Manchester United have salvaged a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Atletico Madrid, Anthony Elanga levelling the scores with their first shot on target 10 minutes from the end.
Having lost much of their defensive steel this season, bringing a haywire run to an end with a first clean sheet in eight games against Osasuna at the weekend, Atleti were looking to revive Cholismo in earnest here. Ralf Rangnick had warned his players to expect an “emotional, hostile atmosphere” at the Wanda Metropolitano and their hosts duly obliged, greeting United with a cacophony of jeers and whistles as they walked out onto the pitch.
At half time, it felt like a classic Diego Simeone performance. Having gone 1-0 up through Joao Felix with seven minutes on the clock, Brazilian wing-back Renan Lodi crossing from deep to set him up to head in off the inside of the post, Atleti ended the first half with 33 per cent possession, six shots, one shot on target and one goal.
United, meanwhile, had been limited to two shots, neither of which were on target, and an absurdly low xG of 0.05. Atleti could so easily have been 2-0 up at the break, with Lodi setting up opposite wing-back Sime Vrsaljko for a header at the far post which took a deflection off Victor Lindelof and came back out off the crossbar.
While tensions had simmered throughout the first half – Cristiano Ronaldo twice made a futile appeal for a booking after Hector Herrera and Marcus Llorente took turns to hack down the former Real Madrid man, with the latter also squaring up to Luke Shaw at one stage – the game became increasingly ill-tempered in the second half. There were eight yellow cards in total after the restart, with Shaw, Lindelof, Reinildo, Llorente, Fred, Marcus Rashford, Jose Maria Gimenez and Alex Telles all going into the book.
That suited Atletico down to the ground but, just as it looked like United might let their frustrations get the better of them, Bruno Fernandes played in Elanga, who vaulted Reinildo and slotted low past Jan Oblak.
Atleti hit the crossbar again late on through Antoine Griezmann, on as a second-half substitute, but for all their intent they couldn’t find a winner. That leaves the tie perfectly poised ahead of the second leg at Old Trafford next month.
Manchester United ride their luck. While it’s an excellent result for United in the circumstances, it certainly wasn’t a good performance. Atleti had them where they wanted them for the majority of the match, with the visitors struggling to make meaningful chances, labouring through long periods of futile possession and losing their duels all across the pitch.
With Atleti twice rattling the crossbar, United can count themselves lucky that it ended honours even. Nonetheless, with Simeone’s side that much more vulnerable in defence this season, sometimes all it takes to turn a match on its head is one clean break and a decent finish.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Renan Lodi (Atletico Madrid). Much as Joao Felix did well to beat David de Gea so emphatically, Lodi’s ball for Atletico’s opener was exceptional. He was unfortunate not to end the game with two assists, with an unpredictable ricochet off Lindelof the only thing that stopped Vrsaljko from heading home his cross and making it 2-0 just before half time.
As well as his creative contribution, his all-round performance was excellent. He had Lindelof, who Rangnick opted to deploy at right-back, desperately backpedalling for much of the match, making sure that Atleti completely dominated the left flank until Simeone swapped him for Thomas Lemar with a little under 15 minutes to play.
Atletico Madrid: Oblak 5, Lodi 8, Reinildo 5, Gimenez 7, Savic 7, Herrera 6, Kondogbia 7, Llorente 7, Vrsaljko 7, Joao Felix 7, Correa 6
Subs: Lemar 5, Griezmann 6
Manchester United: De Gea 6, Lindelof 4, Varane 5, Maguire 5, Shaw 5, Fred 5, Pogba 5, Rashford 5, Fernandes 6, Sancho 4, Ronaldo 5
Subs: Wan-Bissaka 5, Matic 5, Telles 5, Elanga 7, Lingard 6
7’ GOAL! It was coming. Renan Lodi whips in a searching cross from deep and finds Joao Felix drifting across the box in front of Harry Maguire. He heads in off the inside of the post to give Atleti a deserved lead. What a start for Simeone’s side.
44’ ATLETI HIT THE WOODWORK! Herrera takes a free kick short down the left and plays Lodi in behind. He picks out Vrsaljko at the far post, with the Croatian wing-back’s header taking a deflection off Lindelof and hitting the crossbar before bouncing back out.
80’ GOAL! Out of nowhere, United have saved themselves. Fernandes plays in Elanga, who slots beneath Oblak to make it 1-1.
86’ GRIEZMANN HITS THE CROSSBAR! From a tight angle, the one-time Barcelona forward curls a shot onto the frame of the goal with De Gea well beaten.