Arsenal was bad, but give Monaco its due

For four straight years, Arsenal has bowed out of the Champions League in the Round of 16, and it appears it will suffer the same fate after losing 3-1 in their first leg match vs Monaco.

Here’s what happened on Wednesday in the UEFA Champions League, in case you missed it…

The results

Watch match highlights: Arsenal 1, AS Monaco 3 || Bayer Leverkusen 1, Atletico Madrid 0

Read match reports: Monaco shocks Arsenal at Emirates || Calhanoglu lifts Leverkusen over Atletico

The main talking points

Full credit to Monaco: This was supposed to be an easy tie for Arsenal. Having avoided many of Europe’s heavyweights in the draw for the Round of 16, the Gunners drew AS Monaco, currently fourth in the table and a team that managed to score only four times in the group stage. What’s more, the French side headed to London with a series of selection issues: none of its first-choice defenders were available (including Ricardo Carvalho and Layvin Kurzawa), and they were also missing their captain (Jérémy Toulalan) and one of their best forwards (Yannick Ferreira Carrasco) wasn’t fit to start.

And yet, Monaco came up with a splendid performance at the Emirates, highlighted by the wonderful Joao Moutinho (who’s composure on the ball in midfield provided the French club a platform to succeed) and the aging Dimitar Berbatov. At 34, the Bulgarian striker has lost a step (and he wasn’t exactly quick to begin with), and his languid style is often misinterpreted as laziness. But when he’s in the mood, he has the ability to help his team win games like he did against Arsenal—his sublime finish off the counter served notice that Monaco should not have been taken lightly by their hosts.

We can go on and on about Arsenal, and how this was a pathetic performance from the Londoners. How Olivier Giroud was subbed out after failing to direct any of his six shots from inside the box on target. How Mesut Ozil continues to be spectator in big games. How Arsene Wenger fails to realize his team can’t effectively defend a high line, or quickly make up ground and space in transition. That’s all true. But this result was more about what Monaco did than what Arsenal didn’t do.

The problem with Atletico Madrid: Like Borusssia Dortmund (with its high pressing game) and FC Barcelona (with its beloved tiki taka), Atletico Madrid has become intrinsically linked with its style that stresses defensive organization. Under manager Diego Simeone, Los Colchoneros are renowned for letting teams come at them and soaking up the pressure before hitting out on the counter-attack.

This less-than-sexy tactical approach has not only won them admirers for their discipline in its execution, but it’s served them well. A season ago, Atletico upset the natural order of La Liga and beat both Barcelona and Real Madrid to the title, and was seconds away from beating their crosstown rivals in the Champions League final. This season, they cruised through the first round of the Champions League, winning a group that included Italian champions Jventus by conceding just three goals in six games. But like Dortmund and Barcelona, Atletico doesn’t know any other way. It’s not that they’re tactically stubborn so much as they have utter belief in their system in helping them overcome any form of adversity.

And the problem is this isn’t always the case, like on Wednesday in Germany. Atletico held firm with Leverkusen until Hakan Çalhanoglu’s marvellous goal in the 57th minute changed the complexion of the game. Suddenly, Atletico had to chase the game, and could no longer play to their strengths. They also lost their composure—both Diego Godin and Tiago picked up cautions that will rule them out for the return leg in Spain. If they concede, they’ll need to score at least three times to rescue the tie. Atletico heads home needing a goal, and can’t afford to stick to its tactical guns. Simeone has to come up with another game plan to attack the return leg, without the services of two crucial players who feature in the team’s spine.

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Goal of the day
Save of the day

With Atletico swarming inside the penalty area in first-half injury time, Tiago unleashed an acrobatic half volley. Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno saw it through a sea of legs and parried the ball out of danger to deny the Spanish side a sure goal.

Best moment of the day

Nice to see Bayer Leverkusen manager Roger Schmidt not back down after his counterpart Diego Simeone and his assistant German Burgos get in his face during a touchline tête-à-tête.

Tweet of the day

Graham Ruthven on Twitter

Six pack of stats

Arsenal has kept only two clean sheets in their last eight Champions League knockout games at home.

Bayer Leverkusen’s Hakan Calhanoglu is the first player to score against Aletico Madrid goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya.

Monaco has scored two goals in a Champions League knockout game for the first time since both semifinal legs vs Chelsea in 2004.

Atletico Madrid only completed 58% of their passes against Bayer Leverkursen, fewer than any other team in a Champions League match this season.

Arsenal has conceded at least two goals in the home legs of their Round of 16 series for three seasons in a row.

No team has lost a European Cup/Champions League first leg knockout tie at home by two goals and progressed to the next round since Ajax in 1969.

Stats courtesy of Opta

He said it

“If they (Arsenal) underestimated us, then that was a mistake by them.” – Monaco forward Dimitar Berbatov

Burning question

3 stars

1) Joao Moutinho: The Portuguese orchestrator was composed and elegant on the ball as he pulled the strings in Monaco’s midfield.

2) Bernd Leno: The Bayer Leverkusen made a number of big saves—including two in the first half—to record the clean sheet.

3) Dimitar Berbatov: The Bulgarian flattered to deceive with his languid style, but took his goal very well.

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