Atletico Madrid advanced to the Champions League final for the second time in three years. Escaping Germany with a nerve-jangling 2-1 loss, as Diego Simeone led his tight-knit band of pugnacious players past a heavy favorite, yet again, with Bayern Munich now joining Barcelona on the sidelines.
Atletico progressed thanks to Tuesday’s away goal, after 1-0 win in the first leg, with the series ending 2-2 on aggregate, doing what it’s done since Simeone arrived -- beating one of the world's best teams by leaning on a steadfast defense, unrivaled chemistry, immense effort and teammates who run with single-mindedness in one foot and self belief in the other.
Bayern created numerous scoring opportunities at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday, probably enough to go through (outshooting Atleti nearly five to one while maintaining a ridiculous 73 percent of possession), but it was facing a team that spends most of its time on soccer fields engaging in close combat, and winning by razor-thin margins, the fact the Rojiblancos are better prepared for close games when they get the big boys to play on their terms should surprise no one.
Atletico Madrid is now in fact one of the big boys, though Simeone’s men would probably take offense to that -- if only because they take offense to everything.
Chaos is an acquired taste. Atletico and Simeone are comfortable amid chaos, habitually creating havoc in its absence, relying upon the fact they’re more comfortable surrounded in turmoil than you are, and they’re usually right.
The Argentine practically challenged Bayern's Pep Guardiola to a fight in Tuesday’s first half -- and you know things are boiling over when Franck Ribery is among cooler heads prevailing, with the Frenchman holding back the opposing coach.
Currently serving a suspension in La Liga for a sideline incident, Simeone appeared to be in danger of missing the Champions League final in Milan, but a late shove to what as suggested was a UEFA official was actually an Atleti assistant.
Often close to being arrested during games, or close to it, Simeone is typically far more composed and effusive with praise afterward.
"The first time we saw a tremendous team, pressure, play, positioning, pace, aerial power, speed -- they were fantastic in the first half," Simeone told Antena 3. "We had not much of a response. In the second half it was a different game, more balanced, we countered well and scored. That allowed us to get closer to the end, with the advantage of the goal at the Calderon."
Xabi Alonso made it 1-0 Bayern with a deflected free kick, Fernando Torres missed a late penalty for Atleti, and things might’ve been very different if Thomas Mueller would’ve converted a 33rd minute penalty to make it 2-0.
"We dominated Atlético for 90 minutes. To then go out and to have missed a penalty, obviously hurts,” Mueller said.
Bayern’s dominance was undone by a single perfect through-ball from Torres, putting Antoine Griezmann in space against the world's best goalkeeper for the priceless away goal. (Replays revealed Griezmann onside, as the linesman nailed a crucial call.)
It was practically Atleti's first decent chance in the game, the fact Griezmann took his time and placed it perfectly should not be a surprise, as almost every game Atletico plays is won and lost by a single play here or there, like his teammates, the French star flourishes in a world where chances are few.
Sixth in La Liga with 21 goals, Griezmann’s 89 shots are fewer than any player who’s scored more, he also has a higher percentage of his team’s goals than any other top scorer in Spain, with 21 of Atleti's 60 La Liga goals (Luis Suarez has 35 of Barca's 104).
Griezmann, with seven, and Saul, with three, are the only Atleti players with multiple Champions League goal this season. Bayern has seven such players, including Robert Lewandowski, who nodded home a layoff from Arturo Vidal to make it 2-1 in the 74th, setting up an enthralling finish.
But Atleti held firm, as did its keeper.
Tuesday it was Jan Oblak’s turn to play hero for Atletico, the Slovenian keeper was spectacular throughout, including this save in the dying moments.
Excellent reaction by (wrong footed) Oblak to parry away Alaba's deflected shot in 89th minute. pic.twitter.com/FtTFYVW65z— Slovenian Football (@sloveniafooty) May 3, 2016
Who is the world's best coach? Atletico Madrid had played in one European final prior to Simeone's arrival, losing in 1974 during a replay to Bayern; it was Bayern’s first European title.
This will make two Champions League finals in three years for Atleti in its fourth full season under Simeone. The 46-year-old coach also brought the club its first La Liga title since 1996 two seasons ago, and this year's title race is far from over.
Guardiola's name has been front and center of the world's best coach conversation since he took over Barcelona, but it’s about to be dragged through the mud in the streets of Munich after being dumped out of the Champions League semifinals by three different Spanish clubs in three years (Real, Barca and now Atletico), regardless of the fact that Pep will have won three Bundesliga titles before leaving this summer for Manchester City.
While it’s doubtful anyone would want to live in a soccer world where every team played the way Simeone's magnificent eleven do, there’s a perverse satisfaction in watching the world's best teams defied by seemingly ancient tactics executed to near perfection -- as if world-class players are trying to find holes in an irascible Spanish wall for hours at a time.
It would be a disservice to the talent of Atletico's players to compare their quality to that of the now famous Foxes of Leicester City -- but both clubs offer stark reminders of just how far teams can go collectively when they're all fully committed to rowing in the same direction for a coach they admire.
And surely there's some irony in the fact that, supposedly a large part of Bayern's infatuation with Guardiola was that the German giant wanted to play more attractive soccer so it would become more beloved around the world, as Barcelona has -- only to have the coach’s last Champions League game at Bayern see him be bounced by Simeone's Spanish ruffians.
Atletico against the world. Nothing comes easy for the mattress makers of Madrid, and that's just fine with Simeone and his Colchoneros. Currently level with Barcelona on points in La Liga, and one point ahead of Real, in spite of the fact Atleti's goal difference pales next to either (Barca +75, Real +74 and Atleti +44).
Atletico's 2014 La Liga crown was the first Spanish title decided on the field between the possible winners during the last matchday since 1951. Atleti trailed at Barcelona during halftime, then fiercely protected a precious 49th minute Diego Godin header for the rest of the game, before being serenaded off the field by the Barcelona’s fans, recognizing the fact Atleti had done the impossible by outlasting Barcelona and Real Madrid in the same season.
This same team, which just knocked out Bayern and Barcelona, was held scoreless during the Champions League group stages in a 0-0 draw -- in Kazakhstan of all places, at Astana.
Simeone’s squad also became the first to ever escape a penalty shootout after consecutive scoreless draws during the knockout rounds, slipping past PSV Eindhoven in the round of 16 without scoring during the run of play.
Just moments away from beating Real Madrid in the 2014 final before a late header snatched the dreams of Madrid's little brother, few thought Atletico could make it all the way back to the final, much less two years later, and with Barcelona and Bayern Munich lying in wait it sounds like yet another impossible dream.
But Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid live to do the impossible, and thrive amid the chaos they create -- and then they dare you to do the same.