And so it came to pass, with 92 minutes on the clock. A match that had simmered, all smouldering, corseted restraint, finally broke down into the nasty, snarky, theatrically overblown free‑for‑all that everyone at the Wanda Metropolitano always felt was on its way.
By the end there was talk of a fist fight involving at least two players and the sight of helmeted police sprinting for the tunnel. There was genuine bad blood on the pitch, words and pointed fingers. And above all the spectacle of Atlético’s players shaking their heads in utter confusion, lost in red mist that felt like someone else’s red mist, self‑Atléticoed, playing that horrible game from the other side.
In an excellent narrative twist it was, of all people, Phil Foden who sparked much of this. Yes, really: that Foden, City’s academy-reared flyweight, such an orderly, technical presence, but transformed here, in a match where he did little else of note, into a kind of nemesis, a banshee, a wildly infuriating figure capering about at a peppercorn rent inside the head of the great Diego Simeone. Who knows, this might even turn up being a defining Foden night, for all the right wrong reasons.
We know he can play, although here he was pushed to the fringes, moving constantly, never backing down, wearing his bandaged head like a trophy.
Instead he did something else; finding a way, not just to really, really, really annoy Atlético Madrid, but to help drag City over the line in a game they were desperate to get to the end of.
Best of all Foden completely spooked Simeone, who spent the final minutes of stoppage time wandering around clapping weirdly, nodding his head, smiling horribly, and looking, frankly, a little nuts.
It began with some defensive desperation. As the clock ticked down, and with City hanging on at 1-0 up in the tie, Foden set off on a long chase out of defence carrying the ball towards the corner flag, finally brought down by Felipe, who left a leg in on him.
At which point, enter: bedlam. Felipe was sent off for the challenge, a second yellow. Stefan Savic was also booked, although apparently not for a very obvious headbutt. Jack Grealish had a piece of it and had his hair pulled (no, not the hair) for his troubles.
And by the end, as every member of the Madrid population flooded the pitch in some formal capacity, a match that had passed through, the gullet like a gnarly, gristly piece of mutton finally had its defining interaction.
It is a melee that will, if anything, give City great heart. These are the games, after all, that get you there. And it was an odd one from the start.
The Wanda Metropolitano is a stunning spectacle on nights like these. The booing of the champions League “anthem” before kick-off was righteously observed (in every part of the ground), as was the taking of the knee, which brought peals of disgusted outrage among the home fans.
There was a moment of standalone violence within the first 15 minutes as Felipe came trapeze swinging straight through the back of Foden and left him dazed and cut, and eventually prepared to carry on with a large pink plaster around his head.
Otherwise this was furious, full-contact blood and guts, press and counter press. Atlético swarmed in small groups either high up the pitch or in a deep block, vacating the midfield at times. Every challenge, every duel was contested with the dial turned up to 12. This was the plan. The same, but more of it. Same tune, just louder.
City kept on playing through it in that first half, with something quietly regal in their refusal to be cowed. Kevin De Bruyne had a shot blocked on the edge of the box after nice work from Foden.
With 29 minutes gone Ilkay Gündogan hit the post from Foden’s pass. And at this point Foden was having a decent game drifting to that side, later rolling a horrible low cross through the six-yard box where the folksy, semi-mythical figure of The Manchester City Centre Forward – some say he has hind legs like a rabbit and stands 12 feet tall – flickered mournfully at the edge of things.
With 35 minutes gone something extraordinary happened. Atlético had a shot, their first in the tie. Geoffrey Kondogbia’s effort was easily held. He sprinted back toward the halfway line guiltily.
But they did change gear after half-time. Finally, we had the version behind the version, the team that wants to play this game. There were forward surges, overlaps. For a while the game seemed to break down into Atlético playing ambitious balls over the top and Ederson repeatedly rushing out to perform his cartwheeling high‑wire act, the calmest man in the stadium as he scorpion kicks a goalline clearance or somersaults off towards the corner flag .
But City did find a way to escape, led by that scampering little academy scoundrel on the left wing. If Foden grew here in a game where he did little otherwise of note, City looked like something else too, a team with the fight and the snark to take this thing a little further towards its end point.