Atlético-Manchester City: The return of the partisan

THE OUTRAGE over Atlético Madrid’s behaviour in the last 10 minutes of their Champions League quarter-final has been amplified across social media. It has been, to a certain degree, a throwback to the days when football in England was highly suspicious of anything “in Europe” and sporting xenophobia ruled the airwaves.

Back in 1971, for example, following a street brawl involving Lazio and Arsenal (players not fans!), there were calls for English clubs to withdraw from European competition as “we don’t need it”. There was plenty of noise this time around the banning of Atlético, a ridiculous, knee-jerk reaction to an unsavoury finale.

There is a growing feeling nobody is allowed to touch or question Manchester City, or rather their coach Pep Guardiola, a footballing apostle with an air of mystique about his extremely successful methods. Yet there was nothing alchemic about City’s approach in the Wanda Metropolitano. Atléti were typically Atléti but City were no angels, indeed Phil Foden was every bit a “shithouse” as Atléti’s stormtroopers, notably when he demonstrated the art of cheese-rolling after being fouled by Felipe. Furthermore, Foden and Jack Grealish also did their best to provoke the Atléti players, the £ 100 million man smirking and calling Savić that most unwelcome of four-letter words and Foden grinning like a Cheshire cat in the face of Simeone as he contorted on the touchline.

Admittedly, this is the sort of behaviour one might expect from Atléti themselves, but let’s be fair, both teams were, at times, deliberately antagonistic. If Guardiola was playing psycho games, he definitely won the day for City got under the skin of Atléti and his comments about their style were very cleverly put, “there is only one Atlético Madrid.” Simeone saw through that quite easily. “We are not stupid”.

But if you heard the pre-match assessment from the BT squad, Atlético were a team of Orcs from Lord of the Rings (thank you, Barry Glendenning for that reference) and Simeone was football’s equivalent of Al Capone. It was as though Estudiantes circa 1968 were about to run-out (the shirts were similar) onto the field. Simeone is Argentinian, that provided a little more fuel to the anti-Atléti narrative, especially for those who were team-mates of David Beckham in 1998.

Interestingly, the foul count didn’t evidence a dirty game, it was 8-7 to Atlético. There was plenty of time-wasting, in fact, Spanish newspaper AS reported that the ball was in play for just 60 minutes across the entire game. Generally, the Spanish media highlighted City’s tendency to delay every throw-in and lengthen every fall to the ground. Rodri, City’s former Atléti player, perhaps a little uncomfortable with the way his current employer was playing against former team-mates, commented: “Everything is legal in football”.

The British press laid into the home side, claiming they were one of the dirtiest teams ever seen. Rio Ferdinand commented: “Disgusting behaviour from Atléti players, they should be ashamed of some of their antics.” Miguel Delaney of the Independent acknowledged Atléti’s tactics were pretty standard and noted that Simeone’s critics call his philosophy “right wing football”. Certainly, Atlético’s stadium is a cauldron of passion and energy and the fans can be very intimidating when they need to be.

The crowd played its part in the melee that took place at the end, it is doubtful such a tableaux would have been witnessed in an empty stadium. And although the headlines screamed this was unacceptable, it is all the media have spoken about since the final whistle. In fact, many journalists have said they were spellbound by what they were watching, that they were amused, excited, disgusted and intoxicated. The scenes everyone actually wants to see because it represents testosterone-fuelled combat. “Football has become sterile, so it was good to see such emotions,” said one reporter.

But we don’t want to see this type of controversy too often and it is a shame Atlético Madrid will find it hard to shift the mud that is now clinging to their red and white shirts. Social media keyboard warriors will call for capital punishment for Simeone and his robust team, but just cast your mind back to the 1970s and 1980s when crowd trouble sparked off – how often could you see the entire stadium looking in the direction of the fracas or how about schooldays, when a fight broke out and dozens of young boys ran in the direction of the action? The game between Atlético and City will soon be forgotten, but the events involving Foden, Savić and Felipe will live on. We’re simple folk, us football people.

Metropolitano man meets the Mancunian candidates

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.

The Simeone era at Atlético Madrid may be coming to a close

ATLÉTICO Madrid and Manchester United meet in the UEFA Champions League last 16 and both clubs are, to a certain degree, in need of fresh direction. United continue to ponder on how their future can look, while Atlético are uncomfortable reigning champions in Spain. In these circumstances, it is difficult to determine who will emerge victorious over the two legs.

The future of both Atléti’s charismatic coach Diego Simeone and United’s stand-in or interim boss (delete as appropriate) Ralf Rangnick is somewhat uncertain and an exit from the Champions League, at a relatively early stage, will hasten any decisions around their immediate security. For Atléti, however, they have reached an “elephant in the room” discussion point with Simeone. What’s next for the club after two La Liga titles in eight seasons, and does their Argentinian manager need a new challenge? Do Atlético Madrid need some changes to their DNA?

Atléti without Simeone is like United without Ferguson, Arsenal without Wenger and Messi without Barcelona. All three situations did take place, but nobody wanted to even consider the end of the journey. Simeone and Atléti is a similar story, but every era comes to an end, even the great ones. To ensure the departure of an institution doesn’t leave a club mortally wounded requires succession planning.

Simeone has been at the club for over a decade and in that time, Atléti have become one of Europe’s elite, albeit sitting on the fringe. They have a great stadium, a squad full of talent, a strong reputation for player trading (just look at how many top players start out with them) and they have succeeded in a league dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona for decades. A league title win in that landscape carries a lot of very significant weight. Simeone’s code hasn’t always been to everyone’s taste, but they are hard to beat and have remained competitive for a decade. Most importantly, they do not fear their cross-town rivals or Barca like they used to.

Since 2011-12, they have finished in the top three nine times and have reached two Champions League finals and won two Europa finals. Simeone has now managed the team for close to 600 games and has a 59% win rate. Such a solid managerial career maintains the impressive record of the combative midfielder who won 106 caps for Argentina and played for Inter, Sevilla, Atléti and Lazio, among others.

The question is, can Simeone keep the Atléti bandwagon rolling on and really put Real Madrid and Barcelona in their place? For much of his time as coach, Simeone’s approach, pragmatic, a shade cautious and bordering on hard, has been a thorn in the side of Spain’s big two. There may be less pressure to win trophies on an annual basis at Atléti, but the modern game demands a club looks forward constantly at the next triumph. If the corporate world’s ethos places pressure on companies to keep increasing profits, football has a similar attitude towards winning silverware. In other words, for Atlético to remain part of the elite, regular trophies are the order of the day.

This season, they have not worn the crown of champions very well. For the first time, Simeone’s method doesn’t seem to be working so well and there have been some rumblings of discontent in the dressing room, notably from young Portuguese striker João Félix, who has spoken out about the team’s malaise, hinting that everyone knows where the problems are. Naturally, such a cryptic comment implies Simeone is the issue, but his outburst may also be a way to get a move from a club that paid € 126 million for his services. Some journalists are speculating Simeone is starting to lose the dressing room, a dangerous rumour as this is usually the first step towards a manager leaving a club.

Simeone is normally an excellent motivator of players and highly animated, so much so that his team-talks often see him overcome with emotion. José Mourinho, no shrinking violet himself, calls him a “competitive animal” and his jack-in-the-box style is undoubtedly intimidating for the opposition. He usually has total belief in his players but after the shock home defeat by bottom-of-the-table Levante, Simeone turned on his squad. While some reports suggest the club is looking now at a short-list of replacements, the message from those close to the club insist the men in the plush seats, Miguel Angel Gil Marin and Andrea Berta, are backing Simeone. Despite this support, Simeone recently said, “Some day I will have to leave, everything starts and ends.” His current contract runs to July 2024.

It is a surprise that Simeone has not been tempted away from Madrid, although his name is always mentioned when a major job becomes vacant. Considering a host of prestigious positions have become available at clubs like Chelsea, Real Madrid (!), Barcelona, Milan, Inter, Bayern, Tottenham and Arsenal, Simeone is either well paid, very happy or comfortable. Or all three.

The situation will not last forever, but given his long spell at Atléti, some might wonder if he has left it too late. He’s 52 this year, so he still has plenty of mileage, but can a coach who has developed his own, somewhat formulaic style, adapt to a new club with a different ethos? Manchester United, for example, a club he has been linked with, are not over enamoured about the tactics and strategy of some coaches in Spain, Italy and Portugal.

Simeone’s side are 15 points behind league leaders Real Madrid, so the title has gone, but they desperately need to stay in the battle for a Champions League place. They’re fifth at the moment, level on points with an in-transition Barcelona, who recently beat them 4-2. The Seville pair, Sevilla and Real Betis, are currently in second and third. If they successfully come through their tie with Manchester United, some of the pressure on Simeone will ease up, but a couple of defeats in La Liga and the Champions League could spell disaster for the man called “Cholo”.