Manchester City may not have dominated Atletico Madrid but after reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League, they could consider it their toughest test yet.
In many ways, Diego Simeone and his men were the most awkward opponents they might have faced. The Argentine does not care two hoots - even one hoot! - about the reputation of the opposition. He probably does not care about his own reputation in that tedious Millwall fashion. Nobody likes us (because of some very understandable reasons) but we don’t care (and we will not moderate our behaviour because to change would be to admit weakness).
We could see the means of provocation across two legs. Some of the hardest teams in the world go for the jugular, Atletico went for the follicular. Not once, but twice, did Stefan Savic fondle Jack Grealish’s hair. It might well be an annoying mop, but there is something quite boring about pulling another man’s hair in a football match and not following it up with something more forthright. A two-footer into his chest, or earning a red card with a clump upside his head. Something, anything that merits some kind of serious confrontation. Tinkering at the edges of irritation is barely worth the energy or effort.
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Instead Felipe could only manage a late second yellow, which should be seen in football as Sideshow Bob sees attempted murder - with withering disdain. The relentless, petty approach to football is quite amusing when you pull it off, especially when carried out gratuitously by some excellent players.
But after three hours of diving, moaning and whining, it does all feel a bit empty. Savic's continued overreaction started to feel less like a tactic and more an admission of inferiority.
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Nevertheless, it is a wearying style to have to come up against. City know their worth and their ability, and it is far easier to prove to others and yourself when you are banging in a goal every 20 minutes. When you have to keep your hair out of the opposition’s mitts, avoid being kicked in the shin and up the hole, and have to worry about Antoine Griezmann and Joao Felix producing something magical from nowhere, then it requires a greater variety of mental focus than taking on the similarly prosaic Sean Dyche at Burnley.
There are perhaps two great triumphs from this match for the away side. The first is that Pep Guardiola and City showed the right versatility, one which they are often simply too talented to need. Instead of refining their technical prowess into something to glide past Atletico, they played the more difficult but more decisive option.
Once in front on the scoresheet, they kept their defence tight, and gave up few chances. They allowed a single Atletico goal become relatively more important than it might otherwise be, almost goading them into examining their own weaknesses. This is not a free-flowing Atletico side, with the ageing Luis Suarez, the out-of-sorts Griezmann, and other players who are not once what they were under their manager. Guardiola produced an approach to decide a match on thin margins and had the confidence it would swing his way.
That sets them up should they face Liverpool, though Jurgen Klopp’s team will perhaps offer more room in behind given their own attacking bent. Wednesday's performance is still psychologically valuable as it shows that they can defend and do little else when they need it. Against Mo Salah and co there may be times that they need such self-confidence to adopt limited ambitions. Against Karim Benzema it will almost certainly be a useful lesson.
And there’s another positive, too. We all know about the tactical fouls that Guardiola is willing to accept as part of the defensive side of the game. Innocuous tugs and trips to disrupt the opposition’s rhythm are under-punished and plenty effective. On Wednesday he was willing to add to that with all kinds of timewasting and cynicism. That is the edge that you need in a high stakes game, even if it makes for a miserable spectacle. Perhaps Guardiola has grown tired of failure to win in Europe without Lionel Messi, and now he wants to secure his legacy not just at the Etihad, but in club football. Infuriating Savic so much that he pursues Grealish into the tunnel demonstrates a real understanding of the power of s***housery. Guardiola and City may have demonstrated here a new level they are willing to reach, or rather sink to, in the desire for victory.
With his contract up in 2023, a Champions League win would give Guardiola the right note to enjoy a valedictory season before he walks away and into his desired gig with Brazil. Another team who could learn the value of discipline and defence that City put on display in Spain. First, though, there are three more games to win.
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