AAnd so it happened, at 92 minutes on the clock. A match that had simmered, all smoldering, corseted restraint, finally crumbled into the nasty, scathing, theatrically over-the-top free-for-all that everyone at the Wanda Metropolitano always felt was coming.
At the end there was talk of a fistfight involving at least two players and the sight of helmeted police officers sprinting towards the tunnel. There was real bad blood on the pitch, words and pointers. And especially the spectacle of Atlético players shaking their heads in total confusion, lost in red fog that felt like someone else’s red fog, even Atlético players playing that horrible game from the other side.
In an excellent narrative twist, it was Phil Foden of all people who sparked much of it. Yes, really: This Foden, City’s flyweight raised by the academy, had such a neat, technical presence but morphed into a sort of nemesis, a banshee, here, in a match where he did little else of note , a wildly angry character prancing around to a peppercorn pit in the mind of the great Diego Simeone. Who knows, this might even turn into a pivotal Foden night for the right, wrong reasons.
We know he can play, although here he was marginalized, constantly moving, never backing down and wearing his bandaged head like a trophy.
Instead he did something else; finding a way not just to really, really, really annoy Atlético Madrid, but to drag City over the line in a game they were dying to finish.
Best of all, Foden gave a complete spook to Simeone, who spent the final minutes of stoppage time wandering around, clapping oddly, nodding his head, smiling horribly and, frankly, looking a little crazy.
It started with some defensive desperation. As the clock ran out and City remained tied 1-0, Foden set out on a long chase from defense and carried the ball towards the corner flag, which was eventually brought down by Felipe, who left a leg inside him.
At this point, type: chaos. Felipe was sent off for the challenge, a second yellow. Stefan Savic was also booked, but apparently not because of a very obvious headbutt. Jack Grealish had a piece of it and had his hair pulled (no, not his hair) for his troubles.
And in the end, with every member of Madrid’s populace flooding the pitch in some formal capacity, a match over, the gullet, like a gnarly, gristly hunk of mutton, finally had its crucial interaction.
It’s a melee that will give City a big heart, if anything. After all, these are the games that will get you there. And it was weird from the start.
The Wanda Metropolitano is a breathtaking spectacle on nights like this. The booing of the Champions League ‘anthem’ before kick-off was rightly observed (in every part of the stadium), as was the knee injury, which prompted disgusted outrage from the home fans.
There was a moment of independent violence within the opening 15 minutes as Felipe swung the trapeze right through Foden’s back, leaving him dazed and injured and eventually preparing to continue with a large pink band-aid around his head.
Otherwise this was furious, full contact blood and guts, press and counter press. Atlético swarmed out in small groups either high up or in a deep block and at times cleared the midfield. Every challenge, every duel was fought with the dial turned to 12. That was the plan. The same, but more of it. Same tune, just louder.
City continued to play it through that first half, with something quietly royal in their refusal to be intimidated. Kevin De Bruyne blocked a shot on the edge of the box after a good job from Foden.
In the 29th minute, Ilkay Gündogan hit the post after a pass from Foden. And by that point Foden was having a decent game, drifting to that side and later rolling a terrible low cross through the six-yard box where the folksy, semi-mythical figure of the Manchester City center forward – some say he’s got hind legs like a rabbit and stands 12 feet tall – sadly flickered on the edge of things.
After 35 minutes something extraordinary happened. Atlético had a shot, their first in a draw. Geoffrey Kondogbia’s try was held loose. Guilty, he sprinted back to the center line.
But after halftime they switched gears. Finally we had the version behind the version, the team that wants to play this game. There were forward thrusts, overlaps. For a time, the game seemed to shatter in Atlético, who played ambitious balls over the top, and Ederson kept dashing out to perform his cartwheeling tightrope, the calmest man in the stadium when his Scorpio fired a goal-line demolition or somersaults toward the corner flag .
But City found a way to escape, led by that frolicking little academy rogue on the left wing. If Foden has grown here in a game where he’s otherwise done little of note, City also looked like something different, a team with the fight and the snark to push this thing a little further towards the end point.