The Calderon's irrepressible European farewell marks end of an Atletico era
MADRID -- Diego Simeone was soaked through, but just as immersed in the moment as ever. As the rain hammered down upon Estadio Vicente Calderon, and as supporters reluctantly began to run for shelter, some cowering toward the back of the stands, the Atletico Madrid manager decided to galvanise his public one more time. A matter of minutes remained; Atletico were about to lose a Champions League semifinal to their most bitter rivals, he knew that, but Simeone turned to the masses behind his technical area, clapped his hands high, and the volume reached a crescendo again.
Atletico defeated Real Madrid 2-1 in their second leg Wednesday, but Real won the UCL semifinal 4-2 on aggregate. Fifteen minutes after the final whistle, when Atletico's players came back out, thousands remained in the stadium to show one last gesture of appreciation. Even more would have stayed in their seats if the heavens hadn't opened, but this was not quite a night for storybook finishes.
For the half-hour between the headed opening goal by Atletico's Saul Niguez and the close-range stab by Real's Isco that rendered the second half virtually unnecessary, Atletico had fed upon the awesome din inside their home and threatened a night to top any in its 51-year history. Eventually, they were well-beaten. But they still ensured that these walls, reverberating to the tension of one last derby match, will have one last tale to tell before they are rendered into rubble -- Vicente Calderon will give way to Atletico's new home next season -- and the next phase of Atletico's history begins.
They had seen defiance -- embodied by the prematch tifo that read, "We're proud not to be like you" -- turn into hope and then, when Atletico's Antoine Griezmann beat keeper Keylor Navas with an element of fortune from the spot, transform into genuine belief. Atletico had begun thrillingly, ripping into Real Madrid and appearing, for a brief time, to have their opponents by the throat. The Calderon was throbbing; the noise was enough to make the most seasoned observers glance at one another with a puff of the cheeks.
It was not to last. Instead, this second leg became the kind of rough-edged occasion that perhaps befits the image of this old stadium and its inhabitants; one that brought bundles of pride, but in the end saw Atletico outstripped by their neighbours.
Simeone was smiling as he walked into his postmatch news conference. He had dried off and taken a few breaths to recover from 90 minutes of perpetual motion. He had been beaten, but he knew what he had seen: a team that, after being so puzzlingly flat in the first leg, had risen to the occasion this time and shown the best of itself.
"I am happy, proud; we competed as we have shown over these five-and-a-half years, battling in the best places," he said. "We believed we could do it, and people thought it was mind games, but games can be marvellous. The first 20 or 30 minutes will stay in the minds of everyone. There was disorder in our defence and they scored their goal, but the moments in this magic night at the Calderon will be remembered forever."
He was not wrong. It was some European sign-off, and that is why most of those present were keen to drink it in that little bit longer and rise above what might, in other circumstances, have been the kind of outcome from which you slink off home. And perhaps it might have meant something more. The Calderon will host no more games at this level, but it does not take a huge leap of the imagination to see Griezmann playing his next Champions League football in another team's colours, and the future of Simeone, too, seems far from cut-and-dried. This could have been the end of an era in more ways than one.
"I am not thinking about that at this moment, I try and be spontaneous," Simeone said when asked about his future plans. "We still need to keep improving. The next step is not small, it is very big, but if we can improve then there is a future."
Reading between the lines, the suggestion is that Atletico's move to the new Wanda Metropolitano stadium needs to bring about a shift in the club's image. Atletico are a marvellous side but have given the impression of having to strain every sinew to reach their current level. They have battled tremendously, but when faced with Real in four separate Champions League ties across as many seasons, Atletico have fallen just short on each occasion.
Real were deserving winners of the semifinal, eventually managing a situation that had threatened to overwhelm them. After getting sucked into Atletico's early pace, Real eventually came to play around it, drawing niggly fouls and dictating the tempo.
Real 's Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were near impeccable on the ball; Isco's dribbling helped displace Atletico's central midfielders; and then there was the performance of Karim Benzema, who had already threatened a couple of times before the display of power, balance and close control that led to Isco's goal. Atletico's centre-backs will not look forward to a second viewing, but it was just reward for the way Real played.
"I did not think he [Benzema] could do that," Zinedine Zidane smiled afterward. "We were talking after the game and I asked how he got out of [the tight space]." Zidane said he knew his team would have to "suffer," but was correct to say the game "changed completely" after the 25-minute mark.
It means he is a game away from winning successive Champions League titles in his first season and a half as a manager; that would be a remarkable feat, particularly noteworthy given that Real's opponents in the final will be his former club Juventus, and over these two legs he has seen plenty to encourage him. If Real had some luck in the quarterfinal against Bayern Munich, they did not need any here; they look like a juggernaut, and next month's showdown in Cardiff could not appear more evenly poised.
Atletico will watch and wonder whether their time will come again. For the Calderon it will certainly not, and perhaps a Rojiblancos team with a completely different image will next make inroads in Europe. As their stadium is stripped down, they will rebuild; in the meantime, they did their utmost here to put on one final night of sheer theatre. The result was an event that, whichever side you take, was worthy of those sodden celebrations.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.