Atletico Madrid’s resurgence continued on Wednesday just a year after they were forced to sell leading scorer Radamel Falcao to reduce their huge debts as they eliminated Barcelona to reach the Champions League semi-finals for the first time in 40 years.
A goal by Koke — who has been with the club since he was eight years old — saw them deservedly beat Barcelona 1-0 on the night and progress 2-1 on aggregate and perhaps also register a changing of the guard at the top of Spanish and European soccer.
Bayern Munich — bidding to become the first team to successfully defend their title — also reached the last four, beating Manchester United 3-1 to go through 4-2 on aggregate.
They join United’s Premier League rivals Chelsea — who beat Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday — and Atletico’s city rivals Real Madrid, victors over last season’s beaten finalists, Borussia Dortmund.
Atletico — who last beat Barcelona four years ago — came roaring out of the blocks and got the only goal of the game through Koke, his first in this season’s tournament, in the fifth minute.
Atletico, who are also top of La Liga in a three way battle with Barca and Real, could have been 3-0 up after 15 minutes as former Barcelona striker David Villa hit the woodwork on two occasions.
Barcelona were largely contained by Atletico and star player Lionel Messi had an especially torrid night as he failed to score against Atletico for the sixth successive game.
For Atletico coach Diego Simeone — who last year was forced to sell Falcao for 60 million euros (US$83 million) when their debt was officially estimated at 170 million euros, but some experts said it was up to 300 million euros — it was another significant victory.
“We maintain the same humility. We understand that the other teams [in the semi-finals] have been there far more than Atletico Madrid,” said the 43-year-old, who was a bundle of energy on the touchline, urging the crowd to raise the noise level and continually making the sign of the cross. “We are there 40 years later and we believe in what we are doing.”
It is the second time that Atletico and Real have reached the semi-finals of European club soccer’s most prestigious tournament in the same season — 1959 being the previous occasion — and is is only the fourth time clubs from the same city have reached the last four, AC Milan and Inter in 2003 and London duo Arsenal and Chelsea in 2009 being the others.
For 22-year-old Koke, who made his senior debut aged just 17, it was an especially emotional night.
“The team were spectacular in this game,” Koke said. “This team has no limits and we must keep on making the fans dream.”
Defeat will heap the pressure on Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino, but Simeone’s compatriot was not focusing on that.
“Of course we feel bad about this defeat,” he said. “However, while we can’t win three trophies, I don’t think this defeat will affect us on the other two fronts. We still have the league, we have a match against Granada on Saturday and the Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid next Wednesday.”
While Bayern dominated possession, it was United who took the lead through a spectacular long-range effort from an unlikely source, French fullback Patrice Evra.
However, their joy was not to last long as Bayern went down the other end and Mario Mandzukic headed an equalizer.