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Champions League: Saul's special solo strike enough to beat Bayern Munich

Bayern Munich had plenty of pressure but couldn't find a way past a stubborn Atletico Madrid defense. A stunning goal from Spanish midfielder Saul gave Atletico Madrid a 1-0 win, leaving the tie in the balance.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Bayern Munich
(Saul Niguez 11’)

Before his side faced Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone spoke about the importance of using his “soldiers” better than his opposite number Pep Guardiola. Out on the Vicente Calderon pitch, the Argentine coach and his expertly-drilled defensive unit outmaneuvered their opponents to win the first of two critical battles.

The Spanish side absorbed significant Bayern pressure, particularly in the second half, to keep a vital clean sheet. In a characteristic display of disciplined counter-attacking football, Spanish U21 international Saul Niguez lit up the match with a spectacular solo strike.

Guardiola sprung a pre-game surprise, omitting star men Thomas Müller and Franck Ribery. As if buoyed by the omissions, Atletico began the game at a frantic pace, their aggressive pressing rushing Bayern’s normally composed midfielders in the opening skirmishes.

The German champions were made to pay for their sloppiness after 11 minutes. Saul picked up the ball about 40 yards from goal on the right side of the pitch before slaloming past Thiago, Juan Bernat and Xabi Alonso, sidestepping makeshift center-back David Alaba and stroking a precise finish past Manuel Neuer. It was a sensational solo effort full of guile, balance and close control and very much fit for the big occasion.

UEFA Champions League Atletico Madrid vs. Bayern München

David Alaba's long-range strike against the bar was as close as Bayern came to a goal

Out of sorts and out of position

Falling behind seemed to galvanize Bayern and they almost equalized immediately but Arturo Vidal’s looping header was cleared off the line by Atleti’s Uruguayan defender Jose Gimenez.

The Spanish side looked comfortable sitting deep and letting their opponents do the running, but their much-heralded counter-attacking style was a constant menace to Bayern - only Neuer’s smart near-post save kept the deficit at one after Antoine Griezmann squeezed past Javi Martinez on the half-hour mark.

Neither the Spaniard nor his defensive partner David Alaba looked comfortable out of position and the presence of natural center backs will have led Bayern fans to ask further questions of their head coach's initial selection.

There were no changes for Bayern at the break but the visitors looked to have a renewed sense of purpose. They were nearly rewarded nine minutes in to the half when Alaba’s dipping strike from way outside the box rattled the Atletico crossbar with the homes side’s goalkeeper Jan Oblak beaten. As if to prove both center backs are a little more comfortable going forward, Martinez was next to go close, drawing a decent stop from Oblak with a header.

UEFA Champions League Atletico Madrid vs. Bayern München

Pep Guardiola opted to leave Thomas Müller on the bench

Bavarian resurgence

Bayern continued to pin the Spaniards back as the half wore on but failed to capitalize on their territorial dominance. Simone’s back line stayed strong, reducing the visitors to half chances and long-range efforts. Ribery and Müller replaced Kingsley Coman and Thiago within the space of a few minutes after the hour mark as Bayern searched for the away goal that would give them an advantage in the return leg.

They were almost made to pay for their ambition when Fernando Torres hit the post following a jinking run on one of Atletico's rare roams forward in the second half. Koke couldn’t beat Neuer from the rebound.

As the clock ticked down in injury time and Arturo Vidal spurned a very presentable chance, Simeone was a constant whirl of energy and instruction, exhorting his players to see the game out and the fans to turn up the volume. When referee Mark Clattenburg blew the final whistle, the Atletico boss was a model of composure when celebrating the execution of a carefully considered battleplan. He and his “soldiers” will have to wait until next Tuesday to find out if they’ve won the war.