Football Features

Three reasons Manchester United can beat Atlético Madrid in the Champions League

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 12:12, 22 February 2022

Manchester United are heading for an epic Champions League showdown against Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.

While pre-existing reputation would suggest Man Utd are the bigger club here, if you look at the performances and successes of either side since the arrival of Diego Simeone in Madrid, a very different picture is painted.

Since Simeone took charge in 2011, Atleti have won La Liga, Europa League and UEFA Super Cup twice, the Copa del Rey once and they’ve also made two Champions League finals.

In that same time period Man Utd have won the Premier League, Europa League and FA Cup once. That’s it. They’ve made a second Europa League final, but haven’t been further than the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Atletico Madrid v Man Utd: Champions League odds from William Hill

  • 90 mins: Atletico Madrid 29/20 | Draw 21/10 | Tottenham 2/1
  • Enhanced odds on Cristiano Ronaldo to score first – was 5/1, now 6/1
  • Enhanced odds on Paul Pogba to score anytime – was 4/1, now 11/2

All odds accurate at the time of publication. You must be 18 to gamble. For more information, visit Be Gamble Aware.

Atleti have been a far more successful club and almost any neutral would instantly back Simeone’s men to win. But can Man Utd fans be optimistic? On paper they should lose to the wonderful defensive side that is Atleti, but is reality that simple? Let’s see!

1. Rangnick Rising

Whisper it quietly, but Man Utd are steadily improving under Ralf Rangnick. It hasn’t been the explosion of peak pressing performance that some were expecting to follow the German’s appointment, but it has been a slow and steady improvement.

Even the FA Cup exit to Middlesbrough, while humiliating, came off the back of an excellent display full of verve and movement in which Man Utd should have scored more than just a single goal. And in their past few games they have been putting in solid performances. Not quite a full 90 minutes, but enough that they can pick up solid wins.

Harry Maguire has found some form at the back, Bruno Fernandes is continuing to create chances and cause havoc for opponents, and of course Jadon Sancho has really hit his stride.

The improvement in Sancho is perhaps the most important distinction, as it splits the team’s creative burden that was previously falling entirely on Bruno Fernandes and offers them a genuinely creative presence out wide.

Looking at his performances in the Premier League, from the start of the season up to the end of January, Sancho had 0.1 goals per 90 minutes, 0.0 assists per 90, 2.01 chances created (0.1 Big) and 2.01 out of 3.83 completed take-ons.

Compare that to his form since February began, where he has 0.26 goals per 90, 0.51 assists per 90, 2.06 chances created (0.77 Big) with 2.57 out of 5.66 completed take-ons. He is miles better now and is the kind of attacking player who can really get at an unbalanced Atleti back line, especially one without Daniel Wass at right-back.

And finally: Paul Pogba! The Frenchman’s return to the starting XI at the beginning of February was the catalyst to United playing better, as his passing and vision adds so much more thrust and drive to the United midfield, allowing the forwards (including Sancho) getting the ball in better positions, making their lives so much easier.

2. Weak Oblak

Of course, what will also make Manchester United’s lives easier is something that isn’t being talked about enough: Jan Oblak is having a seriously down year. The Slovenian goalkeeper has been one of the best goalkeepers in the world pretty much from the moment he joined Atleti in 2014 as Thibaut Courtois’ replacement.

However, this year there have been chinks in his armour like never before. Last season as Atleti romped to the title, Oblak faced 125 shots on target in La Liga but made an utterly ridiculous 103 saves, that’s an 80% save percentage. In the entire season Oblak kept 18 clean sheets and conceded just 25 goals.

His best season was arguably 2017/18, when he faced 127 shots on target, making 109 saves for a save percentage of 82.68%. He kept 22 clean sheets and Atleti only let in 22 goals across the entire season.

Compare that to this season, where Oblak has faced 67 shots on target so far (admittedly the season isn’t yet finished) but has made just 33 saves. That’s a save percentage of just 49.25%. And it gets worse, as Oblak has kept just seven clean sheets and conceded a massive 34 goals. That’s more than he’s conceded in any of his seasons in Madrid, and there’s still so much of the campaign to go!

If Man Utd can get some shots on target, it’s honestly going to be a 50/50 as to whether Oblak can make a save. That is a huge mark in the Red Devils’ favour because it means Simeone cannot rely on his defence like he enjoys doing.

3. Cristiano Crushes Cholo

The biggest problem for Diego Simeone, however, is that he’s facing Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese phenomenon has made a habit of ritually punishing the awesome Argentine coach.

In their first ever clash all the way back in 2012, Cristiano bagged a hat-trick in a 4-1 win at the Vicente Calderón. He scored in a 2-0 win the following season as well. And although he got sent off in the 2013 Copa del Rey final loss, and Atleti then went on a three-season, six-game run in La Liga where they never lost to Los Blancos, that run was predictably broken by Ronaldo who smashed a hat-trick in a 3-0 win back at the start of 2017.

But it’s Europe where Ronaldo’s dominance of Cholo is most dramatic, total and crushing for the Atleti man.

Starting with the 2014 Champions League final, where Ronaldo scored the fourth and final goal of Real Madrid’s 4-1 victory, the Portuguese superstar eliminated Cholo and Atleti from the Champions League in five out of six seasons, including four straight between 2014 and 2017.

There was the final in 2014 (4-1), the quarter-finals in 2015 (1-0), the final in 2016 (6-5 on penalties) and the semi-finals in 2017 that also saw Ronaldo score a devastating hat-trick to tear down an excellent Atleti.

In 2017/18, Atleti were eliminated at the group stage and, with no Ronaldo in their way, went on to win the Europa League while the Portuguese striker made it a threepeat with Los Blancos in the Champions League.

Then after the Portuguese joined Juventus, he was predictably drawn against Atleti in the 2018/19 round of 16. And after a 2-0 away defeat that seemed to put Juve on the brink, what else but a Ronaldo hat-trick would turn the tie on its head and prove that, no matter the club crest, Cristiano crushes Cholo.

(Juve also beat Atleti 1-0 in the 2019/20 group stages, just to confirm the curse is real even if Ronaldo doesn’t score).

So now Man Utd face Atlético Madrid in the round of 16, and even if other factors weren’t already giving them hope and optimism, having Ronaldo the ultimate Simeone killer in their team will truly make them believe that they can beat Atlético and advance to the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2019.