Atlético Madrid may have won the battle but again lost the war, once again done in by fine margins, unable to match a more talented, more complete opponent in the latter stages of the Champions League.
The pre-match tifo read “Orgullosos de no ser como vosotros,” meaning “proud to not be like you.” That held true Wednesday - there really is no team quite like Atlético, not least of which its richer, more glamorous rivals from the northern part of the city. Atleti are in no way like Real Madrid - culturally, politically, financially - but that can come at a price, one which Atleti paid again in this Champions League semifinal.
Atlético’s latest assault on the European Cup has ended in more frustration and heartbreak, as Real Madrid eliminated los colchoneros for the fourth season in a row despite a 2-1 loss at the Vicente Calderón on Wednesday night. Madrid’s dominant first leg performance at the Santiago Bernabéu effectively ended the tie, and Isco’s goal at the end of the first half Wednesday sucked the life out of Atleti following a rip-roaring start.
Against the backdrop of a bouncing Calderón, Saúl Ñíguez headed in from a Koke corner in the 12th minute before Antoine Griezmann converted a penalty four minutes later. With the pressure mounting in the final derbi and European contest at Atlético’s 51-year-old ground, Madrid calmed things down and pulled one back - an away goal - through Isco in the 42nd minute. That zapped Atlético’s energy, and the second half was a relatively humdrum affair following the chaos of the first half.
Diego Simeone welcomed back José Giménez from a groin injury; the Uruguayan was not expected to return in time for the second leg. As a result, fellow makeshift right back Thomas Partey scooted back to the bench alongside Nico Gaitán and Kévin Gameiro - who was displaced by Fernando Torres following El Niño’s solid cameo against Eibar at the weekend. Stefan Savić re-entered the team as well after serving a suspension versus Eibar.
Atlético pressed high seconds after Real Madrid kicked off and were rewarded for its lightning-fast start. Koke swung in a corner that Saúl thumped home for his fourth goal of the Champions League season. Atleti had one back and kept pushing; just moments later, Raphaël Varane caught Fernando Torres in the box with a sloppy tackle, and Cüneyt Çakir awarded Atlético a penalty.
As we know, Antoine Griezmann and Atleti aren’t terribly good at spot kicks, and Griezmann had the haunting memories of the 2016 Champions League final and Nov. 2015 derbi firmly in his brain. Nevertheless, the Frenchman stepped up and powered a shot off Keylor Navas’ hand and in. 2-0. It seemed the comeback was well and truly on.
But a curious thing happened: Simeone called off the dogs. Atlético chose to breathe for a bit and started to sit back, letting Real Madrid have more of the ball and dictate the tempo. Luka Modrić was brilliant in this stretch, helping to cool off a hot Atleti (which saw Savić, Gabi and Diego Godín booked in the first 37 minutes). Sitting back, as you may expect, came back to hurt Atleti, as its patient and more talented opponent worked an opening through Karim Benzema - the opening that Gabi said took away Atleti’s dream - and it led to Isco slotting from close range after Jan Oblak made an initial save. Madrid had the away goal, and all the momentum that came with it.
Simeone made changes early in the second half, as he hooked Torres and Giménez and sent on Thomas and Kévin Gameiro in their place. Gameiro easily could have injected life back into the tie, but had a header thwarted by Navas and a sitter on the goal line go begging. Zinedine Zidane made attacking changes too - particularly Marco Asensio coming on for Casemiro - but Atlético were too worn out to take advantage and rained down fruitless attempts at Navas’ goal.
The skies opened up in the final minutes, and it was a sight to behold when long after the final whistle Cholo and his players re-emerged to applaud the fans in a show of gratitude for their vociferous support - all in the pouring rain. The Champions League dream may yet be reborn, with or without Cholo and these players. But in the meantime, this was a sending-off befitting of Atlético and its gritty, peeling, soon-to-be-demolished home: maybe not good enough, but pretty damn good nonetheless.