Spanish clubs' grip on Europe slides further with three home defeats


FILE PHOTO: Champions League - Round of 16 First Leg - FC Barcelona v Paris St Germain - Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain - February 16, 2021 Paris St Germain's Kylian Mbappe scores their fourth goal REUTERS/Albert Gea

(Reuters) - The warning signs flashed last year and after three home defeats in this season's Champions League last 16, the decline of Spanish football on the European stage is becoming ever harder to ignore.

The country's pride was already hurting from Barcelona being hammered 4-1 by Paris St Germain and Sevilla losing 3-2 to Borussia Dortmund, but Atletico Madrid's limp 1-0 loss against Chelsea on Tuesday was perhaps the hardest defeat to swallow.

Atletico have been the best side in Spain all season but against a Chelsea side still learning the ropes under Thomas Tuchel, they were utterly toothless and failed to have a shot on target.

"This is a big reflection how poor La Liga is at the moment," said 2008 Champions League winner Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport.

Former Chelsea player Joe Cole added: "If that's the best La Liga’s offering they have problems. It's definitely shifting."

Spanish sides won six of the previous 10 Champions Leagues but last year no teams reached the semi-finals for the first time since 2007.

The writing was on the wall then, as Barca were humiliated 8-2 by Bayern, Real Madrid were outclassed by Manchester City in the last 16 and Atletico were overpowered by RB Leipzig.

Now, there is a serious threat of Spain not having a team in the quarter-finals for the first time since the 2004-05 campaign. Their hopes may rest on Real Madrid, who visit Atalanta on Wednesday.

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman has said it's too early to jump to conclusions about Spain's decline in Europe, but his side are a case in point.

The vanguard of football a decade ago, the Catalans have failed to evolve their style of play or squad while squandering hundreds of millions of euros on flops such as Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele.

Real Madrid have also recruited poorly, with record signing Eden Hazard being riddled with injuries and expensive Brazilian youngsters Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo failing to deliver.

Spanish clubs misadventure in the transfer market was recently mocked by the Bundesliga CEO when he talked of "poorly managed cash-burning machines" last week.

PHYSICAL WEAKNESS

But physical weakness may be an even bigger factor in Spanish clubs' decline.

While Barcelona played far more passes than PSG last week, they fell way short in distance covered, the French side running 1.4 kilometres more.

Atletico were also overrun by Chelsea, and although Sevilla outperformed Dortmund in nearly every area, they made a string of individual errors which the Germans ruthlessly pounced upon thanks to their superior pace.

"It's impossible when your opponents run like they're on a motorbike and you do not," said former Real Madrid youth player and coach Alvaro Benito on radio station Cadena SER.

"The reality is in Spain players want the ball at their feet. They get accustomed to the speed of their league and playing at 80% instead of 100."

When it comes to intensity, few teams can match Champions League holders Bayern, who thrashed Lazio 4-1 away on Tuesday.

"A recent statistic showed Bayern ran 20 kilometres more per game than the average La Liga team. That's the style that made them European champions, everyone breaking into space, going for second balls, arriving in the area," added Benito.

"Our teams are too open and when they play in these competitions they are not prepared."

(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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