MADRID – A lot of things happened in the Wanda Metropolitano in the last 10 or 20 minutes, those that seemed to stretch on and off, long after the final whistle, until they were almost forming another self-contained bonus game, a separate third installment of one. a two-part drama scheduled.
There was some hair pulling. There was a great deal of wasted time. There was full scale brawl, dozens and dozens of players and team members all streaming to a corner of the field to express their opinions. There were a host of yellow, and bright, angry red cards. There Diego Simeone, conducting his orchestra, encouraged the stadium to bay and howl and converse until the last breath.
What wasn’t, all that was missing, was a lot of real football. There were flashes, of course, with Atlético Madrid charging forward, desperately hunting for the goal that would break Manchester City’s resistance and take the game to extra time, extending their stay in the Champions League at 30 another minute or, maybe, another couple of weeks. All in all, though, those endless last few minutes were a study in the art of not playing football.
That, of course, is a very big part of Atlético Madrid’s identity. Simeone has spent a decade crafting a team in his own image, one that plays, just as he did, with “a knife between his teeth.”
Atlético should, by rights, be a heroic underdog among the European elite, a countercultural alternative to crushing and possession hegemony. After all, she lacks the resources of her overwhelming neighbor, Real Madrid, let alone the state-backed influence of Manchester City or Paris St.-Germain, and yet refuses to die, to give way to financial inevitability.
It is a strong testament to Simeone’s work, therefore, and to the great efficiency of his encouragement, that his team was able to play the obvious villain of the Champions League so easily and often: a side of cynics, provocateurs and cowardice, designed and planned built to extract the beauty and soul from the game, happy to overturn any available norm for victory, and contrary to convention, its opponents and the game’s sense of moral integrity.
And yet, in all the fire and rage, 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.
No team is more associated with beauty than Pep Guardiola of Manchester City. He has come, over the years, to stand as an embodiment of the higher values of football, his ultimate taste referee, his chief esthete. Guardiola means sophistication and style, and has infused it all into the team he has built.
These were not the qualities, however, which enabled his team to escape Madrid unbearably, his place in the Champions League semi-final with Real Madrid secured, his pursuit of domestic and European treble all over. City did not defeat Atlético by overcoming its dark arts. He beat Atlético by borrowing them.
Some of them, at least. Just like his host, Guardiola’s team didn’t, for once, seem to be particularly interested in playing football, either. He played, instead, for a time. Every throw in seemed to take ages, and every free kick and every goal kick. No injury was shaken away; even the smallest lump and bruise justified an extended period of treatment. Balls that had run out of play were beaten a little further down the line, out of the reach of Atlético players. No one was too small not to be offended.
That should not be read as a criticism of Manchester City; far from it. It is often so easy to be amazed by the brilliance of Guardiola’s side that his character, his bravery, go unnoticed. His record in the Premier League, in particular, in recent years is as much built on defensive parimony as attacking threat. City does not wither and does not suspect; he still goes, reckless, completely in his conviction that he will be proved right in the end.
As the Metropolitano – this sleek, modern stadium built by Simeone’s success – turns into Vicente Calderón, the former derelict, intimidating, nude home of Atlético, its magic is not what carried City through but its grandeur. That’s as much a part of Guardiola’s recipe as anything else.
Nor should it, for that matter, be read as a criticism of Atlético. “What is more important than anything in football is winning,” Simeone said after the game, shortly after the players again faced each other in the tunnel. “It doesn’t matter how you do it.”
Even Guardiola admitted that Atlético had come close to winning, that he could have scored, he might have won, if he had only had a little more luck. “They had the deeds to score,” he said. “We had to live this position. 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.
The fact that the Simeone team was able to run City so close despite the fact that it was about to arrive, was not because of it. As Atlético did what it does, in those final few minutes, as the sense of anger outside the steep concrete shores of the Metropolitano begins to increase, so does the noise inside it. The crowd responded to tease and wrinkle his team, increasing the pressure a bit more, unknowingly shifting things in the host’s favor. Atlético is not the way it is for fun. That’s the way it is because it works.
“They know how to do this better than any other team in the world,” said Guardiola. Nobody, anywhere, plays football better than Atlético Madrid.
Guardiola sounded impressed, in a way. He knows that there are times when it’s what matters, that’s what counts. He knows that at times, his team will need to be a bit like Atlético Madrid if he wants to return here and celebrate again in a few weeks, if he wants to climb the only summit yet to scale, to claim the Champions.