MADRID — A lot happened at the Wanda Metropolitano in the last 10 or 20 minutes, ones that seemed to stretch on and on, long after the final whistle, until they were almost another game stand-alone bonus, a third installment separate from a planned two-part drama.
There was pulled hair. There was a lot of wasted time. There was a full-scale brawl, dozens and dozens of players and team staff all took to one corner of the field to voice their opinions. There was a flurry of yellow cards and a bright, angry red. There was Diego Simeone, leading his orchestra, causing the stadium to bark, howl and rumble until the last breath.
What there wasn’t, the only thing missing was a lot of real football. There were flashes, of course, with Atlético Madrid charging, desperately chasing the goal that would break Manchester City’s resistance and extend the game into extra time, extend their Champions League stay by 30 minutes or, perhaps, of a few weeks. For the most part, though, those endless final minutes were a study in the art of not playing football.
This is of course an integral part of the identity of Atlético Madrid. Simeone has spent a decade creating a team in his image, a team that plays, like him, with a “knife between its teeth”.
Atlético should, by right, be a heroic underdog among Europe’s elite, a counter-cultural alternative to the hegemony of pressing and possession. After all, it lacks the resources of its outsized neighbor Real Madrid, let alone the state-backed influence of Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, and yet it refuses to wither, succumb to financial inevitability.
It is therefore a powerful testament to the work of Simeone and the great effectiveness of his inculcation, that his team can so easily and so frequently play the role of the obvious villain of the Champions League: a camp of cynics, provocateurs and doomsayers. ‘cutthroats, designed and built to draw beauty and soul from the game, happy to subvert any available standard in the pursuit of victory, and in defiance of convention, opponents and the game’s sense of moral rectitude.
And yet, in all the fire and fury, it was not only Atlético who realized that a place in the semi-finals did not depend on talent and technique, but on courage and willingness to do whatever it takes.
There is no team more associated with beauty than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. He has come, over the years, to become the embodiment of football’s higher values, its ultimate arbiter of taste, its chief aesthete. Guardiola is synonymous with sophistication and style, and he imbued all of this into the team he built.
It was not, however, virtues that saw his side escape Madrid unscathed, their place in the Champions League semi-finals with Real Madrid secured, their pursuit of a domestic and European treble intact. City didn’t beat Atlético by overcoming their dark magic. He beat Atlético by borrowing them.
Some of them, at least. Much like its host, Guardiola’s side, for once, didn’t seem particularly interested in football either. He played, instead, for time. Every throw-in seemed to take on an age, and so did every free kick and goal kick. No wounds were shaken; even the most minor bump and bruise warranted a long period of treatment. Offside balls were pushed just a little further down the line, beyond the reach of the Atlético players. No levity was too minor not to arouse outrage.
This should not be construed as a criticism of Manchester City. far from there. Often, it is so easy to be dazzled by the brilliance of Guardiola’s team that his character, his courage, goes unnoticed. His record in the Premier League, in particular, in recent years has been built as much on defensive parsimony as on offensive threat. The city does not wither or doubt; he continues, without remorse, absolute in his belief that he will eventually be right.
While the Metropolitano – that sleek, modern stadium built by Simeone’s success – has somehow morphed into Vicente Calderón, the crumbling, intimidating and openly hostile former home of Atlético, which has taken City to through was not his magic but his courage. It’s as much a part of Guardiola’s recipe as anything else.
And it shouldn’t be read as a criticism of Atlético either. “What matters more than anything in football is winning,” Simeone said after the match, shortly after the players faced off again in the tunnel. “It doesn’t matter how you do it.”
Even Guardiola conceded that Atlético almost won, that he could have scored, could have won, if he had had a bit more luck. “They had the actions to score,” he said. “We had to experience this situation. We had to suffer. We were in big, big trouble. Another night, in another world, he seemed to say, everything could have been very different.
That Simeone’s side were able to lead City so close was not despite their precarious situation, but because of it. As Atlético did what they did, in those final minutes, as the sense of outrage outside the steep concrete banks of the Metropolitano began to build, so did the noise inside. The crowd responded to their team’s snaps and grunts, ratcheting up the pressure a bit more, tipping things imperceptibly in the host’s favor. Atlético is not made for fun. It’s like that because it works.
“They know how to do this better than any other team in the world,” Guardiola said. Nobody, anywhere plays football better than Atlético Madrid.
Guardiola seemed impressed, in a way. He knows that there are times when that’s what counts, that’s what counts. He knows that his team will sometimes have to be a bit like Atlético Madrid if they want to come back here and celebrate again in a few weeks, if they want to climb the only peak they have yet to reach, claim the Champions League .