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4 keys to an Atlético Madrid win over Manchester City

More defensive resilience and a fiery playmaker’s return will be important factors in the second leg.

RCD Mallorca v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Here we are again. Atlético Madrid face Champions League elimination on Wednesday night — and not for the first time this season, let alone during Diego Simeone’s decade on the touchline.

Following a loss to Mallorca in December, Atlético traveled to Portugal and won a fight-filled group stage finale against Porto to scrape through into the knockout stage. Four months later, after losing to Mallorca again, Atlético will host Manchester City with a Champions League semifinal place on the line. Man City have a one-goal lead from last week’s first leg, when Simeone introduced a 5-5 formation that frustrated Pep Guardiola’s side and infuriated scores of confused analysts.

Here are the factors that might just decide whether the Rojiblancos will spring another Champions League upset on Wednesday.

From 5-5 to 5-4-1

If it isn’t exactly broken, you don’t necessarily have to fix it — just tweak it.

Even in a losing effort last Tuesday, Atlético did what few teams have managed to do this season — slow down Man City. Ilkay Gündoğan remarked that teams in England do not defend the way Atleti did in the away leg, forcing City’s defensive line higher and higher in search of the breakthrough. Guardiola’s celebratory roar and water bottle-smash following Kevin De Bruyne’s eventual winning goal, after nearly 70 minutes, really said it all.

Early in the second half, Antoine Griezmann and Marcos Llorente broke away twice on the counterattack. A better final ball in either instance would have seen the visitors challenge Ederson more seriously, and maybe even grab a goal to take back to Madrid. In the rematch, Atlético must make these transition opportunities count once they’re presented.

Manchester City v Atlético Madrid Quarter Final Leg One - UEFA Champions League Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Simeone made a mistake dropping in-form João Félix on Saturday, but he should return to the 11 on Wednesday to lead Atleti’s press and hold up play as the transition outlet. The Portuguese’s physical capabilities exceed Griezmann’s at this point in their respective careers. He can bring teammates into the play with his speed and ball control, and more supporting runners should join him as Atleti have to chase goals.

Yannick Carrasco making amends

The enigmatic Carrasco has yet to appear in the knockout phase, as he received a three-game suspension following his sending-off at Porto. But this is the Belgian’s chance to make a difference in what has been an ineffectual 2021/22 season.

According to Understat, Carrasco’s xGChain and xGBuildup per 90 minutes are both down over 33 percent from a season ago. These two statistics reflect how important an individual player is to his team’s ability to construct successful attacking moves.

Carrasco has only eight goal contributions (three scored/five assisted) in 36 appearances this year. Opponents have been happy to isolate him on the left wing, to let him sprint and dribble ad nauseam without picking out a teammate around the penalty area.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

If Man City’s approach is similar to the one employed in Sunday’s 2-2 draw versus Liverpool — more aggressive and direct, with outside-in long balls toward Atlético’s full-backs — Cholo can change the formation and drop Carrasco into a wide midfield role. But in order to help his players’ potential 5-4-1 shape hold, Simeone might be better off inserting Carrasco as a lone forward at some point Wednesday, both to ease João Félix’s burden and to limit the obstacles in his way when City lose the ball.

Think quickly from set pieces

One of Atlético’s only (therefore best) attacking moments in the first leg at the Etihad Stadium came from an innocuous Reinildo Mandava throw-in.

Confident, one-touch passing from Felipe and Geoffrey Kondogbia out of defense kept the ball away from City’s pressing attacking line before Reinildo played the ball down the line to João Félix, who skipped past Gündoğan and into the wide-open midfield. If Šime Vrsaljko had switched the play to Renan Lodi — or if Llorente had stayed onside — Atlético would have been in with a chance to open the scoring.

On Sunday, Liverpool midfielder Fabinho fouled Man City full-back Kyle Walker in the Reds’ defensive third. Bernardo Silva took the ensuing free kick quickly and caught the Liverpool defense napping. He played the ball to De Bruyne, and in the blink of an eye, City had the lead inside five minutes.

Details like these will decide this quarterfinal. City showcased a couple clever set-piece routines in the first leg, and Atlético will have to avoid gifting dead-ball opportunities to Bernardo, De Bruyne, and Riyad Mahrez. On the other end, Felipe (if he starts) or Kondogbia will look to win their individual matchups and flick on Thomas Lemar’s inswinging corner deliveries.

Feed off home cooking

UEFA made this final point a little more challenging on Monday. In a purely-performative gesture, it has ordered the Metropolitano partially-closed after a small number of Atlético “supporters” were filmed giving Nazi salutes during the first leg. Atleti are appealing the reported sanction, saying the punishment doesn’t fit the crime and that it is virtually impossible to enact 48 hours before a sold-out match.

But this is the same governing body that made Atlético play a “home game” in Romania against Chelsea last year and has yet to punish Manchester United after its fans threw missiles at Diego Simeone a month ago. Nothing UEFA does should surprise you, up to and including trying to stop 5,000 Colchoneros from entering the stadium on Wednesday.

That being said, Atlético have yet to win a home match in this season’s Champions League. The Roijblancos are due.

Under Simeone, Atleti have hosted the second leg of a European tie 10 times. Cholo’s record in these contests: eight wins, two draws, and zero defeats, with only two goals conceded. However, all but two of these games were held at the Vicente Calderón, meaning Wednesday will be the first time Atleti’s new stadium has hosted a Champions League knockout tie second leg.

Atlético announced that a giant motivational tifo, made up of 55,000 individual cards, will be unfurled prior to kickoff Wednesday. And aside from having this quarterfinal second leg on home turf, Atlético can find even further inspiration knowing their opponents in the next round would likely be eternal rivals Real Madrid.

Truly, this is the biggest European night in the new Metropolitano’s short history.