This was not a classic Manchester City victory. Technically, Wednesday on its own wasn’t a victory at all. But it was nonetheless all the more valuable for that. There will be talk of a mature European performance, and perhaps it was. But more than that, it was simply a properly resolute defensive display. For periods in the cauldron of Atlético Madrid’s Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, especially in the second half, City was unable to get its passing game going, but even without center back leader Rúben Dias, it had the wherewithal to hold out for a 0–0 draw that took it through (1–0 aggregate) to the Champions League semifinals, where it will face another Spanish capital power, Real Madrid.
For City, leading 1–0 from the first leg, it was a case of weathering the storm that came, predictably enough, at the beginning of each half and then in the final 20 minutes (plus the additional 12 of stoppage time). There was an element of fortune perhaps, John Stones making one extraordinary block from Matheus Cunha, Ángel Correa drilling a late opportunity into Ederson’s body and a couple of other chances drifting just wide. But if Pep Guardiola was owed some fortune against anybody it is Diego Simeone, given the way his Bayern Munich side lost on away goals to Atlético in the 2016 semifinals despite having dominated both legs.
Just as everything threatened to degenerate, the arrival of Fernandinho from the bench gave City back a measure of control, less for his passing and positional intelligence than for his cleverness in drawing fouls and giving City a steel and a cunning to match Atlético’s. In the end, the dozen of additional minutes were played on a knife’s edge, but City still held out, for which Guardiola’s reward is yet another meeting with a club he knows all too well.
His City faced Real Madrid in the last 16 in 2020 and won comfortably enough (4–2 on aggregate), pressing Zinedine Zidane’s side into errors. Chelsea showed on Tuesday that this Madrid may still be susceptible to something similar, but so far this season, the inspiration of Luka Modrić and Karim Benzema has been enough to drag Madrid through, even when it has been second best for long spells.
Meanwhile, his neighbor, Atléico rolled out the royal cholismo treatment throughout the match, channeling his inner Simeone and playing true to his identity. There seemed to be a deliberate attempt to rough up Phil Foden, whose intervention from the bench and assist Kevin De Bruyne had decided the first leg. Only 13 minutes had gone when Felipe Luís clattered through the back of him in challenging late for a high ball, causing a cut to the back of his head that required bandaging. Bafflingly, Felipe wasn’t booked for that, and he took advantage of the reprieve to clip De Bruyne’s heel, which did belatedly get him a yellow card. Foden, though, seemed flustered, his touch for a time deserting him.
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Felipe was eventually sent off in injury time after a follow-through on Foden. Stefan Savić, mystifyingly, didn’t join him, despite manhandling Foden and pulling Jack Grealish’s hair in the melee. Grealish and Savić later clashed in the tunnel. German referee Daniel Siebert had been curiously lax throughout, allowing Atlético’s gamesmanship and intimidation, but as City largely maintained its discipline, Atlético’s antics eventually backfired. Felipe spent three minutes refusing to leave the field, time Atlético could have used to try to find an equalizer when the feeling was that it may have indeed been coming. Instead, six yellow cards—including the one that gave Felipe his marching orders—were doled out between the first and seventh minutes of stoppage time.
City had roughly two-thirds of the ball and, without overcommitting, did pose a consistent threat in the first half. One delicious ball with the outside of his boot from Riyad Mahrez cut Atlético open and led to İlkay Gündoğan rolling a shot against the post. Atlético hadn’t managed a shot in the first leg, and it had only one before halftime Wednesday.
But it was a different story after halftime. Atlético went direct and pressed hard and for a time, as the atmosphere swelled, City looked rattled. But while it squandered possession unusually often, it remained defensively resolute. City is a side whose finesse has never been doubted, but here it showed it had the heart for a fight and the ability to suffer for its success as well.
In the night’s other game, Liverpool, already 3-1 up from the first leg away to Benfica, was able to rest players. It drew 3–3 on the day for a 6–4 aggregate win to set up a semifinal against Villarreal, another England-Spain showdown. That leaves the possibility of a third all-English final in four years, this one between City and Liverpool who have already produced two thrilling 2–2 draws in the league this season, and meet again in the FA Cup semi-finals on Saturday.
The feeling after those games, operatic clashes of the schools of Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, was that they were the best two sides in Europe; a potential fourth meeting of the season, another iteration of a largely friendly rivalry, would seem like a fitting finale.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism