There was nothing Bayer Leverkusen could do to catch and beat Atlético Madrid.
Bayer Leverkusen gave this match their full effort, but effort wasn’t enough to overcome the sheer quality of Atlético Madrid as the Spaniards held their guests to a scoreless draw, seeing out a 4-2 aggregate win in their Champions League round of 16 tie with incredible ease.
Bayer Leverkusen enjoyed much of the possession in the first half, but struggled to do anything particularly effective with it — Atlético Madrid defended well, but even beyond that Bayer really struggled to find effective combinations and passes in the final third, which severely hampered their ability to chase the two-goal aggregate lead Atléti held coming into the match.
Those struggles for Bayer gave Atlético plenty of opportunity to strike on the counter attack, and they actually wound up with more shots and the better scoring chances in the first half despite seeing so much less of the ball. That changed in the second half, with Atléti less willing to sit back and looking to spend more time dictating the pace of the game, taking more of the ball than they’d had in the first half and being much more aggressive with it than they’d been before, trying to create attacking play rather than just playing on the counter.
Bayer still had their own chances, though, but Atlético’s defense stepped up big time whenever they needed to. One attacking sequence in the second half saw goalkeeper Jan Oblak make three huge saves in the space of four seconds, constantly scrambling back and forth just in time to block a series of shots that many keepers would have struggled with.
In the end, Bayer just couldn’t get enough high-quality chances together in the final third to really test Atlético’s defense enough to find a way to score. When they did test the Spaniards, Atléti had an answer to whatever they were throwing at them, and the end result of a 0-0 draw seemed somewhat inevitable. That result worked perfectly fine for Atlético Madrid, thanks to their 4-2 win in the first leg, and as they advance to the Champions League quarterfinals, Bayer Leverkusen are left with nothing but questions about themselves that they desperately need to answer.
Atlético Madrid: Jan Oblak; Lucas Hernandez, Jose Gimenez, Diego Godin, Sime Vrsaljko; Yannick Carrasco (Stefan Savic 71’), Thomas Partey, Saul, Koke; Angel Correa (Nicolas Gaitan 64’), Antoine Griezmann
Bayer Leverkusen: Bernd Leno; Wendell, Aleksandar Dragovic, Tin Jedvaj, Roberto Hilbert; Karim Bellarabi, Julian Baumgartlinger, Kevin Kampl, Julian Brandt (Leon Bailey 78’); Kevin Volland (Charles Aranguiz 88’), Javier Hernandez (Admir Mehmedi 81’)
Three things we learned
Bayer Leverkusen have a lot of problems in the final third
There’s just something wrong with Bayer’s approach in the final third right now. Despite having loads of attacking talent, things aren’t clicking for the Germans in the final third, and those struggles were on full display as they continuously tried and failed to get something going in attack against Atléti.
Time and again, one of Bayer’s attackers would get into the final third and either blindly run into traffic, or pick his head up and seemingly not be able to find a teammate where he expected them to be. Or when they did manage to get a pass off, it was the wrong pass — sent to the far post when the receiving player starts a near post run, played low when they looked for something higher, or other such missed connections.
There’s something very not right with Bayer’s preparation process right now for their attackers to be so consistently on the wrong page with each other, and they need to spend a lot of time figuring that out and fixing it before their actual quality will be on display.
Koke is quietly Atlético Madrid’s best player
Several players get a ton of headlines for Atlético Madrid, and rightfully so — Fernando Torres is a legend, Antoine Griezmann is one of the best young attackers in Spain, Diego Godin is a venerable wall in defense, and young stars like Yannick Carrasco, Saul, and Jose Gimenez represent a significant portion of the next great wave of top talent in Europe. But there’s another player who very quietly does incredible work for Atléti and has become their most crucial player: Koke.
His versatility, workhorse nature in midfield, and sorely underrated passing ability allow Atléti’s other stars to focus on doing what they do best, while Koke serves as the engine that makes the team tick. No matter what they need him to do, Koke will step up and do it at a high level — he can play effectively as a winger, he can race box-to-box in midfield, he can shield the back line, and he can even drive the attack as a playmaker when needed. There’s very little Koke can’t do, and he’s so good at the things he does that he deserves a lot more attention than he gets.
Diego Simeone knows how to win big ties
Atlético’s approach to this match wasn’t particularly exciting, but after coming out of the first leg with a two-goal aggregate lead and four away goals, the way Diego Simeone set his team up was the right one. Atléti were set up in a way specifically meant to frustrate and counter Bayer’s tactics, and it worked to perfection.
The Spanish team’s defense was set up in a way meant to suck in pressure and draw Bayer’s midfield up the pitch and into a slightly wider base, then when they inevitably won the ball back Atléti had huge lanes to counter through. And while they didn’t quite have the firepower they normally do in attack to take full advantage of those counters, Atléti were content to use them to throw Bayer off balance and let the clock tick away.
Was it attractive football? Not really. But it was incredibly effective, and allowed Atlético to see out their win in this tie with ease, leaving their squad with plenty of energy as they turn their attention to a crucial series of matches in La Liga in the coming weeks. That’s just smart management, and that’s Diego Simeone’s hallmark.