Atleti, Dortmund, Monaco and Napoli face up to Champions League exits
The Champions League is often criticised for being too predictable, but some of the bigger sides have struggled so far and are fighting for their place in the competition this week.
Here are four sides that have been underwhelming in the Champions League so far:
It's been a peculiar season for Diego Simeone's side. They're unbeaten in La Liga, which sounds impressive until you realise six of those 12 matches have been draws. They're 10 points behind Barcelona already.
In the Champions League they've also collected plenty of draws -- three from their four matches so far, with the other a last-gasp 2-1 defeat at home to Chelsea. This shouldn't be disastrous, expect for the fact their last two draws have been home and away against Qarabag, expected to be Group C's whipping boys. Atletico are four points adrift of second-placed Chelsea, with Roma another point ahead.
This all seems strange considering that on the opening day of this Champions League campaign, Atletico drew 0-0 at Roma but dominated: 20 shots to 10, nine on target compared to one from their hosts. Saul Niguez managed to hit the left post in the third minute, and the right post in the 91st minute, when essentially presented with an open goal. It's remarkable that Atletico are now so far adrift of Eusebio Di Francesco's side.
What's gone wrong? Well, Atletico continue to defend excellently as a unit. Going forward, however, they have looked mechanical and lacking in ideas, the problems broadly down to three factors.
First, Koke was absent from the two matches against Qarabag, and as Atletico's chief midfield orchestrator he's been badly missed. Second, Simeone doesn't seem to know his best combination in the final third -- Antoine Griezmann has been a regular, but there's no obvious hierarchy with other players: Kevin Gameiro, Fernando Torres, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, Luciano Vietto and Angel Correa have all featured, but few have combined well with Griezmann.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Griezmann has been distinctly off-form. He hit 14 goals in the previous two Champions League campaigns, but his only goal in the last two months was from the penalty spot against Chelsea. He hasn't become a bad player overnight -- indeed, he's scored twice for France during this period -- but he looks lethargic, lacks his usual acceleration and was whistled off by his own supporters at the weekend.
Dortmund's Bundesliga form has fallen off a cliff. From 19 points from 21 in August and September, they've collected just one from 15 in October and November. It's an alarming collapse that could well cost new manager Peter Bosz his job.
The problem in the Champions League, however, is that they didn't even start well. A 3-1 defeat to Tottenham on the opening matchday was very worrying. Dortmund took the game to Spurs and got plenty of men forward into attack, but didn't produce enough shots and left themselves wide open to the counterattack. It was a similar problem at home to Real Madrid, and then came back-to-back 1-1 draws against APOEL, which puts Dortmund on the brink of elimination. They need victories over both Tottenham and Real Madrid to stand any chance of progressing, and realistically are probably battling for a Europa League slot against APOEL.
Dortmund have struggled in defence, with Bosz insisting on an Ajax-style high defensive line that doesn't necessarily suit the qualities of his centre-backs, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Omer Toprak. The way Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min breezed past them at Wembley was particularly memorable. They've also suffered with injuries to Lukasz Piszczek and Jeremy Toljan. Marc Bartra has been played out of position at right-back, and was caught out for APOEL's equaliser in Dortmund.
There's also a Griezmann-esque problem with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who hasn't scored in his last five matches, including that double-header against APOEL. There have been some missed chances, but Aubameyang's struggles reflect Dortmund's malaise, rather than being the cause of it.
After the loss of Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Nabil Dirar, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Benjamin Mendy it was only natural Monaco would struggle to replicate last season's incredible campaign, when they stormed to the semifinals and won Ligue 1. Domestically they're doing fine, only six points behind Paris Saint-Germain. In Europe, however, they've collected just two points from four matches.
Draws away at Leipzig and Besiktas were perfectly respectable, but they were thrashed 3-0 by Porto at home, then followed that with a 2-1 defeat by Besiktas.
Monaco struggled with basic defending in both matches. Against Porto, two goals came after pinball inside their own penalty box. Against Besiktas they went ahead though Radamel Falcao, but then allowed Ricardo Quaresma space to cross into the six-yard box for Cenk Tosun for the equaliser, then the same player was allowed far too much space to turn home yet another scrappy goal after a rebound.
In an attacking sense Monaco have often lacked guile -- Youri Tielemans is a wonderful talent, but at 20 isn't yet mature enough to command games at this level. Meanwhile, while Falcao has been banging in the goals in Ligue 1, basing the entire team around him often seems one-dimensional at Champions League level, and Monaco miss the attacking combinations of last season. They simply need time to become a cohesive unit after so many summer departures, but that looks like proving fatal for their Champions League hopes.
Napoli's underwhelming performance in the Champions League so far is more explicable than other sides suffering -- they simply haven't given the competition priority.
There's a genuine sense this might be Napoli's year in Serie A. They're two points ahead of surprise package Inter Milan, and four points ahead of six-time champions Juventus. And while in previous seasons the focus has been on the style of Napoli's play, now they appear more efficient, resilient and defensively solid. With coach Maurizio Sarri demanding a high-tempo, intense style of football, he's been careful to rest players.
That means Napoli's Champions League performance has suffered. For the opening day trip to Shakhtar Donetsk, Sarri left out key centre-forward Dries Mertens, plus the brilliant midfield duo of Allan and Jorginho, and Napoli fell to a 2-1 defeat. A full-strength side defeated Feyenoord comfortably at home, but then without Allan and Jorginho again for the trip to Manchester City, they were outplayed and could have been defeated by a much larger scoreline than 2-1.
Sarri returned to his first-choice XI for the home meeting with Guardiola's side, but in a thrilling end-to-end technical game, Napoli were outplayed and defeated 4-2. In truth, there's little shame in being outplayed by this City side, but it's that opening day defeat to Shakhtar which looks likely to cost Napoli. They need to defeat the Ukrainian champions this week, then win at Feyenoord and hope that City do them a favour by winning away in Ukraine. It looks a tall order, and seems likely Napoli will end up in the Europa League -- where, if Napoli they remain in Serie A contention, Sarri will surely rest even more first-teamers.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.