Real Madrid's full-back Dani Carvajal was lucky to escape a red card after he threw a punch at the Atlético Madrid forward Mario Mandzukic in Tuesday's 0-0 Champions League quarter-final first leg draw – but has denied biting the striker.
The pair tangled in the second half and television replays showed Carvajal clearly threw at least one punch at the Croatia international in an incident apparently missed by the referee.
Spanish media even suggested Carvajal had tried to bite Mandzukic’s arm although it was impossible to tell conclusively from footage published on social media. However, Carvajal has said: “I want to make it clear that I have not bitten anyone”.
Real's coach, Carlo Ancelotti, and his Atlético counterpart Diego Simeone were asked about the incident at their post-match news conferences, and whether they thought European governing body Uefa might take action, but both said they had not seen it.
It was the best of results, it was the worst of results. That was Ancelotti’s verdict on this tale of one city and two legs. The first ended 0-0; in eight days time, Madrid’s clubs will meet again for the eighth time this season, at the Santiago Bernabéu. Atlético remain unbeaten but the question was who will be better served by this result. As the dust settled here, the response was uncertain. Advantage … who, exactly?
Perhaps suspensions will help provide part of the answer. A handful of players walked a tightrope but only two fell, for now. Mario Suárez and Marcelo are both suspended. Should Uefa choose to act on Carvajal’s punch upon Mandzukic, Real may be without both full-backs.
While neither Ancelotti nor Simeone were drawn into it, although a few hundred yards away Mario Suárez was complaining: “A Serbian can’t referee a game like this.”
"Sorry," Real's manager offered, "I didn't see it, so I really can't say anything." Simeone said he thought the clash between Sergio Ramos and Mandzukic that left the Croat with a bloodied face was unintentional. Asked after that about the later clash with Carvajal, his replies underlined the kind of bruising encounter it had been for the striker. "Which clash?", he asked. Carvajal and Madzukic, he was told. "In the first half or the second?" he asked. The second half, he was told. "But Mandzukic on Carvajal? Or Carvajal on Mandzukic?" Carvajal on Mandzukic, he was told. "I didn't see it," he shot back, smiling as he delivered the punchline. But had he asked Mandzukic about it? "The language barrier makes that difficult," he replied.
And so, instead it was left for the two coaches to interpret the result and the way they had played. Simeone had said he wanted to win, which his team did not, but nor did they concede and the suspicion always lingered that he would settle for that. All the more so after Real had created chances, the best falling to Gareth Bale after just three minutes. When one question after the game began: “The most important thing for you was not to concede …” he did not contradict the assertion.
As for Carlo Ancelotti, he had wanted a goal which Real did not get and they have now gone seven games without beating Atlético, four of them without scoring, but they were not beaten for the first time here and did not concede either. When another question after the game, delivered by an Italian journalist, began: “You don’t like 0-0 in the first leg, you never had …” he, like Simeone, did not contradict the assertion. He had also insisted before the game that two draws might be enough to progress and he repeated that here but barring penalties only Atlético can take that route to the semi-final now.
So, good or bad? “This was the best of the worst results,” Ancelotti grinned.
It was certainly the best of their performances this season, for 45 minutes at least, and that was what had pleased him. Here, at least, Real stemmed the bleeding at the ground where they were beaten 4-0 two months ago and where they had lost each of their last three games. Not only that but they have never created so many chances or exercised such control, certainly not like they did in the first half. For almost the first time in nine hours of football between these teams this season, Real dominated.
The eighth meeting will decide what happens now. The outcome is uncertain but Álvaro Arbeloa’s assertion that Real had worked out why they lost before looked to contain a kernel of truth here, until the frantic final minutes in which Atlético were close to the winner. “I don’t think the seven games [without winning] will be in the players’ heads. What we need to do in the second leg is play the way that we did for the first half here,” Ancelotti said.
"In the first half we deserved more than a 0-0; the first half was fantastic. The result is not so good but we have confidence because of the way we played." Asked why Real had not scored, replied: "Atlético are one of the best teams in the world defending, so it is hard to score. We tried but in the first half [GOALKEEPER]Jan Oblak did a great job." By the full-time whistle Real had taken 16 shots; Oblak had saved eight of them.
It had taken Real over an hour to take their first shot the last time they were here, and then it was jeered derisively as Ronaldo watched the ball trickle apologetically wide. Here, it took them three minutes and there were no jeers, just relief. A mistake from Diego Godín allowed Bale to race through, one on one with Oblak. The goalkeeper, who came on as a substitute for the injured Miguel-Ángel Moyà and whose penalty saves sent Atlético through to this derby, saved superbly. That had been Bale’s moment. There were not many more, although one dipping shot was pushed away expertly.
“Bale did everything right,” Ancelotti said, “but in front of him was a great goalkeeper who made a great save.” Simeone agreed. “We saw a great Oblak, especially in that chance for Bale,” he said. Over the following 87 minutes, other chances came – first for Real, later for Atlético. None were as clear as that one but they were there, particularly for the visitors. There was a different feel to previous games. Atlético were rattled but, then, few teams are as good at resisting as they are. “The best thing was the reaction we had; any other team that had been hurt as we were in the first half would have ended up giving way,” Simeone said.
They did not. Next Wednesday they meet again and the rewards, and the risks, have not been as great since the two sides closed last season by meeting in the final.