Champions League takeaways: Atletico is the team to beat

James Sharman and Faizal Khamisa breakdown a stunning day of Champions League action.

A tactical masterclass from Atletico Madrid saw them earn a 2-0 victory over Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal on Wednesday. Atletico won 3-2 on aggregate.

Antoine Griezmann opened the scoring on 36 minutes to give Atleti the aggregate lead on away goals. The Frenchman doubled the advantage from the penalty spot late in the second half to clinch Atletico’s spot in the semifinals.

Here are three thoughts from the match…

Antoine Griezmann makes his case for Euro 2016
On the same day it was announced that Karim Benzema will not be called up to the France squad for Euro 2016, another French striker made his case to be a starter at the tournament this summer.

Griezmann’s goals against the Champions League holders surely piqued the interest of his national team manager Didier Deschamps. Not only was it the first time the 25-year-old scored vs. Barcelona, but he was also contributing elsewhere. He was defending, dropping deep to receive the ball and drifted out wide to stretch Barca’s back line.

Griezmann now has 29 goals in 45 games in all competitions for Atletico. Six of those have come in the Champions League, but none were bigger than his brace on Wednesday.

His work rate, technique, speed and scoring exploits on a big stage should give Deschamps a selection headache when he names his starting XI on June 10 against Romania. If Griezmann is not in the lineup, then it will be a huge shock.

Atletico stretches Barcelona, capitalizes with a goal
From the moment the game started, Atletico tried to expose Barcelona by moving the ball out wide to stretch the champions’ back line.

The forward pairing of Griezmann and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco were the catalysts, but Koke and Saul Niguez also contributed.

This hustle on the flanks eventually led to the opening goal. Atleti was passing the ball on the right flank to keep Jordi Alba high up the pitch, then Saul received it and immediately fired a precise cross onto the head of Griezmann. Barca was stunned.

Los Cules’ defence has always been susceptible to this tactic since their full backs love to dart up the field. Atletico manager Diego Simeone noticed this and used it to his team’s advantage.

None shall enter the Atletico penalty area
Simeone’s Atletico Madrid is known for its gritty defensive performances. Wednesday was no different.

Barcelona could not penetrate the rock-solid back line of Atletico. The Barca players seldom had a touch in the opposing box and when they did, it was immediately dealt with by Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez, Filipe Luis or Juanfran.

Godin was expertly marking Luis Suarez, Neymar was contained all night by Juanfran, and Lionel Messi was practically invisible as well. The midfielders helped out, too, especially Gabi and Augusto Fernandez on Suarez and Messi.

Since Atletico finished the match with 11 players unlike their last two meetings against Barcelona, the team was able to successfully nullify one of the most dangerous forward trios in the world.

This was Atleti’s seventh clean sheet in the Champions League this season. Los Rojiblancos have only conceded three times in 10 games in the competition.

Atletico was also the last team to prevent Barcelona from scoring in a Champions League game before Wednesday’s duel. Simeone’s squad beat Barca in the second leg of a quarterfinal on April 9, 2014. The Madrid-based side eventually qualified for the final.

Atletico’s resiliency at the back and never-say-die attitude makes this team the one to beat in the semifinals and beyond.

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