MADRID – A lot of things happened in the last 10, 15 or 20 minutes at the Wanda Metropolitano, the things that seemed to go on and on, long after the final whistle, until they almost formed another standalone bonus game, a separate third episode of a planned two-part drama.
Some hair was pulled. There was quite a waste of time. There was a full brawl, dozens and dozens of players and staffers all flocked to the corner of the field to voice their opinions on matters. There was a flurry of yellow cards and a bright, angry red. There was Diego Simeone, conducting his orchestra, urging the stadium to bark and howl and growl to the last breath.
What wasn’t there, the only thing missing was a lot of real football. There were flashes of course, Atlético Madrid rushed forward, desperate for the goal that would break Manchester City’s resistance and bring the game into extra time, extending their Champions League stay by another 30 minutes or, perhaps, more. would extend for a few weeks. But for the most part, those endless final minutes were a study in the art of not playing football.
That is, of course, an important part of Atlético Madrid’s identity. Simeone has spent ten years assembling a team in his own image, a team that plays, just like he did, with a ‘knife between his teeth’.
Atlético should really be a heroic underdog among the European elite, a countercultural alternative to the hegemony of pressure and possession. After all, it lacks the resources of its superior force, Real Madrid, let alone the state-backed influence of Manchester City or Paris St.-Germain, and yet it refuses to wither, succumb to financial inevitability.
It is thus a powerful proof of Simeone’s work, and of the great effectiveness of his imprinting, that his team can so easily and so often play the part of the obvious villain of the Champions League: a side of cynics and provocateurs and assassins, designed and built to take the beauty and soul out of the game, happy to subvert every available standard in the pursuit of victory, in defiance of convention and its opponents and also the game’s sense of moral rectitude.
And yet, in all the fire and fury, it wasn’t just Atlético who realized that a place in the semi-finals depended not on talent and technique, but on grit and grizzle, on a willingness to do whatever it takes.
There is no team more associated with beauty than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. He has evolved over the years to become an embodiment of football’s higher values, its ultimate umpire of taste, its supreme aesthete. Guardiola means sophistication and style, all of which he has imbued with the team he has built at City.
However, those were not the virtues that enabled his team to escape Madrid unscathed, secure his place in the semi-finals of the Champions League – and a meeting with Real Madrid – his pursuit of a domestic and European treble intact. . City did not beat Atlético by conquering their dark arts. It defeated Atlético by borrowing them.
Some of them, at least. Like his host, Guardiola’s team didn’t seem too interested in football for once. It played, instead, for time. Every throw-in seemed to take ages, and so did every free kick and goal kick. No injury was shaken off; even the smallest bump and bruise warranted a longer treatment period. Balls that were no longer in play were struck just a little further down the line, out of reach for Atlético’s players. No small matter was too small not to be met with indignation.
That should not be read as a criticism of Manchester City; far from. Often it is so easy to be blinded by the brilliance on Guardiola’s part that its character and courage are overlooked. His record in the Premier League, particularly in recent years, is based on defensive thrift as well as attacking threat. City does not wither and does not doubt; it goes on, relentlessly, absolutely believing that it will ultimately prove right.
While the Metropolitano – this sleek, modern stadium built by Simeone’s success – somehow turned into the Vicente Calderón, Atlético’s crumbling, intimidating, naked hostile former home, City was not its magic but its courage. That’s as much a part of Guardiola’s recipe as anything else.
And in that respect it should not be read as a criticism of Atlético. “What is more important than anything in football is winning,” Simeone said after the game, not long after the players faced each other again in the tunnel. “It doesn’t matter how you do it.”
Even Guardiola admitted that Atletico had come close to victory, that they could have scored, maybe won, if only they had been a little more lucky. “They had the actions to score,” he said. “We had to live in this situation. We had to suffer. We were in big, big trouble.” On another night, in another world, he seemed to say, everything could have been very different.
That Simeone City’s team managed to lead so close was not in spite of his brinkmanship, but thanks to. As Atlético did what it did, in those last few minutes, when the sense of outrage started to build outside the steep concrete banks of the Metropolitano, so did the noise inside. The crowd reacted to the snaps and growls from the team, increasing the pressure slightly and imperceptibly shifting things in favor of the host. Atlético is not what it is for fun. It is what it is because it works.
“They know how to do this better than any other team in the world,” Guardiola said. No one, anywhere, does not play soccer better than Atlético Madrid.
Guardiola sounded impressed in a way. He knows there are times when that’s important, that’s what counts. He knows that sometimes his team will have to be a bit like Atletico Madrid if it is to return here and celebrate again in a few weeks, if it is to climb the only peak yet to be scaled to claim the Champions League.