Prior to kickoff of Atlético Madrid's thrilling penalty shootout win over PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday night, supporters at a packed Vicente Calderón unfurled four small banners which, went put side by side, read: "Nunca dejes de creer."
"Never stop believing."
I've spent a lot of time thinking about this result, this tie and this sentiment in particular this afternoon and this evening. Never stop believing. It is a sentiment drilled into each of Diego Simeone's players. It has carried this team to great and previously unthinkable heights. A Copa del Rey win at the Bernabéu. A league title. A Champions League
win final. A Spanish Super Cup. Three (soon to be four) consecutive appearances in the Champions League. A status as one of Europe's elite clubs. This belief is intrinsic to the Atlético way, to Simeone's style, and it is why Atleti are equipped to handle suffering like PSV inflicted on Tuesday...and secure progression anyway.
"We believe, our coach makes us believe and we have a lot of hunger and heart," Juanfran said after the game.
Atlético are in the Champions League quarterfinals for the third year running after eliminating PSV 8-7 in the penalty shootout. In true Atleti fashion, it was a difficult, intense, occasionally uncomfortable two-hour run-in to get to pens; indeed, this stands as the first tie in the Champions League era (1993-present) to complete 210 minutes without a single goal.
First half: The feeling-out phase
Atlético began brightly, finding space in PSV's narrow back line. However, Antoine Griezmann and company ran into two problems: they began to play too narrow themselves and they could not for the love of everything holy find a way past PSV goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet (who, I kid you not, registered 94 touches in this game). Zoet kept Griezmann out once again by smartly parrying a point-blank left-footed shot. Simeone elected to switch to a 4-3-3 formation - which largely has not been used since Jackson Martínez fell out of favor and got himself sent to China - and that opened things up a bit, but not enough to open the scoring before halftime.
Second half: Spells of dominance
Again, Atlético had the share of chances (including those Griezmann couldn't get past Zoet) but PSV could have/should have taken the last just before the hour. Davy Pröpper drifted to the right flank and crossed to Andrés Guardado. The Mexican then searched for Jürgen Locadia on the edge of the box to his left, and the 22-year-old took a bouncing that may hvae caught Jan Oblak but definitely rattled off the upright. Luuk de Jong's headed effort on the rebound was weak and eventually cleared, but the Dutch champions missed snagging an away goal by the finest of margins.
Fernando Torres was hustled on, Matías Kranevitter thereafter (for Yannick Carrasco - which seemed suicidal at first, but may have helped Atleti in the end) and Lucas Hernández even later (Diego Godín went off with a thigh problem). Atleti dominated the ball for the final half hour of normal time - just as it did in Eindhoven. And just like in the Netherlands, Atleti did not score over 90 minutes. Torres came closest, first with a cheeky 20-yard lob off the top of the net and then with a shot off Zoet and the post, but the two sides headed to extra time without a goal to separate them.
(It was at this point where my heart made its way to my mouth.)
Extra time: Exhaustion sets in
Lucas had a chance with a bullet header soon after the restart, but after that found its way over the bar, the two sides began to mirror each other in fatigue. Atlético ran out of ideas, at long last, early in the second half of extra time as an organized PSV continued to block out the noise and defend well enough. The Dutch champions managed 10 shots to Atleti's 26 over the 120 minutes and forced Oblak into only two saves, whereas Zoet made seven. (Stats per WhoScored.)
Penalties: A shootut sans saves
(Reminder: you can watch this classic shootout here.)
Marco van Ginkel, on loan from Chelsea, was up first. Oblak guessed right but van Ginkel powered it in to his left anyway. Griezmann slotted home with his left to finally win his battle with Zoet and bring the shootout level. Guardado made no mistake to restore the advantage for PSV, but Gabi could only just equalize as Zoet got a hand on his shot. Neither Pröpper nor Koke made any mistake on their efforts either. After Jeffrey Bruma converted to bring the score to 4-3, Saúl Ñíguez stepped up and had his left-footed attempt saved...into the net. Zoet get both hands to the ball, but a relieved Saúl watched it bounce in. Hector Moreno then cheekily dispatched a low shot down the middle to put Atleti on the brink...but there was no way Torres would be denied at the Calderón, as he calmly drove his right-footed shot into the top of the net to send the shootout to a sixth round.
Maxime Lestienne was next, and the Belgian - PSV's leading scorer in the Champions League - sent Oblak the wrong way again to give PSV the advantage yet again. At this point...it's over, right? How many times can Atlético keep fighting back? José Giménez answered that question by forcefully driving the ball to Zoet's right as he guessed left. 6-6.
Santiago Arias was next, and the Colombian dinked his penalty to Oblak's right as the Slovene stood still. For the third time, Atleti stood on the precipice of elimination when Filipe Luís stepped up and slid his left footed shot by Zoet, who had guessed correctly again. It was at this point when, as Lee Roden later pointed out, Simeone worked his magic, gesticulating widly to get the crowd roaring. Lo and behold, it worked.
Luciano Narsingh - who entered as a substitute for top scorer de Jong - took his penalty too quickly and smashed it off the crossbar. The door was open. Juanfran mozied up to the penalty spot and scored Atlético's eighth and final penalty - took it like he'd taken penalties all his life.
All through the shootout, with four Atlético penalties taken by players 24 or younger, the confidence never wavered. The belief never faltered. PSV proved to be very worthy opposition, and had the bounces gone differently, it would be the Dutch side playing in the last eight next month. But Atleti are through instead, and Simeone's men will continue to ride their combination of talent and belief.
Partido a partido. Nunca dejes de creer.