Champions League: Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid's resilience proves to be a handful for Juventus in first leg

It was Sergio Ramos in 2014. Penalties in 2016. And VAR in 2019.

Diego Simeone might have contemplated fate’s cruel hold over his Atletico Madrid side when Alvaro Morata’s goal was ruled out in the 70th minute. There was little to suggest that Giorgio Chiellini had been fouled by the striker but that was not the referee’s view. Multiple replays later, with inconclusive evidence, Morata’s goal was rescinded.

Champions League: Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrids resilience proves to be a handful for Juventus in first leg

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone tactically outsmarted Juventus. AFP

Still goalless. The host had come close to breaking the deadlock twice before Morata’s intervention. Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann nearly gave Atletico the lead in dearly sought. Costa only had himself to blame as he scuffed a shot in a one-on-one situation but Griezmann was denied by a fantastic save from Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

Surely, the Atletico faithful at the Metropolitano would have feared, Simeone’s team will be unlucky losers in Europe again. Under him, Los Colchoneros have already lost two Champions League finals in highly unfortunate fashion. But, arguably, never before has the imperative to reach the final been this strong. This season’s Champions League will culminate at Atletico’s home, the Metropolitano stadium. The club dearly wants to be there when it happens.

This sentiment hung heavily on the proceedings. But Atletico found a way to liberate themselves. The hosts could have easily collapsed mentally when Morata’s goal was taken away from them. But they responded to the sense of injustice by erasing it.

Atletico’s Uruguayan centre-backs Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez struck from set pieces within a space of five minutes to hand their club a monumental advantage. This season, there has been much chatter about the weakening of defensive resolve which is uncharacteristic of Simeone’s side. With investment focused on making the difference in the final third, the argument goes that Atletico has lost the steeliness that carried it to major triumphs in recent years. But the goals have not flown freely, so it was ironic to see two defenders stepping up when the team needed it most.

The victory on Wednesday, after all, was a demonstration of another of Atletico’s impeccable qualities. The side’s bite and vigour remain unquestionable and it arguably made the difference against Juventus. Faced with formidable opposition, Simeone chose players who have affirmed his trust over the years. There was a recall for the veteran full-back Juanfran while Saul and Koke started out wide.

Simeone’s decision to drop Santiago Arias for Juanfran was an astute move. Juventus often assert their aerial superiority by looking for Mario Mandzukic or Cristiano Ronaldo at the far post, both forwards exceptional above the ground. The relatively poor record of Arias in dealing with aerial duels this season—he has won only a little over half of them in LaLiga—had to be addressed. Juanfran came in and his discipline meant that he could limit Juve left-back Alex Sandro; chances to put crosses into the box rarely arrived for Juventus. The right-back’s inclusion meant that Atletico did not defend as narrow as it does usually.

The eventual result was a resounding win for the host but there will be many regrets for their Italian visitor. Like Atletico, the recent history of Juventus in the Champions League is of failure to get over the line. In 2015 and 2017, the Old Lady lost out to the Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively, in the final. If it goes out to Atletico in three weeks’ time, the spectre of LaLiga will continue to hound Juventus in Europe.

It was not for a lack of chances, though, that Juventus failed to score on the night. From Ronaldo’s early free-kick to Federico Bernardeschi’s late effort on goal, the Turin club struck the target. But Atletico goalie Jan Oblak, like he usually does, stood firm. Remarkably, it was in its desire to fight that Juventus slipped away – dramatically as the match meandered to its conclusion.

1500 kilometres separate the two sides but the tense atmosphere on Wednesday, especially the intensity displayed by Atletico from the beginning, may have misled observers into believing that it is a derby. The arguments and remonstrations threatened to dominate the match. Atletico paid a bigger price for their approach in the first half as yellow cards for Diego Costa and Thomas Partey ensured their suspension for the return leg in Turin.

Eventually, their presence on the pitch for long was considered to be a problem by Simeone and he took them off to ensure Atletico kept eleven players on the pitch. But his substitutions—all three of them between the 58th and 67th minute—also demonstrated the Argentine manager’s keenness to win the game. Morata, Thomas Lemar, and Angel Correa were attacking replacements, brought on to ensure the host’s vigour did not go unrewarded. Simeone certainly did not lack confidence in his team even though Atletico had won only four of their previous nine matches.

It another call he got right. The Morata substitution worked almost immediately but the energy of the replacements ensured there was no let up. Eventually, Atletico broke past the Juventus wall. It was supposed to be a tight contest between two sides that can still defend in a time when most top teams seem fragile at the back. But it was only Atletico which lived up to its reputation. And in the process, the Madrid club may have loosened the grip of fate too.

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Updated Date: Feb 21, 2019 13:31:50 IST

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