Heading into injury time, this game was remarkably similar to the snooze-fest that Atlético Madrid and Porto played out just a year ago in the first game of the Champions League group stage.
Only this time, we had more drama in the final 11 minutes than in the 90 beforehand.
Mario Hermoso came on to score, then conceded a penalty for handball which was duly converted by Mateus Uribe. And then, Antoine Griezmann nodded in a 101st-minute winner with the final touch of the game — completing a dramatic and historic night that will live long in the memory for the chaos of the final moments more than the bore of the rest of the tie.
It could well prove to be a turning point for Atleti. Here are three things we learned from the game.
Unexpected heroes are the best kind of heroes
When Hermoso came on as a 68th minute substitute for Álvaro Morata, with the score at 0-0, I sent this message to friend of Into the Calderón Euan McTear:
“Diego Simeone is such a troll.”
“Watch him score a 94th minute winner,” he replied.
It turned out Euan wasn’t far off.
It was actually another substitute, perhaps almost as comically coming on with exactly 60 minutes on the clock, who scored the winner in the 101st minute.
Griezmann was subjected to the Frente Atlético’s insults the last time Atleti played at home. On Wednesday night they were embracing him, rushing to the front as he kissed the club badge.
Griezmann’s role this season has been clear. His transfer and contractual situation mean he is far from the norm and will have to adjust. But he has been happy to do that. His attitude and work rate have been second to none, and he has added great value to the 2022/23 squad.
Hermoso is a similar case. Not the most reliable of defenders, there was speculation linking him with a move away throughout the summer. But just as he scored injury time winners against Getafe and Valencia last season, he looked to have done so again on 92 minutes. That he later conceded a penalty was pure Hermoso, but his professionalism and desire cannot be knocked.
In a long season with an intense fixture list, and with Simeone seemingly reluctant to make rotations based off his selections so far this campaign, these kind of unexpected heroes will be crucial to determining the team’s level of success. Hermoso and Griezmann are far from fan favourites, but their contribution made them heroes on one of the Metropolitano’s great European nights.
Nahuel Molina isn’t off to the best of starts
No-one can expect a new signing to settle into a new team, a new system and a new role immediately, but there are starting to be concerns about the performances of Nahuel Molina.
Since joining from Udinese in July, he looked to be adjusting in pre-season and had a solid debut against Getafe. Since then, it’s been all downhill.
Molina’s home debut saw him sent off after gifting a goal to Villarreal, and his second appearance at Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano saw him hauled off at half-time.
Winning just 38 percent of his duels, Molina is not settling quite as quickly as Atlético need him to. Defensively he looks to have had his confidence shattered, and he looks a shadow of the defensive rock that has appeared at times in Italy and for Argentina. His positioning is askew, his judgement is off, and he looks to be all over the place.
He has also struggled to build any kind of connection with Marcos Llorente ahead of him. There were signs of that relationship at times in pre-season, but they have since vanished. Molina now looks so distracted by his defensive errors that he is too afraid to commit to going forward.
It is still early days, but Simeone’s best teams have been built around deadly full-backs like Juanfran and Filipe Luis, or Yannick Carrasco and Kieran Trippier. Right now, the right looks to be a disaster, and Simeone can’t decide who is first-choice on the left. It’s a recipe generating great cause for concern.
Back available to face Celta Vigo and then Bayer Leverkusen, Molina needs to get his act together quickly, because the following games against Real Madrid and Sevilla are unlikely to be forgiving.
We should get used to seeing Koke
Cholo Simeone has been pretty unsure of himself when it’s come to choosing a midfield three this season, but the one constant has been Koke.
The team’s captain, it’s perhaps understandable that that would be the case, but he is also the one who has appeared to struggle the most to put together a run of form.
Koke has not been at his best for some time now. His movement is lethargic and his passing leaves much to be desired, lacking any kind of real connection to the two men either side of him. That may not be so much his fault given how frequently they mix and match, but it’s a far cry from Koke at his best, who acts as the glue that could hold any line-up together.
Why won’t Simeone put Geoffrey Kondogbia into the holding role and deploy Koke in a more advanced position? Will we ever see Axel Witsel played in the number five position? Is Koke undroppable?
With big names like Llorente, Saúl, Thomas Lemar and Rodrigo de Paul all watching on, Simeone needs to settle down on a choice in the middle soon. Saúl has impressed, de Paul has arguably the greatest potential and Llorente’s flexibility and athleticism makes him a strong option. None of them are yet to truly convince.
As things stand, Atlético are yet to truly win the midfield battle in any game this season. Even in the win over Getafe, the threat came from down the flanks. Resolving this identity crisis in the middle of the park will lead to fixing other issues elsewhere, but it’s a challenge that cannot be left untreated.