Manchester City were not the smooth operators they so often are but this slender victory may prove invaluable when the tie is decided in next week’s return at Wanda Metropolitano. For this they can thank Phil Foden and his schemer’s eye, the youngster threading the decisive pass that released Kevin De Bruyne who, on his 50th Champions League appearance for City, made no mistake for a winner that was his 11th goal in the competition for the club.
It means Pep Guardiola’s side travel to Spain content yet wary as Atlético Madrid are the definition of a streetwise outfit who know when to punish, though João Félix, Antoine Griezmann and Marcos Llorente should all rue missed opportunities last night.
Towards the end the niggly Atlético of repute was on display as Ángel Correa smacked the ball into the face of a supine Jack Grealish, causing Guardiola to shove the Atlético No 10 though the Catalan escaped censure. Sime Vrsaljko was booked for felling Grealish and there will be more antics from Diego Simeone’s side when they seek to overturn the deficit in eight days’ time.
Here Guardiola just about got his selection correct – though only after Foden was introduced 80 seconds before creating De Bruyne’s winner. The manager had joked about “over-thinking” in a pre-game discourse delivered with a twinkle that came punctuated with a point he believes pertinent: that he is duty-bound to tinker tactics and personnel – the prevailing criticism aimed at him – when the competition reaches this stage due to the differing nature of the opponent.
So it was that Guardiola’s selection was eagerly awaited. Through this prism the discarding of Foden – who had started five of City’s Champions League eight matches – caught the eye.
Simeone, who rated the task tougher than knocking out Manchester United in the previous round, could be pleased at his team firing a first salvo. Félix twirled near halfway and flipped a pass behind Nathan Aké for Llorente to run at.
João Cancelo had been instructed to drift inside and it was in this zone he drew a foul from Geoffrey Kondogbia. Moments later the Portuguese let go a 25-yard shot that was blocked and had Atlético scrambling in the area before Felipe cleared.
Any possession Atlético had was being thrown away, much to the chagrin of Simeone, conscious the commodity was precious. This was underlined when, after ceding the ball, a Cancelo cross for Ilkay Gündogan, then a De Bruyne effort, threatened Jan Oblak’s goal.
City had entered onslaught mode and Atlético were hanging on. When Raheem Sterling was felled after a muscular run and Bernardo Silva, collecting the ball, suffered the same – inside the area up against Koke – the Portuguese bemoaned Istvan Kovacs waving away his penalty appeal.
Guardiola and Simeone – in almost identical coats – were each unhappy: City’s No 1 perhaps for some unfathomable geometric miscalculation; his counterpart for the needless sloppiness on the ball, Llorente the latest culprit in an error that allowed De Bruyne to whip it in and Gündogan again going close.
Atlético are the kings of the counter, so Guardiola was furious when Félix could break along the left before a flood of blue shirts engulfed him. A delightful Koke backflick that released Félix was another warning from the Spanish champions.
A thrust and verve had entered the contest. Feints, touches, the finding of vital inches: all were executed in slick, computer-game fashion. It was the contest that was expected: City’s domination versus Atlético’s savvy, the home team enjoying 75.6% possession. The closing phase of the half was performed in a crackling atmosphere.
The sight of Rodrigo hitting the ball into a red-and-white striped shirt at 30 yards was a compliment to the job thus far done by Simeone’s men. And, too, when John Stones slapped a pass straight out. After De Bruyne went down in the area with Felipe in close attendance the spot-kick was, again, refused by the referee.
So at the break it was level and nicely poised. Gündogan’s deflected shot suggested the pattern of City posing more questions would continue. Griezmann’s break from the resulting corner, and 50-yard run until he sprayed the ball wildly away, fitted the template, too.
Simeone drills his charges to pounce when the moment arrives. Yet they failed with another break when Llorente raced behind but hit Ederson not Félix.
City went from ragged to De Bruyne sending Oblak skimming along the turf to his left to save a free-kick as Atlético’s wall – Félix the main perpetrator – parted badly. Sterling rolled a cross-shot over from the left but neither Silva, the false 9, nor any other teammate could stab home. Griezmann’s last act was to be fouled by Silva as Simeone made a triple substitution – Koke and Llorente also departing as Correa, Rodrigo de Paul and Matheus Cunha entered.
Atlético had blunted City. The game was broken up. Even De Bruyne hoofed clear rather than employing the usual feathery touch. But, now, came Guardiola’s decisive move: Grealish, Gabriel Jesus and Foden joined the fray and the dividend was reaped. The youngster calmly found space and De Bruyne, and Oblak no chance of saving.
If there is surprise that Foden was dropped for this opening leg, the feeling will intensify should Guardiola do the same for the return. It is not the time for him to overthink.