Pep Guardiola claimed that he had never criticised Atlético Madrid’s style, after a tense, edgy night which ended with Manchester City hanging on to a one-goal lead to reach the Champions League semi‑finals and a fight in the tunnel. But Diego Simeone, the Atlético manager, did not appear to be buying Guardiola’s explanation, insisting: “We’re not stupid.”
Koke Resurrección, Atlético’s captain, accused City of “falling on the floor and wasting time”, just as Atlético had been accused of doing, something that was admitted afterwards by the midfielder Rodri, who noted “everything’s licit in football” but insisted it was only the case in the final “five to 10 minutes”.
There had been a mass confrontation in the corner just before the final whistle. And Simeone denied he had sarcastically applauded the City bench, insisting he was clapping the fans.
There was also trouble in the tunnel, with the police forced to intervene. Footage showed Stefan Savic and Jack Grealish confront each other while Sime Vrsaljko had to be held back as he could be seen throwing something and spitting at City staff. Asked about that footage, Guardiola replied: “Nothing to say.” Simeone said he had not been there and not seen anything. City’s manager did, though, respond to suggestions that it was ironic that he had adopted the approach Atlético had been accused of, by insisting those accusations had not come from him.
At the end of the first leg Guardiola had noted that “ever since prehistory” it has been hard to face a team that defends very deep with two lines of five, words that were interpreted as a dig by many in Spain, perhaps even including Simeone himself.
“I have only ever had good words to say about him,” Guardiola said after the second leg. “He can play however he wants, of course. I would never say otherwise. All I said was that it is very hard. And they know how to do that better than anyone in the world.”
Asked if Guardiola had shown a lack of respect, Simeone said: “I don’t have to offer an opinion about whether someone is speaking well [of us] or not. Often, those who are very eloquent are very intelligent and have a way of praising you dismissively. But those of us who maybe have less eloquence are not stupid.”
In the end, City had to hang on to a lead, seeking to run down the clock to find a way through. “We had no other choice,” Guardiola said. “Atlético were absolutely brilliant. I don’t like playing that way at all but this team [Atlético] playing like his with their people behind them are almost unstoppable. All I said was that when a team plays that way very, very well, it’s very difficult. Nothing else.
“Don’t be mistaken, I never criticised Atlético,” Guardiola said. “They pushed us back, we forgot how to play. That’s to their credit. We’re celebrating going through but after that second half we could be out. We were in big, big trouble. They had chances to score, but they didn’t in the end.
“If we play in the semi-final like we did in the second half, we don’t have any chance.”
Atlético’s captain, Koke, pointed out that City’s players went to ground to waste time in the second half. “Lots of the time we get criticised for this situation, and now let’s see what people think of this today,” he said. “You’ve seen it, you can express an opinion.”
Rodri said: “Everything is licit in football. We tried to play. It’s true that in the end, because of the quality of your opponent, we were boxed in and when there are five or 10 minutes left you play with that weapon [time wasting]. I am not in favour of doing it the rest of the time, but in the end sometimes it happens. When that [the melee] happened, I tried to stay out of it; it’s my team mates and my ex-teammates and it is not at all pleasant for me.”
“We played surely the best team in the best team in the world and we competed,” Simeone concluded. “Football has many facets, ways of playing, and I am not going to have an opinion on what our opponents’ behaviour was like.”