In only their second-ever participation in Europe’s most prestigious competition, the German side, established barely a decade ago, are now two games away from winning Old Big Ears. Defeating a floundering Tottenham Hotspur without Harry Kane and Son Heung-min in the first knockout round was one thing, getting the better of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid was an entirely more daunting obstacle.
After all, Los Colchoneros had left egg on the face of Liverpool in the previous round, silencing an Anfield crowd that many thought would give Jurgen Klopp’s side the advantage in the return leg on Merseyside. After Paris-Saint Germain knocked out Atalanta on Wednesday night, the expectation was for another favourite to make it through to the semis.
However, the revamped nature of this year’s shortened Champions League has shown that over 90 minutes, at a neutral venue, anything is indeed possible.
Die Roten Bullen deserved their 2-1 win over Atletico on Thursday, make no mistake. Julian Nagelsmann’s troops played without fear, impressed with their combination play in the Spanish side’s half (even though their final third passes frustratingly went awry at times) and were alive to the two-time finalists’ threat on the counter.
Their defensive showing was a collective effort, although the highly-rated Dayot Upamecano epitomised the Bundesliga side keeping Simeone’s team at bay whenever they came forward. Not everyone has the ability nay nerve to truly bully Diego Costa, despite the striker visibly no longer at the peak of his powers.
However, the 21-year-old centre-back of Bissau-Guinean descent deserves immense credit for neutralising him with minimal fuss.
The pair’s mini-battle began in the fourth minute when the young defender committed his only foul of the game on the former Chelsea forward. This set the tone for the duo duelling, and the centre-back came out on top in the contest. Winning nine of 11 total duels, unsurprisingly the highest in the RBL side, underscored Upamecano’s dominance in Lisbon.
The sight of Costa hacking down the Leipzig man in the second-half after losing yet another tussle with the youngster and the glare that followed underlined the forward’s frustrations. Minutes later, he was replaced after a joyless evening at Estadio Jose Alvalade.
Upamecano’s display wasn’t just about what he did out of possession, however, even though a strong tackle on left-back Renan Lodi in the 39th minute showed his uncompromising nature. A timely intervention prevented a through ball from reaching Costa who would have been eyeball to eyeball with Peter Gulacsi in goal…which was one of three interceptions for the French Youth international.
With the ball at his feet, Upamecano’s composure and ball carrying bellied his relative inexperience, and his importance to the Red Bulls’ build-up was intermittently noteworthy during the encounter.
One moment just before the interval highlighted the defender’s calmness in possession: upon receiving a pass just inside his half, the 21-year-old spotted the space between Marcos Llorente and Yannick Carrasco to run into, beat the subsequent press from Saul Niguez before picking out right wing-back Konrad Laimer in an advanced position.
The wideman’s poor cross didn’t take advantage of his teammate’s fine work, but it showed the possibilities that can open up when the centre-back drives forward with the ball or has it at his feet.
Upamecano, who had the joint-highest touches (99) on either side, completed all three attempted dribbles and was largely positive in his play. The youngster successfully found a teammate with 75 of 81 attempted passes, a 91 percent completion rate. 10 of 15 long passes reached its intended target, showing the central defender wasn’t only playing easy five-yard balls but took risks from time to time in possession.
Fbref statistics show that the centre-back has not only carried the ball the farthest in any direction but has equally been the most effective ball-carrier toward the opponent’s goal in the Leipzig team. Also, the 21-year-old played the highest volume of passes longer than 25 yards for the side in the Bundesliga, completing 86.6 percent of a staggering 732 attempts, while he led the way for passes into the final third as well.
The second-half vs Atletico tested him more defensively, as the Madrid outfit came out of their shell, and the wonderkid seldom put a foot wrong. He had the presence of mind to pull out of a tackle with Lodi on the hour when others would have left a foot dangling to concede a penalty. Instead, Polish referee Szymon Marciniak rightly booked the full-back for simulation.
Upamecano’s pace and anticipation were evident on two occasions late on, as he nullified passes sent to Alvaro Morata and Carrasco into the channels in the final 15 minutes. Moments after the latter, a wicked deflection saw a tame Tyler Adams shot beat Jan Oblak with two minutes of normal time to play, taking the Germans through.
In truth, the growing defender will face a sterner test in their final four battle with Ligue 1 side Paris-Saint Germain, who possess arguably twice the talent of Atleti in Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and even Angel Di Maria. Still, you get the feeling one of the best young defenders will relish the challenge against one of the most dangerous attacks in Europe.
Thursday night saw Nagelsmann navigate a tricky quarter-final encounter without the team’s best player Timo Werner, who left for Chelsea last month despite the temptation to complete their Champions League journey.
Leipzig are only two games from success, and with Upamecano in this sort of form, maybe it isn’t so preposterous to dream with European glory within touching distance.