How Elanga's strike has transformed the tie with Atletico
It won’t go down as a vintage Manchester United performance in Europe.
There was scant footage to save for the United highlight reel until Anthony Elanga raced on to Bruno Fernandes’s slide-rule pass and calmly side-footed his shot beyond Atletico Madrid’s giant Slovenian goalkeeper and captain Jan Oblak.
Moments after coming on and with his first real involvement in the game, the Swede had scored a vital away goal – although, of course, it wasn’t an ‘away goal’ as such, with the decades-old rule for this competition phased out last summer.
But the mere act of Elanga introducing ball to net far below thousands of bouncing Mancunians transforms the tie, the mood, the task for the second leg. Everything.
The inside of the Wanda Metropolitano was a fairly sterile setting up until an hour before kick-off, but beyond the boundaries of the stadium you could sense that a special atmosphere was brewing.
In England, supporters tend to arrive at grounds in dribs and drabs, filing slowly in through turnstiles and taking their seats. It’s organic, building slowly to a crescendo.
Here, though, organisation is the order of the day. Atleti’s ultras gathered in the vast concrete plazas outside their new home. Their job? Make it as intimidating as possible for the travelling Red Army, as well as the United players in the team bus.
I was sat miles away in the press box, but you could hear the firecrackers, smell the sulphur, sense that this was going to be a bit different.
The pyrotechnics were impressive, what came next even more so.
Lights were dimmed, the opening bars of AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ drummed up and shivers ran down the spine as a giant, tier-dominating tifo was unfurled, proclaiming ‘Vuela Atleti’.
Fly, Atleti! Impressive.
When Simeone’s name was announced moments later, the accompanying roar shook the stadium – and that’s not poetic licence on my part!
Every single time Cristiano Ronaldo touched the ball, or appeared on one of the three giant screens, 60,000 Atleti fans jeered. Raphael Varane, formerly of Real too, and David De Gea – an ex-Colchonero – were also targeted, but the ear-splitting worst was reserved for our no.7.
Simeone urged his side on, his toes rarely breaking contact with the touchline, giant technical area virtually unused.
Coaxed forward by the Argentine, Atleti were first to every ball in the opening 45 minutes, suffocating United.
The Atleti fans behind the goal De Gea was defending after half-time kept up their side of the bargain, but United’s supporters – packed into the gods at the other end – started to dominate.
Ralf Rangnick made his substitutions and Nemanja Matic and Alex Telles especially injected something extra into the blue-shirted men out on the pitch.
It all looked like being futile though, even as energy dwindled and nervousness started to take hold throughout the stands.
But then Elanga struck and made the whole trip worthwhile.
Atletico have never lost a knockout game on their home turf in the Champions League under Simeone. Before Wednesday night, they’d conceded just two goals in those calibre of matches and one of those came in 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson was still Manchester United manager.
A more-than-capable opponent? Playing their hearts out for their ferociously inspirational coach in an intimidating cauldron of a stadium?
Throw a largely underperforming United into the mix and you can understand why the aftermath of Anthony’s goal sparked such euphoric scenes in the away end.
'Rhythm is a dancer, Anthony Elanga' on repeat for half an hour, perhaps more: we had to leave while those fans were kept back a little bit longer by the Spanish police, so who knows? They might still be singing it.
Post-match analysis in the days and weeks to come may seek to shine a harsher light on the nature of United’s performance, but as far as I’m concerned, some perspective is merited.
We’re still in the tie and still in the tournament, and that’s all that matters.
Now, all we’ve got to do is come back in 19 days’ time and finish the job in Manchester. Any win will do.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
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Stadium just shook when Simeone’s name was read out 😳 pic.twitter.com/KdJLu6L5J5— Sam Carney (@samcarney_) February 23, 2022