, who have often provided their and Lionel Messi’s (no goals in eight games) bogey team.
Ernesto Valverde’s side are rightfully favourites but concerns have sprung up that their form may have already peaked this season.
As is so often the case, they have also been criticised again for leaning too heavily on the magical form of Messi and Luis Suarez.
Sevilla are undoubtedly underdogs in their clash with Manchester United, whom they have never before faced competitively.
Vincenzo Montella’s start to life in the dugout in Andalucia has been mixed – progressing to the Copa del Rey final is an undoubted highlight yet this has been mixed with heavy defeats to city rivals Real Betis (5-3) and Eibar (5-1), while he has not yet faced a top-six rival in the league.
Similarly to Manchester United, their season once again relies on the cup competitions and under the Italian they are more of an attacking unit than they were under his predecessor Eduardo Berizzo.
However, their defensive weaknesses will no doubt be pried upon by Jose Mourinho and reaching the quarter-finals would represent a magnificent achievement for Los Rojiblancos.
The reign in Spain (or going home on the plane?)
Of course, it is easy to get lost in the narrative here. Whilst the Spanish sides have disappointed in the Champions League so far, there are still three sides remaining in the competition. Of these, two of them are amongst the favourites to win the tournament outright.
However, one thing is certain: this year’s edition of the Champions League is more wide open than it has been for seasons.
In this sense, perhaps it is for the best that the Spanish sides have let their grip slip from the Champions League trophy.
How do you think the Spanish teams will fair in the knockout stages of the tournament? Get in touch by commenting below.