Just when it looks like they might be low on fuel, Atlético can call on two valuable resources to get them out of jail – their goalkeeper and their set-piece expertise. In an evenly-contested meeting with Valencia, in which there was very little between the two sides during the entire 180 minutes of the tie, it was Courtois and Guaita who were the key figures in settling who progressed and who bowed out. The difference between the two goalkeepers was so vast, it would be like comparing a glass of bargain basement Lambrusco with a vintage Port. The Belgian custodian continued the full repertoire of stops, dives and blocks which he displayed at Mestalla with three vital saves while his opposite number repeated the same mistake he made in the first leg, as he raced out to flap at a corner which resulted in Atleti’s opener.
He looked particularly vulnerable against a side who menace every time they win a corner kick. Simeone sent José Sosa on for his debut but the Argentinean appeared obsessed with playing his corners short and it wasn’t until Gabi took over set-piece duties the panorama changed completely for the home team. Godín and Raúl García both found the net with headers from corners taken by the captain, who had already put one on the Pamplonan’s head in last week’s first leg. Three goals, three Gabi corners, three headers... that’s no accident.
But during the remainder of the encounter, any difference between the two teams was minimal. Both played a more intense game and were hesitant to play the ball across the park in fear of being caught on the break. So the first 45 minutes had both of the running around without knowing where they were going. That suited Sosa who on 30 seconds spotted Guaita off his line and tried to beat him from distance. He played plenty of balls into the Valencia area, whether there was a team mate waiting or not. His centres were precise enough but he lacked patience.
The game went along these lines until the half-time interval. A Bernat strike which was tipped over by Courtois was probably the clearest either went in the opening 45 minutes. Five minutes after the restart, the game changed completely. Godín headed a Gabi corner goalwards but just as the ball was dipping over the bar, Gauita stuck out a hand. The ref decided that contact was made and another corner was awarded. The replay shows that the keeper’s glove did make contact, the problem is whether the ball had already gone out of play or not. Gabi whipped in another inswinging corner which Guaita missed, leaving Godin to nod in at the back post.
Just like at Mestalla, Valencia were suddenly obliged to stage a fightback. And once again, they came up against Courtois. Just Raúl García had taken a layer of paint off the post with a vicious strike, the Belgian was the hero in a magical minute in which he denied Postiga and Míchel – first with a reflex save, then in full flight.
Courtois’ heroics put Valencia were in their death throes and in the final breath, Raúl García connected with another Gabi corner to sentence the game and the tie. It’s almost become a cliché – corner, Gabi, header, goal. It frustrated Dani Parejo so much that he lashed out at an advertising hoarding and for his efforts, received a second booking. In games like this, it’s the details that count and right now, there’s no-one as meticulous to detail as Simeone’s side.