Atletico hold back Real tide
Atletico 0 Real Madrid 0: Champions League quarter-final
Atletico Madrid head to the Bernabeu next week for the second leg of this Champions League quarter-final grateful to their agile goalkeeper, Jan Oblak, for keeping them in the tie.
The Slovenian made a series of saves to deny Real Madrid, and particularly Gareth Bale, when the visitors were utterly imperious for long stages of the first half.
Bale should certainly have taken one of his chances, when one-on-one with Oblak, but Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez also all failed to beat Atletico's superb last line of resistance. Atletico rallied in the second half, taking the game to Real, but lacked the finishing touch.
Although the game finished goalless, it will be remembered as a compelling match, especially in the first half, and it was Real fans singing the loudest when the final whistle left the tie evenly poised. Mario Suarez and Marcelo both collected cautions and will miss the second leg when Real will expect to exert home advantage but they will need to outwit Oblak.
Carlo Ancelotti had talked of his admiration for Atletico's ability to "fight from the first whistle to the last", qualities seen in their previous six meetings this season. Real's coach ordered his Real to players press hard, and attack relentlessly from the start, taking the game to Atletico. The Italian did not want a repeat of the 4-0 rout here when Diego Simeone's men covered five miles more collectively than Ancelotti's.
Real did everything but score in the first half and would have done but for Oblak, who was alert to danger whether emanating from near or far, making six saves before the break. Atletico's defence, usually so robust and mean, were unusually obliging to their guests. Few opponents would have lived with Real in this menacing mood for 45 minutes, pouring forward from all angles, not least the full-backs, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo. Even the smooth centre-half, Raphael Varance, the Frenchman with the Rolls-Royce engine, galloped upfield on one run.
A sign of Real's first-half dominance was reflected in their six efforts on target to Atletico's one and their 61 per cent possession. They were sharper to the ball, forcing Atletico into mistakes, nicking possession.
Kroos sat in midfield, spraying passes about, releasing Bale down the right and finding Ronaldo who was roaming in from the left, interchanging with Karim Benzema in the centre. Luka Modric was his usual two players for the price of one, winning the ball and using it deftly, always offering himself for any return. Bale made a couple of good sorties down the left, and should have scored when one-on-one but denied by the excellent Oblak.
Simeone, his black suit a contrast to the white livery of the visitors, became increasingly anxious, patrolling his technical area, occasionally threatening to step on to the field in his desire to get his message across. His team were being hustled out of possession. Simeone also gestured to the fans to raise their decibel levels. They needed little prompting. Real were here, and the verbal abuse of their august neighbours had started long before kick-off.
Whistles of derision pierced the warm night air constantly in the opening exchanges as the home fans signalled their dislike of seeing Ronaldo in particular in possession, driving forward or unleashing a low free-kick grasped by Oblak after Modric was tugged back.
There were howls of complaint from the terraces when Sergio Ramos went in hard on Gabi. There were cheers when Antoine Griezmann, playing just off Mario Mandzukic, drifted wide and turned Ramos, brilliantly eluding the defender's almost line-backer attempt to block him. Sadly for Atletico, Griezmann's cross was easily picked off by Varane.
Koke did send Mandzukic through but he was not quick enough to beat Varane, who then cut out a cross from Guilherme Siqueira. Atletico breaks were rare; the theme was one of Real hammering at the hosts' back door. After the rampaging Marcelo was fouled, Ronaldo slammed a free-kick straight into the wall. It is a sign of Ronaldo's supreme command, and his ongoing Champions League goal duel with Lionel Messi, that the Portuguese demanded the free-kicks. Note to Ronaldo: other free-kick takers are available, Bale for example.
The Welshman then almost scored from range, letting fly from 25 yards but again Oblak was equal to the challenge. The 22-year-old Slovenian, who may face England in June in Ljubljana, kept frustrating Real.
When Rodriguez caught the ball with the outside of his boot, Oblak again read its movement to save well. Athletic and anticipating quickly, Oblak shone.
Kept in the game by their keeper, Atletico then managed their one effort on target of the half after a mistake by Ramos, who sent his clearance straight at Griezmann. The Frenchman turned and shot, bringing a low save from the stretching Iker Casillas.
Back came Real. Modric shot just over. Varane's sprint ended with Oblak denying Rodriguez.
Atletico were vastly improved after the break. Simeone had been waiting for them in the dressing room. When they re-emerged, Atletico were hungrier, quicker, more threatening. The game briefly turned ugly when Mandzukic was furious about an aerial challenge from Ramos that left him with a cut forehead. It looked an accidental clash of heads but Mandzukic made an elbowing motion. The Atletico striker's fuse started burning. He went off briefly to be stitched up, and replace his blood-splattered shirt.
On returning to the fray, Mandzukic immediately sought retribution and was cautioned for a directing a forearm at Ramos. He then tangled with Carvajal, who got away with a sly punch into his opponent's midriff.
Real almost broke through but Benzema decided to pass to Ronaldo when well placed to shoot himself. Ronaldo's effort was blocked as was Bale's.
Sensing Atletico's growing threat through the middle, Ancelotti removed Benzema after 75 minutes and sent on Isco. Bale pushed through the middle with Rodriguez shuttling up and down the right.
Atletico kept pressing. Arda Turan went on a magnificent run but Real managed eventually to see off the danger. With seven minutes left, Simeone unleashed El Nino, Fernando Torres, for Koke but he was immediately dispossessed by Ramos. Atletico's late pressure caused Casillas real anxiety. Torres and Mario Suarez went close. Alvaro Arbeloa, who had replaced Carvajal, threw himself in the way of a Mandzukic shot, ensuring the game remained scoreless.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)