Following last week’s first leg, conversation around Pep Guardiola’s dinner table turned to Atletico Madrid and the fine art of defending.
The result of Diego Simeone’s plan – to stifle Manchester City, with a formation bordering two banks of five – was deemed a job well done in Spain.
Others, namely Marco van Basten, hammered Simeone’s tactics. Still, Atletico remained well and truly in the tie and on Wednesday night welcome City to the capital with just the one-goal deficit.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are miserly in defence and incredibly tough to breach
Atletico Madrid are renowned for their rearguard action but City are just as impressive
Ruben Dias and Co limit the opposition chances and Atletico will need to attack more
Among friends in a city centre restaurant, Guardiola wondered aloud about that narrative, the noise around Simeone. The statistics, of which City’s manager devours after matches, read that Atletico had not registered a single shot on goal or won a corner.
To Guardiola, that constituted a defensive masterclass against an opposition boasting Joao Felix and Antoine Griezmann that can devastate on the break. He has since been pleased with how Liverpool were restricted to a solitary corner on Sunday, pointing out that they normally average ‘five or six’.
Defensive data matters a great deal to the man viewed through such a different prism to Simeone. The broad outlook appears similar, albeit with alternate methods.
City’s defending is done in possession, controlling proceedings. Eight clean sheets were the foundation to their run to last year’s Champions League final.
Atletico Madrid (5-3-2) Oblak; Vrsaljko, Savic, Felipe, Reinildo, Carrasco; Llorente, Kondogbia, Koke; Correa, Joao Felix
Man City (4-3-3): Ederson; Walker, Stones, Laporte, Cancelo; Silva, Rodri, Gundogan; Mahrez, Foden, Grealish
Referee: Daniel Siebert (GER)
It’s three on the spin in this season’s knockouts; another one on Wednesday night guarantees progression to consecutive semi-finals. Sounds easy.
‘You cannot achieve things, win trophies, unless you concede few [chances] as a team,’ Guardiola said on Tuesday.
‘We are not an exceptional team individually defensively but all together we run as a team from day one and that makes us solid. If we are not solid on Wednesday it makes us difficult to get to the semi-finals.’
City expect Atletico to come onto them a bit more inside a feverish Wanda Metropolitano and Guardiola suggested he is not averse to battening down the hatches in the final 10 minutes if required, although seeing is believing where that is concerned.
Ruben Dias is back after a hamstring injury, training with the team for the first time in six weeks yesterday, but will not start, while City are wary of discipline playing a part in a white-hot atmosphere.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico were criticised for the way they played in the first leg
That was another theme from the encounter at the Etihad, with Fernandinho making sure he diverted Jack Grealish away any possible flashpoints at full time.
The forward had been on the receiving end of some rough treatment – five fouls and a ball booted at him front point-blank range – and more of that is coming this evening.
‘I went on and that was really important [to do],’ said Fernandinho, whose quiet leadership City will miss next season. ‘It’ll be a hostile environment but we have to be ready. It’s really, really important we keep ourselves concentrated for 90 minutes.’
City showcased a more streetwise streak this time last year, when finally negotiating their way beyond the last eight under Guardiola.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool put two past City in their draw but Guardiola’s side had big chances
It is not just the dictating of a game, and slowing it down to suit their needs, but the calmer approach to defending their own goal or reacting to conceding. Erratic individual mistakes have not hindered them for a while, with Guardiola mindful of keeping it that way.
‘The second leg will be slightly different, because they create real momentum at home,’ the City manager added.
‘There will be moments when they are so aggressive higher and create problems. We will try to defend in those moments. We have to play our game and we always speak about finishing with 11 [players]. If we are on top we will defend deeper and keep the ball.’
That is quite often overlooked with City, and reasonably so given what goes on ahead of the back four. This year’s numbers in the Premier League – 20 goals conceded in their 31 games so far – might end up as their second meanest season under Guardiola.
Ederson’s composure under pressure on his own line had Guardiola’s heart in his mouth
Ederson has two Golden Gloves to his name and personifies confidence. His boss is still reliving that heart-in-mouth moment on their goal-line against Liverpool.
‘This guy is crazy, honestly,’ Guardiola said. ‘In that moment, I couldn’t believe it was as close as when I saw the image. One inch to the goal. It doesn’t matter to him. Sometimes I think he doesn’t feel anything. He’s calm, so stable. Eddy is who he is. He doesn’t feel pressure.’
City will need some of that reptilian relax again.