In times of great war, you turn to your most trusted generals and Fernandinho did not falter when Manchester City needed him most against Atletico Madrid.
The tide was turning against City and things were looking increasingly bleak. After 150 minutes of being in near-total control of the Champions League quarter-final tie, Atletico suddenly sprung the final phase of their plan in the last 30 minutes of the second leg. After restricting the Blues to just a slender one-goal advantage up until that point, they then turned up the pressure and went on the hunt for a goal.
A volleyed effort from Antoine Griezmann that whistled wide of the post was the signal flare for the final push. The rabid home crowd somehow found another decibel of volume after the shot that had sent Ederson scrambling; they sensed that a goal was coming. Pep Guardiola, who was crouched to his knees and looked transfixed in horror, seemed to feel it too.
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Atletico maintained their pressure, with City being pushed back into their own half in a fashion that is rarely seen. They were clearly uncomfortable with it as the screw was turned tighter. Substitutes Angel Correa and Rodrigo De Paul caused yet more danger, with the latter having two brilliant chances within minutes of coming on. In that 10 minutes of play alone Atletico had more shots on goal than they had in the entirety of the playing time that proceeded it.
City had lost their way, as Guardiola admitted after the match: “We were in big, big trouble.” So in City’s hour of need, when they were facing their greatest European test, when the prize they want more than any other was hanging in the balance… on came Fernandinho.
Alhough Atletico remained in the ascendency, the Brazilian’s introduction helped to stifle their momentum as he immediately made the midfield much more solid and was everywhere chasing down the ball, flying into tackles and disrupting the play. One great example came just a few minutes after his introduction as he landed an inch-perfect sliding tackle to stop an Atletico advance and spring a rare City foray forward that couldn’t quite be fashioned into a chance.
With Fernandinho on the pitch, City were allowing Atletico fewer clear-cut chances. The only other effort Diego Simeone’s side had during regulation time came from a clipped ball over the top that bypassed the midfield and was chested back to Cunha whose volley looked as though it was finding the bottom corner, before John Stones made a heroic block.
Then in the 90th minute when chaos descended, Fernandinho’s other excellent qualities shone through to help guide City to port — his immense leadership and experience. When Stefen Savic stormed over to a prone Phil Foden and sparked a mass commotion between both sets of players, substitutes and members of staff, City really could have lost their senses and been dragged down into the madness. Instead who was there to make sure cooler heads prevailed? Fernadninho.
His first instinct when the fracas began was to take Raheem Sterling away from the commotion after he had been headbutted by Savic to ensure he didn’t give a justified reprisal but then be punished for it. The veteran then steamed headlong into the mass of bodies — not to cause more bother, but to end it. In the footage, he can be seen separating the two opposing sides and then leading his teammates away.
City walked away from the enthralling anarchy having rustled the rustlers. Atletico had severed their nose to spite their faces, completely ruining their attacking flow, losing all composure and wasting valuable time when it looked likely they could force the match to extra-time. They did get one more chance (in the build-up to which Fernandinho actually failed to clear twice) but was it saved by Ederson and City survived.
There were several courageous and gutsy displays on the night but the level-headed, calm leadership of Fernandinho, as well as his defensive contributions and canniness in running down the clock, were vital in getting over the line.
He may be 37 and coming towards the end of his career but Fernandinho remains invaluable in those sort of scenarios and City are going to miss him greatly when he leaves at the end of the season. The Blues captain dropped the bombshell of his imminent departure ahead of the match in Madrid.
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“I want to play. I will go back to Brazil,” he said. “I decided with my family, which is the most important thing for me. It is the same as last season. I’m not playing much but I take care of other players and try to help wherever I can — on or off the pitch.”
City are used to emotional goodbyes. They’ve said plenty of them in recent years with legends Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero leaving in successive summers. But Fernandinho’s might be the hardest to cope with, on and off the pitch.
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