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Manchester City Phil Foden thwarts Diego Simeone Atletico Madrid master class ahead of breakthrough week of the season


MANCHESTER, England — For nearly 70 minutes, Atletico Madrid hosted a Diego Simeone masterclass at the Etihad Stadium. And then Phil Foden came along.

The 21-year-old England midfielder was introduced in the 68th minute, and less than 90 seconds later Manchester City were 1-0 ahead and poised to secure a perfect start to a 10-day spell that could end by defining their season.

It’s Liverpool on Sunday in the Premier League, followed by the second leg in Madrid next Tuesday, then the FA Cup semi-final with Liverpool at Wembley on Saturday. In just 20 minutes here, Foden pleaded to throw them all.

He made the difference in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals so much so that at the final whistle, striker Kevin De Bruyne went straight to offer a hug and a handshake. Had Foden stayed on the bench, City might not have found their way through Simeone’s rigid game plan and travel to Spain next week with the tie on the razor’s edge.

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“A tough game against a tough opponent, it’s so hard to find gaps,” Guardiola said afterwards. “They defend so well, so compact and so deep and we need the talent that Phil has shown in small spaces. They can punish you on the counter-attack because they are top players. Phil has a special quality. His reception is always forward and he has the composure to provide an assist to Kevin.

“It’s a good result, unfortunately at the end we had one or two more chances, but 1-0 to go to Madrid is good. Honestly, I didn’t expect to win 3 or 4- 0.”

Games against Atletico are, by Simeone’s design, often decided by thin margins, but Foden is good enough to squeeze an accurate pass through the tightest of spaces.

“We tried to stay tight, to use the counterattack. They didn’t get on target in the first half, but we couldn’t hurt them either,” Simeone said after the game. “In the second half we had more dangerous counter-attacks and then they scored. A very tactical game, both [coaches] looking with what he has to try to go through.”

Guardiola and Simeone wore the same long black coat on the touchline to shield themselves from the Manchester rain, but their footballing styles couldn’t have been more different. For long stretches, Atletico’s red and white shirts were holed up two lines in front of Jan Oblak’s goal, while Guardiola spent most of the first half telling John Stones – his centre-back – to push higher on the ground. After 20 minutes, City had recorded 80% possession, although Guardiola seemed well aware of the threat lurking in the Spanish champions’ low block.

Every time Atletico took out the traps, even if it was from the edge of their own penalty area, Guardiola crouched down in his technical area to prepare for the worst. Twice in the opening five minutes Atletico tried to play into space behind Nathan Ake, coming on at left-back in the reshuffle which saw Joao Cancelo move to right-back to make up for Kyle’s absence Walker by suspension. But Atleti’s threat going forward was limited all night.

Speaking at his press conference on Monday, Guardiola appeared to bristle at the idea that Atletico are a mainly defensively-oriented team. However, there was little in the first half to suggest otherwise. Simeone’s side entered half-time without shooting Ederson or even a corner. It may not be football for drooling, but Atletico turned defending into an art form, and with two-thirds of the game over, City’s best chance was an Aymeric Laporte header from a corner.

“They are very good,” Guardiola added. “They have spent many years together. We have created very little. They are very good at many things, and they have the patience and the time to defend for long periods. It is not easy to face a team with a lot of experience in this tournament. We will go there to score and try to win again.”

Whether one likes Simeone’s style or not, very few manage to do so at the Etihad these days. City had failed to score in a single of their previous 28 Champions League home games under Guardiola, but it wasn’t until Foden arrived – featured alongside Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus – that they looked likely to make it one from 29. Almost immediately, he picked up the ball in a tight space at the edge of the box, drew five Atletico defenders towards him and lifted his head to pass De Bruyne. It was one of two standout quality moments in the game, the other again coming from Foden when he danced down the line to create another chance for De Bruyne.

“We thought he would start, he’s very dynamic, very quick, powerful in finishing moves,” Simeone said of Foden. “He came on in the second half. Each of the three who came on have good characteristics. I like watching Manchester play, the patience they have to play.”

Atleti striker Joao Felix is ​​regularly mentioned as a future Ballon d’Or winner, but Foden – a year younger – deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation. Keep influencing the biggest games and it won’t be long before he’s at the center of it all. He should be given another chance against Liverpool on Sunday as City’s season reaches a critical stage. One less, three to go.

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