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Round of 16 Spotlight: Atlético Madrid vs. Manchester United

The Atléti heartbreaking star returns to Madrid, as Manchester United’s Ronaldo looks to haunt Atlético Madrid once again in what could be this year’s most intriguing tie of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 knockout. Could he add to his 25-goal tally against the Spanish side?

Champions League match ball -Steffen Prößdorf via The Cult of Calcio

This year's Champions League round of 16 features other uncommon matchups, with the likes of RB Salzburg vs. Bayern Munich and Villareal vs. Juventus. And of course, analyzing the most popular match between Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain would be the obvious choice, but there is one clash that catches the eye for different reasons.

Atlético Madrid and Manchester United presents an incredibly intriguing matchup due to each of the team's lack of success domestically this year. Atléti sit at 4th place while United sit one place below at 5th in their respective leagues. With the quality of squad that the two clubs have, they would have hoped for at least a top-four placing at this point in the season.

FiveThirtyEight predicts the first leg of this matchup in favor of Atlético Madrid at 52% and a draw at 24%.

This slight advantage for the Madrid club could fluctuate, as both teams have been very inconsistent up to this point.

Recent European Woes

Both sides have not touched European glory for quite some time now.

Manchester United lost on penalties in the Europa League final last season as goalkeeper David De Gea failed to convert his own penalty against Villareal.

The furthest Manchester United have been in the tournament in the past seven years has been a quarterfinals appearance in 2018-19 where Lionel Messi tore them apart in a 4-0 aggregate affair.

Atlético Madrid was knocked out of the tournament the previous season thanks to an Olivier Giroud bicycle kick which contributed to a 3-0 aggregate victory for Chelsea.

In the 2019-20 campaign, they defeated Liverpool 4-2 on aggregate in what was a thrilling game at Anfield. They met RB Leipzig in Lisbon in the quarterfinals where they lost 2-1 after the postponement due to COVID-19.

Someone should remind them of what European glory still tastes like.

Big Price Tags

Paul Pogba clapping for fans post-match - Ardfern via Wikimedia

One of the players set to play a big role in the story of this tie is Paul Pogba. Pogba was at the time of his transfer the most expensive player in the world with his €105 million transfer from Juventus to Manchester United in August of 2016.

Since then, he has had a stop-start time at the Theater of Dreams. From attitude problems to injuries, some fans second guess if they are getting their money's worth.

This season, he came off the blocks flying, recording four assists in the first game of the season. But, picked up a serious injury shortly after and had been sidelined for months as Manchester United try to figure out their rollercoaster of a season.

Joao Felix during warmups - FMSky via Wikimedia

On the Atlético side, Joao Felix overtook Pogba in transfer fee rankings with a €126 million price tag in 2019. While it did not touch Neymar Jr.'s transfer, that amount of money for a teenager from Liga NOS was an enormous investment.

But it quickly became clear that Felix's play style and Atlético's were never going to synthesize. Instead of adapting the play style to fit the most expensive player in the roster, Manager Diego Simeone has stuck to his own tactics.

Felix has become a rotating starter for the Spanish side, as his career in Madrid has yet to truly manifest into what everyone hoped it would.

For whichever team prevails through this two-leg matchup, it will set up a redemption tour, searching for the solution to their underwhelming seasons so far.

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