Hate it or love it, Atlético Madrid never fails to play in the most Atlético Madrid-style games. That might seem a surprising statement to apply to Tuesday’s Champions League group finale against Porto, given the final score of 3–1 in favor of the Spanish side, but this was not a free-flowing ass-whooping of the likes of, say, Ajax or Paris Saint-Germain. Instead, this was two teams fighting for valuable points that would hopefully propel them into the knockout rounds. I don’t say “fighting” in that sentence lightly; there were multiple scuffles that didn’t quite bubble over into full-on brawls, but they got as close as soccer ever does.
Those melees happened in the second half, and it’s probably fine to mostly skim over the first 45 minutes. The only notable things that happened early on, despite both teams pretty much needing a win to advance, were Luis Suárez coming off injured early on, and AC Milan taking an early lead in its game against Liverpool. That first strike by the Rossoneri meant a draw would knock both Porto and Atlético out of the Champions League if results held, and yet the teams continued to slog through a sloppy first half with no real attacking momentum on either side. They were aided in their Round of 16 dreams by the Pool Boys, and specifically, of course, Mohamed Salah, who scored off a rebound to tie things up heading into that game’s intermission. The knockout rounds were back in play.
On the other side of halftime, Antoine Griezmann changed things up after a corner found him wide open just outside the goal in the 56th minute, shortly before all hell broke loose:
Just about 10 minutes after Griezmann’s goal, Yannick Carrasco tried to walk away from Porto’s Otávio with the ball, which enraged the Brazilian enough to chase after him. That’s when Carrasco got himself an early exit:
Carrasco was ejected for swinging his arm at Otávio’s head, and with the expulsion Porto found some hope, with about 20 minutes to play and a one-man advantage. Or Porto would have found some hope, if not for what happened three minutes later. Left back Wendell was shown a red card in the 70th minute for also throwing an arm to a head, this time to Matheus Cunha, who did a wonderful job exaggerating to contact to make sure that Wendell was sent off just a couple of minutes after he was subbed on:
Porto had been handed a gift thanks to Carrasco’s swing, and promptly squandered it before I even had time to process exactly what had happened. This was soccer at its dumbest and its most unforgiving. Due to the nature of red cards, a player losing his head can completely change a game in a way that just doesn’t happen in other sports. That Porto was unlucky enough to field a player who did just that right after Carrasco is a big reason why it will be headed to the Europa League.
After that flurry of stupidity, the game lost most of its steam, particularly on the hosts’ side. The game calmed down, and the only real drama was if Porto center back and captain Pepe would pick up a second yellow. (That Pepe, of all people, did not get sent off in this particular game is nothing short of a miracle.) Even with the scoreline still at a tight 1–0, Porto never really threatened again after the red cards. Instead, Atlético scored a couple match-killing goals in the 90th and 95th minutes, courtesy of the Argentinian one-two punch of Ángel Correa and Rodrigo de Paul:
Thus ended one of the zaniest European nights in recent memory.
Even with a knockout spot in play, the stakes weren’t terribly high. I might regret saying this, but neither Porto nor Atlético ever seemed likely to do much in this year’s competition; the former just isn’t that good, and the latter is kind of a mess right now. Still, there is value in pushing into the knockout rounds, both in terms of pride and money, so Atlético will savor this win without worrying for a second about how the win came about.
For neutrals, though, this was mostly just a bad game that turned into a hilarious game in the span of about 10 minutes, in a manner befitting both teams and the sport of soccer itself. It’s hard to find this amount of high-level shithousery anywhere else, so even if though it’s not pretty, I for one will cherish this beautiful disaster.