Atletico restore belief but Juventus not done yet

Cristiano Ronaldo taunted them with five twiddling fingers, one for each of his Champions League medals, but Atletico Madrid left believing they were closer to the next one.

German referee Felix Zwayer (R) whistles during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg football match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Juventus FC at the Wanda Metropolitan stadium in Madrid on February 20, 2019. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

Ronaldo had jiggled his right hand during the match, baiting the home crowd, and then again a couple of hours later, to journalists, as he departed the stadium.

“Five for me,” he said. “Zero for Atletico.”

But it was a mark of his opponent’s performance over 94 pulsating minutes at the Wanda Metropolitano that Ronaldo had felt moved to make the point at all, let alone twice.

The tournament’s greatest ever player had an early free-kick saved and sent a late header over the bar, but in between, he was snuffed out by Atletico’s unrelenting backline.

Many had predicted that defenders would prevail in a contest of caution. They did, just not in the way expected, as centre backs Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin scored two late goals in five blistering minutes for a 2-0 win and sight of the quarter-finals.

“These are my boys,” Diego Simeone said. “There are lots of ways you can win but it’s the best thing that can happen to a sportsman – being in a group that knows how to compete and fight like brothers.”

Juventus were supposed to be the worst possible draw for an Atletico side struggling for form and losing belief in the dream of a Champions League final at their own stadium on June 1.

Atletico cannot celebrate too much. Costa and Thomas Partey will be suspended for the return leg while Massimiliano Allegri pointed out that Juve overturning a three-goal deficit against Real Madrid last season, at the Santiago Bernabeu, although they conceded one more to Ronaldo in injury-time.

Juve had also shipped two away goals to Tottenham in the round before, only to win at Wembley and progress. “I remain confident,” said Allegri. “We must have faith.”

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But Atletico delivered a timely reminder of why they have reached two Champions League finals in the last five years and how, this season, they want success more than ever.

This was their best performance of the season, perhaps even in the 17-month history of their new home.

“Beasts!” read the headline in Marca on Thursday.

“This was Atletico in their purest form,” wrote El Pais. “They dominated Juventus.

Who can stop them now?” demanded AS.

The intensity, rigour and military precision in defence were all familiar ingredients but more surprising was their sense of purpose in attack.

There was the energy of Diego Costa on his first start in almost 12 weeks, and the confidence of Alvaro Morata off the bench, who had one goal ruled out before setting up the opener, his downward header eventually falling to Gimenez’s right foot.

Simeone was bold too. He celebrated Gimenez’s finish by clutching his crotch. “I showed balls,” he said.

Simeone had begun with a tried and tested line-up but rolled the dice in the second half by bringing on three forwards – Morata, Thomas Lemar and Angel Correa – between the 58th and 67th minutes.

Allegri tried to preserve the stalemate while Simeone went for the win.

Now Atletico must finish the job.

“There is another match against a great team with great players,” Simeone said. “We expect to have to suffer a lot.”