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Atlético Madrid Maintains Its Method, Madness and Magic After All

Despite three straight losses in group play, Atlético Madrid found a way to reach the Champions League knockout stage—by going back to what it does best.

There is a way in which Atlético Madrid does these things. It is not pretty and it is often not edifying, but it is, over and over again, more effective than it appears it ought to be. Atlético had a poor group stage in this season's Champions League, at one point losing three straight matches. It had a poor first half away to Porto Tuesday in a match it had to win. But then it found a goal from a set play and, having had a man sent off, was able to wrest back the initiative by taking the game into the gutter and provoking a Porto red card. The 3–1 scoreline bore little relation to the game that produced it, and Porto will wonder how on earth it lost, but it’s Atletico who will be in the last 16. It'll join group winner Liverpool, while Porto, in third, drops to the Europa League knockout stage and AC Milan bows out of Europe entirely.

Diego Simeone’s side, it feels, has barely gotten going this season. Perhaps that’s natural having won La Liga last season, which is still a remarkable achievement in a league featuring Real Madrid and Barcelona, even if both have had recent financial issues and malaise. It’s a familiar pattern for teams to suffer a hangover after such an expenditure of emotional energy. As it stands, the club is 10 points off the pace set by Real (though it has a game in hand).

Atléti has been badly hit by injuries as well, particularly defensively, with Stefan Savić and José Giménez both ruled out on Tuesday. The back three that started featured no true center backs. Felipe Monteiro was suspended after his red card vs. Liverpool at Anfield, while Luis Suárez was forced off after 13 minutes with an injury. The frequent absences have made it hard to develop a rhythm, something perhaps complicated by the switch last season to a back three.

Atletico Madrid is onto the Champions League knockout stage

The underlying stats actually aren’t too bad, at least not defensively, but goalkeeper Jan Oblak, such a consistent performer during Atlético’s glory years, has been slightly off color. Atlético is still conceding fewer shots than any other side in La Liga, but it has only the fourth-best defensive record (a stat which itself suggests the relative nature of the problem), with 13 of the 26 shots it has conceded resulting in a goal. Oblak made two excellent saves Tuesday, getting down low to his right after Luis Díaz had turned in the box just after the half-hour mark, and then keeping out Mehdi Taremi’s effort early in the second half with a trailing leg.

In European play, the bigger problem for Atléti has been going forward. Before the game in Porto, it had managed only four goals: two in 13 minutes at the end of the win in Milan and two in 14 minutes in the home defeat to Liverpool. Those brief surges aside, Simeone's side has been very scratchy. It was thoroughly outplayed at Anfield and fortunate to get the win in Milan.

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In Porto, it offered familiar energy and aggression. French referee Clément Turpin was regularly surrounded, and there were dives and wagging fingers from start to finish, but there was very little in the way of quality. There is, perhaps, a sense that referees are becoming increasingly intolerant of the way Atlético behaves. That was evident in Felipe’s red card at Anfield, and it was apparent here as Yannick Carrasco was sent off midway through the second half for cuffing Otávio around the back of the head as he tried to grab the ball from him to take a quick throw-in.

But Atlético is a master of that sort of situation and soon leveled the numbers, with Matheus Cunha, having tried to snatch the ball from Wendell, collapsing as he was shoved away. Carrasco’s red card was harsh, but there was some sense that he had invited his downfall by provoking the incident; Wendell’s was absurd, a victory for gamesmanship and a failure of officiating.

Wendell is sent off for shoving Matheus Cunha

In terms of the football, Atlético for a long time looked limited. Antoine Griezmann, stretching as a cross ricocheted through the box to him, couldn’t quite divert the ball into a gaping net but, that aside, it was Porto who dominated the first half. But 10 minutes into the second half, it was the visitors who took the lead. Porto keeper Diogo Costa was sucked to the near post as a right-wing corner was whipped to the back post, where Griezmann was in a bizarre amount of space to poke the ball over the line. Cunha almost made it two after a startling run, but in the end Ángel Correa did make it 2–0 on the break in the final minute, and Rodrigo de Paul added a third in injury time. A very late Porto penalty was of little consequence.

There will have to be a major improvement if Atlético is to make an impression in the knockout stage, but there is time now to get players back from suspension and injury and to discover some kind of rhythm. And, if nothing else, Simeone can at least be confident that the character of his side remains unchanged.

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