THE CHAMPIONS League is riveting stuff when it reaches the knockout stage, and while Atlético Madrid versus Manchester United wasn’t a classic encounter, it was a fascinating match.
It helped the atmosphere was intense, loud and intimidating. Atléti fans love their club and engage with the occasion like it is the most important thing on the planet. Sadly, in the dead of night, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became the biggest talking point of the next morning – football was put very much in its place.
Madrid had been humming to the sound of northern England for around 24 hours as the United faithful jetted in from Manchester and Alicante. They were easily noticeable by their lack of trousers, they wandered about the quaint streets and plazas in their best shorts, goose-bumped and shivering as 20 degrees became three or four. But they were in good voice, generally friendly and took little notice of the heavy police presence. The bars in places like Plaza Mayor did very brisk trade on the eve of the match.
Atléti have their problems at the moment, but United’s fans find it hard to live with the ongoing mediocrity they are struggling to shake-off. But their affection for Cristiano Ronaldo was evident as they sung his praises at every opportunity. The Atléti fans despise CR7, though, remembering his days with fierce rivals Real Madrid.
Matchday at the Wanda Metropolitano for a big game throws Madrid into turmoil, the roads out to the stadium were gridlocked and some cabbies were reluctant to lend a hand. Nobody can seriously deny t’s a fabulous stadium, but is served by one Metro station, albeit a big one, and the surrounding area disappears into blackness as night falls. The arena was like a beacon, lit-up, futuristic and totally impressive. Amid the deep blue sky, you could hear the feint sound of Manchester United fans from a distance.
Inside, the roominess of the stadium and the quality of the seating made for a comfortable experience, but the noise was deafening and certainly distracting. The design meant that by looking up, the sky provided a black hole with a view to the stars. If the light pollution hadn’t got in the way, the 63,000 fans would have been treated to a natural planetarium.
Atléti’s fans were up for the game, no question. A giant tifo was unfurled, the loyalists held up red, yellow or white placards to create a visual display of allegiance and the club anthem was sung by all and sundry with no small amount of emotion. When the line-ups were announced, CR7 was jeered wholeheartedly. It was obvious he was going to be treated like a panto villain all evening.
Atléti had a lot of recognisable names missing from their starting line-up: Koke, Yannick Carrasco, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann were either injured, suspended or sitting on the bench. United, who went into the game on the back of a 4-2 win at Leeds United, included yet-to-convince Jadon Sancho and at number seven, there was Ronaldo, finely sculptured, frowning and just dying to silence the home supporters.
For a while, it looked as though United had failed to turned up. It took just seven minutes for Atléti to open the scoring, the impressive Renan Lodi crossing and João Félix dived to send his perfect header in off the post. Brazilian international Lodi gave out-of-position Victor Lindelöf a hard time in the first half, leaving United fans puzzled why Ralf Rangnick chose to omit natural right backs in favour of the Swedish centre half.
It was easy to fear for United in the first half as Atléti struck the woodwork through Sime Vrsaljko. Every time they attacked, a goal looked a possibility. In truth, United were fortunate to go in at half-time just a goal down, Atléti’s pressing and refusal to let United rest on the ball was dominating the occasion. Meanwhile, on the touchline, Diego Simeone was like a human semaphore, leaping around, waving his arms, protesting, pointing and shouting. Conversely, Rangnick looked like an academic pondering his next powerpoint presentation. Will these characters be at their respective clubs in 2022-23?
The game changed in the second half and United discovered they could kick Atléti’s players, after all. Ronaldo was anonymous for most of the game, so much so, he scored zero in Marca’s player-ratings. To be fair, he was fouled at every opportunity and his team-mates didn’t seem to be able to find him very often. Atlético might have sewn the game up with a little more ambition, but they got a shock in the 80th minute when United substitute Anthony Elanga scored with a crisp and confident finish after Bruno Fernandes found him with a perfect subtle pass through the defence.
It was quite hard to believe United were now on the brink of a decent result after being second best in the first 45 minutes. They enjoyed more than 65% of possession, but a lack of pace and conviction was their undoing.
The goal triggered off a wave of chanting from the United fans who were perched high in the stadium with banners emphasising the broad appeal of the club – Stoke, Oswestry, Hull and others. Elanga was the subject of the singing, the young Swede providing a vision of a brighter future with a clearer direction, perhaps.
The game ended all-square, which makes the second leg an intriguing prospect, but with just three shots on target between them in the first game, one might have expected better from two of the world’s elite clubs.
Both teams really need to get through to make their seasons worthwhile, so it will be one to watch but it is hard to imagine United finding it easier at Old Trafford. Atlético have made a career out of being awkward opponents.
United’s fans went back to the plaza bars relatively happy, although the journey to the centre was longer than most might have expected. However, it is hard not to have an enjoyable time in Madrid, one of continental Europe’s go-to cities and a genuine football hub.