It isn’t Atletico Madrid’s year, then, because RB Leipzig were the side actually willing to seize the day.
Diego Simeone’s defensive approach ultimately let him down, on more than one level. Atletico again struggled to create when they needed to, and it was an attempted block that finally knocked them out.
Tyler Adams’s speculative shot went in off Stefan Savic to give Leipzig the 2-1 victory their approach deserved, and send them into the semi-finals for the first time in their short history.
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They go on to meet Paris Saint-Germain, in a match that is effectively a state against a sports drink franchise: Qatar against Red Bull. That might sum up the depressing reality of the modern game in this strange setting, but it shouldn’t take away from the brilliance of Julian Nagelsmann. He is very much the present and future of coaching. That he did it without Timo Werner was all the more impressive.
Many might say poor Atletico after suffering so much in this competition, but this really illustrated the poverty of their play. It is an approach with limits in the modern game.
Worse than anything, Simeone’s side lost the tactical battle.
The great difficulty of playing Atletico, after all, is that they try and drag you into a physical battle. If it’s on the edge of their box, where they can pretty much engage in a football form of trench warfare, all the better. That allows them to then launch those lightning counter-attacks in behind.
From that perspective, Leipzig would have almost seemed ideal opponents for Simeone. They have a progressive, proactive ideal, and would surely take the game to Atletico – and thereby play into their feet.
Nagelsmann, however, isn’t the ideal manager to play against. He’s too canny. With the 33-year-old obviously conscious of all this, it was conspicuous that Leipzig weren’t pressing anywhere near as hard as they usually would.
That effectively invited Atletico to come forward, which is not where they’re comfortable. Simeone’s side would rather be released on the counter than have to construct, and it was telling that their best first-half chance was a header from a centre-half, Savic going close.
It was just, intelligent as Nagelsmann’s approach, it wasn’t as invigorating as they usually are. Leipzig’s best chance by that point was also a header from a centre-half, Dayot Upamecano bringing a save from Jan Oblak.
The point of it, however, was patience; to wait for the right moments to press, and to push.
One was just after half-time. This wasn’t exactly pouncing on an opening, however, but instead contriving one through a wonderfully constructed move.
This really was Nagelsmann’s football at its best. After a series of angled passes that prised open the space, the excellent Marcel Sabitzer played in a cross that Olmo fired past Oblak with a fearsome header.
It generally takes a lot to beat the Atletico goalkeeper, but this was it.
It was also asking a lot of Simeone and his side. This was precisely the kind of situation he has struggled with most in his time at Atletico: having to score, having to be on the front foot.
It just so happened, though, this was precisely the setting for Joao Felix.
A €126m signing, he certainly represents “a lot” to bring on from the bench. It’s just that the 20-year-old partly started there because he’s had a patchy first season for Atletico after his big move.
Many around the club, however, have felt that his moment has been coming. This, in his home city, his side needing something, was it.
After a series of influential interventions, he suddenly surged forward on 70 minutes, Lukas Klostermann could do little but bring him down.
Felix got up and then stepped up for the penalty. In a genuine pressure moment, he converted.
It’s just that… this was still pretty much all Atletico had: individual surges or set-pieces. They weren’t exactly creating chances from play.
It was almost as if Leipzig saw this, realised they didn’t have too much worry about it, and then picked it up again.
They did get lucky with the eventual winner, but that’s what happens when you take the initiative and actually try and play. You’ll get bounces of the ball by working the ball.
Atletico this time can’t even point to bad luck, as has been the case so often in the past. Leipzig were just too good for them.
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