This was a draw that felt like a win. But it was dangerously close to being a loss as Juventus took a two-goal lead into the 69th minute. Atlético Madrid, who are a more daring and bold version of their previous selves, needed two set-pieces to settle matters in a game that swung fiercely in favour of both teams with neither ever controlling things completely.
The stakes weren’t as high, but Diego Simeone wasn’t going to be fooled twice in a row by Juventus after Cristiano Ronaldo dismantled them in the last 16 last season to end their hopes of Champions League glory. That game was the catalyst for many things at Atlético Madrid this summer. Depending on who you believe, it might have sealed Antoine Griezmann’s decision to leave. It forced Simeone to assess his own methods, and it even led to questions about his approach from a fanbase who see him as being above reproach.
It led to João Félix’s arrival and a defensive restructuring, a willingness to partner Thomas Partey with Thomas Lemar and a new-found courage to press in search of the ball. It makes Atlético more susceptible at the back — as the six goals conceded in three games can attest. But they’re also more dangerous, more unpredictable and more fun to watch.
In short, this newest iteration of Simeone’s Atlético are like nothing we’ve seen before, for better and worse.
Juventus, who are in the middle of their own makeover under Maurizio Sarri, looked shocked for much of the first half. Kieran Trippier whipped in a delicious cross that was headed clear before Partey did the same moments later. Félix marched forward with the ball on a string as he toyed with three increasingly nervous Juve defenders surrounding him. He shot and Wojciech Szczęsny saved, but the warning signs were there. José Maria Giménez blazed a header over and Félix, too, headed into the keeper from close range. Their inventiveness wasn’t what it needed to be, but their desire to win the ball back and take the game to the bianconeri when necessary certainly was.
While Juventus bent, they never broke in that opening 45 and they slowly started to get control of the game. Even though they started the second half on the back foot and even though they have Sarri now with his possession-based approach, it was a counterattack that caught Atlético out.
And a good one at that.
The ball was launched forward with oceans of space for Gonzalo Higuaín to run into. Cristiano Ronaldo dragged men with him into the box and the Argentine slid it across to Juan Cuadrado for the Colombian to curl it home with Jan Oblak watching on, helpless.
Atlético would have easily drawn this game 0-0 in recent years as they advanced to the knock-out stages without ever really learning about themselves, or improving, or trying anything new. This was a daring attempt at a new system when everything in Simeone’s brain might have advised him to revert back to type. After a 3-2 win against Eibar in which his team went down by two, a loss to Real Sociedad at the weekend, and with every rojiblanco still aching for a Champions League crown, Simeone remained on course with his new style — even if it meant staring a 0-2 home loss on the Champions League return in the face.
Blaise Matuidi scored Juventus’ second after 65 minutes and it did look like Atlético’s brave efforts would be consigned to the scrap heap — 2-0 losses tend to rid post-match analysis of any nuance. But Stefan Savić scored in the 70th minute to breathe life back into the hosts’ challenge. Koke clipped a free into the back post and the indomitable Giménez rose to send it back to Savic, who headed home.
The lid nearly blew off the Wanda Metropolitano when Mexico international Héctor Herrera scored from a corner which he won in the 90th minute. The free summer signing was a second half substitute and looked impressive on his debut before equalizing and endearing himself to fans for the foreseeable future.
Atlético have seen new faces come in and an open defence along with them. But the belief remains, and that’s what got them through the opening match in Group D. It could be another season of thrills and spills as the capital club eye another unlikely final.