Guardiola plays magpie again as Manchester City find joy in suffering | Manchester City

Diego Simeone started clapping and how the Atlético Madrid supporters responded. There was still time to play in Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against Manchester City at the Metropolitano, the additional nine minutes not yet up and there would be even more than that, as it turned out.

The Atlético manager later explained that his applause was for the fans, who had built a wall of noise during the tie, a fulminating backdrop to a high-stakes occasion. But why did he go so early with it?

Perhaps he realized the game was up, the 0-0 unbreakable, City sure to advance thanks to Kevin De Bruyne’s first-leg goal. And so it was a little like a manager shaking hands with his opposite number before the final whistle has blown; a gesture of sportsmanship, something to create a moment.

Did Simeone really think it was over? Or was it a ploy to create the energy for one last push, which Atlético did manage? In the 13th minute of stoppage time the substitute Ángel Correa unloaded for goal and he was denied by a smart Ederson save. Atlético were so close.

But the longer that Simeone continued to clap and the crowd to follow him, the more the alternative reading presented itself. Like everybody in red and white, Simeone was beside himself with frustration at his team’s inability to capitalize on their second-half dominance and fuming at City’s attempts to waste time – the play-acting, the writhing about, the need for treatment.

There was a sardonic undercurrent. Congratulations for winning like this. Like Atlético might do. Are City not supposed to be better, purer?

Simeone would deny it. Just as Pep Guardiola had denied and would continue to deny having criticized Simeone and Atlético after the first leg. The City manager had said that “ever since prehistory” it had been hard to face a team that defends deep with two lines of five.

Plenty of people in Madrid interpreted that as a dig but Guardiola maintained he was simply praising Atlético as the masters of the approach. Smiling or clapping while getting in the low blow; killing with kindness. It has been the theme of the meeting between the champions of Spain and England.

Diego Simeone tries to make his feeling known to Manchester City’s players. Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters

The third reading of Simeone’s stoppage-time behavior was the most unlikely. Was it grudging admiration for City? Finally you have learned how to close out a result. Guardiola has been cast as a magpie over the past days. He played like Liverpool against Liverpool in the 2-2 Premier League game on Sunday, using quick, long balls up the channels. Now he had played like Atlético against Atlético.

“I try to imitate the best teams and learn,” Guardiola said after the Liverpool game with so much sincerity it felt as though he had to be sarcastic. It is the tone that so riles some of his rivals, including Simeone.

“Often, those who are very eloquent are very intelligent and have a way of praising you dismissively,” Simeone said after Wednesday’s tie. “But those of us who maybe have less eloquence are not stupid.”

Whichever way you sliced ​​it, Guardiola and City had got under the skin of Simeone and Atlético. On one level, it was hilarious to hear Atlético bleating about City’s use of the dark arts, the very last word in pots and kettles. But more seriously, City had found a way to pass one of football’s greatest tests – getting through at the Metropolitano – and it was a new way for them, one to bind them even more tightly, particularly after the mass melee that flared in the 89th minute.

There was sweetness in the second-half rearguard action, in the suffering, which was encapsulated by Phil Foden. The forward was battered and bloodied, his head bandaged from the 12th minute after he was cleaned out in an aerial challenge by Felipe. But he refused to be cowed.

Phil Foden ends up on the turf as another set-to develops at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Phil Foden ends up on the turf as another set-to develops at the Wanda Metropolitano. Photograph: Oscar del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

“Unbelievable competitive mentality,” City’s Rodri said. “We grow a lot in this sense in the last years. We need to keep improving because we are going to live moments like this in the next games. We need to have a strong mentality, to be together and never give up.”

It remained a flawed City performance. Play as they did in the second half and they will most likely go out against Real Madrid in the semi-final. It was strange to see how City could not connect any kind of forward moves; much of it was sideways or passing for its own sake. When Atlético jumped into their press, City could not see the spaces. They were suffocated, barely able to cross halfway.

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City took on collateral damage, injuries to De Bruyne and Kyle Walker. The schedule remains intense and going the distance with an adversary such as Atlético, complete with the demands of travel to and from Madrid, is hardly the ideal preparation for another meeting with Liverpool on Saturday – in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. It has been lost on nobody at City that Liverpool were able to rest players in their home Champions League quarter-final second leg against Benfica on Wednesday, which was altogether smoother for them.

But City are into their third Champions League semi-final, one step closer to the holy grail of a first triumph in the competition. The hope is that the thrill of it and how they got it done can override the maxed-out bodies and minds.

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