The draw for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 has come and gone, and ... it could have gone better. Juventus’ matchup against Atletico Madrid was probably the second-worst outcome that could have come out of the pot. (Liverpool probably would have been the worst.)
These two teams have met in the recent past, having been put together in the group stage in 2014. Atleti won the first game between the two at their former home, the Estadio Vicente Calderon, 1-0, and came into the J Stadium on the last day of the group stage in first place and Juve in second. A Juventus win could have seen them leap-frog them, and a draw would maintain the status quo — but if Juve lost and third-place Olympiakos had won, they would have been kicked to the Europa League for a second straight year.
What followed was a strange game that was quite literally dictated by what happened in the Olympiakos/Malmo game. Whenever Olympiakos was ahead, Juve retreated into a shell to hold the draw, with Atleti obligingly cooperating by not expending much energy in attack. Whenever Malmo managed to draw level—something they managed to do twice—Allegri would press the team forward looking for a win that could see them win the group. The game ended in a goalless draw.
Juve, of course, ended up going all the way to the final that year. Atleti was bounced by their city rivals Real Madrid in the quarters.
The pairing could end up becoming the tie of the round. Both teams have fantastic defenses, high-quality attackers, and excellent coaches. Atleti will be motivated by the possibility of playing the final in their brand new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano. Juve are driven by the all-consuming desire to end their 22-year European championship drought and truly re-establish themselves as one of the highest powers of world football.
The two legs of this tie will be incredibly compelling come the beginning of the round on February 20. Both teams could look a good deal different by then, but for now let’s look at how these two clubs stack up. We’ll do that by looking at each position group and figuring out which team has the edge where — and what could decide the tie.
No one envys the task Wojciech Szczesny had as the 2018-19 season began. To replace Gianluigi Buffon, one of the best and most beloved players in the history of his club — and indeed, probably the greatest goalkeeper of all time — is an enormous responsibility.
To his credit, Szczesny has done pretty much everything he can possibly do to live up to it. He’s been excellent this year. With the one exception of the total team meltdown that was the last five minutes of the second Manchester United game, he has been equal to every task. He’s saved two of the three penalties he’s faced this season, and got his hand to the third. He’s preserved leads and kept Juve in games with a series of impressive saves. If he wasn’t playing at this level, it’s unlikely that the team would be in the position it is right now.
That being said, Atleti’s Jan Oblak is simply better. He himself had a tough act to follow when he broke into Diego Simeone’s starting XI full time — he replaced Thibaut Courtios in 2014 after the Belgian was retained by Chelsea following a highly successful two-year loan spell in the Spanish capital. Oblak has been the keeper ever since, and has distinguished himself as one of the two best in the world at the position. Apart from his shot-stopping ability, which is prodigious, and his management of crosses, when it comes to marshaling the defense in front of him he comes about as close to Buffon — who, by my reckoning, is the all-time great in this overlooked aspect of goalkeeping — as anyone I’ve ever seen.
Szczesny is by no means a liability, but there is an argument to be made that Oblak is the absolute best who plies the trade at this given moment.
EDGE: ATLETICO MADRID
At full strength, Juve are a good deal better on the flanks than their opponents.
“At full strength” are the key words here, because if Joao Cancelo has any setbacks in his return from knee surgery the gap here could shrink. But if the Portuguese fullback has his feet under him by the time European play resumes — it’s expected he’ll return a month or more before Champions League play resumes — Juve will definitely have an edge at this position.
Cancelo and Alex Sandro are both younger and more dynamic than Juanfran and Felipe Luiz. Santiago Arias, who has been essentially switching with Juanfran on the right every other match, carries is a bit more threat, but he’s not on Cancelo’s level either. Lucas Hernandez runs behind Luiz on the left, but has also been moved into the middle due to injuries (more on that in a bit), which could leave Atleti a bit thin there.
Factor in Mattia De Sciglio, who has quietly turned in a fantastic season and, like Cancelo, can play on either side, and you have a deeper, more dynamic, and more versatile stable of fullbacks in Turin — and that’s without knowing what a fully healthy Leonardo Spinazzola is capable of in a Juve shirt.
The headliners of both these units are two of the absolute best at their professions. For one reason or another, however, the men behind them on their depth charts give cause for concern for one reason or another.
Giorgio Chiellini and Diego Godin are two of the four or five best center backs in the game. Both are fantastic at reading the game. They tackle well and clog passing lanes. When the occasion calls for it, they dip into the dark arts and give one challenge or another a little extra. There’s really no difference in quality between the two. If they’re healthy come February — and in Chiellini’s case that’s sometimes been an if — they’ll both be rocks.
Their partners are where it gets a little more interesting.
On the Juventus side, you have Leonardo Bonucci, who has come back from his yearlong sojourn at AC Milan somewhat diminished. His marking has deteriorated, and he’s been responsible for more than a handful of goals the team has conceded this year. His ability to drop a long ball on a dime from 60 yards or more does something to make up for these problems, and that could be a big factor against such a stout defense, but both he and his immediate backup, Medhi Benatia, have been prone to the kind of errors that can kill you come knockout time.
Godin’s usual partner isn’t as error-prone, but Jose Gimenez, also his partner at the international level, has missed 11 games this year due to injuries. Former Fiorentina man Stefan Savic has stepped in, as well as Hernandez, but the spot next to Godin has been somewhat of a revolving door. That doesn’t mean the quality is any less, and with Simeone and Oblak keeping them in line they’re as tight as ever regardless of who joins Godin in the back.
These are two units have their small flaws but are both at an incredibly high level. There really isn’t much to separate them.
This is probably the most difficult unit to judge, because it’s the one that has the best chance of looking a lot different between now and February.
We’ve made a lot of hay about Juve needing to add to the midfield in the January transfer window. Five midfielders just isn’t enough to cover three competitions, and if everything goes to plan Juve will be playing twice a week for some time now and the need for rotation will be paramount.
That said, a lot of how the midfields rack up will depend on who the team brings in as reinforcements (please please let them bring in someone). Now that Jose Mourinho is out at Manchester United any thoughts of a return for Paul Pogba are probably off the table. Perhaps Juve manages to pry Nicolo Barella away from Cagliari in the winter, or something could be in the works that is completely out of left field.
But for the purposes of this article we must look at the rosters as they are now—and right now Juve are really thin.
There is quality in this quintet. Miralem Pjanic’s form has dipped of late but when he’s on he can control games in midfield. Blaise Matuidi never stops running and provides the kind of physical presence every team needs. Rodrigo Bentancur is rapidly growing into a real gem. He’s tenacious in defense, his passing repertoire is expanding, and he has boundless energy. He might be the best midfielder on the team right now.
The question marks are the two Germans. Emre Can was playing adequately before he was sidelined due to surgery on his thyroid, and it remains to be seen whether he can take the next step and consistently be the player that his best moments at Liverpool showed he could be. Sami Khedira...is Sami Khedira. He’s not really good enough to be a consistent starter on this team anymore, and he’s only managed eight appearances this year after constant leg injuries.
Facing them will be a good unit led by Koke and Saul Niguez. Both of them are versatile (Saul has deputized at left back a few times this season and can play wide on the left again) and are excellent tacklers, averaging 2.3 and 2.9 per game in La Liga, respectively, and can create as well. Along with summer signings Rodrigo and Thomas Lemar, this is the kind of midfield that can clamp down on opponents and really control a game, and while it’s close, they probably have a slight edge here on depth alone.
EDGE: ATLETICO MADRID
Massimiliano Allegri and Simeone use their forwards differently. Simeone has used a strike pair more than anything else this year, while Allegri’s attackers have constantly morphed to fit the situation.
Simeone’s squad has probably been a little too reliant on Antoine Griezmann than he would like this season. He’s scored 10 times between Spain and Europe this year and notched eight assists — but no one else has scored more than three times this year (that would be Koke) and only three have more than one assist. If Griezmann doesn’t manage to launch, Juve could make the team a lot more one-dimensional. None of Atletico’s forwards are having what you can call an impressive season. Diego Costa has only scored twice between La Liga and the Champions League, and Nikola Kalinic isn’t going to scare anyone after his dismal year at AC Milan and his petulant display at the World Cup.
Allegri, on the other hand, has a lot to be pleased with the way his forwards have played. Cristiano Ronaldo has developed an excellent relationship with Mario Mandzukic, and the two have combined for 20 goals between Europe and domestic competition. Contrary to the popular narrative, Paulo Dybala has been having a good season too. He’s adapting well to a new role as a trequartista behind Mandzukic and Ronaldo, and he’s already set a career high in the Champions League with five goals.
With that big three backed up by the likes of Federico Bernardschi, Douglas Costa, and Juan Cuadrado, Allegri has a versatile and talented group of forwards that can be utilized in a ton of different ways. Atleti’s forwards are all good, but they haven’t been measured up to what Juve has done as a unit this year—and for goodness sake, Ronaldo is Ronaldo, he counts for at least double in any comparison between forwards.