Ralf Rangnick was asked after Manchester United’s victory over Tottenham on Saturday whether he thought his team could win the Champions League. It was all he could not laugh. After the funeral, in his words, that was the derby defeat at Manchester City the previous weekend, the question did not make sense, according to the interim manager.
Perhaps it is the hope that gets to people. Or the reality that United are a club that only seem to deal in the wildest of extremes. This was the night when it all came crashing back down, United’s flickers of promise ground into the dust by a streetwise and well-drilled Atlético Madrid to leave them with a familiar sinking feeling.
United have progressed only twice in the Champions League knockout rounds since their run to the final in 2011 and, over these two legs, they were second best. In many respects, they had got away with it in Madrid, Anthony Elanga’s late goal for 1-1 papering over the cracks. Here, after a bright start, they came to run into walls. Time and again.
United could not find the spaces, the incision or the moment of magic they needed to cancel out Renan Lodi’s 41st-minute header. The goal was a horrible one to concede; marked by a switched-off Diogo Dalot at the far post, Lodi got on the end of an Antoine Griezmann cross. But it also shone a light on Atlético’s threat on the counterattack. It was not the only time they cut forward with speed and high technical quality – the symbol of which was João Félix, the gloriously balanced striker.
Atlético got the small details right, particularly in terms of their defensive shape, with players always in position or close to the United man in possession, cutting off the options, ratcheting up the frustration.
Some of the United fans close to the tunnel were overwhelmed by it after the full-time whistle, shamefully throwing bottles at the Atlético manager, Diego Simeone, who had bolted straight for the dressing room. His team have now reached the quarter-finals in six of their last nine Champions League campaigns. He will surely brush off the insults. He might even smile at them.
United were aggrieved that the referee, Slavko Vincic, did not award them a free-kick just before the goal. Elanga had raced up the right and there was contact from Reinildo Mandava and so the winger thought he would get the decision by going down. He did not. Perhaps he tumbled too late.
The home crowd came to feel that Vincic was against them and there were moments when Atlético were happy to indulge in the darker arts. Even the substitutes got in on the act early in the second half, getting in the way of a United throw-in, leading to a furious ticking-off from the officials. Luis Suárez was a part of the posse and you can imagine how that was received.
But United did not help themselves enough and, as Rangnick groped for the answers, he could not find them. His five second-half changes included the introduction of Edinson Cavani up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and the lesser-spotted Juan Mata for Harry Maguire in a bizarre final move. Maguire had been shaky, again – a worry on the ball and also when Atlético ran at him – and his withdrawal was cheered by a section of the home support.
What did United create in the second half? Only one clear chance on 77 minutes. It came from an Alex Telles free-kick and, at last, there was a sight of goal for Raphaël Varane, who had wriggled out of the straightjacket imposed by Atlético. His header drew a flying, one-handed save from Jan Oblak.
The United inquest will rage, as they contemplate a fifth season without silverware. They will continue to push for a top-four domestic finish but the idea of that is to use it to make an impression at the business end of this competition. This was the moment when the glory was there to be embraced.
When United were hammering Leeds on the opening day of the season – with new signings on board and afoot – they were meant to challenge for the title. How things have unraveled. It has been a disaster.
United set the right tone at the outset. Briefly, Ronaldo was everywhere and Fred pulled off some sensational skills. It might have been different if Elanga’s close-range shot from a Bruno Fernandes cross on 13 minutes had gone in rather than smacking Oblak on the head and flying to safety.
Atlético, though, had fired the warning shots before the breakthrough. Rodrigo De Paul extended David de Gea with a pot shot destined for the top corner while Félix had a goal ruled out after a tight offside call against Marcos Llorente.
Fernandes worked Oblak before half-time and there were flashes from Elanga and Jadon Sancho leading up to the hour. Atlético, though, kept men behind the ball and they continued to threaten on the break. In the final analysis, it was the classic away-day performance from a Simeone team and, when Varane could not beat Oblak, United would not get close again.