Is the Leicester Draw an Indication it’s Atletico’s Year?

Leicester’s Cinderella story continued as they progressed to the Quarter Finals of the Champions League after beating Sevilla 3-2 on aggregate. And while many clubs were happy to dodge the Foxes in the next round, maybe this is the best draw possible for Atletico. Maybe it could be their year.

Atletico aren’t having a great season in La Liga. Currently they sit in fourth place and a staggering 20 points behind leaders Real Madrid. Their form has been erratic compared to previous seasons, but that hasn’t affected their Champions League campaign. They topped their group winning five from six games. It’s worth noting this was a group that featured German champions Bayern Munich and then they went onto dispatch Bayer Leverkusen in the Knockout Stage.

Playing against the Foxes in the Quarter Finals might not be a bad draw for Diego Simeone’s side due to the way he sets his team up. Leicester rely on catching teams on the break – depending on the blistering pace of Jamie Vardy and last year’s Premier League Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez. However, Atletico are renowned for playing very deep, thus minimising the space in between the goalkeeper and back four especially in central areas. They’ve also got the best defensive record in La Liga no part down to the defensive abilities of Stefan Savic and Diego Godin marshaling the back four. Atletico are a well-drilled side and could be the perfect foil for Leicester’s counter attacking style.

The Champions League is the only competition both club can actually win this season. Leicester are floundering in the bottom half of the Premier League table and out of all domestic clubs. The same can be said for Atletico in terms of domestic cups, so this set of matches takes on even more importance. The first leg will be at the Vincente Calderon Stadium in Madrid and is likely to be a close affair. One weakness the Foxes will be looking to exploit is Atletico’s vulnerability from set pieces. The most high profile lapse was in the Champions League Final when Sergio Ramos nodded in a last minute equalizer – Atletico then went onto lose the game. With Robert Huth and captain Wes Morgan, Leicester have two formidable headers of the ball in their starting line up and will certainly pose a threat over the two legs.

However, regardless of the threats that City pose to Simeone and his Atletico side, you cannot help but think this is the easiest draw in the Quarter Finals. Los Indios dodged the likes of Real, Barccelona, an in-form Monaco team, Dortmund and Juventus. Respected journalist Evan Bartlett a regular contributor to Betfair Champions League stated that despite Atletico’s poor league form, “Barcelona are the only side to have beaten Atletico Madrid in their last 19 games.” They are the type of resolute side that Leicester are yet to face in the CL this season. Simeone will set Atletico up in a way that they give little space for counter attacks, and will most likely rely on the pace of Antoine Griezmann, Yannick Carrasco and Angel Correa to hurt City on the break.

The Atletico defence isn’t without its admirers. Spanish midfielder Thiago even suggested that they “defend better than any other team in the world” in his interview with Goal before their Champions League Group Stage game. It is for this reason that Leicester will find it hard against Atletico. Even if Godin and Savic don’t play, they have Lucas Hernandez and Jose Gimenez they can bring into the side – two of the most promising defenders in La Liga. Their depth is impressive. Nullify the threat of Vardy and Mahrez over two legs, and Atletico might actually win the Champions League this season.

Southampton 1 Tottenham 4: Spurs Punish 10-Man Hosts

Late strikes from Heung Min Son and Dele Alli finished off Tottenham’s seemingly convincing 4-1 away victory as they kept pace with the Premier League Top 4. The win sees Spurs remain in 5th place, just a point behind rivals Arsenal. Yet it was far from one way traffic as a Virgil Van Dijk header put Southampton a goal up just 69 seconds after kick off.

Saints appeared to come out of the blocks looking to make a real statement, and a sloppy foul from Victor Wanyama on his first return to St Mary’s since a Summer departure gifted James Ward-Prowse a free kick. The young Englishman presented a beautiful floating pass onto the head of Van Dijk, who powered past Hugo Lloris to put the home team in front. By this stage Spurs had barely if at all touched the football, and certainly were yet to complete a pass.

The next 15 minutes saw the home side dominant, harrying and pressing Spurs as the likes of Jan Vertonghen and Wanyama were forced deep while attempting to play themselves out of trouble. Yet Sainsts were unable to make the most of this initial period of domination. And when Spurs had their first real chance, a deflected floating cross into the box from Moussa Sissoko, Dele Alli reacted first to rise up and head home, levelling the score on twenty minutes.

Spurs found their footing on the game after the equaliser, returning to their recent style of dictating both the play and tempo. While neither side threatened the goal in the latter part of the half, it was Spurs who would go into the break the happier having weathered the early storm and begun to take control and dominating possession.

Where the energy and excitement of Southampton’s first half had been knocked on the head by Dele’s equaliser, they were unable to replicate the same enthusiasm at the beginning of the second term. This seemed their best shout; to again catch Spurs on the back foot and score early to regain their lead. But this time it was Tottenham who looked the more dangerous and assured the longer as the half and match progressed, and a third headed goal for the match was soon to follow. Harry Kane this time received delivery from a smart outswinging Christian Eriksen corner and, seemingly unmarked with the ball placed almost precisely to him, knocked past Fraser Forster to give Spurs the lead.

Saints looked to respond quickly and pushed further forward to little effect, only managing to expose themselves in their own half. A quick break by Spurs, with Sissoko this time cleverly passing through to Dele, gifted the latter a gilt edged chance through on goal with only the keeper to beat. But, with Nathan Redmond hanging and clawing to get a footing on the edge of the penalty area, Dele’s shot was forced wide. Redmond appeared to maintain contact with the Spurs man as both then went down in the area, referee Mike Dean then pointing to the spot.

It seemed a harsh call on Redmond, for it was arguable to have only been an initial free kick outside the box. Not only that, but when Dean took an eternity to decide upon sending Redmond off, the St Mary’s crowd and the contest both turned a little sour. Perhaps justifying the home crowd’s displeasure, Kane completely scuffed the resulting penalty kick, his left foot appearing to lift the ground and ball up as he blasted over the bar.

With Southampton down to ten man, Spurs’ dominance stepped up another gear as they looked to add to their lead. Eriksen had the best chance, striking the cross bar hard from the centre of the box. Yet somehow the margin remained at one goal, and Saints still looked some chance of knicking a point. With Hugo Lloris willing to come out of his area in a sweeping role, a pair of wayward passes offered the home side a way back, but they were unable to make the most of these two 50-50 balls.

The threat was always greater at the other end though, and eventually the substitute Son found himself in acres of space. Composed, he travelled solo to the left edge of the box before a smart finish into the bottom right corner that gave his side a two goal buffer and finally a stranglehold on the three points. Only moments later Dele completed a brace and the appearance of a comprehensive win as he, similarly to Son, finished to the bottom right and around the outstretched Forster for 4-1.

It was a crucial win for Tottenham, and a result that Southampton will rue given their bright start. Yet in a sign of growing maturity, Spurs were able to hold the locals at bay whilst not at their best early. That Saints were unable to maintain their early intensity, and that Spurs gradually wore them down and ran over them was the story of the match. Whilst the home side was perhaps unfortunate to go a man down, but that stage Tottenham already had the lead and had looked in control. A valiant attempt by Southampton, yet Tottenham’s greater goal threat and dominance through midfield won out.

Spurs Top 4 Run Must Begin At Southampton

If Spurs are to keep in touch with the top four then a win at St Mary’s on Wednesday night is simply a must. With all of those in the positions directly above in the league table already recording wins, as well as Manchester United directly below them, dropped points here could prove harmful and decisive when it comes to the chances of Tottenham breaking in to the Champions League places. The time is now for Spurs to make their run, as they did at a similar stage last season, and it begins with three points against Mauricio Pochettino’s former club.

If Spurs can take 6 points and momentum from games in the next five days against Saints and then Watford, they can greatly strengthen their position before the mouth watering derby against runaway league leaders Chelsea just days later. Anything less than two wins from the next two sets them further back in the pack, at a time when Tottenham can no longer use the excuse of Champions League fixtures getting in their way and scuppering their league form. This is the time that all teams are on a (relatively) even keel, as the fixtures come thick and fast for each. There is no traveling to far flung regions of Europe, just game after game in England and fortunately for Spurs, mostly in London.

The draw for this post-Christmas period is challenging for all, yet it has been relatively kind to Spurs. Tottenham have had a 9-day break leading up to the Southampton encounter, and have another four days before staying reasonably close to home away at Watford. The challenge should and will arrive with a shorter break than Chelsea leading up to that fixture, but this is counterbalanced by the fact it’s played at White Hart Lane. Pochettino must know too that this is a golden opportunity for his side to pounce.

The time for excuses has been and gone, the time to return to the intensity and marauding, high pressing style is now. Only Erik Lamela of starting eleven players remains out of the squad, with Alderweireld and Kane back and with enough time to have found their feet and form. A 9 day break and almost a full squad, yet Spurs will once again need to be more incisive in front of goal. As Liverpool and Chelsea continue to strike gold in front of goal, it is still this seeming lack of penetration that looms the biggest worry to Tottenham’s chances of taking all three points.

Southampton are a danger, especially at home, and the feeling must be that to beat them will require two or more goals to be scored. 1-0 looks unlikely to suffice, with Saints offering a threat of their own in familiar conditions. More is needed from the attacking midfielders for Spurs, with Eriksen’s return to form having covered the missing influence of Dele and Son in recent weeks. All three must create and, along with Kane, ensure that shots at goal are more relevant and likely to find the back of the net. At the least their shots must provide a challenge to Fraser Forster in front of goal.

It has been obvious to those paying attention that Spurs simply don’t offer enough threat when shooting, and the diagram below (with Spurs bottom right) highlights just how extreme this in fact is. Improving the quality of shots whilst potentially reducing the quantity seems the most obvious solution, yet it is also known that Pochettino’s game plan involves an encouragement for his players to shoot. If not shoot on sight then at the least to back themselves in and take the responsibility themselves. It is an admirable concept, but it clearly needs some tweaking.

It is all before this Tottenham side now to make the most of this opportunity, to beat two difficult sides in Southampton and Watford. To execute in front of goal, and to prove they deserve to be amongst the conversation for if not the league title, then at the very least the top four. Just a little bit off the pace they have been, a little more than off in front of goal, and that is enough in the Premier League to see them drift further down the table if the form does not pick up. It starts with 3 points Wednesday night.

Hector Bellerin’s Absence Felt By Gunners

Héctor Bellerin, Arsenal’s first-choice right back, was ruled out until beyond November following an ankle injury in the North London derby draw with Tottenham. This news came as a blow to Gunners fans, with the meteoric rise of the young Spaniard being one of the most exciting stories of their past two seasons. Arsenal have played three matches during his absence thus far, coming in both the Premier League and Champions League. How have his replacements fared?

Carl Jenkinson played 83 minutes in a 1-1 tie against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Jenkinson, 24, played at West Ham United on a season-long loan last year. His performances were praised, as he made 20 appearances for the Hammers in the first half of the season. Sadly he then suffered an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament, thus ending his season in mid-January. Jenkinson was always likely to come under the spotlight and against Man U, playing what was only his second match of the season since returning to the Gunners.

His performance was described as nervy by many, with movement that displayed glimpses of hesitance, a common occurrence after a severe knee injury. Despite this, he was able to rise to the challenge of defending against Anthony Martial, who’s only threatening contribution was a curled effort struck straight at Peter Cech before the half. Offensively Jenkinson shone, putting in a pair of well-placed crosses either side of half time. Jenkinson was replaced in the 83rd minute by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who put in the assist for Arsenal to draw level in the 89th minute with an Olivier Giroud goal. All in all it was a promising start to Jenkinson’s deployment in the role.

However Jenkinson had a poorer showing in the Champions League clash against French opponents Paris Saint-Germain on November 23rd. Positionally at fault for PSG’s first goal, he was caught in no-man’s land as Thiago Motta played a through ball for Blaise Matuidi, who assisted for Edison Cavani’s goal. Despite this, he contributed offensively in the 2nd half when putting in a low cross that was deflected off a series of PSG defenders before eventually leading to a Marco Verratti own goal. This was followed by another poor moment, where Jenkinson was at fault again for the second PSG goal. Losing a header at the back post to Lucas Moura from a Hatem Ben Arfa corner led to an own goal for his side. Given what could only be described as an unfortunate if not lacklustre display, he was substituted after 80 minutes for Theo Walcott.

Mathieu Debuchy earned his first start of the season in a 3-1 victory against Bournemouth at the weekend. Originally bought as a replacement for Bacary Sagna following the latter’s departure to Manchester City at the end of the 2013-14 season, Debuchy found himself eclipsed by Bellerin’s sudden rise. Generally seen as a good signing from Newcastle United, Debuchy has never really risen to the level of initial expectations. Following ankle and shoulder injuries, the French international seemed a shadow of his former self. Seeking a return to the playing arena, Debuchy played nine matches last season for Bordeaux in a short-term loan.

Against Bournemouth, Debuchy started the match brightly, blocking a Brad Smith cross with a sliding tackle and keeping Junior Stanislas subdued. Yet sadly the history of injuries returned to haunt him and Arsenal quickly. For he was stretchered off in the 16th minute after suffering a hamstring injury, with Gabriel Paulista coming on to deputise at right-back for the remainder of the contest.

Given the unpredictable defensive displays of Jenkinson and Debuchy’s inability to stay healthy, Héctor Bellerin cannot come back soon enough for Gunners fans. Despite his recovery progressing well according to the latest reports, Bellerin will still not make his way back into the side for at least another month. With Debuchy injured again and Jenkinson’s shaky performances, we could well see Gabriel filling in at right back until around the Christmas period. Naturally a centre back, it remains to be seen whether the Brazilian is able to cover any more effectively than either Jenkinson or Debuchy. And how will Arsenal fare defensively without their young star; both against West Ham this weekend, and through the many fixtures to follow?

Jeremy Pepino
jeremy@dailyfootballblog.com

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