When the draw was made, it was hard to call Atletico Madrid outsiders, but Juventus were slight favourites for the Champions League last 16 tie.
Atletico were by no means having a bad season, but Juve were enjoying, even by their Serie A standards, a spectacular campaign – they still are. A week before this tie, Atleti started to look a bit like second best; having limped out of the Spanish Cup, and lost meekly to city rivals Real in the Madrid derby. They had even suffered a defeat in the manner with which they win, they were Atletico’d at Betis and had dropped from the top two in the league, effectively out of the title race.
Which means their fight just about primarily lies in Europe now. The league is gone once more, the cup is gone yet again, and so their only shot at glory this season is on the continental front, in a competition where they have found heartache in recent past, two final defeats in the past five years, one spurred on by equaliser the most agonising and latest of equalisers and the other via a penalty shoot-out, to the greatest enemy (Real).
And a meeting with Juve in the last 16 meant an early exit wasn’t out of the question, especially with the Italian champions, another side who have thirsted for continental success of late, now with Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who nailed the final blows in those two final losses for Atletico, the man who almost single-handedly sent them out in the semis in 2017, a man who’s scored 10 goals against them in the past five years, in their side. Juve having Ronaldo, the competition’s all-time top scorer, is just about the equivalent of having the biggest weapon in the warfront and putting it in your arsenal.
Juve had seemingly gotten what they need to finally become kings in Europe, hence they could be considered favourites for the Champions League title this season.
Nevertheless, this was Atletico Madrid, who, of late, have never played anecdote in someone else’s fairy-tale, not without a fight at least. Diego Simeone’s side’s recent travails and lack of conviction probably made some make arguably the most ill-advised, fatal and daftest act in current football, rule them out; overlook them. Almost discard them, an act akin to footballing blasphemy.
And on Wednesday night, at the Metropolitano, Los Colcheronos showed why they should never be discounted, why they should never be written. It was a performance akin to rage, a mix of defensive stoutness and full on in-your-face attacking play as well. It was the kind of performance that has been synonymous with Atletico under Simeone, the kind of performance that makes them the most dangerous of opponents, the kind of display that makes the manager thank the players’ mothers, and not just the players themselves. The Deluxe Atletico Package, if you could call it that.
It was a 2-0 win – goals scored by centre-back pairing Jose Maria Gimenez and Diego Godin – but it could have been four, Antoine Griezmann hit a post, while Diego Costa missed when put clean on goal.
From the crowd to the players, to the coaching staff, it was ferocious. Atletico would not be silenced, they would not be denied; their heads would not drop. Not even when VAR revoked what seemed like two golden moments, a penalty reversed to a free-kick (rightly, it should be said), and an Alvaro Morata goal eventually chalked off for a foul. Atleti raged on, despite the machine, with Simeone celebrating his team’s first goal by grabbing his crotch.
Diego Simeone’s Celebration
‘I wanted to say to our fans we have bollocks’, said the Argentine.
Atletico have never lacked bollocks, and they reminded us of that again. When Ronaldo was being booed by the Metropolitano faithful in the first half, he showed his hand to denote five Champions League titles, with the hosts still to win one.
Their home stadium will host this season’s showpiece, and if we needed further indication of how badly they want to be there on June 1, we got it in this game.
There’s still a long way to go, not least in this tie. You wouldn’t put it past Juve to claw back a two-goal deficit, particularly on home soil. But you wouldn’t put it past Atletico protecting their two-goal cushion either, only twice since their return to Europe’s top competition in 2013 have they conceded more than twice in a game – even in a tie – and one of those two games had extra time.
And as of now, Atletico have the advantage, the momentum, and, just as importantly, the fury and bollocks to go past Juventus in Turin, and beyond.