Kevin De Bruyne’s second-half goal was enough to secure a 1-0 win for Manchester City against Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.
In an absorbing tie at the Etihad, Diego Simeone’s team held out for 70 minutes but Phil Foden’s introduction brought the breakthrough that puts Pep Guardiola’s side in charge.
Despite a dominant performance, there was no second goal, meaning progress is far from guaranteed ahead of next week’s second leg in Madrid but this was a hard-fought victory.
How Man City broke Atletico’s resistance
Manchester City dominated from the outset, the pattern set as Atletico set up camp inside their own half, relying only on sporadic counter-attacks to relieve the pressure.
Joao Cancelo had a shot, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne yelled for penalties, balls came into the box. Atletico withstood the pressure. Jan Oblak was not tested in the first half.
The personnel at the club may have changed with talk of a more expansive approach, of that old defensive resolve being lost, but on the big stage this was a familiarly stoic Atletico.
Could City find a way through and take a lead back to the Spanish capital? They probed and they pushed, but there was a warning when Antoine Griezmann almost raced away.
The best chance of the first hour of the game came from a free-kick that De Bruyne fired low to Oblak’s left but the Slovenian goalkeeper cleared the ball at the second attempt.
It was tight, it was tense. Simeone made three changes, hoping to maintain the resistance. Guardiola followed with a triple substitution of his own in search of the breakthrough.
That proved decisive. Foden made the difference within seconds, his sublime threaded pass bringing purpose and penetration. De Bruyne, ruthlessly, did the rest. Joy. Relief.
Foden almost conjured a second soon after, his dancing feet finding space on the right but this time De Bruyne’s low shot was blocked near the goal line. Atleti were still battling.
In the final stages that turned to desperation as there appeared to be a concerted attempt to get an opponent sent off. City just about kept their calm – and their nerve.
The tie is not over and Simeone will remain hopeful that a comeback is still possible in Madrid. But with Foden and the rest, it would be a mistake to bet against City.
Guardiola had mocked the notion that he overthinks these big Champions League team selections but perhaps the surprise decision to leave Foden out of his starting line-up for this huge quarter-final tie actually worked out well for him in the end.
Against tiring legs, his impact was immediate, his arrival altering the dynamic of the game in an instant. He was able to take the ball in a tight area – and there were plenty of them against this Atletico side – before finding the pass that City had been missing.
It was the moment that decided the match but it was not Foden’s only moment. He got away again soon after and then found the best ball of the night, bent in behind the Atletico defence with the outside of his boot to find that man De Bruyne yet again.
In 20 minutes, he did enough to be the man of the match. He might even be Manchester City’s best player now. Omitting him from the start did not prove costly here. But expect him to be in the line-up against Liverpool. Foden is just too good to be denied.