Manchester City’s 100th game in the Champions League brought with it the reward of a third semi-final in seven seasons but, by the end of this punishing, ill-tempered, frantic contest, you had to wonder at what price. It is not often you see City with their backs against the wall and embroiled in an ugly dogfight but it took every ounce of their energy and strength to see off a brutal, uncompromising Atletico Madrid who very much lived up to their reputation as the bad boys of top level European football.
When the dust has settled on this most volatile of games, Pep Guardiola will be left to reflect on the cost of losing Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker to injuries and the cumulative impact of two such intense games in the space of four days. It was a wild finish to a wild game. Felipe was sent off for a second yellow card after cleaning out Phil Foden, whom he had left in a bloodied heap in the first half.
It sparked a huge melee as tempers flared but that was not the half of it as referee Daniel Siebert struggled to keep a lid on things. The yellow cards were handed around like confetti, including to Diego Simeone, and at the final whistle Pep Guardiola was pelted with objects thrown from the Atletico fans.
City may be renowned for their beautiful football but it was sheer guts and the brilliance of John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, their centre-half pairing, that got them over the line here. Stones made a superb block late on and stood defiant in the face of Atletico.
By the end, City were on their feet. They had lost De Bruyne and Walker to injury in the second half and were running on empty, the impact of Sunday’s game against Liverpool most apparent. They face Jurgen Klopp’s side again in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Saturday but you have to wonder how much they will have left in their tanks after this.
This was not a night for the faint of heart. There was a pugnacious mood in the air, with Atletico fans mercilessly booing and whistling the Champions League anthem before kick off over Uefa’s late decision – subsequently overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on security grounds – to impose a partial stadium ban over their “discriminatory behaviour” in the first leg, and that spilled over into the game.
It took City a while to settle, in truth. Perhaps they were a touch leggy after Sunday’s epic showdown with Liverpool or maybe Atletico bolting out of the blocks required some adjustment after the Spanish champions’ ultra defensive approach to the first leg. Diego Simeone’s side were more ambitious in the opening 20 minutes than they had been for the duration of last week’s meeting in Manchester but there was certainly no change to their endless provocation.
Atletico are well practised at pushing things as far as they can take them but they also got very lucky in the first half because another referee might not have taken as lenient a view of Felipe’s terrible challenge on Phil Foden. The Atletico defender’s challenge was so brutal that it ended up drawing blood from the back of Foden’s head.
The City midfielder lay motionless for almost three minutes while he received treatment before eventually rising to his feet to have a huge bandage applied and yet the German official, Daniel Siebert, neglected to brandish even a yellow card. Felipe was in the book soon enough after clattering through the back of Kevin De Bruyne with a similarly agricultural challenge, at which point City would have been within their rights to ask why the bloke was still on the pitch.
Atletico would not relent, though. They had targeted Jack Grealish in Manchester and Foden got some of that same treatment here. Stefan Savic shoved him in one instance after the ball had gone, triggering a round of angry finger pointing between the pair, but it was not simply Atletico’s enforcers who can wage a dirty tricks campaign. Antoine Griezmann caught Joao Cancelo late; Marcos Llorente did the same to Ilkay Gundogan.
Anything to disrupt City’s momentum and, by the half hour mark, they had some, too. The outstanding moment of the half came when Riyad Mahrez brushed an exquisite pass in behind Atletico’s defence for Kyle Walker to square across the six yard box. Phil Foden’s first touch on the far side was uncharacteristically heavy but he managed to poke the ball with his second to Gundogan who, 15 yards out, struck a post with a left foot shot.
Ilkay Gündoğan comes within inches of giving Manchester City the lead in Madrid! 😩
It’s frantic inside the Atlético Madrid penalty area!#UCLpic.twitter.com/fKX01BlXEL— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 13, 2022
De Bruyne was smothered on the rebound. A minute later, another ball across the six yard box – this time from Foden – also went unanswered and it is in those moments especially where you wonder what a recognised centre-forward would bring to this side. Sergio Aguero would probably have had two on the night by that stage.
City could certainly have done with one of those chances yielding a goal. By the time Kyle Walker followed De Bruyne out of the game in the 73rd minute, City were hanging on and living dangerously. It is rare to see them looking so ragged and have such difficulty keeping possession but the impact of Sunday was clearly taking its toll and, the longer the game remained goalless and City were unable to keep the ball, Atletico grew in confidence.
For all Atletico’s physicality and aggression, they do possess two of Europe’s more artful attackers in Joao Felix and Antoine Griezmann and their clever movement, smart running and deft touches presented numerous headaches. The pair teamed up to create Atletico’s best chance to that point with Griezmann firing just wide of a post. City’s midfield was getting bypassed with alarming frequency and the pressure that placed on the defence was huge.
Guardiola threw on Fernandinho for Bernardo to try to shore things up but he, too, soon find himself giving chase as Atletico once again bounded forward and had their opponents frantically back pedalling.