After a season of conflict, of inconsistency, of disappointment at failing to live up to the highs of the 2020/21 campaign played behind closed doors, Atlético Madrid returned to their very best against Manchester City.
This wasn’t about the performance on the pitch. This was about the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano building its best atmosphere since Atlético moved to the stadium in 2017.
It was about the unity, from fans to players to coach, in their approach to the game of football. It was about unity in the face of controversy and adversity.
As the world had turned against Atleti after the first leg and their defensive tactics, Colchoneros united behind their team. Even in the face of defeat, fans were solid in their support. No result would change the way they took in this tie.
There’s no better way to look at this two-legged tie than through Joaquín Sabina’s famous song, ‘Motivos de un sentimiento’, a song written for the club’s centenary and dedicated to his lifelong love of Atlético de Madrid. It is played pre-match at most Atleti games.
Que manera de aguantar
There can be no denying that Atlético were on the back foot for much of this encounter, across both the first 90 minutes in Manchester and arguably even for the first 45 minutes of the second leg.
This was Cholo Simeone at his pragmatic best. He knew his midfield would be unable to match Kevin De Bruyne’s creativity, that his attack would struggle to shrug off Aymeric Laporte and beat Ederson, that his defence would have a tough task handling Phil Foden.
He knew Atleti could not match Manchester City.
Pragmatism was the tale of the day in Manchester. Just as Atlético had deployed a less-extreme replica of that approach at Old Trafford only weeks before, they repeated the approach last Tuesday.
The first leg was painful viewing, yet it was exhilarating for Atleti fans. The game plan was clear and it was executed almost to perfection. Pretty or not, it kept Atleti alive in the tie.
Before the second leg, UEFA handed down a 5,000 seat closure at the Metropolitano, to be instigated with 48 hours to kick off. Without going into the rights or wrongs of the punishment, Atleti fans were furious. The game had been sold out for weeks, and Atlético were now told to shut down a section of the stadium. Who were UEFA to turn up 48 hours before the biggest game in years and demand 5,000 fans be returned the money they paid for tickets and told they could not attend?
The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Atleti’s appeal and delayed the closure until the next home European fixture, with the decision coming only hours before kick-off. And it is in that scenario where Atlético truly become Atlético. With everyone against them, the club, its team, its fans come together in unity. For as much as Marco Van Basten might prefer to watch Netflix or Pep Guardiola might, positively or negatively, think that it was almost prehistoric, it was El Cholo’s strategy and Atlético’s way of playing.
Que manera de sufrir
It was all to play for back in Madrid. The atmosphere was promising. Even 10 minutes before kick-off, the tifo designed for the teams’ emergence from the tunnel was already on display for all to see. Fans chanted the club anthem a capella, with UEFA rules stating their music must be played as teams come out of the tunnel, rather than the club anthem as is usually the case for domestic fixtures.
Never before had a goalless draw been so tense. Right from the off, Atlético showed an intensity to their game that made it clear that there was a desire and drive to compete. This wasn’t like the first leg, where the rojiblancos sat back. This time, Atleti were going for it.
City controlled. They dominated possession and looked threatening on the counter, finding gaps in Atlético’s defensive unit, particularly as Marcos Llorente and Renan Lodi got forward to try to use their pace in behind.
Half-time brought about a sense of resignation. It seemed hard to imagine Atleti would be able to find a way through without letting City in. But the belief was there. A roar came out as the big screens in the stadium showed Atleti’s players emerging from the dressing room ready to head out the tunnel and onto the field.
In the second half, Atlético came out all guns blazing. This was a different side, which produced arguably one of the best 45-minute spells we have seen from Simeone’s team all season.
Chance after chance came and went, always seemingly just an inch away from getting a toe on the end of s ball blazed across the face of the box, or just one touch too many, or simply a superb save from Ederson in the Manchester City goal.
The second half at the Metropolitano saw Man City record two shots, compared to 11 from Atlético Madrid. Atleti recorded more passes than Manchester City, and quite simply played them off the park in a way that no other team has done to a Guardiola team in a long time.
Only days earlier, Liverpool had exchanged blows with City in a game of equally-high intensity, but it was a game of teams level on quality and dominance. Here, Atleti were battering City and forcing them to retreat into their own final third whether they liked it or not.
It was clear that over 120 minutes, Atlético did enough to warrant at least taking the tie to extra-time. You could make a convincing argument that Atleti’s strategy warranted a victory. The first leg kept them alive. And the second leg gave them enough chances to find a way through.
Que manera de sentir
The red card shown to Felipe in the dying minutes added fuel to the fire. The fans united in the face of even more adversity, knowing time was running out. They continued to chant, cheer and encourage their players to the death.
Manchester City fans and the English media had spent much time complaining that Atleti’s approach was “anti-football” after the first leg, yet they spent 60 minutes of the return fixture play-acting and time-wasting. The rage and frustration only fuelled the pride of Atleti’s fans.
They had known that they would never be able to match Man City at their own game. What they hadn’t expected was that they would make Guardiola’s team so uncomfortable that the Premier League leaders would play Atleti at their own game.
As the final whistle approached at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, fans raised their scarves above their heads and started to chant. Whether there was a last-gasp winner or not, these fans were proud.
City’s players, who had been at their antagonising best, sprinted to the middle of the pitch in a huddle, jumping and celebrating their victory. Within a couple minutes, they had disappeared back down the tunnel. As the visiting fans sat quietly at the top of the Fondo Norte, the rest of the Metropolitano was rocking.
“Proud of our team” was the chant for some time. Because for Atlético Madrid, this was a matter of pride. Whatever the result, Atlético had stayed loyal to their style and they had found a way to dominate one of the best teams in the world.
Twenty-four hours beforehand, I had been at the Santiago Bernabéu watching Real Madrid play Chelsea. As Chelsea scored a third goal to take the lead over both legs, several Madridistas around me got up and went home. They gave up on their team with 15 minutes still on the clock.
Atlético Madrid fans were still singing 15 minutes after the final whistle eliminated their side.
“But, why are you happy and singing about the fact that you lost?” one Madridista friend asked me on WhatsApp as fans finally began to filter out of the stadium 20 minutes after the final whistle had blown.
“Enamorado del Atleti, no lo puedes entender” is the famous chant sung by Colchoneros; it means “in love with Atleti, you can’t understand it”. It seemed a relevant response.
Sabina sang “aquí me pongo a contar motivos de un sentimiento que no se puede explicar”; “here I’m telling the reason behind a feeling that can’t be explained”.
Win, draw or lose, the scenes at the final whistle will serve Atlético going forward far more than a semi-final. The team and its fans are united. They back Diego Simeone, whatever happens. And it was an honour to be a part of it.
If you’re not an Atlético Madrid fan, there’s simply no way to understand it.