Manchester City’s quarter-final against Atletico Madrid had been portrayed as a meeting between the beauty and the beast of the Champions League.
Pep Guardiola’s purists were in opposition to Diego Simeone’s arch-pragmatists, conquerors of Liverpool when they held the crown and a frustrated Manchester United in the last round of this season’s competition.
It was a scenario that needed beauty to get its hands dirty because breaking down Atletico requires patience, persistence and fierce self-discipline bolted on to the sort of brilliance Phil Foden and Kevin de Bruyne applied to produce the most decisive moment in a game of fine margins.
With frustration mounting inside Etihad Stadium and Atletico’s belief growing that they would have something tangible to take back to the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid in eight days, Guardiola made the changes that brought rewards.
Manchester City’s manager joked about accusations he is guilty of “over-thinking” in the Champions League in the build-up and there was some surprise he left Foden on the bench.
When City needed the magic touch, he introduced the 21-year-old and 79 seconds later the breakthrough came as Foden moved forward, then showed a touch of genius to slip a pass between the legs of Reinildo for De Bruyne to do the rest.
The Etihad was awash with joy after the tension, Guardiola leading the celebrations with a frantic fist pump towards joyous supporters before sending his water bottle flying with a flourish.
It showed the worth of this slender advantage and just how much any sort of lead and victory means against the masters of making like difficult. Atletico offered their usual diligent defence, the occasional darks arts and the sort of game management that even brought warnings for time wasting in the first half.
Simeone’s style is not to everyone’s taste. City were the light to Atletico’s shade but no-one should doubt the work which goes into playing the way that has been the hallmark of La Liga’s champions.
Atletico have quality, discipline and the nerve to back themselves to keep out the best attacks. The fact it was so difficult would not have come as a surprise to Guardiola. He will have seen it employed, with success, by the enigmatic Argentine for years.
Simeone will have spent endless hours on the training ground drilling his team to play in such a fashion, which is why elite managers such as Guardiola express unbounded joy when they can navigate a route around it. City enjoyed 71% possession but most of the time Atletico were happy to let them have it.
The technical area was pure theatre. Guardiola implored his players, directing traffic with extravagant gestures, getting involved in a heated debate with John Stones after one moment that displeased the manager.
Simeone, clad in black as ever, played the role of villain to the soundtrack of disgruntled City fans behind him. He raged to the skies as the Manchester rain poured down, berated officials, concluding his night by racing down the touchline to get involved in an injury-time fracas out of nothing. Classic Diego.
City’s lead may only be narrow, the outstretched foot of Stefan Savic stopping De Bruyne doubling it after more Foden brilliance, but you suspect Guardiola would have signed up straight away had he been offered it before the game.
Will it be enough?
City will certainly be happy to take a lead to Spain but they will note the warnings, even only in moments, from Joao Felix and Antoine Griezmann. Luis Suarez was on the bench as further proof Simeone does have the ability to show an attacking side should he choose.
Atletico will believe they can still overcome City, who have shown vulnerability away from home in the Champions League in the past, but the key factor may be that the onus is now on Simeone’s team to take a chance or two given they are behind.
It is a situation that may suit City’s array of attacking riches more than having to hammer away at the red and white wall at the Etihad.
It cannot all be about the beauty of City, on show so often as teams are swept away in the Premier League and in Europe. Sometimes you have to find a different way and Atletico are the team that force you to dig it out.
City uncovered it after 70 minutes to start what could prove to be the pivotal fortnight in their season in exactly the fashion they would have hoped for.
Liverpool come to the Etihad, fresh from their own emphatic Champions League triumph against Benfica in Lisbon, for the game many believe will be a title decider on Sunday, followed by the second leg of this tie before another meeting with Jurgen Klopp’s side in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.
This was dirty work – but Pep Guardiola will be elated by Manchester City’s willingness to do it.