Soccer

UEFA Champions League underdogs: Who Atalanta, Gladbach, Atletico Madrid and Lazio need to step up to advance

The UEFA Champions League round of 16 ends this week with four more games across Tuesday and Wednesday, all of which you can see on Paramount+. Atletico Madrid go to Chelsea, Manchester City technically host Borussia Monchengladbach, though the match is in Budapest, Bayern Munich welcome Lazio and Atalanta make the trip to Spain to take on Real Madrid in second legs. Now, Atletico, Gladbach, Lazio and Atalanta are the underdogs in their ties after not getting the most favorable result in the second leg. Gladbach trail City 2-0, and Lazio are down 4-1 against Bayern, meaning both need mini miracles to have any chance. Atleti’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea has them still with decent prospects of advancing, and the same goes for Atalanta, who drew Real 1-1 in Italy. 

But all four teams who are facing elimination need somebody who didn’t step up in the first leg to really do so in the second. Here is the one key player each underdog needs if they have any chance of making it to the quarterfinals.

Atalanta: Mario Pasalic

Atlanta enter Tuesday’s clash without midfielder Remo Freuler, who received a red card in the first leg. Once Atalanta went down to 10 men, Mario Pasalic came in ten minutes later and was as close to a direct substitute for Freuler as Atalanta tried to field.

The Croatian midfielder won’t wow you, but he is coming off his best performance of the season and needs to build off of it. In the 3-1 win over Spezia on Friday, he scored twice and was sensational in the final third, completing 85 percent of his passes. 

He differs from Freuler in the sense that he pushes a bit higher up the field, offering more in attack, with four league goals compared to Freuler’s one, as would be expected from a player who spends many of his minutes as a 10. And, well, that will be welcome in a game where Atalanta hope their attack comes alive to put Real Madrid away. 

Expect him to sit back a bit like Freuler, but don’t be surprised to see him push forward on the counter and at times drift down the left a bit.

Borussia Monchengladbach: Denis Zakaria

He’s one of the top, young defensive midfielders in the world and being chased by several Premier League giants. And while his disruptive play in the middle will be key to slow down the City attack, where he will be really needed is deep in possession. He’ll drop very deep into his own third to recover the ball, and we won’t see him over the midfield line much at all when they don’t have the ball, helping cover for the defense.

Here’s a look where he regularly receives possession from a pass:


TruMedia

Some of those are very deep in his own half, and he will be an outlet in dealing with any pressure City apply. If he can get into possession, turn quickly and get balls forward, especially when City push forward in high numbers, then Gladbach will have a chance on the counter to really create some trouble. But, make no mistake, Zakaria will have to be at his best.

Lazio: Joaquin Correa

It would be easy to say Ciro Immobile has to perform, but that is stating the obvious. Joaquin Correa is more important. His technical ability will be crucial, and he needs to step it up. While he has two goals as of late, including in the first leg against Bayern, he has just one assist in his last 15 games in all competitions. In Serie A he has created 23 chances and an expected assists of 1.3 in 1378 minutes. That would indicate that he simply isn’t getting balls into the best situations, and part of it has been he’s trying to do too much.

The good thing is, he’s been more creative in the Champions League, with an xA of 0.91 in just 578 minutes. 

Time and time again, the technically gifted Argentine will take one too many touches, has space closed down on him, and then he’s forced into trying to make something out of nothing. 

But if he can play with a bit more patience and build off of what we’ve seen in UCL and not in Serie A, he could be the one to get them back into this. Lazio have such a huge mountain to climb that the whole team will have to play out of their minds, but if they were to do the impossible a large part of it will hinge on Correa.

Atletico Madrid: Marcos Llorente

Marcos Llorente continues to see his role increase with Atletico, as he continues to gain the trust of Diego Simeone. He went from averaging 30 minutes a game the first month of the season to having played 90 minutes in 15 of their last 17 games. 

In his last 17 La Liga games, he has six goals and six assists. In the Champions League, the production hasn’t quite been there. The first leg of the Chelsea tie was an awful one back on Feb. 23, and nobody looked real sharp. Llorente included, creating no chances, having no shots and completing just 74.3 percent of his passes.

But as the recent 1-1 draw against Real Madrid showed, he can really turn it on against the big boys. In that match on March 7, he completed just short of 90 percent of his passes, created three chances and had his a fantastic assist to Luis Suarez. 

Here is the perfectly weighted ball to the Uruguayan striker:

As he pushes forward, he has shown an ability to time his passes well, and that will be key to try and set up Suarez at Stamford Bridge against an in-form Chelsea side.

With Atletico not really being able to sit back super defensively in this one, having to score, expect Llorente to push high up the field, and if he can get into space and read the runs Suarez makes, he’ll have a chance to help Los Colchoneros turn this around.

He’ll have the freedom to drift wide on both sides and look for the space in behind the central midfielders of the Blues. If Atleti are to comeback, he’ll have to show his La Liga form in the UCL.



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