MADRID – Many things happened in the last 10, 15 or 20 minutes at Wanda Metropolitano, the ones that seemed to stretch and continue, long after the last whistle, until they almost represented another stand-alone bonus game, a separate third installment planned two-part dramas.
There was hair pulling. There was a lot of wasting time. Was fight to the fullest, dozens and dozens of players and staff members who descend to the corner of the field to express their opinions on things. There was a rush of yellow cards and a bright, angry red. There was Diego Simeone, who conducted his orchestra, forcing the stadium to howl and howl and cut to the last breath.
What was not there, the only thing that was missing was a lot of real football. There were flashes, of course, Atlético Madrid rushed forward, desperately chasing a goal that would break the resistance of Manchester City and take the game into extra time, extend their stay in the Champions League for another 30 minutes or, perhaps, a few more weeks. Basically, those endless last few minutes were a study of the art of not playing football.
It is, of course, largely part of the identity of Atlético Madrid. Simeone spent a decade creating a team based on his character, one that plays, just like him, with a “knife between his teeth”.
Atlético should rightly be a heroic outsider among the European elite, a countercultural alternative to the hegemony of pressure and possession. After all, he does not have the resources of his superior neighbor, Real Madrid, let alone the state power of Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, and yet he refuses to wither, to succumb to financial inevitability.
It is a strong proof of Simeone’s work, and therefore of the great efficiency of his inculcation, that his team can so easily and so often play the role of the obvious villain of the Champions League: the side of cynics, provocateurs and butchers, to undermine every available norm in the pursuit of victory, defying the convention and its opponents, as well as a sense of the moral correctness of the game.
And yet, in all his fire and fury, it wasn’t just Atlético who realized that a place in the semi-finals didn’t depend on talent and technique, but on toughness and gray, on a willingness to do whatever it took.
There is no team more associated with beauty than Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola. Over the years, he has become the embodiment of higher values of football, his ultimate arbiter of taste, his main esthete. Guardiola means sophistication and style, and he brought it all into the team he built in the City.
However, these were not the virtues that enabled his team to escape from Madrid unscathed, its place in the Champions League semi-finals – and the meeting with Real Madrid – secured, its pursuit of domestic and European trio intact. City did not beat Atlético by overcoming his dark skills. He beat Atlético by borrowing them.
At least some of them. Just like his host, Guardiola’s team, at one time, didn’t seem particularly interested in playing football. Instead, it played for time. It seemed that every throw-in took a year, as well as every free kick and every goal. No injuries were repaired; even the smallest bump and bruise guaranteed an extended period of treatment. The balls that came out of the game were knocked down a little further down the line, out of the reach of Atlétic’s players. No belittling was too small not to be greeted with indignation.
This should not be read as a critique of Manchester City; far from it. It is often so easy to be blinded by the brilliance of Guardiola’s side that her character, his courage, is neglected. His record in the Premier League, in particular, in recent years has been built both on defensive thrift and on the threat of attack. The city does not wither and does not doubt; he continues, relentlessly, absolutely in his belief that he will eventually prove himself right.
As the Metropolitano – this elegant, modern stadium built with Simeone’s success – somehow transformed into Vicente Calderón, Atlétic’s dilapidated, terrifying, nakedly hostile former home, what carried the City was not its magic, but its spirit. It’s part of Guardiola’s recipe like anything else.
And, for that matter, it should not be read as a critique of Atletico. “The most important thing in football is victory,” Simeone said after the game, shortly after the players clashed once again in the tunnel. “It doesn’t matter how you do it.”
Even Guardiola admitted that Atlético was close to winning, that he might have scored a goal, maybe won, only that he was just a little more lucky. “They had actions to score,” he said. “We had to live this situation. We had to suffer. We were in big, big trouble. ” The other night, in another world, as if to say, everything could have been completely different.
The fact that Simeone’s team was able to lead City so close was not in spite of his edge, but because of that. As Atlético did what it did, in those last few minutes, as the feeling of anger outside the steep concrete shores of the Metropolitan began to intensify, so did the noise inside it. The audience responded to the crackling and growling of their team, increasing the pressure a little more, imperceptibly changing things in favor of the hosts. Atlético is not what he is for fun. That’s because it works.
“They know that better than any other team in the world,” Guardiola said. No one, anywhere, plays football better than Atletico Madrid.
Guardiola sounded impressed in a way. He knows there are times when that’s what matters, that’s what counts. He knows that his team will, from time to time, have to be a bit like Atletico Madrid if he wants to come back here and celebrate again in a few weeks, if he wants to climb to the only peak he has yet to climb, to claim Champions League.