Atletico Madrid moved one step closer to their dream Champions League final on home turf by beating Thierry Henry’s Monaco 2-0 on Wednesday to secure their place in the last 16.
Atletico could hardly have imagined a more straightforward passage into the knock-out stages as a struggling Monaco side, ridden with injuries and focused on avoiding relegation from Ligue 1, offered precious little resistance at the Wanda Metropolitano.
A rout looked possible when Koke and Antoine Griezmann put Atleti two up within half an hour but they eased off and Monaco could even have pulled a goal back, only for Radamel Falcao to miss a penalty against his former club.
Stefan Savic’s handball conceded the spot-kick and he was sent off, after receiving a second yellow card.
It was a disappointing end for Falcao, who had been presented with a plaque before kick-off and warmly cheered by the home fans when introduced as a substitute in the second half.
To return here for the final on June 1, Atletico will have to beat far stronger opponents than this but, after a slow start, their season appears to be taking shape. They have now lost only once, albeit a thumping by Borussia Dortmund, in 16 matches.
Dortmund could yet snatch top spot in Group A, particularly given they face Monaco last, with Atletico owning the slightly tougher final assignment away to Club Brugge.
Monaco, meanwhile, cannot even trump Brugge to third and a place in the Europa League even if they, and Henry, have more serious domestic concerns.
At times, this match resembled a cup tie between a giant and an opponent two or three tiers below, but Henry must have expected as much when he rested key players, including Falcao, and fielded four teenagers in his starting line-up.
“They saw Griezmann lift the World Cup and now they’re going to play against him,” Henry had said on Tuesday.
After beating Caen for their first win in his seven games, any momentum Monaco had took a knock here but 12 injuries and 10 points from 14 games in Ligue 1 perhaps gave Henry little choice.
The last thing a youthful team needs away from home, against one of Europe’s toughest opponents, is to concede an early goal, not least one that came with a heavy dose of misfortune.
Koke was given too much time to line up his shot from 25 yards but the deflection off 17-year-old Benoit Badiashile was cruel, and left goalkeeper Diego Benaglio stranded.
It could have been worse as Thomas Lemar’s curling free-kick grazed the outside of the post but as Atletico’s dominance became entrenched their intensity slackened too.
Griezmann doubled the lead in the 24th minute, receiving on the half-turn and slipping Angel Correa free down the left. Correa’s twisting run put Jemerson on the ground, and he returned to Griezmann to touch into the far corner.
Falcao came on to cheers in the second half and as Atletico settled for the win, Monaco a respectable defeat, he looked as surprised as anyone to be taking a penalty with eight minutes left.
Youri Tielemans’ shot was blocked by the arm of Savic, who was sent off after being handed a second yellow card.
Any hopes of the most unlikely of comebacks were dashed, however, as Falcao sidefooted wide, denying Monaco a morale-boosting finish.
© Agence France-Presse (Additional edits by Marisa Kennedy)