In the first-leg, semi-final UEFA Champions League battle between Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich, both teams clashed to gain an upper hand in their quest to reach the holy grail of European club football.
As it turned out, Atletico won out by a slender margin of just one goal, scored by Saul Niguez. In truth, it was a smashing solo strike from the 21-year-old Spaniard worthy of winning any match, and it’s possible it might just be enough to get them to the final in Milan on 28 May.
Bayern wilted on the big occasion and Pep Guardiola has now seen his dreams of lifting “Ol’ Big Ears” with the Bundesliga club dealt a major blow. Not since Jupp Heynckes’ reign have Die Roten emerged triumphant in the UCL final and it’s going to take a big effort in the return leg for them to do it.
So, how did Atleti earn their win? Let’s dissect the midweek match and cast a tactical eye over it all.
Munich starved of ball in danger areas by solid Atleti defence
Long before the referee Mark Clattenburg had even blown his whistle to get the match going, there were countless voice across social media who felt that the German champions would have too much firepower for the home side.
Having netted 28 times in this season’s competition, they were expected to pack a powerful punch in the final third. Boasting the likes of Robert Lewandowski, David Alaba and Douglas Costa, they possess one of the most star-studded attacks on the continent.
A brief reflection on their comeback against Juventus in the last 16, it was blatantly obvious that their attacking flair manifested itself most dangerously out wide. By dragging the play into the flanks in order to fashion opportunities through crosses and arrowed balls, they hooked themselves back into contention before ultimately winning out.
However, they were denied the opportunities to use that same tactic again by yet another workmanlike defensive display. Biting into challenges time and again, Los Colchoneros were first to the loose balls on so many occasions, blockaded Bayern’s pathways with cleverly-timed interceptions and refused to give up on any apparent lost causes. Even when Guardiola’s troops attempted to burrow down the flanks, they were afforded little space to turn either inside or out.
Indeed, the always insightful Squawka summarised one of the key story-lines of the tie with this mid-match tweet:
The whole back-line sang a harmonious tune from the same hymn sheet all night long so that the Polish international and his team-mates failed to get on top, but it was arguably Filipe Luis who was their stand-out defender. A genuine rock at left back the ex-Chelsea man was really influential in minimising the effect of Costa, and Arturo Vidal.
A great example of both Bayern’s poor decision-making and Atleti’s stubborn, intelligent defending came in the 34th minute when Bayern’s no.27 tore down the right channel in possession of the ball with purpose, but instead of lifting his head to spot an open Lewandowski at the deep end, he found himself forced to the by-line by Luis where he could only deliver a tame, low-driven cross which Jan Oblak gathered without trouble. It was a snapshot that flashed up regularly throughout.
Simeone’s men hunted in potent packs
It wasn’t simply at the back that the hosts channeled their inner austerity, though, because they were alive to danger right across the park. It was almost frightening to see, not only just how effectively they preempted hazards, but how perpetual their industry was. Sure, they have been doing it against the big guns for a long time now, but they were all over the place once more – in a good way.
Prowling like hungry wolves, they roamed the Calderon as if their lives depended on it.
One of the most obvious aspects of football is that it’s a team game by nature, but La Liga’s most celebrated underdogs really give that law new meaning with the way they all work for each other. Anyone continuing to consider them a cynical team clearly doesn’t understand the meaning of the word because this is a group of players who have truly bought into the belief that their philosophy is a positive, enchanting one – and it showed in this semi-final.
Their unending desire to repossess control of the match not only served to give them more time on the ball to carve open opportunities for Antoine Griezmann, Fernando Torres and company but it also broke up Bayern’s intention of monopolising possession in order to tire out their opponents and, ultimately score.
Pretty much any time the 2013/14 UCL runners-up saw an attack break down, they were immediately back into position to defend. As if by hitting a reset button, the Spanish side were able to reconstruct their two banks of four in a continuous act of defiance.
Alaba’s 54th minute, long-range crack that smacked off the crossbar was really only a result of Bayern’s lack of other options. Yes, it was a wonderful hit, but he only tried it because there was nothing else on, and that was down to the impassable red and white wall that obstructed them.
The more the match wore on, it became clear that it was the home outfit’s intention to sit in and hit on the break (much like they did against Barcelona), but they never got that second goal and although they became more susceptible to conceding, they stood tall for the remainder.
Individual magic offered platform for game-plan
Sweeping the ball past the outstretched Manuel Neuer in the opposition goal, Saul once more answered the call of his team with a wondrous piece of individual skill that would have seemed right at home coming from the feet of Lionel Messi or Diego Maradona.
It really was a phenomenal moment of excellence from the youngster and it caused a spike in the decibel levels around the Spanish capital as the home fans erupted in celebration.
Darting through a handful of defenders with the precision and rapidity of an industrial sewing machine, he had the opposition rearguard in stitches with his fluid movements before producing an accurate finish that nestled comfortably just inside the far post. If Los Rojiblancos were full of confidence, Saul was causing an overflow with his play and that goal really had everyone gushing.
Capitalising on his comfort in front of the home faithful, he was full of confidence, and there was little wonder why, as highlighted by WhoScored:
Having kept seven clean sheets and scored just 14 goals prior to this encounter, their game-plan was always going to remain the same; nab a goal or two from the chances eked out and then soak up the pressure. Saul’s strike was materialized from absolutely nothing, but it allowed his team the podium to go on and narrate their own destiny.
Dissenting hecklers might say that this was yet another negative performance churned out by Simeone’s players but the truth is a lot more revealing than that. Frankly, this was a gritty, masterminded win from the brains of Cholo and if not for Torres hitting the post in the second half after a swashbuckling, clever counter attack it could have been flawless.Published 28 Apr 2016, 09:40 IST