Manchester City supporters were in good voice at the Etihad as Hey Jude played out before kick-off, but after that and the resounding jeers for the Champions League anthem, it got quieter as the first half went on and the reality of this most difficult of European tasks kicked in.
Atletico Madrid did not come to Manchester to attack. They did not come to please the home support, nor the neutrals watching on from home. They came to defend, to stay in the tie, and to ensure reaching the Champions League semi-finals isn’t beyond them come next week’s second leg.
As the first half of this attack vs defence training session played out, users on social media pondered whether this match was entertaining or dull, whether Atletico’s approach was an art or simply atrocious, as two banks of five rarely strayed from one another and repeatedly frustrated City.
After 15 minutes, City had attacked 11 times to Atletico’s zero. After 30 minutes it was 31-1, and by half-time it was a staggering 52-1. More than an attack per minute from City, with 70 per cent possession to boot, but nothing to show for it.
City boss Pep Guardiola cut a pensive figure just before the second half, staring into the middle distance and perhaps wondering what his first change should be, tactically or in terms of personnel.
Guardiola had bit at a suggestion he overthinks matches in Europe, joking about deploying “stupid tactics” in the pre-match press conference, but something had to change if City were to break the deadlock.
That became more apparent as the game got just a little bit more stretched after the break. Guardiola had said there was a “misconception” about Atletico’s playing style, insisting it is “more offensive than people believe”.
That was not true in the first half, but rang true in the second, with Atletico fancying their chances on the counter, and left ruing a couple of misplaced passes when they finally got behind the City defence. Already they had attacked twice in the opening 10 minutes of the second half, double the amount of the first-half total.
Meanwhile, it was not until the 55th minute when City finally tested Jan Oblak, with Kevin De Bruyne’s low free-kick kept out by the Atletico goalkeeper, who then got a vital boot to clear it away after spilling his initial save.
Then came the slight surprise. A triple substitution from Atletico, but given the nature of their job, fresh legs were deemed necessary, and with the changes exactly on the hour – you knew immediately this had long been planned by Simeone.
After Aymeric Laporte spurned a big opportunity when heading just over, Guardiola matched Simeone with a triple substitution of his own, hoping the creativity of Phil Foden and Jack Grealish could unlock this Atletico defence, and Gabriel Jesus apply the finish.
It worked. The introduction of Foden, at least, for despite being surrounded, practically smothered, by four opponents, he found De Bruyne, who applied the cool finish.
It was the chance City had struggled to carve out, the opportunity they were craving, and it came just 79 seconds after Foden was introduced. Whether he should have started is perhaps a moot point, but after all this talk of overthinking, Guardiola deserves credit for fighting changes with changes, for recognising the need for a creative spark and bringing on two players capable of making that happen.
And after all that, there is still another 90 minutes – at least – to go. The tie is not over, a reward for Atletico’s tireless efforts, but Guardiola will be relieved his City side have something to show for their endeavours as well.