When I think of the Champions League, more often than not, I am thinking of beautiful, high-intensity soccer, played by the best players in the world. I’m thinking of the Barcelona teams that ran roughshod last decade, or Tottenham’s comeback against Ajax in 2019, or even something like Wednesday’s Liverpool-Benfica match, a 3-3 barrage of fireworks.
The reality, though, is that once good teams start facing each other in the knockout rounds, the games can get a bit grimy, as no one wants to go home earlier than expected. That in turn leads to slower-paced games, with less expressive prods into the attacking box, lest a team open itself up for a season-ending counter-attack. That’s never more true than when Atlético Madrid is involved, as Diego Simeone’s men have a tendency to bring any team, regardless of caliber, into a stalemate of defensive rigidity.
Just ask Manchester City:
It takes a lot of shit-housing for a dreary 0-0 match to be memorable, but by god, these two teams were up to that task. City sank into the mud, something that it rarely does, rolling around at every hard tackle while feeling at ease not pushing for a second goal. The Premier League leaders had 10 shots, but only one challenged Jan Oblak’s goal. Instead, they controlled the ball and made it hard for Atlético to get any semblance of rhythm.
Atlético are still the kings of this kind of match, though. Even in a game it had to win to have any shot at advancing, the host didn’t shy away from wasting time to break up City’s momentum with its traditional hard tackles, or its rule-pushing—and often rule-breaking—ideology. Hell, the Madrid side didn’t have a shot on target in the entire tie until the 35th minute of Wednesday’s match, and even that was a speculative long range effort.
There’s no better example of Atlético’s ability to sludge up a contest than the only thing anyone will remember from this match in two months. With Atlético chasing a goal in added time, Phil Foden found some space on the counter down the host’s right side. Atlético center back Felipe chased him down with an impressive burst of speed and hit a picture-perfect slide tackle. So far so good, but as Foden was going down, Felipe followed through with a second hit, clipping the City midfielder with his left foot. Cue a very different kind of fireworks than those found in the other match on Wednesday:
There’s so much that happened in a short amount of time here. As Foden rolled around on the ground, Stefan Savić came over to tell him to stop wasting time in an aggressive manner, aggressive enough to piss off City substitute Oleksandr Zinchenko, who escalated things with a shove. That brought over Oblak to try to defuse the tension, only for Raheem Sterling to give Savić a shoulder nudge. At that point, the Montenegrin center back was ready to fight the entire City team, who came over to keep him from causing any harm.
My personal favorite part of the melee is that Savić then responded to some choice Jack Grealish words by pulling his mop of hair:
This was a mess, and the referee somehow managed to send off only one person: Felipe, who picked up a second yellow for the initial foul. (The ref did give out a whopping seven cards in extra time, so he was kept busy enough.) At that point, nine minutes had already gone on the board for added time, but these two teams ended up playing almost 12. Atlético had a couple of real chances in that time, including a potential penalty shout after Nathan Aké barreled over Ángel Correa in the box, but nothing came of it, and City advanced to a semifinal match-up against Real Madrid.
The ugliness didn’t stop there, though! After the game, as the two teams entered the tunnels back to the dressing rooms, Savić and Grealish kept jawing at each other, and had to be separated. Unused substitute Sime Vrsaljko had to be held back by three people to not charge the City half of the stairs. Eventually, police officers were sent in to keep everyone apart.
So ends another Atlético Champions League run, and it’s hard to say that the club didn’t give everyone what they expected. A 1-0 aggregate score, even against one of Europe’s highest flying sides, is perfect Atlético muck, and the lengthy scuffle just puts a cherry on top of the whole thing. That Atlético finished with more red cards (one) than expected goals (0.6) is a perfect encapsulation of the Diego Simeone era. It doesn’t get much grittier than this, and credit to City for going down to Atlético’s level and walking out with the win nonetheless.