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Why Yannick Carrasco is Atlético’s key player versus RB Leipzig

The Belgian has been a Champions League hero before, and he could easily be one again.

Atletico Madrid Arrive in Lisbon for the Champions League Photo by Gualter Fatia - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

“It’s true that Atlético Madrid deserve a Champions League after losing two finals in difficult moments — after leading and conceding a goal at the last second first, and then in a penalty shootout the second time.”

Yannick Carrasco would know. If it hadn’t been for him, the 2016 Champions League final would have ended after 90 minutes, and it would have been a 1-0 Real Madrid win against a hard-working but inert Atlético.

That is, if the speedy winger hadn’t gotten on the end of Juanfran’s 79th minute cross.

Carrasco became the first Belgian to score in the Champions League’s showpiece match — and, ostensibly, the first player to jog over and smooch his girlfriend in celebration. Though that match in Milan ended cruelly, the 26-year-old sees a shot at redemption beginning Thursday.

“We’re sharp and excited,” Carrasco said Tuesday. “It was a high-intensity training session. I hope we can keep it up on Thursday.”

RB Leipzig are a known yet unknown quantity entering this Champions League quarterfinal. The Bundesliga’s third-place side loves to have the ball (54 percent average possession in league play) and scored 19 times from its final nine games. However, Julian Nagelsmann’s men has not played competitively since June 27 — and star striker Timo Werner is in another capital city which starts with “L.” It ain’t Lisbon.

Leipzig’s defense was hit for 11 goals over those final nine league contests, of which the team won four. They’ll go up against an attack which settled into a nice rhythm following the coronavirus hiatus — one which rang up a plus-15 goal difference over its final 11 games, all either wins or draws.

Carrasco has been an aggressive shooter and a top chance-creator. (via Understat)

Surprise January arrival Carrasco was a big part of this turnaround. In 15 league appearances (six starts) totaling 628 minutes, the ex-Monaco man completed 2.3 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. Only João Félix and Álvaro Morata bettered his 2.47 shots-per-90 mark. Though he scored only a consolation goal in a 5-0 blowout at Osasuna, he set up two goals in wins over Real Betis and Getafe to help steer Atlético to third place in its own domestic league.

Carrasco may be matched up against Nordi Mukiele, a strong wingback with a good aerial game and dribbling ability. It will be just as important for Carrasco to cover the occasionally-wayward Renan Lodi as it will be to outwit a tough defender who doesn’t foul often — Mukiele saw just one yellow card across more than 1,700 Bundesliga minutes, and he’s seen only one more in 600 Champions League minutes.

Diego Simeone has asked a lot of Carrasco since the middle of June, and he has responded well so far in his second stint with the club. Now, Simeone looks set to hand him another start in Los Colchoneros’ biggest game of this long, long season. And Cholo knows that if his Belgium international produces another gem at Estádio Jose Alvalade, Atlético stand a strong chance at progressing to a semifinal in this strangest of Champions League seasons.

“We are going to think about Leipzig, and I hope we can continue in the competition after,” Carrasco told Marca. Partido a partido.