MADRID (AP) — With defense once again its greatest strength, Atletico Madrid are back in the Champions League quarterfinals and in position to challenge for the European title.
Atletico’s iron-clad defense had brought much joy to manager Diego Simeone’s side, including two Champions League finals, but it became a weakness recently.
The Spanish club had been reinforced with several poster figures for their attack. With the likes of Uruguayan Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezmann and João Félix, Simeone began experimenting with bolder schemes.
But this took its toll on him. For the first time in many years, Atlético left the top of the table of the best defenses in the Spanish League and is fourth with 10 games to go, after winning the domestic title last year.
Atlético’s 36 goals in 28 games this season mark the weakest output among Spain’s top eight. And the defensive deficiencies conspired in the eliminations of the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup.
To face Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo in the second leg on Tuesday, they needed a good performance from the defense and Atlético did just that with a 1-0 victory. The colchoneros sneaked into the top eight teams in the Champions League for the sixth time in six seasons.
“We did a lot of work defensively,” acknowledged Griezmann, who set up Renan Lodi for the 41st-minute winner at Old Trafford. “We have to keep doing it. He saw himself as a very strong Atleti and a very solid team”.
The teams drew 1-1 in the first leg in Madrid and Atlético dominated offensively, but allowed the draw after a defensive failure.
Before Tuesday’s game, Atlético had not conceded a goal in two of their last 12 games in all competitions, conceding 19.
“This year we are experiencing an irregular season,” admitted midfielder Koke Resurrection. “There are times when you try to play things don’t work out but we are finding each other little by little”.
Atlético added defender Reinildo Mandava in the winter transfer window. The defense has José María Giménez and Stefan Savic as central defenders and Lodi has had more offensive freedom.
Simeone was enthusiastic about the defensive work: “I’m excited to see a competitive team, without shame for sometimes playing withdrew”.