MADRID: Manchester United recovered in workmanlike fashion from a shaky start to shackle Atletico Madrid 1-1 in the Metropolitano and earn the right to be favourites to win a Champions League quarter-final place beyond the Old Trafford return in three weeks’ time.
The night’s other tie saw Benfica and Ajax draw 2-2 in Lisbon in a duel of former European champions.
United had been under pressure not only to produce a positive result on the pitch but also to quell new reports on unrest within the dressing room.
Interim manager Ralf Rangnick had refuted claims that Cristiano Ronaldo wanted the captaincy in place of Harry Maguire. Then midfielder Fred raised tensions with an interview with TNT Sports in Brazil criticising the appointment of an interim manager in the first place.
Fred was one of three players brought into the starting line-up compared with the team who kicked off Sunday’s 4:2 Premier League win at Leeds. Raphael Varane and Marcus Rashford also returned. In the first round United had finished top of Group F while Atletico were second behind Liverpool in Group B.
Rangnick had warned his team that Atletico would make an aggressive start but they appeared unprepared for their hosts’ passion, conceding a seventh-minute goal to Joao Felix who slipped in front of Harry Maguire to head home a Renan Lodi cross.
United began to settle down but when they won a free kick in a useful position Bruno Fernandes thumped the ball straight into the waiting hands of Jan Oblak. Shortly before halftime Cristiano Ronaldo was wastefully wide with a rare shot at goal.
The Reds had a fortunate escape when they were caught out again by a cross from the dangerous Lodi only for Sime Vrsalko’s downward header to bounce up and against the crossbar.
Rangnick’s decision to play Victor Lindelof at rightback looked badly mistaken and he was replaced, along with Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw, midway through the second half.
At this point neither side had managed to create any clear chances. Atletico sought to change that balance by bringing Antoine Griezmann into attack after a 10-game absence in place of the fading Joao Felix.
United responded by equalising through substitute Anthony Elanga. For the first time Bruno Fernandes played the perfect pass for the young Swede to shoot wide of Oblak and celebrate his first Champions League goal.
United were perhaps fortunate to be level but this was certainly their lucky night as Atletico were again denied by the posts. Griezmann was the unhappy victim as the match ran on towards stoppage time and the final whistle.