Atletico Madrid vs. AC Milan: More Than a Victory for Diego Simeone

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Atletico Madrid vs. AC Milan: More Than a Victory for Diego Simeone
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

This match wasn’t just the start of something special for Atletico. They hammered AC Milan, making them look just as bad as they really are.

Four goals against the seven-time champion.

Atletico advanced to the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time in 17 years, but they didn’t just do that: They played their game, macho and relentless, and they won again at home, where they have lost just once this season.

Again, Diego Costa was the match-winner. Milan already have a hard enough time defending. Diego Costa was just too mobile and too tricky and too dynamic for Daniele Bonera and Adil Rami to cope with. Atletico could have tried to escape the game. Instead, they went for the kill as soon as they could, the goal coming just two minutes into the game.

Since winning the Champions League in 2007, Milan have failed to advance past the Round of 16 five out of six times. It is desperate. This tie was always a bonus and a test drive for Clarence Seedorf, who had a chance to understand the competition from the perspective of the bench after winning it so many times on the pitch.

Their season now has little meaning. Milan could make a late charge for the Europa League, but they are 20 points out of third place. They will have to sit out of the Champions League for at least a season—probably more. Sure, they might have been playing for €8 million, the amount of money up for grabs for the quarterfinalist, per La Gazzetta dello Sport, but they were really playing for something more: a reprieve from a season of agony, with 10 losses in Serie A—the worst in the era of Silvio Berlusconi, dating back to 1986.

And so it is fair that Atletico, a team on the rise, made easy work of a team on the decline.

For the majority of the tie, Milan looked uneasy, the ball skipping over their feet. It is now clear that Adel Taarabt is not yet ready for this level of competition. He did a bit of running, but he was missing in action. And Michael Essien was a disaster. Almost every time he touched the ball, he made the wrong move—and sometimes he was too slow to make a move at all.

Atletico kept on pressing them, and after two minutes Diego Costa lunged on to the end of a cross and scored mid-air. It was Essien who lost the ball cheaply on the touchline to Gabi. And Koke picked it up and ran into space to make an easy pass.

The first 10 minutes pretty much told us what we know: that Atletico like to run and hunt down the ball, and that Milan often play horribly without it. Atletico love to play man-to-man. That’s the spirit of Diego Simeone, who swung his arms about and yelled all over his technical box. The Spaniards picked on Urby Emanuelson on the left flank, two or three opponents surrounding him. Essien was no help.

Milan were under pressure, too slow, and they were left to make long passes. Milan, particularly Bonera at times, hoofed the ball up and watched it soar past everybody.

Then all of a sudden Milan calmed down. They controlled the ball and took their time to build a play, probing for an opening. In the 27 minute, Mario Balotelli received the ball and slipped a quick pass to Andrea Poli, who set up a great header from Kaka.

It was the Brazilian’s 102nd goal for Milan, a record 30th in the Champions League. No Brazilian has scored more than him in the competition.

When they don’t have to defend, Milan look OK. They almost looked a little like Barcelona for a few minutes, making pass after pass, going backwards before going forwards, waiting for the perfect moment. But they can’t defend, and they scramble like a flock of birds scared off a runway.

It's as if they are scared to challenge the opponents with the ball. Milan invited Atletico to shoot and walk in.

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

Again, Essien gave the ball away, and Atletico would score on a shot from Arda Turan, deflecting off Rami. Later in the second half, Rami diddled in the box, and several Milan players chased Diego Costa like school children. And again: Already a slow player, Emanuelson hesitated in his own half and lost control of the ball. The goal didn’t come there; only after Bonera fell down and handled the ball did Atletico have the chance to close the game.

From the free kick, Raul Garcia ran past his marker and headed the third goal. Two players from Atletico were offside; Raul Garcia was not. The game essentially ended at the 70th minute.

Diego Costa added a fourth when he crept behind the defenders one more time and guided the ball into the net.

Atletico exploited all the room that Milan left them. They crossed the ball with purpose, and even though they controlled the ball for just 44 percent of the match, Atletico put more shots on target (7) and attempted more shots (13) in total, per UEFA.com. They played like a team—every player was responsible in their position.

Milan's players, on the other hand, too often looked at their teammates to bail them out. They were constantly under pressure.

Milan conceded early in the first half, but they also found a way back into the game. Once they started on the defensive in the second half, they really could not switch the play and take the initiative. They were loose with the ball, and too often Milan booted it away without reason. They also hit the crossbar three times over both legs, but even if those were goals, they still would have lost on aggregate.

Paul White/Associated Press

Balotelli was frustrated, too. He was talking too much, and he kept talking even after the referee Mark Clattenburg showed him a yellow card. For all the hype, he still hasn’t scored a goal in any of the seven matches he has played in the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Yes, he scored against Germany in the Euro Cup. Yes, he was the man of the match when Manchester City won the FA Cup in 2011. And yes, he assisted Sergio Aguero for the goal that won City the Premier League title.

But Balotelli is not world-class. Not yet. He has to score in the biggest games, and he doesn’t do that enough.

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