MADRID — On a night when Atletico Madrid tried everything to make Manchester City lose their heads, Pep Guardiola’s players showed they have the steel as well as the silk to win the Champions League.
By the end, it was the home side who lost their cool when Brazilian defender Felipe was sent off in the aftermath of a confrontation in the corner that involved most of the 22 players and backroom staff from both benches.
That Atletico’s frustration eventually boiled over was credit to the way Man City managed an awkward tie amid the mayhem to see out the game 0-0 and hold the aggregate at 1-0, setting up a semifinal with Real Madrid later this month. It wasn’t pretty, but it doesn’t always have to be.
The night ended after more than 13 minutes of stoppage time with Guardiola being pelted by bottles as he left the pitch and with police pulling apart players from both sides in the tunnel after Stefan Savic had raced after Jack Grealish. If City can come through this, they can get through anything.
“Nothing to say,” said Guardiola afterwards when asked about the melee on the pitch and in the tunnel. “It’s always difficult with these people in this stadium. “It’s a big compliment for the players. We gave everything. We have to live these kind of situations. We suffered.
“We can’t expect that we’re going to make everything marvelous against the champions of Spain. The opponent was really, really good.”
Backed by fierce support inside the Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico set out their plan to literally knock City out of their rhythm as early as the first minute. At the Etihad last week, they didn’t look keen to engage with City’s blue shirts much beyond the edge of their own penalty area but at home they suddenly found a whole other half to play in.
Savic quickly came charging out of defence to thunder into the back of Ilkay Gundogan in the centre circle, and Kyle Walker was forced into a slip after Diego Simeone had roared his players forward from his technical area.
If Simeone had asked before kick-off for more aggression, Felipe took it too literally. Not content with clattering into Phil Foden with enough force to leave the 21-year-old bloodied and bandaged, Felipe followed it up by swiping away the legs of Kevin De Bruyne.
Foden got the rough stuff again when Savic needlessly barged into his side as the ball rolled out of play for a throw in. Savic versus Foden was a running battle that carried on all evening.
Mixed in were moments of calm when it would have been easy for City to fold. Riyad Mahrez was cool enough to knock the ball around Joao Felix in his own penalty area before the Portuguese forward raced towards Ederson only for the goalkeeper to drill a pinpoint pass through Atletico’s midfield and into Gundogan’s feet.
In the past, City have been guilty of allowing Champions League knockout ties to descend into chaos, coming off second-best against Monaco in 2017, Liverpool in 2018, Tottenham in 2019 and Lyon in 2020. There were spells on Wednesday, particularly in the second half, when it looked like the game would veer that way but this is a City team who look far better for the experiences of those harrowing exits.
Man City defended doggedly when they had to — John Stones made a vital block from Matheus Cunha after 87 minutes and Ederson saved low from Angel Correa deep into stoppage time. In the end, it was the determined clean sheet rather than any of their usual champagne football that sent them through to a second successive semifinal and just a third in the club’s history.
“It is the champion of Spain and they played with energy and in the second half were better than us and we were lucky we didn’t concede,” Guardiola added. “In the first half, we had chances.
“Overall we are in the semifinals — it is well deserved. The opponent is so tough, all the teams in the Champions League come here and suffer so it is important we go through.
“We cannot play all the time and score four or five goals. We are human beings, we come from a difficult game against Liverpool. We celebrate because it is the third time in Manchester City’s history we are in the Champions League semifinals.”
It keeps City on course for a treble of the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup, although the clash with Atletico came at a cost after injuries to De Bruyne and Walker. Both were forced off in the second half ahead of the FA Cup semifinal with Liverpool at Wembley on Saturday.
A few more are likely to be nursing knocks after a bruising encounter but at a stage of the competition when City have fallen short before, this time they proved up to the test. They have had some impressive Champions League performances under Guardiola and this was another — just for different reasons.