Atleti show 'true grit' in away draw
Diego Simeone's side does not know when they are beaten.
When the chips are down, they bounce back, and that quality showed once again in their 1-1 draw with Real Madrid on Tuesday at the Bernabeu. They might not have the same calibre of individual brilliance as their more illustrious opponents, but any gulf in class is more than made up in heart.
The way the team celebrated in unison after Raul Garcia's close-range effort three minutes from time shows how together this group of players is. It also showed a slight glimmer of glee: This is how it feels when the boot is on the other foot, late equaliser-wise.
It might not have been the kind of revenge fans might have liked after losing to Real in the Champions League final the past year, but realistically it was never really going to be. Nevertheless, Atletico Madrid must now surely be slight favourites heading into Friday's second leg, following their away goal in the final minutes of the tie. First, there is no point in trying to kid anyone. It was not a vintage football match -- far from it. Simeone had hinted as much in the buildup to the game when he commented, tongue in cheek, that there was a "small difference" between the two sides' budgets.
He knew that in order to get a result, Atletico had to stop Real Madrid from playing, and tonight the Argentine coach had his men well-drilled for the task at hand. They could not afford to let the home side build up any sort of rhythm, and tireless efforts from criminally underrated skipper Gabi, backed up by the imperious trio of Mario Suarez, Saul Niguez and Koke in the middle of the park, were vital to the outcome.
With Toni Kroos purring, Luka Modric carrying on his fine form from the past season and the world's two most expensive footballers up top in Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, it is easy to see why the fouls against column was reading like a cricket score in Atleti's favour.
These niggly fouls and the dark art of time-wasting frustrated Madrid. They moaned. That is what they do. Carlo Ancelotti, usually so reserved, was red in the face. Sergio Ramos and Pepe covered vast amounts of grass to point out their grievances to referee, Javier Estrada Fernandez, who had a mixed game.
Both sides will feel aggrieved with some of the decision-making on the night. Colchoneros left-back Guilherme Siqueira, who had a difficult night and was booked early on for a hack on the new-look, long-haired Bale, managed to escape a second caution. Sergio Ramos got away with pushing Mario Mandzukic in the face, and in turn the Croatia striker might have seen red on another day after senselessly handballing, having already been cautioned.
Real Madrid's main gripe will be with the (correct) decision not to award them a handball penalty in added time. Truth be told, the ball was fired at Suarez from such a short distance that he had little time to react.
All in all, the Rojiblancos backline was not overly tested. The home side huffed and puffed especially in the first half, which it could be argued actually belonged to the La Liga champions. Maybe not in terms of possession -- los Blancos dominated the ball -- or quality, but the two clearest chances of the half fell to the visitors.
Mario Mandzukic, who looked a bit rusty despite being a menace, should have made Iker Casillas pay for a weak punch. Impressive youngster Niguez also might have done better from the edge of the box, his weak shot being easily gathered. Neither were guilt edge, but they were better than anything their opponents created in not mustering a single shot on target.
Ancelotti then called for the cavalry in the shape of 75 million euro substitute James Rodriguez. Not a bad luxury to have.
Rodriguez made things happen. He won the free kick that Miguel Angel Moya could only parry straight to Kroos, who somehow contrived to miss when it seemed for all the world that he would score. Indeed, it was the Colombian who thought he had won the match for Real Madrid with 10 minutes to go, as his strike was deflected past Moya into the goal following pinball in the box.
There were wild celebrations in the stands. There it was again. Another late blow struck by Real Madrid against their lowly city rivals. The headlines were written. But this Atleti side, yet again, had not read the script.
A snapshot from Koke led to a flurry of corners, and up popped an unmarked Garcia to stun the crowd into silence. Albeit with less at stake, it feels good to show your fiercest rivals what it is like when things don't go your way very late.
Simeone will take heart from the statistic floating around Twitter that all four sides who have drawn the first leg as the away side in the Spanish Super Cup have gone on to win the title. However, he will be more delighted with the way his side fought back and looked stronger once they conceded. They might have been forgiven for dropping their heads and thinking "not again," but that is not in this side's DNA.
Although the wounds from Lisbon are a long way from fully healing, Atletico know this game is theirs for the taking against their Galactico neighbours. It will be Simeone who sleeps more comfortably this evening, as Friday beckons.
Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.