Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich spent 180 minutes in an occasionally gorgeous, often nasty, always intense, and entirely enthralling battle.
And after it all, there’s still no telling which team is better. Which is fine. The UEFA Champions League might be a tournament to crown Europe’s best, but that isn’t why we watch. We do it for the entertainment that comes with seeing the world’s best square off and if neither team makes their case as the better side, so be it. Neither Atletico nor Bayern Munich did and it was incredible.
The two-legged tie sent Atletico Madrid to the Champions League final on away goals. What separated the two teams was an arbitrary tiebreak that exists to encourage attacking play, not because it is a fair determination of which team was better. Without it, it would have taken another 30 minutes of extra time and then maybe penalties to decide a winner, and even then we still wouldn’t know which team was better.
Article continues below ...
An extra 30 minutes would have been brilliant, though. At least if the first 180 minutes were any indication.
Saul gave Atletico Madrid the lead in the first leg because he single-handedly beat four Bayern Munich defenders. It was a worthy nominee for the Champions League goal of the year and that it came from a 21-year-old against one of the world’s best teams was surreal.
David Alaba nearly matched it with a goal as brilliant, hitting a 25-yard bullet that ringed the underside of the crossbar. An inch, if that, was the difference between a terrific goal and a near miss. And the same was true of a Fernando Torres strike, which he expertly curled with the outside of his foot, only to have it clip the post and bounce away.
And somehow, the second leg managed to provide even more near goals and heart-wrenching moments that, if one had gone differently, would have completely changed the tie.
Atletico Madrid’s stout defense was tested time and time again by an ever-probing Bayern team and it stood up. It wasn’t always pretty, but it did good enough. And good enough was all there was because the teams were dead even.
Had Thomas Muller been able to make his penalty, Bayern would be in the final. Or had Artuto Vidal’s long-distance shot gone a half-yard right, it would have been in the goal. Even if Robert Lewandowski had been the slightest bit quicker to the rebound Jan Oblak spilled or any number of Bayern’s shots had taken the right deflection instead of just wide, Bayern Munich would have advanced.
But none of that went Bayern’s way. Does that little bit of luck make Atletico Madrid better than Bayern Munich? Of course not.
After all, Fernando Torres had a penalty of his own saved, robbing Atletico Madrid of their chances to finish in front, advancing without the help of away goals. That little bit of luck wouldn’t have made Bayern Munich the better team if they had advanced.
But imagine if any of those close calls had gone the other way. If the slightest bit of luck flips and Atletico Madrid win by a goal or Bayern Munich advance. Could it have made the tie any better?
It was the tactical battle between Pep Guardiola’s possession machine and Diego Simeone’s ruthless defense. Combine brilliant individual play with cohesive collective play, and you get every bit of brilliant and desperate soccer we could have possibly dreamed up.
So Atletico Madrid are one win away from being crowned "Europe’s best," which is as good as the world’s best. But it doesn’t necessarily make them the best. It means they were the only team to make it through each round, including 180 minutes against an evenly matched Bayern Munich. That’s not a knock — it’s the nature of most competitions — but that’s also what made the tie so good.
Two teams, 180 minutes, countless amazing plays, dozens of unbelievable near-misses, sideline antics galore and all the drama in the world. It was everything we want from a Champions League semifinal, identifying the "best" team be damned. They’re Champions League semifinalists. They’re all good. They showed us that. And it was magnificent.