Atlético a European contender again with dominant defense

MADRID (AP) — With its good ol’ defense looking dominant again, Atlético Madrid is back in the Champions League quarterfinals and in position to make another run at the European title.

Atlético’s stout defense carried the team to a series of successes under coach Diego Simeone, including to two Champions League finals, but it had struggled recently and surprisingly became one of the team’s weaknesses.

The Spanish club had signed some top players to boost its attack and the squad became more offensively minded. With players like Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezmann and João Félix in the squad, Simeone started to experiment with more formations focused more on attacking than defending.

There was a price to pay, though, and for the first time in many years Atlético fell off the top of the list of best defenses in the Spanish league, where it sits in fourth place with 10 rounds to go following its title-winning campaign last season.

Atlético’s 36 goals in 28 matches this season is worst among the league’s top eight teams, and the poor defending also was partly blamed for the team’s elimination in the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup.

Heading into the second leg against Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo on Tuesday, a good performance defensively was crucial, and Atlético got just that in a 1-0 win that put the Spanish club back in the last eight of the Champions League for the sixth time in nine seasons — and first since 2020.

“We worked very hard defensively,” said Griezmann, who set up Renan Lodi’s 41st-minute winner at Old Trafford. “We have to keep doing this. We saw an Atlético team very strong, very solid.”

The teams had drawn 1-1 in the first leg in Madrid, when Atlético dominated offensively but allowed a late equalizer after a defensive lapse.

Before Tuesday’s match, Atlético had only two clean sheets in its last 12 matches in all competitions, conceding 19 goals in that run.

“It’s been an irregular season for us,” midfielder Koke Resurrección said. “Sometimes things don’t go your way, but little by little we have been able to start doing things well again.”

Atlético added Mozambique defender Reinildo Mandava to the squad in the winter transfer window, and he has played often in a back line that has constantly changed formations. The central defenders have been José María Giménez and Stefan Savic, with Lodi working with more freedom offensively at times.

Reinildo, Giménez and Savic did a super job containing Ronaldo and United’s attack on Tuesday, with goalkeeper Jan Oblak also playing well behind them and being one of the best players at Old Trafford. He helped Atlético keep its 42nd clean sheet in the Champions League since the start of the 2013-14 season — more than any other side during that time.

Atlético lost the title to Ronaldo and Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016 and was eliminated by them in the 2017 semifinals and 2015 quarterfinals.

“The defense was brilliant and Oblak helped us remain calm throughout,” said Simeone, visibly happy to see his team thriving defensively again.

“It’s exciting to see a team that can play competitively, that isn’t ashamed of playing all back in defense at times,” he said.

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