An eight-game unbeaten run has stabilized Atlético Madrid’s once-volatile season, but the Colchoneros will face an unenviable challenge this week: Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. FiveThirtyEight’s oddsmakers have Man City as heavy favorites to progress from the quarterfinal stage into the UEFA Champions League semifinals, their algorithm assigning the English champions an 82 percent shot to advance.
Not that Diego Simeone will care, though. He probably relishes having an 11 percent chance to win the first leg at the City of Manchester Stadium. And with the Rojiblancos entering this match in their best form all season — six straight wins in LaLiga and four clean sheets across the past eight — El Cholo will be preaching confidence and tranquility as his players board a flight for England on Monday.
That said, Man City are an entirely different beast compared to rivals Manchester United. Atlético will need to step it up a notch relative to the United games in order to reach a first European semifinal in four years. Here are three factors that could decide how the first leg goes.
(Statistics cited courtesy of fbref.com.)
Continue the fast starts
It is reasonable to expect Guardiola’s Man City to be patient and probing throughout the match. This is a ball-dominant team that swallows up territory all over the pitch (look at John Muller’s excellent graphics below to see what I mean).
Guardiola has constructed a juggernaut that thrives on associative play and rapid positional switches to produce numerical superiority in key areas. More often than not, City are successful at this, and have remained potent despite often opting to play without a recognized center-forward.
Man City even exert control in the defensive third. João Cancelo is an exceptional full-back, a dribbling and shooting threat who can line up on either flank. But short, crisp passing from City’s center-back pair helps funnel the ball to him and beyond. In Saturday’s 2-0 win at Burnley, that pairing was Nathan Aké and Aymeric Laporte. The duo completed 93 percent of their combined 226 passing attempts. Nearly 80 percent of those passes traveled under 30 yards.
Atlético will have to apply high pressure to force City into being more direct than Guardiola might otherwise want, especially early in the match. João Félix, expected to receive his ninth consecutive start on Tuesday night, really likes scoring early goals — he has put Atleti ahead inside the opening 15 minutes five times since Feb. 19. This period of the first leg will be critical. Simeone’s side will play with considerably more purpose if it gets a lead to protect.
Keep eyes on Rodri
Players like Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are daunting — ultra-creative midfielders who are capable of rounding off the moves they help to build. Wide attackers Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling have each notched double-digit goals in the Premier League this season. New false nine Phil Foden has registered 0.69 expected goals + assists per 90 minutes in Premier League play, the third-highest mark on the team.
But Rodri is possibly the cog that keeps the machine purring.
Rodri has found a home in Manchester after departing Atlético three years ago. The club could do nothing once Man City activated the Spain international’s €70 million release clause, and Cholo’s loss has been Guardiola’s gain. Rodri has started each of his 25 league appearances this season, and he completes better than 80 passes per 90 minutes with his standard accuracy — over 92 percent.
Atlético need to respond once City progress the ball past the forward line and to Rodri in central midfield. Simeone could have one of his supporting strikers — probably Antoine Griezmann — track and pressure Rodri, while the other moves in lock-step with City’s center-backs. This might choke off City’s ball circulation at the source.
Of course, Guardiola is notoriously unpredictable in Champions League knockout ties. He might opt to bench Rodri, and City have many ways to hurt Atlético even if that’s the case. Atleti’s defense must be extremely organized and committed. Simeone’s technical staff has to account for every possibility.
Inject some Cunha craziness
Where Matheus Cunha goes on the pitch, chaos follows.
Cunha returned Saturday after a knee injury held him out for six weeks. Simeone threw him into a 1-1 game and the Brazilian almost immediately drew a penalty when Alavés defender Florian Lejeune cut him down in the box. He then forced Fernando Pacheco into an outstanding save before provider-turned-finisher João Félix slotted Atlético’s third goal. Finally, Cunha played a gorgeous pass to Luis Suárez, who completed the scoring after converting the penalty Cunha won for him in the 75th minute.
Three goal-creating actions in only 19 minutes equals another tidy night’s work for Cunha. In only 671 LaLiga minutes, he’s scored five goals and set up three more. The wiry 22-year-old has a direct, disruptive style — exactly the kind of player who can charge at Man City’s back line and wreak havoc in transition.
Atlético are going to live on the counterattack on Tuesday night. The Colchoneros will face mental and physical fatigue at some point — defending in the way they are expected to defend is exhausting. Now that he’s back, Cunha is the sort of unbalancing presence who can bring energy, intensity, and verticality to a tight game where the details will prove to make all the difference.