Atletico move on to UCL quarterfinals as Oblak triple save denies Leverkusen
MADRID -- Three thoughts from Atletico Madrid 0-0 Bayer Leverkusen at the Vicente Calderon, as Diego Simeone's side advance to the Champions League quarterfinals 4-2 on aggregate.
1. Oblak outstanding as Atletico secure last-eight spot
Atletico Madrid confirmed their passage through to the Champions League quarterfinals with a straightforward goalless draw against Bayer Leverkusen at the Estadio Vicente Calderon on Wednesday evening.
Last month's first leg in Germany was a helter-skelter affair won 4-2 by Atleti, but there was much less drama on a chilly night by the river Manzanares, as Diego Simeone's side did what they had to and ensured a fourth consecutive last-eight place in the competition.
Atletico had previously won all 20 UEFA competition ties in which they had come out victorious in the first leg away. Leverkusen, for their part, had lost all 10 UEFA ties in which they suffered a home first-leg defeat. So there was little hope of a dramatic turnaround, even with the example of Barcelona's historic comeback at the Camp Nou last week.
The visitors started with some vigour and Kevin Volland came close with a neat turn and shot after four minutes. Bit by bit Atletico closed the game down, and with both teams perhaps remembering the harum-scarum nature of the first leg last month, the two defences were on top.
As the first half dragged on it would have been understandable had fans inside the Calderon been checking their phones to see the score in the night's other tie between Monaco and Manchester City. Excitement did break out near half-time when the home team put together a couple of excellent passing moves and visiting goalkeeper Bernd Leno saved very well, first from Angel Correa and then Koke.
The game opened up a bit in the second period. Antoine Griezmann sent a sweet chip just over Leno's crossbar and Jan Oblak made a special triple save from Julian Brandt and Volland (twice) after a mistake from Atletico centre-back Jose Maria Gimenez. The goalkeeper also had to look sharp on a couple more occasions in the closing stages, but there was a feeling that both teams were quite happy with the 0-0 and that is the way it ended up.
2. All eyes on Champions League glory for Atleti
With progress to the quarterfinals more or less assured after the first leg last month, thoughts at Atletico had already turned to the next round of the competition, Club captain Gabi and left-back Filipe Luis both picked up late yellow cards in Germany, which meant that they sat out Wednesday's game and will be clear for the last eight.
Defender Diego Godin felt the need to point out on Tuesday that nobody should forget just how historic it is for Atletico to make four straight Champions League quarterfinals, considering the club's scarce history in the competition.
The focus now will really be on winning this trophy for the first time. Real Madrid and Barcelona are out of sight in La Liga and the latter eliminated Atletico from the Copa del Rey in January. In truth this has not been a good season domestically, with issues ranging from injuries to key players to new signings failing to settle and court cases involving first-team players regularly disrupting their running.
But Simeone's side have progressed smoothly in Europe, where they seem to lift their game when required, such as at home to Bayern Munich in the group stages and at Leverkusen in the first leg. The Champions League means more to them, which is understandable. There was never any danger of a PSG style blow-up from Atletico here, with the concentration from Godin & Co. remaining tight and attacking stars like Griezmann working hard as always. The loudest cheer of the night came after the amazing treble save from Oblak, who just refused to be beaten even when it seemed Leverkusen had to score.
Atletico have won every other competition they have entered during Simeone's five seasons in charge, but success has evaded them in heartbreaking fashion in the Champions League each year against crosstown rivals Madrid. Zinedine Zidane's team are one of the potential opponents in Friday's draw, although whoever Atletico get you just know they will go into the tie with steely determination and cannot be discounted whatever the circumstances.
3. Good news for Thomas, but no Torres yet
With many regulars missing on Wednesday for various reasons, the most interesting entrant in Simeone's mix-and-match XI was youngster Thomas, who got a first Champions League start in midfield, with €25 million summer signing Nicolas Gaitan again on the bench.
Ghana international Thomas showed his energy and physicality with regular surges through the centre, bringing warm applause from the home fans, with one burst forward leading to a chance spurned by Correa. Intelligent positioning in his deep central-midfield position also stopped Bayer from getting any foothold in that area in a generally impressive all-round performance -- although no doubt Gabi will be back in the XI for the next round.
Thirteen days after being knocked out cold in an aerial challenge with Deportivo La Coruna's Alex Bergantinos, Fernando Torres was back on the Atletico bench here, having been given the all-clear to return by the club's medical staff on Tuesday.
There were loud cheers from the home crowds when "El Nino," now 32, went out to warmup early in the second half. With two substitutes already made, the ground then sang "Send him on," with everybody knowing who they meant. But Simeone is far from sentimental and the manager decided to hold Torres back for now.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan