Atlético Madrid booked a place in the Champions League knock-out stages with victory over Porto on Tuesday. The 3-1 win did not accurately reflect the torrid first 45 minutes for Diego Simeone’s men, but the second half was one of redemption, and drama, which saw the Colchoneros through to the next round.
Here, we analyse three things learned from the challenging clash at Estadio do Dragão.
‘Qué manera de sufrir’ is more alive than ever
Watching Atlético Madrid is rarely a pleasant experience for their fans. The club’s motto “Qué manera de sufrir,” or ‘‘What a way to suffer,” has rarely applied more than it did on Tuesday night.
The Champions League group stage finale was yet another occasion when hearts were pushed to the limits and fingernails were chewed beyond the quick. Atlético were vulnerable and walked away as the victors with just 32 percent possession.
Atlético did not win in style, nor did they look comfortable. But they got the win that mattered.
Thomas Lemar’s first half effort from only yards out was worth 0.61 xG alone, and it was one of three attempts in a flash which could have set Atleti up for a smoother ride early on in the clash. When the goal did come, it wasn’t until nearly an hour in when Antoine Griezmann stepped up in messy circumstances. The man who has suffered more than most this season scored the most important goal of Atleti’s season to date from a corner and a defensive mix-up.
The joy was cut short thanks to Yannick Carrasco’s foolish dismissal after he hit out at Otávio, meaning it was backs to the wall again for the visitors. It really wasn’t until the final moments, when Ángel Correa doubled Atlético’s lead, that safe passage looked secure. And even when Rodrigo De Paul made it three, there had to be a late penalty, almost as punishment to ensure no Atlético fan got carried away.
Atleti paid the price for a lack of rotation at the worst possible time, but it worked in their favour
It’s been coming. The sad but real truth is that for some time, every Atlético fan has been left wondering why there wasn’t more rotation. There was a sad predictability about it as Luis Suárez pulled up with a muscle injury inside the first quarter of an hour in Porto.
Suárez had only played less than 13 minutes once this season, playing 10 in the home defeat to Liverpool, but he couldn’t last any longer on Tuesday and departed in tears. Matheus Cunha, the man who conversely only made his first start of the season on Saturday, replaced him.
Yet, the switch helped Atleti.
Suárez’s presence played into the physical battle Pepe was craving in the Porto defence. Cunha’s introduction was what he would have feared — the ex-Real Madrid defender was run ragged by an opponent 16 years his junior.
Unlike in the first leg, Porto were not pinned back deep in their own half. At the Wanda Metropolitano, Atlético had no space in which to operate and were left frustrated. In Portugal, there was space to play in and gaps to exploit — Atleti were just slow to take advantage.
The issue was that Simeone’s team couldn’t make the most of these gaps with tired legs elsewhere. Koke, so often the metronome that keeps Atlético’s clock ticking, managed just one pass in the opposition half in the first 45 minutes. In comparison, he made four passes in Porto’s half in the first 15 minutes of the second half.
With fresh impetus after the break, Atleti worked themselves back into the game thanks to a half-time whistle that came at the perfect time.
Atlético’s problems go beyond tactics or form
When it comes to the big occasions, with it all to play for, Diego Simeone has always motivated his players. Even when they’ve not had their rivals’ star power, often the mindset and motivation of the men in red and white has been enough to get them just over the line.
Against Porto, Atlético looked fragile. They looked scared. They looked like a team who had surrendered a lead to lose at home to newly-promoted Mallorca four days previously. They looked like a team without their three first-choice defenders.
But Cholo’s magic spell has often been enough to mask those weaknesses and to turn up for the occasion. On Tuesday night, that had to wait until his half-time team talk.
Jan Oblak returned to his superhuman strengths, producing one remarkable save in the first half to deny Luis Díaz. Without that, Atlético may not have had much to fight for in the second half. It was the same fragility and mental exhaustion that allowed Takefusa Kubo through in the 91st minute on Saturday. It was the same sloppiness that saw Junior Messias free in the box to give Milan an 87th-minute lead in Madrid two weeks ago. This is a significant concern that Simeone must address.
Once in the lead, Atlético looked more confident. Spaces opened up and Atleti exploited them. There was more cutting edge about the team in attack, and more belief throughout. De Paul’s high press and determination for the third goal typified that, but it was an energy and a buzz that had been absent while Porto dominated the ball in the first half.
Regardless of the individual result on Tuesday night, the thought that Koke, De Paul and Lemar lose a midfield battle so convincingly is a phenomenon which, on paper, simply doesn’t make sense unless up against truly-elite opposition. Carrasco’s act of petulance and naïvete is not the first time the Belgian has seen red, and Simeone is yet to stamp it out fully.
Even at 1-0 up, there was little confidence Atleti would be able to see the result out. Who would’ve thought we’d ever be saying that about a Diego Simeone side?
It’s the latest proof that this Atlético squad is a talented one, but it remains fraught with underlying issues.
Porto XI: Diogo Costa; João Mário (Oliveira 81’), Mbemba, Pepe, Sanusi (Wendell 63’ - red card 70’); Vitinha, Grujić (Corona 81’), Otávio (Vieira 82’), Díaz; Evanilson, Taremi (Martínez 82’).
Goal Oliveira 90’+5 (pen.)
Atlético XI: Oblak; Vrsaljko, Hermoso, Kondogbia; Koke, Lemar (Correa 65’), De Paul, Llorente, Carrasco (red card 67’); Griezmann, Suárez (Cunha 13’)
Goals Griezmann 56’ Correa 90’ De Paul 90’+2