The red-and-white part of Madrid was not particularly happy before the second leg of this Champions League quarter-final. They had not liked the reaction to Atletico Madrid’s performance in the first, either from within English football or across the continent. Cheap criticism of an approach that produced no shots on goals over an entire 90 minutes, as pure a distillation of cholismo as possible, had left them bruised and insulted.
They were not too fond of Marco van Basten’s recommendation to “change the channel or put on Netflix” rather than watch Atletico. They had not liked Arrigo Sacchi’s claim that his style “does n’t give you joy even when you win”. Diego Simeone’s response was as peculiar as it was vaguely threatening. “It’s like my dad said,” he replied. “The fish dies through the mouth.”
There was very little appreciation for Kevin De Bruyne speaking of a ‘5-5-0’ formation, or Pep Guardiola using the word ‘prehistory’ in a totally innocent appreciation of their idiosyncratic style. Koke made a pointed reference to the remark in an Instagram post. Guardiola’s name was loudly and fervently booed when read on the Metropolitano’s PA system before kick-off.
He had meant no offense, though. The Manchester City manager rarely does. Guardiola is not one to publicly admonish opponents for their style of play. If anything, his praise of philosophies at the the opposite end of the spectrum to his own can come across as over-enthusiastic and even a touch insincere. You can hear it now, in fact. “Athletes, guys. incredible. The way they crowd the referees. So good.”
But it is fair to say that Guardiola is smarter than your average when it comes to the tactical landscape of modern day European football, and in between the moments of fawning praise, there is rare and unexpected insight. That was the case before the first leg when, with a room of journalists eager for him to dismantle the doctrine of Cholismo, he threw an unlikely curveball.
“After watching Atletico there is a misconception about the way Simeone plays. It’s more offensive than people believe,” he insisted. “He doesn’t want to take a risk in the build-up but they have quality in the final third. They know exactly how to play. In the moments of the game, these situations are really good.”
Guardiola knew there would come a point across these two legs when that ‘misconception’ would be laid bare. There would be times when Atletico decided to shed their natural state, forget the s***housery and attack. They would have to, out of desperation if nothing else. And City would know if they had withstood it, because their opponents would suddenly revert to type.
If, after the first leg, you expected more of the same for this return, you were wrong. This was not a training exercise against two banks of five, not for the most part at least. Simeone is a pragmatist as much as an ideologue and the one-goal deficit called for a shift in approach. Atletico were more aggressive from the off than they were at the Etihad. After all, they had to be.
Joao Felix was the first to step out of shape, marauding down the right wing with a cut-back that almost connected with Thomas Lemar, in a predatory position inside the box. The ball just escaped him, as it would escape several Atletico players all night long. It was still a while before Atletico would actually register their first shot of the entire tie – a tame, deflected Geoffrey Kondogbia attempt – but the shift in energy was clear.
City would have to adapt and, after a ropey star, found their bearings. Atletico’s intensity dimmed as the first half wore on. Clearly, they could only sustain it in spurts at best. It was then that you started to sense the 0-0 on the horizon. What if the irresistible force and the immovable object called the whole thing off and settled for a draw? The result, you felt, would be a whole lot of nothing.
But that too was wrong and emphatically so. Atletico’s surges would come in spurts and for the majority of the second half, City had to learn the art of suffering which their opponents have mastered. After an Antoine Griezmann volley flew narrowly past the post, the Metropolitano let out a cry of belief hitherto not heard. Guardiola’s players were starting to look a little frazzled, which is to say nothing of the man himself.
A wayward Kyle Walker pass that went harmlessly out for a throw-in earned a telling off from not just Kevin De Bruyne but Ilkay Gundogan too. City are normally masters of game management under Guardiola but this particular contest was becoming hard to handle.
When both Walker and De Bruyne parted, battered under consecutive waves of Atletico pressure, the breach of Ederson’s goal moved closer. A team that had failed to register a shot in the first 121 minutes of this tie registered 11 in the final hour.
But it was inevitable that, the longer Atletico were frustrated, the more uncomfortable they would become, the easier it would be for the old muscle memory to kick in.
Atletico’s desperate final quarter-of-an-hour – inclusive of nine minutes stoppage time – was not so much a Champions League quarter-final but a brawl in a pub car park. After having to shed the stereotype, Simeone’s players reaffirmed it.
For as perceptive as Guardiola’s comments were, the ‘misconception’ only stretches so far. And as the 21-man scrap broke out in the corner, as Felipe saw red for a mindless challenge on a player he had already bandaged up eleven, and as all four corners of the Metropolitano cried out, “Hijo de puta, Pep Guardiola” , you wondered if the subject of their ire realized that he had won.