Manchester United were a little fortune to escape the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano with a draw in the first leg last month.
Atletico Madrid came flying out of the traps and were by far the better team in the opening 45 minutes, as United struggled to get going. Ralf Rangnick’s side did improve after the interval, but a late goal from Anthony Elanga was required for the Premier League side to avoid defeat. On the balance of play Atletico deserved a victory, but their failure to score a second goal on home turf means United are now the favorites to advance to the quarter-finals.
Predicting the outcome of matches involving Manchester United is far from easy. It is hard to know which version of the team will turn up.
United are regularly inconsistent within games, never mind between them. This is a trait that stretches back to the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era, when United would routinely start slowly, fall behind and then mount a dramatic comeback in the second half.
Convincing performances from minute one to minute 90 remain few and far between under Rangnick.
Take Saturday’s meeting with Tottenham Hotspur. United ran out 3-2 winners to boost their chances of a top-four finish. Cristiano Ronaldo was the star of the show, scoring his 59th career hat-trick – a phenomenal record for one of the greatest players of all time.
But United’s overall display was nothing to write home about. Tottenham did not perform particularly well either, but the Red Devils were sloppy without the ball and disjointed without it.
Rangnick is famed for his intense, high-pressing approach, but we have not seen anything of the sort at Old Trafford for some time now. Even after Saturday’s victory we are left with as many questions about this United team as answers.
This has not been a vintage season for Atletico Madrid either. The reigning Spanish champions looked set to contend for the La Liga title again this term; some observers even had them down as favorites.
Things have not gone to plan, though. Atletico currently sit fourth in the standings, after a nightmare run of results before the winter break sent them tumbling down the table.
At that point serious questions were being asked as to whether Diego Simeone, who has been in charge of the club for more than a decade, had taken Atletico as far as he could. But going into Tuesday’s second leg, the outlook at the Metropolitano is much brighter.
Atletico have won four games in a row in La Liga and will fancy their chances of finishing in the top four and qualifying for next year’s edition of the Champions League.
There were also plenty of positives to take from their showing in the first leg, even though Simeone will have been disappointed that his team were not able to establish an aggregate lead.
Atletico played with the sort of bite, aggression and grit that has characterized the Simeone era, but was conspicuous by its absence earlier this season. Just as important was their attacking cohesion and ability to create chances against strong opposition. Atletico look to have got the bit between their teeth again.
United have plenty going for them too, even if they are still a long way away from challenging for the Premier League title. Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Tottenham served as a reminder that the 37-year-old has still got it.
Jadon Sancho has found his feet after a difficult start to life at Old Trafford, while Bruno Fernandes is hoping to be available after missing the victory over Spurs.
Home advantage could also be key. United took seven points from a possible nine in front of their own fans in the group stage.
What is more, Atletico tend to struggle away from home against big opposition. They have already lost at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona this season. A tendency towards caution has regularly proved their undoing in matches like this.
United will certainly not have everything their own way on Tuesday. Unlike the best teams in Europe, such as Liverpool, Manchester City and Bayern Munich, they struggle to control games. That means their opponents always have a chance, and Atletico have enough attacking quality to take advantage of any defensive lapses.
Overall, though, United should be able to get the job done. Back a home win at Old Trafford this week.
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|Manchester United vs Atletico Madrid Information|
|Teams||Manchester United vs Atletico Madrid|
|Location||Old Trafford, Manchester, England|
|Time||Tuesday, 15 March 2022, 4.00 PM EST|
|How to watch||Paramount+|
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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