Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Champions League: Manchester City keep their cool amid Atletico Madrid’s fire and fury to reach semifinals

Amid the fire and fury of the Wanda Metropolitano, Manchester City kept their cool. Their progress to the Champions League semifinals was not pretty and yet that is not something that Pep Guardiola ought to mind at all.

After all, Atletico Madrid had set out to ruffle feathers. In the end, all they did was work themselves into a rage that saw Felipe red carded, Stefan Savic lucky to receive just a booking for a headbutt and Diego Simeone only able to sarcastically applaud. Ultimately, they had found the English champions to be too tough a nut to crack.

Simeone had vowed not to change his approach from the first leg. You could not accuse him of failing to deliver on that promise. Atletico Madrid showed precious little inclination of allowing this contest to open up, Thomas Lemar might have been a more progressive presence in midfield and there might have been the same flashed crosses to no one and half counters, but there were not any real moments to test Ederson in the City goal.

Once more, Atletico reached halftime with more fouls to their name than hundredths of an expected goal.

Meanwhile, they seemed determined to leave a lasting mark on their opponents. Felipe’s brazen lunge through Phil Foden should have resulted in a yellow card. In not sanctioning him, referee Daniel Siebert rather declared open season. Their operating assumption seemed to be that if they hit City hard enough, it would jolt them out of the game. It worked into the second half, but by then Pep Guardiola’s side might have been clear, a move that started with Riyad Mahrez’s precise pass in behind ending with Ilkay Gundogan’s shot rolling serenely toward the post.

Atletico don’t have a monopoly on cynicism, of course. City are masters of the tactical foul and they deployed it shrewdly with Rodri more than willing to put himself in the way of any burgeoning counter attack. The sincere fury that it brought from their hosts seemed predicated on the fact that Simeone’s side felt like their bit was being stolen.

Then came a second half in which Atleti showed they could actually give City something to think about. Joao Felix kept peeling into the right spots in the box to test John Stones and Kyle Walker. An Antoine Griezmann volley curled just wide of goal.

The hosts snarled and snapped but were clearly in control in a way they hadn’t been for 135 minutes beforehand. City could not build their passing moves or beat their man, Ederson was forced to thump the ball long and he was determined to take his time over it just so he could quell Atletico’s momentum. Simeone must surely have admired him for it.

Suddenly, it was City filling their own box as their opponents had in the first leg. Phil Foden had gone from left winger to holding midfielder, battling to slow Angel Correa’s progress into the penalty area. Soon after, Fernandinho was thrust into that role alongside Rodri to tighten those defensive lines.

It felt intense and nervous, yet equally, City might feel that they rode out the storm, particularly early in the first half, with relative composure. They bent but refused to buckle, keeping them without a shot on target between an unlikely heave from range by Geoffrey Kondogbia before the break and Angel Correa’s dangerous late effort in the 102nd minute of this balmy game. Effectively, Atletico graduated from no shots to not-so-great shots.

That was as much a reflection of their opponents ability to plug gaps, get out quickly to their man and avoid basic errors without the ball. When the slips did come, John Stones and substitute Nathan Ake were on hand to plug the gaps, brilliant blocks denying Matheus Cunha and Luis Suarez as time ran out.

Certainly, this was nothing like City at their best. To hold out the pressure that came in the second half, they had to abandon any pretense of being an attacking force aside from the odd rally from Riyad Mahrez or Raheem Sterling. It may not be a game that facilitates them reaching their full potential in the coming weeks either.

Kevin De Bruyne was applying ice to his ankle after being withdrawn in the second half. Moments later, Walker, outstanding in his covering defense, was in need of medical treatment before being substituted. Both will be great losses for Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal against Liverpool.

But at some stage in their pursuit of the treble, they may yet need the composure and defense first mindset that they displayed tonight. It was an impressive new side to Guardiola’s side.

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