One thing has not changed ahead of Manchester United receiving Atlético Madrid to Old Trafford on Tuesday. This tie is still hugely important to both clubs, members of the European elite who today have much in common, gifted with prodigiously talented squads, burdened with enormous expectations and falling well short of them at the moment, with questionable plans and directions going forward.
It still feels as if the losers will find it hard to digest. Having come nowhere near a title challenge (United) and a title defence (Atlético), the Champions League is pretty much all they have left. The vulnerabilities of each and the parity they share after the first leg mean both have a great shot at a quarter-final spot. Those same shortcomings mean one of them will be left kicking themselves at failing to take it.
Some things have changed, though, since that first meeting, mainly for Diego Simeone‘s side. Their excellent first-half display against United in Madrid gave them something to build on, even if they failed to do so in the second half of that game to the extent that they couldn’t hold onto what would have been a deserved victory. Something clicked into place from the moment that the coach named his best two forward players as starters. The pairing of João Félix and Ángel Correa set the tone for Atleti’s feverish start which blew United off course, and justified leaving Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez on the bench.
That looks likely to be the case again in Manchester, despite Griezmann starting alongside João Félix in Friday night’s win over Cádiz. The Portuguese star scored again in that latest triumph and just as against United, it was a very goal poacher type of strike, closing down goalkeeper Jeremías Ledesma before dispossessing him and rifling home. Two-and-a-half years after his record-breaking transfer from Benfica, he is underlining that he has the killer instinct to be their centre-forward as well as the guile to conduct the orchestra.
Since a first leg in Madrid in which he outshone Portugal’s gold standard Cristiano Ronaldo, João Félix’s form has been simply sensational, and has lifted Atleti back into the top four, a position which looked to be slipping from their grasp at the start of 2022. That is perhaps where the balance of this tie has shifted a little. Simeone would dearly love to win a trophy that he has come so close to in the past. The difference is that United know that winning this season’s edition is probably their best chance of making sure they are back in it next season. Arsenal will have to implode from here to hand the initiative back to Ralf Rangnick‘s team.
United still have reason to hope – Jan Oblak, the erstwhile greatest goalkeeper in the world, again looked shaky in the closing stages against Cádiz, and Atleti’s defence isn’t quite right – but they must control their desperation to overcome an Atlético side who have begun rebuilding their confidence and are closer to looking the part.
Rennes tune up for Leicester return in style
Rennes must still be kicking themselves at the catalogue of errors – or “childish mistakes,” as their coach Bruno Genesio put it – that cost them a potentially crucial second Leicester goal in the dying embers of last week’s first leg.
They had performed well in England and really should have taken something better back to work with for Thursday’s return in Brittany, rather than being outdone by the streetwise Foxes. Genesio and company didn’t dwell on it anyway, flexing their attacking muscles in Sunday’s spectacular 4-2 win at Lyon, underlining their Champions League credentials and why they’re Ligue 1’s must-watch team this season.
They will certainly have to defend better than in the opening game but with the firepower they have – Martin Terrier, Gaetan Laborde and Jérémy Doku to name just three up top – all the way down to their adventurous full-backs, they could make it a rough ride for Leicester.