Atlético Madrid crashed out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage with a 0-0 draw in the second leg of their battle with Manchester City, following a 1-0 first leg defeat in England. A battle, because that's just what it was in every sense.
The home side had plenty of chances to find an equaliser on aggregate, but this heated and physical encounter never saw the net ripple and deadlock remained unbroken. It was Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City who will be back in the Spanish capital to face Real Madrid in the semi-final.
Here are three things we learned from the fixture.
Atlético could beat Manchester City at their own game
If you have some time on your hands, I’d invite you to search for “Atlético Madrid” and “anti-football” on Twitter, track down those who criticised Atleti’s approach, and share just some of the following statistics with them from the second half of the second leg.
Atlético had 11 shots compared to City’s 2. They made 232 passes, compared to City’s 208. They had 56 percent possession, compared to City’s 44 percent. It was Man City who committed five fouls and picked up five yellow cards, compared to Atleti’s three fouls and two yellow cards.
But that did not mean a compromise on Atleti’s philosophy. With 110 duels recorded in the second half, Atleti won 61, while City were adjudged to have won just 47. In defensive duels, Atleti won 78 percent, compared to City’s 57 percent.
In short, Atlético produced an all-round display for the ages.
Having produced a grand total of 0.00 xG from the first 135 minutes of this tie, the Colchoneros created 0.77 xG from the final 45 and had numerous other opportunities that never ended with a finish to add to their xG total or threaten Ederson.
Atleti came out of their shell and showed they could mix it with the best. It was a strategy to frustrate and shut down Man City and, other than one move in the first leg, it worked perfectly. Atleti’s patient approach proved that they could play City at their own game, even if it can’t be sustained over 180 minutes.
That quality, which tested City perhaps more than any other team has in some time in terms of dominating Guardiola’s side, shows exactly how good Atlético Madrid can be.
Fine margins make all the difference
Fixtures at such a high level and against such elite opposition are decided by the finest of margins. In this case, it was Reinildo taking two steps forward and Felipe not being positioned one yard to the left.
Three yards. That’s pretty much all that stood between Atlético and, at the very least, extra time.
It should also serve as a lesson. Atleti can’t afford to gamble when pursuing this approach. Unfortunately, they were forced to.
Atleti fans may well feel that had Josema Giménez been fully fit to take on these two games, there may well have been a different outcome. The absence of one player could have been decisive. And having lived through such situations in the past, Diego Simeone knows the importance of having men he can rely on.
Think back to those famous Champions League runs in 2014 and 2016, and the faith that Simeone had in Juanfran, Miranda, Diego Godín, or Stefan Savić and Filipe Luís. The same could not be said of Marcos Llorente, Felipe, Reinildo and Renan Lodi, relative newcomers who don’t rank among the club’s legends.
This approach tried to minimise the risk Atlético were opening themselves up to defensively. But unfortunately for the Colchoneros, even the most conservative of systems could not reduce the risk to zero.
Atlético needed to be at their best in attack, yet the chances kept just going begging. An inch here or there, a slightly better angle on Matheus Cunha’s late shot, and so on, and we could well be talking about Atleti being in a semi-final. But the fine margins matter, and in this case it was the difference in squad depth quality that made a real difference.
The litmus test for the future
The most decisive game of Atlético’s season to date was an opportunity for some players fighting for their future to stake their claim.
Antoine Griezmann’s status is up in the air, with differing reports on what clauses have been included in the agreement and whether the commitment to sign him permanently would be this season or next. However, against Man City, he showed why Cholo Simeone values him so highly. A world class centre-forward, he had no complaints about playing on the right of midfield, doing the dirty work and dropping into right-back to cover at times. He’s looking more like a team player than ever before.
Reinildo is another who showed his value. A cheap signing in January, he was seen almost to be a short-term fix. Instead, he’s proven himself to be one of the first names on the team-sheet, capable of mixing it with the very best. He has a role to play going forward.
Šime Vrsaljko’s contract is up in the summer. He was an unused substitute, to the surprise of some who expected him to be selected and add defensive solidity. His commitment to the cause, and hot-headedness in the tunnel afterward, show what he brings to Atlético. He could even be third-choice behind Llorente and Daniel Wass now, but he is part of the Atleti family and philosophy. If he does remain in the Spanish capital beyond the end of June, it will have just as much to do with his contribution off the pitch as on it.
Felipe is a second player with an expiring contract. In the first leg, he came out of the tie looking relatively solid. He could perhaps have done better with a momentary lapse ahead of the De Bruyne goal in his positioning. In the second leg, without quite so much protection around him, he looked far more vulnerable.
The 32-year-old’s needless early clattering of Phil Foden set the tone and he was booked for a similarly-rash foul shortly after. His sending off for lashing out late on was another needless moment which could have left Atleti in a vulnerable position had they found a late equaliser. Once a model of composure and reliability, he is now the complete opposite. His time in Madrid should be over.
Luis Suárez is the third man with an expiring contract, and perhaps the most complex case. In the 83rd minute, Rodrigo de Paul fed him a pass but his first three touches showed the difference between the Suárez of 12 months ago and the Suárez of today. He’s lost that half- yard of pace, and he looks a little more clumsy and slow. There’s no denying he maintains that same killer instinct and technical ability, and that will inevitably bring goals over the course of a season, but he’s no longer the cut-throat threat that had even the world’s best defenders sweating for 90 minutes.
Last, but not least, is Diego Simeone himself. The coach was under immense pressure only a few months ago, but Wednesday night showed an incredible unity between fans and Cholo. There is no doubting Simeone will be backed by his supporters, and that will be a major confidence boost for the team heading into the final few weeks of the season, fully focused on securing a spot in the top four.