Atletico Madrid 1 Manchester United 1
Where did that come from? Manchester United had laboured sorely, the errors and the looseness coming from a variety of players. Atlético Madrid appeared happy and comfortable with a 1-0 scoreline and it was easy to think that this was set to be another Champions League mis-step from United, who have won only two knock-out ties since their run to the final in 2011.
Ralf Rangnick’s players had created next to nothing, although they were better in the second half after a torrid opening period when João Félix’s lovely header had been scant reward for Atlético. And then it happened.
Rangnick had introduced the 19-year-old winger Anthony Elanga in the 75th minute and, with pretty much his first involvement, he scored the goal that turned this tie upside down, breathing hope back into his team.
It was Bruno Fernandes who picked the pass – finally, after a hugely difficult evening – and, when Reinildo Mandava, the Atlético central defender, gambled and lost, stretching in for the interception and missing the ball, Elanga was away. The finish was nerveless. After Premier League goals against Brentford and Leeds, this was the moment when Elanga announced himself on the most glittering stage.
There would still be time for Antoine Griezmann, on as a substitute, to rattle the crossbar but this had turned into United's night. And that of Elanga.
It was an evening for cojones, to quote Fred, the United midfielder, and one of those evenings that shuddered with significance at every turn. The tone was set by the raucous welcome that the home support afforded the Atlético team bus; flares lit, songs belted out. “Vuela Atleti” read the slogan on the massive tifo that was unfurled before kick-off. Fly Atleti.
Maybe it was the rarity value of United, as much as anything else. The club that considers itself to be European royalty has not exactly been a force in the Champions League knock-out rounds of late; their record overshadowed and then some during the last decade by what Simeone has achieved at Atlético. This is Atlético’s ninth straight season in Europe’s elite competition, their eighth appearance in the knock-out phase and, in five of those, they have reached at least the quarter-finals.
On what was one of the most high-profile games of Rangnick’s career – given his lack of experience in the Champions League – his selection decisions were always going to be scrutinised. The big one was to give Victor Lindelöf the starting nod at right back, which felt risky. Could Rangnick get his players to show the needed intensity at the first whistle? The short answer was no.
United were all over the place in the opening minutes and the path to Atlético's breakthrough goal was extremely well lit. There was the needless concession of an early corner by Harry Maguire, Fernandes giving the ball away three times in what felt like the blink of an eye and David de Gea scuffing a clearance. The nerves jangled loudly. Lindelöf had to bail out Fernandes, jumping into a brave block to keep out a José María Giménez shot.
The goal came after Lindelöf had cleared from a corner. Atlético worked it to Renan Lodi and his whipped cross from the left was a seductive invitation for Félix to throw himself at the ball. Which he did, the diving header a moment of the highest quality, all hang time and perfect body shape. It kissed the inside of the near post and went in. Maguire was the nearest United defender and he was not very near.
United tried to dig out a foothold by simply keeping possession. They were not going anywhere with it but it did not seem to matter. Anything to distil a few dregs of confidence. But the rest of the first half continued to be scarred by United surrendering the ball, with numerous players culpable. It was mainly because Atlético rushed players around it at the right moments and also cut off United’s passing lanes. Where were the options before the interval? United looked swamped.
The only mercy for Rangnick following an abject first 45 minutes was that the damage was not heavier. It would have been had Sime Vrsaljko converted another excellent Lodi cross at the far post after Atlético had almost walked in up the left. Instead, Vrsaljko’s header hit Lindelöf and ricocheted against the woodwork and away.
It shaped up as an ordeal for Cristiano Ronaldo. Whenever he was on or even near the ball, the boos dripped with venom. He has hurt Atlético so many times in the past that their supporters do not care to remember and how they loved it when he remonstrated with the referee, arguing for fouls, the frustration etched into every pore.
United's first-half output in creative terms was derisory and the hope from their side was that they could not possibly remain as shapeless after the break. Even so, there continued to be moments that made the travelling support shudder. Fernandes ballooned a cross intended for Paul Pogba; Marcus Rashford did likewise with a pot shot from distance. He had nothing on, a theme of the evening, so he tried his luck – and perhaps wished he had not.
It was niggly, fouls prominent, with United struggling to legitimately suppress the twinkle toes of Félix. And yet, despite it all, Rangnick’s team retained a puncher’s chance. If only they could fashion just one clear opening.
Rangnick trusted in his 4-3-3, making like-for-like substitutes, including Nemanja Matic for the ineffective Pogba. He also swapped both of his full backs but it was the introduction of Elanga that would make the difference. – Guardian