Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City defeated Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Etihad Stadium.
Diego Simeone’s squad held out for 70 minutes at the Etihad, but Phil Foden’s arrival provided the breakthrough that put Pep Guardiola’s side in command.
Despite a dominating performance, there was no second goal, indicating that progress is far from certain ahead of the second leg in Madrid next week, but this was a hard-fought win.
Manchester City dominated from the start, with Atletico setting up camp within their own half and relying on infrequent counter-attacks to ease the strain.
Joao Cancelo fired a shot, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne called for penalties, and balls were sent into the area. Atletico managed to withstand the pressure. Jan Oblak was not put to the test in the first half.
The personnel at the club may have changed, with rumors of a more expansive strategy and the loss of the club’s traditional defensive resolve, but on the big stage, this was a familiarly stoic Atletico.
Could City find a way through and return to the Spanish capital? They probed and pressed, but Antoine Griezmann nearly dashed away as a warning.
The finest opportunity of the opening hour came from a free-kick from De Bruyne that was delivered low to Oblak’s left, but the Slovenian goalkeeper cleared the ball on the second try.
It was tense and tight. Simeone made three adjustments in the hopes of maintaining the resistance. Guardiola then made three substitutions of his own in pursuit of a breakthrough.
That proved to be crucial. Within seconds, Foden made the difference, his beautiful threaded pass providing purpose and penetration. The rest was done mercilessly by De Bruyne. Joy. Relief.
Soon after, Foden nearly created a second, his dancing feet finding space on the right, but De Bruyne’s low attempt was stopped near the goal line. Atleti was still fighting.
In the final phases, it looked like there was a determined effort to have one opponent sent off. City just about managed to keep their cool – and their nerve.
The match is not done, and Simeone will remain confident of a comeback in Madrid. But, with Foden and the rest of the squad, betting against City would be a mistake.
Guardiola has criticized the idea that he overthinks these major Champions League squad decisions, but maybe his surprising decision to leave Foden out of his starting lineup for this crucial quarter-final encounter worked out well in the end.
Against tired legs, his influence was instantaneous, his appearance changing the game’s dynamic in an instant. He was able to take the ball in a tight position – of which there were many against this Atletico team – before locating the pass that City had been lacking.
It was the decisive moment in the match, but it was not Foden’s only moment. Soon after, he went away again and then found the finest pass of the night, bending in behind the Atletico defense with the outside of his boot to find that man De Bruyne once again.
He accomplished enough in 20 minutes to be named match-winner. He may be Manchester City’s top player right now. Leaving him out from the outset did not prove expensive in this case. However, he is expected to start against Liverpool. Foden is just too talented to pass up.