MADRID — Many things happened in the final 10 or 15 or 20 minutes at the Wanda Metropolitano, the ones that seemed to stretch on and on, long past the final whistle, until they almost constituted another self-contained bonus game, a separate third installment of a scheduled two-part drama.
There was some hair-pulling. There was quite a lot of time-wasting. There was a full-scale brawl, dozens and dozens of players and staff members all streaming down to the corner of the field to make their opinions on matters known. There was a flurry of yellow cards, and a bright, angry red. There was Diego Simeone, conducting his orchestra, urging the stadium to bay and to howl and to snarl until the last breath.
What there was not, the only thing missing, was much actual soccer. There were flashes, of course, Atlético Madrid charging forward, desperately hunting the goal that would break Manchester City’s resistance and take the game into extra time, extend their stay in the Champions League for another 30 minutes or, just maybe, another few weeks. For the most part, though, those endless last few minutes were a study in the art of not playing soccer.
That is, of course, very much 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 its teeth.”
Atlético should, by rights, be a heroic underdog among Europe’s elite, a countercultural alternative to the hegemony of pressing and possession. It does not, after all, have the resources of its overweening neighbor, Real Madrid, let alone the state-backed clout of Manchester City or Paris St.-Germain, and yet it refuses to wilt, to succumb to financial inevitability.
It is potent testament to Simeone’s work, then, and to the great effectiveness of his inculcation, that his team can be so easily and so frequently play the role of the Champions League’s obvious villain: a side of cynics and provocateurs and cutthroats, designed and built to draw the beauty and the soul from the game, happy to subvert any norm available in pursuit of victory, in defiance of convention and its opponents and the game’s sense of moral rectitude, too.
And yet, in all the fire and all the fury, it was not only Atlético that realized that a place in the semifinals hung 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 come, over the years, to stand as an embodiment of soccer’s higher values, its ultimate arbiter of taste, its aesthete in chief. Guardiola means sophistication and style, and he has imbued all of that into the team he has built at City.
Those were not the virtues, though, that allowed his team to escape Madrid unscathed, its place in the semifinals of the Champions League — and a meeting with Real Madrid — secured, its chase for a domestic and European treble intact. City did not beat Atlético by overcoming its dark arts. It beat Atlético by borrowing them.
Some of them, at least. Just like its host, Guardiola’s team, for once, did not seem especially interested in playing soccer, either. It played, instead, for time. Every throw-in seemed to take an age, and every free kick and every goal kick, too. No injury was shaken off; even the most minor bump and bruise warranted an extended period of treatment. Balls that had run out of play were knocked just a little further down the line, out of the reach of Atlético’s players. No slight was too minor not to be met with indignation.
That should not be read as a criticism of Manchester City; far from it. Often, it is so easy to be dazzled by the brilliance of Guardiola’s side that its character, its courage, is overlooked. His record in the Premier League, in particular, in recent years has been built as much on defensive parsimony as attacking threat. City does not wilt and it does not doubt; it keeps going, remorselessly, absolute in its conviction that it will be proved right in the end.
As the Metropolitano — this sleek, modern stadium built by the success of Simeone — somehow morphed into the Vicente Calderón, Atlético’s crumbling, intimidating, nakedly hostile former home, what carried City through was not its magic but its mettle. That is as much part of Guardiola’s recipe as anything else.
And nor, for that matter, should it be read as a criticism of Atlético. “What matters more than anything in soccer is winning,” Simeone said after the game, not long after the players had confronted each other in the tunnel once more. “It does not matter how you do it.”
Even Guardiola conceded that Atlético had come close to winning, that it might have scored, might have won, if only it had possessed just a little more luck. “They had the actions to score,” he said. “We had to live 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’s team had been able to run City so close was not despite its brinkmanship, but because of it. As Atlético did what it do, in those final few minutes, as the sense of outrage outside the steep concrete banks of the Metropolitano started to build, so too did the noise inside it. The crowd responded to its team’s snapping and growling, ratcheting up the pressure just a little more, shifting things imperceptibly in the host’s favor. Atlético is not the way it is for fun. It is the way it is because it works.
“They know how to do this better than any other team in the world,” Guardiola said. Nobody, anywhere, does not play soccer better than Atlético Madrid.
Guardiola sounded impressed, in a way. He knows there are times when that is what matters, that is what counts. He knows that his team will, at times, need to be a little like Atlético Madrid if it is to return here and celebrate again in a few weeks’ time, if it is to climb the only peak it is yet to scale, to claim the Champions League.