Atletico Madrid defeats Bayern Munich 1-0 in Champions League
Saul Niguez scores only goal of contest
Second leg of semifinal tie in Germany next week
Winner will meet Real Madrid or Manchester City in final
It is two years since Atletico Madrid had its heart broken.
Time may have passed but the scars still burn hot – and perhaps its rivals would do well to remember that.
For Diego Simeone, its coach who kicks every ball, makes every tackle and acts as cheerleader to those packed inside the Calderon, the opportunity for redemption remains.
It was inside Lisbon’s Estadio de Luz, that Atletico had dared to dream. It had already secured the La Liga title, defeating the giants of Barcelona and Real Madrid – but the most precious prize was within sight.
When Diego Godin gave it a 36th minute lead, it appeared that Diego Simeone’s side would win the European crown and in turn prevent Real from clinching the prize it so badly craved – ‘La Decima’ – an unprecedented 10th title.
And yet, it was not to be. For in the third minute of injury time, Sergio Ramos, the Real defender, headed home Luka Modric’s corner to force extra time where his side went on to score three more without reply.
Atletico was shattered.
Now, two years on, Atletico, having overcome the might of Barcelona in the quarterfinal, is once again on course for the final.
Saul Niguez’s 11th minute strike, a quite sumptuous effort, secured a 1-0 victory for Atletico and leaves it within touching distance of redemption.
“He (Saul Niguez) is in a brilliant moment,” Filipe Luis, the Atletico defender, told BT Sport.
“He is a good guy, he’s young but with his feet on the ground, today he had no fear, he went one-on-one with everyone
“I think it was a really beautiful goal, one of the best in this Champions League.”
This victory could have been even more emphatic had Fernando Torres’ effort not struck the post after the forward had weaved his way through the Bayern defense, but Atletico will travel to Munich in confident mood.
Second in La Liga, and in fine form, there are few who would back against a team held together by a spirit which many of its rivals have found impossible to overcome.
It defends from the front, fights for one another, hunts in packs and never knows when it is beaten.
In its 35 league games this season, it has only conceded 16 goals. It has kept five clean sheets in succession and showed once more why its defense is the best in European football.
“We played to win and to score and not concede,” Jan Oblak, the Atletico goalkeeper, told BT Sport.
“It was very important to score that goal, Saul did a great job. Bayern is an amazing team with amazing players, but all our players showed we can stop them and I hope that in the next game we will do it again. “We respect them but we never have fear.”
Better from Bayern
Bayern, having been left stunned in the opening period, emerged a far more threatening proposition after the interval and came within inches of leveling within nine minutes of the restart.
David Alaba, playing in central defense, strode forward and unleashed a rasping effort from 40-yards which flew past Oblak in the Atletico goal before crashing against the crossbar.
Bayern, unbeaten since March, then went close once again when Javi Martinez rose to send his header towards goal from close range only for Oblak to save on the line.
From having appeared impotent in the opening period, Bayern began to show the sort of form which has enabled them to sweep all before it in the Bundesliga.
Douglas Costa lobbed an effort just wide of the far post and Arturo Vidal forced Oblak to turn away his rasping drive from 20-yards.
Robert Lewandowski, who has now failed to score in eight of his past nine Champions League games outside the Allianz Arena, was hardly given a sniff.
And yet, for all its pressure, Bayern was indebted to the woodwork in ensuring it remained alive in this tie.
Fernando Torres, who has enjoyed something of a renaissance after returning to his boyhood club, danced his way into the penalty area before prodding the ball towards goal using the outside of his foot.
It appeared for all the world that the ball would fall and nestle in the corner and yet it hit the post and ran away to safety.
Bayern continued to push – Atletico, backed by Simeone and his legion of supporters, remained unmoved. The fortress would not be taken.
For Simeone and his players, redemption is within touching distance – and so is Real Madrid.