It was rather difficult, but Atlético Madrid managed to squeak by a very good Sporting Clube de Portugal side to advance to a fourth European semifinal in five years. Despite losing 1-0 on the night at rainy Estádio José Alvalade, Atlético’s 2-0 first leg victory proved good enough to carry them into Friday’s draw.
Here are a few somewhat-connected thoughts from Thursday night’s contest:
- The colored seats at Estádio José Alvalade were really cool.
- Atlético knew and even insisted that this second leg would be tough. Turns out they were 100 percent correct. Sporting have lost just once at home this season (to Barcelona in September) and had Atleti under duress from the opening minutes. Diego Simeone’s men looked ill at ease in the pouring rain and seemed unable to match the Lions’ physicality and intensity, which resulted in a deserved goal from Fredy Montero (who had missed a gilt-edged chance at the end of the first leg).
- Jan Oblak had made a ridiculous flying save on a Sebastián Coates header around the 10 minute mark in what was a sign of the pressure to come. But the best goalkeeper in Europe couldn’t keep out Montero’s header from a tight angle after his defense left him out to dry and the ball slipped from his fingers.
- I...did not like Simeone’s team selection. He left out two fit defenders in José Giménez and Šime Vrsaljko (although the latter replaced Lucas in the second half). This was the XI that faced Real Madrid on Sunday (save Gabi replacing Thomas) and I felt this match required something completely different — maybe not the cuatropivote, but definitely a mobile distributor like Thomas and a dynamic defender like Giménez. Sporting simply physically overpowered Atlético.
- Gabi’s leadership is needed in games like this, but he looked his age Thursday. Definitely not for the first time this season.
- Lucas had to come off at halftime with a facial injury. The club has ruled out a fracture of any kind, so my guess is he could play this weekend if he hasn’t broken a nose, cheekbone etc.
- Speaking of injuries, I’m really concerned about Diego Costa’s. It looked like his hamstring went. He knew immediately that he had pulled something when chasing after a long ball and Fernando Torres replaced him right away. No, Costa hasn’t scored in six and has cut a frustrated figure of late, but a problem with his historically balky hammy could screw up Atlético’s entire season.
- Oh, and Ángel Correa might have a concussion. Neat.
- The second half was much better, much more Cholismo. Saúl Ñíguez led this charge at the back and Koke led it at the front. Saúl dropped super deep and made all four of his clearances after halftime (he threw in five tackles, too). Koke took control offensively and led Atlético with 88 touches — split just about evenly between his half and Sporting’s half.
- How Antoine Griezmann missed those two one-on-ones is beyond me. I won’t try to explain it.
- In the end, really was one of Atlético’s worse performances of the season — particularly since the start of 2018 — but all that matters is putting your name in Friday’s draw. I think Marseille are the team to avoid.