Diego Simeone’s principles have taken him far. His ideas about football are simple and despite criticism, success, praise and — more recently — questions directed at him as to where this project was actually going, he continues to stand up to Europe’s best on the biggest stage.
The directors at the club obviously feel there’s life in his philosophy yet with a new contract until 2022, and while he has tended to remain conservative in his approach, he changed a tense and tight affair on Wednesday night with uncharacteristically attacking changes in the second half when the more sensible side of his brain might have been telling him to settle.
Atlético Madrid proved once again that they are one of the toughest nuts to crack when it comes to Champions League knockout football by not just holding Juventus scoreless at the Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday night but scoring two second half goals to pile the pressure on Max Allegri’s men for the second leg. Far from this being a performance based on Simeone testing his players to see how much pressure they could absorb, Atlético dominated for long spells and had the better chances as they pelted Juventus’ goal in the second half in search of that elusive opener.
First, the stats before the game. Atlético have conceded just once in the last 10 knockout games under Diego Simeone in the Champions League and they have not lost in six games to Italian opposition either. On Wednesday, they looked like a team fully aware of those statistics as they controlled Juventus’ every move.
Despite a poor run of form in LaLiga, there is something that springs to life in Atlético in the Champions League. Their passes sharper, their counters quicker, their purpose more evident and you can almost feel their stubbornness in the air.
And they laid into Juventus early on to both condition the ref’s understanding of a fair tackle and to throw the visitors off their stride, which they did with some ease.
Antoine Griezmann wanted a penalty after Blaise Matuidi connected late and high after he shot over the bar. Cristiano Ronaldo went close from a free after that but not before Diego Costa was booked for pushing Giorgio Chiellini out of the wall Atlético had built to protect Jan Oblak. The wall didn’t work, but the Slovenian did as he pulled off a top drawer to save from Ronaldo, who was returning to Madrid for the first time since his surprise summer move to Italy.
Atlético thought they had a penalty after that when Mattia Di Sciglio caught him as he broke down the left in typical Costa fashion but the referee said it was just a free after speaking to his VAR assistants. The free from Griezmann wasn’t far off either.
The second half started with Atlético in the driving seat and careening straight toward Juventus’ goal. Costa was put through first but he scuffed his shot wide before Griezmann’s lobbed effort was turned onto the bar by Wojciech Szczęsny before Chiellini cleared the danger. Juve were rocked and Atlético were rolling.
Simeone showed his hand after an hour when he made three attacking changes in the space of ten minutes. Koke, Thomas and Costa all made way for Ángel Correa, Thomas Lemar and Álvaro Morata as Cholo tried to turn up the heat.
His changes were proving to be effective and it looked like Morata had the opener when he headed home a Filipe Luis cross. The referee looked at VAR and he said there was a push on Chiellini’s back before the header.
But it wouldn’t be long before Atlético did have the lead when José Maria Giménez turned home a corner that bounced his way. It was scrappy, but Atleti deserved the lead.
They were 2-0 up when Diego Godín scored from a free-kick whipped in by Griezmann from the right as Atlético smelled blood and continued to pepper Juve’s goals. The ball bounced up to him just perfect as he scissors-kicked it home to an empty net.
Diego Pablo Simeone is often criticised for being too defensive and negative but he made the changes that needed to be made on Wednesday night — and it won Atlético the game and possibly the tie. Juventus, of course, are a different side at home but Simeone’s tactics did such a good job of nullifying their attacking threat that even the most creative of thinkers would struggle to think how they will score potentially four against this side.
The stakes are high from here on in and Atlético wouldn’t have it any other way.