Atlético Madrid's vibrant, attacking performance in defeating Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 shows they had learned from their last visit to the BayArena, writes team reporter Joe Walker.
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When Atlético Madrid last visited Bayer Leverkusen they were put through the wringer. Undone by a high-octane outfit, they were fortunate to escape with a 1-0 defeat.
That was then, however. On Tuesday, the Rojiblancos put on a counterattacking masterclass of their own to secure a 4-2 victory and take a giant step towards the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.
- Highlights, report and analysis: Leverkusen 2-4 Atlético
- All the action from Leverkusen as it happened
"It was an emotional, passionate game," Atlético coach Diego Simeone said of the round of 16 first leg. "It was extraordinary for us. In the first half we were nearly perfect, we played smart and clever. We managed to get a really good result. It was a deserved win and the scoreline could have been bigger. I'm very happy with the team."
Despite his exuberance on the sidelines, it is hard to believe Simeone is often the picture of equanimity post-match in front of the media. Always one to put the team's achievements before his own, the 46-year old deserves praise for plotting one of Atlético's finest European away displays.
There have been others – like the backs-to-the-wall performance in Munich in last season's semi-final – but in an attacking sense, nothing comes close to scoring four times away from home for just the second time in their competition history.
The Argentinian tactician had clearly learned from the 2014/15 meeting and did his homework on the Werkself. Roger Schmidt's men press high up the pitch and move with immense speed. The onus was on Leverkusen to be on the front foot, meaning their would be opportunities on the break.
It is here where Simeone, who selected an uncharacteristically attacking and mobile XI, outsmarted his opposite number. Atlético's gameplan was simple: play Leverkusen at their own game. The idea was to press them into submission, win the ball back and immediately look to exploit the space in behind the German outfit.
Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro used sheer pace to overawe Aleksandar Dragović and Ömer Toprak during an opening period in which Atlético could have scored four or five, save for the woodwork and Bernd Leno. However, their success owed as much to Simeone's planning as the players' execution.
The easy option would have been to pick Fernando Torres as a target man. However, with Simeone sensing an opportunity to secure an advantage away from home, the French pairing were given the nod and repaid him with a goal each. It was an inspired decision.
Midfielders Koke and Gabi were clearly under instruction to feed the ball into the channels at the earliest opportunity, while Saúl Ñíguez, who opened the scoring, expertly helped overload from wide areas.
Even with Leverkusen appearing to mount an unlikely comeback, Simeone did not waver. He sent on Torres but kept the same tactical set-up. Minutes later he was vindicated as El Niño buried a late header to seal a memorable victory and put his side on the verge of reaching the last eight for the fourth consecutive season under their brilliant boss.