The Premier League versus LaLiga. The everlasting debate as to which league offers the better competition for its top teams came to the forefront this week when Liverpool owner John Henry called the Spanish league “weak.” His comments came in the context of the high-profile departures from his club to Barcelona — Henry could not understand why Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suárez would leave to play “30 meaningless games a year.”
Atlético Madrid — one of the three best teams from this apparently weak league — have run into several Premier League clubs in the Champions League and the Europa League during Diego Simeone’s tenure as manager. Henry’s comments signal that this is a good time to examine how Atlético have performed against English competition under Simeone.
Chelsea were the first Premier League club Atleti faced under Simeone — and Cholo’s men brushed them aside in the 2012 UEFA Super Cup thanks to a first half hat-trick from Radamel Falcao. That 4-1 win against the European Cup holders was followed up by a Champions League semifinal tie two years later.
After a 0-0 draw at home, Atlético went on the road to Stamford Bridge. In a hostile environment, they generated seven key chances and 13 shots (five on target). They were able to make the most of their opportunities against the Blues and advanced to the 2014 final with a 3-1 win.
Atlético would not see another English side in Europe until 2016/17, when they were drawn against Cinderella story Leicester City in the Champions League quarterfinals. Atlético won the first leg 1-0 thanks to an Antoine Griezmann penalty, but that scoreline flattered the Foxes — Atleti were much more comfortable and had nearly 70 percent possession.
In the second leg, they took Leicester’s best shot, surrendering a whopping 23 shots but snagging a vital away goal through Saúl. His header cancelled out Vardy’s goal on the hour, and Atlético advanced to the semifinals.
The mattress makers again met Chelsea in this year’s Champions League. The first group stage match in September ended with Simeone’s first defeat to an English side, as Michy Batshuayi’s last-second goal sent Atlético to a devastating 2-1 defeat at home. Atleti went on to finish third in the group — which was confirmed after a 1-1 draw in London on the final matchday.
Four months later, Arsenal stood in Atlético’s way of a place in the Europa League final. At the Emirates, the Gunners took advantage of 10-man Atlético and fired 28 shots at Jan Oblak. However, they managed just a solitary goal and Griezmann scored an away goal as los rojiblancos escaped with a draw.
At home, Atlético won with Simeone in the stands — thanks to a Diego Costa goal and a defense which held Arsenal to one shot on target.
So, the final tally: four wins, four draws and one defeat with a +6 goal difference.
Of course, Atlético aren’t the only Spanish club that’s had a run-in with an English counterpart in European competition. This season saw Barcelona, Sevilla, and Real Madrid face Premier League clubs in the Champions League.
In the Champions League round of 16, Sevilla pulled off the upset against Manchester United despite having a cheaper squad with fewer stars. Barcelona made relatively easy work of reigning Premier League champions Chelsea — and in Saturday’s final, Real Madrid polished off their long-mooted European Cup three-peat with a 3-1 win over error-prone Liverpool.
In summation: for such a poor league, LaLiga sure does prepare its clubs to go on deep runs in European competition. But the most damning stat is the one I’ll save for last: of the past 27 European knockout ties between English and Spanish sides, 23 have gone the Spaniards’ way.