Real Madrid beat Atletico Madrid in game of guts
When Atletico Madrid's bus left the Santiago Bernabeu late Wednesday night, pulling out onto Calle Rafael Salgado, Diego Simeone was not on board. He departed without the players whom he had said he was proud of. For the first time since he became their manager in 2011, they will finish the season empty-handed. Knocked out of the trophy they wanted most, denied to them in the very last minute of the very last game last season, and the one that represented their only chance of success this season.
"We're very sad because of the way it happened, with just two minutes to go again," said Joao Miranda.
Simeone, though, said he was happy. "When I was a boy," he explained, "I was taught that you have to compete. When you give everything and lose, you go home happy. We competed, despite the difficulties we faced. When a team works the way that we worked today, you can't have any negative feelings afterwards. Many coaches would envy having players like these who run for 90 minutes."
Simeone once congratulated his players' mothers for giving birth to men with "enormous balls." He was right, and their achievements have been barely believable, while the difficulties they have overcome have been huge. Managers would indeed be proud to have players who work like his do, and proud of having instilled that culture into them. But as Pep Guardiola noted in the buildup to Bayern Munich's second leg with Porto this week, "you do not win football matches with your noble parts alone."
Simeone knows that; he always did. Listening to him this season, his discourse has evolved. Sacrifice, work and commitment remain central, non-negotiable, but his responses have become far more analytical, more tactical. It was probably not that he had started thinking in those terms, but he has certainly begun expressing himself that way. Atletico's approach has evolved, too, when confronted with different types of opponents and problems to solve.
Here, though, Atletico regressed. Simeone described Arda Turan's red card as "decisive." Perhaps. But discipline has been debilitating for Atletico this season, the side who have collected more yellow cards than any other. And few could claim that Real's passage to the semifinal was not deserved. Over the two legs, they took 39 shots. Last night, Atletico had two on target, the same number they had in the first leg. If they looked reasonably comfortable containing Real, they did little to create. Koke's header apart, it is hard to recall a chance at the Bernabeu.
"Real played like what they are: the best team in the world," Simeone said of the first leg. In the second, Atletico did not really play as they are. Yes, they are a side that stands out for their defensive solidity anyway, but not quite like this. Over the last four Champions League games, Atletico have scored just once: in the second leg against Bayer Leverkusen. Yet this time, they were further from scoring than ever before. "What was lacking?" the coach was asked. "Much more connection in attack," he said.
Real had planned for that; Sergio Ramos' right-sided position in midfield, with Pepe and Raphael Varane behind, was planned to stop Atletico, and that, in itself, is a compliment. It is also true that you do not always play how you want to play but how your opponent allows you to, a fundamental fact so often overlooked. But the lack of creation, the apparent lack of any real desire to create, was still striking, particularly after seven derbies without a defeat, particularly with Real lacking four key players. With time, Atletico may look back on this as an opportunity lost. Perhaps this time they actually lacked guts.
It is not as if Atletico do not have creative players. Up front were Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann, strikers who cost a combined 50 million euros in the summer, but Atletico were unable to activate them. Turan rarely influenced. Guilherme Siqueira was left out for Jesus Gamez, a right-footer on the left: more solidity, but less width to attack and less will to attack, too. Juanfran was unable to push Fabio Coentrao back -- a man who had not played in five weeks.
The midfield had a technical look to it with Saul Niguez, Arda, Koke and Tiago. But it was Real who took control in the opening 15 minutes and when they did, Atletico filled the middle, pulling Griezmann back into a left-sided position. That change was reinforced at half-time with the introduction of Gabi. There was more control now, but still little creativity. Less, in fact, and one less substitution to call upon. If they had expected Real to get desperate and make mistakes, it never happened: Carlo Ancelotti preached patience.
Had Atletico won (and they did claim more territory, forcing the occasional corner), the analysis would be different, of course. But the doubt remains: were Atletico too focused on not losing? Did their conservative approach catch up with them? The away goal would have been so valuable but they appeared to hope it might find them rather than going and finding it themselves. So penalties often looked like their only option, and a distant one.
One substitution down, the next two debilitated their attacking intent further. Griezmann departed for Raul Garcia, and in the 85th minute -- Turan by now having been sent off, the team exhausted -- Tiago could not continue. Mandzukic was struggling too, but he stayed on. A central defender, Jose Maria Gimenez, replaced Tiago. Fernando Torres and Raul Jimenez remained on the bench, unused. It did not do them much good defensively either: three minutes later, Chicharito scored.
"They day they coached that, I can't have been there," Isco smiled after the game. Ramos and Ancelotti had kept it a secret since Sunday: not only had the media not found out that Ramos was going to leave the back four and play in the middle three, their teammates had not either. Ancelotti once admitted that playing Ramos in midfield at the Camp Nou was "a mistake," but here he did it again.
Only, he didn't. Not quite. The surprise was not just that Ramos played in midfield but that he played to the right side of the three, as an interior, not as a central, deep-lying midfielder. Ramos played in the position normally occupied by Luka Modric or Isco; what he did not do was play as Modric or Isco would do. Nor was he being asked to.
"Lots of people killed me [back then]," Ancelotti said, smiling. "And I thought that if they killed me again I'd come through it alive." He explained his thinking: "I put Ramos there to have more solidity from set players and throw-ins. And because he has quality and really works, sacrificing himself." He didn't add that Ramos played in the midfield because Sami Khedira, Asier Illarramendi and Lucas Silva can't be trusted, but that idea was certainly among his thoughts.
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The plan was a defensive one that worked as the coach hoped, tailored to the specific threat Atletico carried. Dead balls and throw-ins, Ancelotti said. Ramos did not always look comfortable with the ball, his normal reference points denied him, players on all sides of him rather than in front of him. He was seemingly unsure, at least to start with, as to where exactly he had to be. But defensively, he fitted perfectly. It was not always pretty, but it was effective.
The formation enabled Real to have Varane, Pepe and Ramos all on the pitch, denying Atletico any advantage in the air or the chance to break and run beyond them: you don't outsprint Varane. It also allowed Ramos to drop into a deep, narrow right-sided position where Mandzukic awaited the long ball and others waited for him to head it on or bring it down. Mostly, they waited in vain. Ramos won the ball back 12 times. And with him guarding that territory, Dani Carvajal was freed to watch for the overlap (which largely didn't happen) or to attack himself (which did happen, albeit not often).
"If I have an idea but the player is not convinced, then ..." Ancelotti said. Ramos, a defender with an attacker's soul, whose favourite player as a kid was Claudio Caniggia, who was disappointed to return from South Africa a world champion but not a goal scorer, and who dinked in a Panenka penalty in the semifinal of the European championships, was convinced all right. "I like coaches who are good people and have balls too," he said.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.