Atletico Madrid's characteristic toughness and organization, plus some individual brilliance, put the Spanish side on the cusp of a return to the Champions League final, writes Jonathan Wilson.
It was only 1-0, but what a one, and what a nil.
Atletico Madrid goes to Bayern Munich for the second leg of their Champions League semifinal not only with a one-goal lead but, vitally, having prevented Bayern from scoring an away goal. The winner, scored by Saul Niguez after 11 minutes, was magnificent, but probably more worrying for Bayern was what followed–long periods of Bayern possession and very little in terms of clear chances as Atletico defended with characteristic excellence.
Although it hardly matters to Bayern now, with Pep Guardiola leaving for Manchester City in the summer, there is a concern here that stretches beyond the specifics of this game. Guardiola’s record in away knockout ties with Barcelona was indifferent, and he has not won any of his last eight with Bayern, a run stretching back to the victory over Arsenal in February 2014.
That leaves Bayern facing a third straight Champions League semifinal exit. It’s hard on Guardiola, who has taken this Bayern side to some extraordinary peaks, but there’s a serious danger he will leave Munich with a reputation of having faltered every time he came up against a genuinely difficult opponent. That’s the problem when your budget is so much greater than your nearest domestic rival: league titles come to seem almost like formalities.
And the fact is that two years ago, Carlo Ancelotti got his tactics exactly right with Real Madrid and counterattacked Bayern to a 5-0 aggregate victory, while last year Guardiola’s Bayern simply looked second-best to a Barcelona built on the relics of the side he left at the Camp Nou. Here, the story was familiar in all respects: Atletico out-thinking and out-fighting a Bayern side that, for all Guardola’s imagination, ended up looking flat.
Atletico is renowned for its toughness and organization, but the goal with which it took the lead was born of stunning individual skill. Saul picked up the ball 40 yards from goal, got away from Thiago Alcantara, jinked between Juan Bernat and Xabo Alonso, and then, as David Alaba held him up just inside the box, he used the defender as a shield and curled the ball into the bottom corner past a partially unsighted Manuel Neuer. The defending was poor–Thiago was diffident, Alonso and Bernat both dived in and Alaba was seemingly mesmerized by Saul’s stepovers.
The goal came after 10 minutes of ferocious pressing from Atletico, an increasing feature of its play this season, and if it was designed to knock Bayern off its stride in the opening stages, it worked. Once the goal had gone in, Atletico settled back–although the line was higher than it had been against Barcelona–and the match took on the pattern that had been widely anticipated, with Bayern having plenty of the ball and Atletico resisting.
This was the expected battle, between Guardiola the master craftsman and Diego Simeone the great destroyer; the man who revolutionized attacking play against the man who revolutionized defensive play.
For all the ball that Bayern had, Antoine Greizmann could have doubled the lead in the first half, running onto a Saul flick in behind Alaba but rather scuffing his shot so Neuer could kick clear.
There were chances for Bayern, but before halftime they were only half-chances. Jose Gimenez made a fine clearing header off the line to keep out an Arturo Vidal effort, and a crafty free kick from Douglas Costa aimed at the near post from wide on the right went only just wide with Jan Oblak scrambling, but given the possession Bayern had, that was a poor return.
When Bayern did at last come close, 10 minutes onto the second half, it was from a 35-yard drive from Alaba, a speculative effort that was almost forced on him by the lack of other options. His shot swerved and dipped viciously, but, with Oblak beaten, the ball bounced down off the bar. One chance rapidly became two as Martinez got above Jimenez to meet a left-wing corner, only for his header to be smothered by Oblak.
But that was a momentary interruption. The pattern continued with a quiet Robert Lewandowski becoming increasingly frustrated. Bayern, as it had been against Juventus, ended up slinging cross after cross into the box, but this time there was no breakthrough. Lewandowski did draw a fine low save from Oblak from a narrow angle and a long-range Vidal effort drew a tumbling block, but the Slovenian took his tally of clean sheets to 23; the previous record for Atletico had been 20, held by Thibaut Courtois.
In the end, Atletico could have increased its advantage, with Fernando Torres running on to a Griezmann pass as Atletico broke, drifting by Alaba and then curving a shot past Neuer that came back off the post. A 2-0 scoreline would have all but sealed it, but even at 1-0 it feels like a distinct advantage to Atletico.