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Valverde & Simeone extend but doubts surround Spain’s Top Two heading into Champions League

Atletico Madrid returned to 2nd place in La Liga this weekend as Real Madrid slipped to a shock defeat to Girona. Diego Simeone’s men are again the closest rivals to Barcelona but with the Catalans 7 points clear, the focus for all Spain’s top three is increasingly turning to the Champions League.

Spanish clubs have won the competition in each of the last five seasons. Not since Aston Villa sealed a sixth straight European Cup for English clubs in 1982 has one nation had such a stranglehold on the trophy. With Real Madrid in pole position to reach the Quarter-Finals after they saw off Ajax in Amsterdam last week, the Spanish challenge is strong again this year but there is perhaps a sense that La Liga’s elite are certainly beatable this time around. Barcelona and Atletico Madrid will certainly need to improve on their recent performances if they are to be serious contenders. There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between the two clubs heading into their respective Champions League matches this week.

Extended Contracts & Mixed Reactions

Both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid announced last week that their coaches had signed extended deals. While there has been the odd murmuring of discontent at the Wanda Metropolitano this season, the news that Diego Simeone had extended his deal until the summer of 2022 was unquestionably a boost for Atleti. The Argentine has worked wonders with Los Rojiblancos and has won everything besides the UEFA Champions League, despite two agonising Final defeats against their city rivals. His long-term commitment suggests he believes he can at least replicate those recent feats in the years to come.

However Barcelona’s decision to take up the option of extending Ernesto Valverde’s contract for another year was greeted with rather less optimism amongst large sections of the Barca fanbase. There is a perception at least that his pragmatic approach goes against the club’s identity and there was a particularly ferocious response on Twitter from many Barca fans. Match-going fans in Catalonia haven’t exactly turned on Valverde by any means, but nor have they been particularly quick to jump to his defence. It’s all a bit odd given Valverde has won 3 of the 5 trophies his side have fought for during his tenure and are still in the hunt for a quadruple this term having already won the Spanish Super Cup.

Champions League – Number One Priority

Clearly the Champions League is always a huge focus for any club but this season more than most, both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have major reasons to prioritise their Champions League campaigns over La Liga.

For Atleti, the incentive is that of a home Final. The Wanda Metropolitano is not even two years old and while it is an atmospheric arena and crowds have been impressive, there is still a slight sense of a lost identity by moving out of the Calderon to the outskirts of the Spanish capital. Christening the Wanda with a first ever European crown is what Atleti fans are dreaming about and it would be a huge moment in this transitional period for the club. There is sure to be a phenomenal atmosphere when Atletico Madrid take on Juventus in the last 16 there this Wednesday. They are underdogs to progress from the tie but you can never write Los Rojiblancos off in this competition and it would be by no means the first surprise they have sprung were they to see off the Serie A leaders.

Barcelona meanwhile have been pretty public about how the Champions League is their main goal this season. Even the usually media-shy Leo Messi has spoken about it. Recent memories of harrowing away defeats in Turin, Rome and Paris still haunt Barcelona fans and players alike and they are desperate to make amends this season, not least to ensure Real Madrid’s European reign comes to an end. With the Catalans currently well clear at the top of La Liga, we can expect them to put every last ounce of energy into the Champions League.

Arthur Injury & Coutinho Form worries for Valverde

Barcelona’s best European away performance in recent years came in the group stage of this season’s competition as they went to Wembley and beat Tottenham 4-2. They also performed well at the San Siro and the steady presence of Arthur in midfield was seen as a key factor in those performances. He has added a touch of control not seen since the days of Xavi and therefore it’s a real blow that Arthur is missing for Barcelona’s trip to Lyon this Tuesday, in light of their poor record on the road in Champions League knockout games in recent years.

Ernesto Valverde could opt to hand Philippe Coutinho a start in midfield as a result but his poor form and lack of physical presence suggests Arturo Vidal is a more likely option. Coutinho has struggled to live up to expectations this season at Camp Nou and his dream move from Liverpool last January already looks to have turned a bit sour.

Barca head into the Lyon tie following a scrappy 1-0 home win against Real Valladolid in La Liga with only a Messi penalty separating the sides. They aren’t playing their best football right now but should have sufficient quality to see off the French outfit over two legs.

Atleti’s Griezmann Dependence

As for Atletico Madrid, they have been increasingly dependent on Antoine Griezmann for attacking inspiration. The Frenchman has duly delivered and is one of the form attacking players in La Liga right now with 10 goals in his last 11 games. His latest sealed a 1-0 win for Atleti at city rivals Rayo Vallecano this weekend.

However if there is a criticism to be laid at Diego Simeone, it is his consistent failure to get the best out of the other creative and forward players he has brought in to supplement his star man. Vitolo has scarcely delivered anything while Thomas Lemar cost over £50 million last summer but has offered precious little. Diego Costa’s return has also been a bitter disappointment with just 11 goals in 39 appearances, most of which came early on in the lesser cups. Therefore hopes that Alvaro Morata will buck the trend aren’t massively high but he should be pretty pumped up for a clash with former club Juventus this week, the biggest game of Atleti’s season so far.

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