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Antoine Griezman and Atletico Madrid keep Barcelona from double Trebles

MADRID -- I don't know where the European Champion Clubs' Cup slept last night, but I bet she dozed off with a content smile on her face. The old European Cup? Teams won it in sequences of fives, threes and twos.

In fact, a handful of teams won it twice in a row. Ajax and Bayern Munich each won consecutive hat tricks, and when the competition was invented, the trophy almost got a Spanish passport as Real Madrid won it five on the bounce.

Not so the Champions League. Oh, no.

This version of the competition has its critics, often they are either driven by greed (England and Italy's fallen giants) or a frustration that their particular team can't get past the round of 16 (grumpy fans). However, what's a delight, I think, is that this version of the competition is brutally hard to defend.

At least another year will pass, making it 23 in total, without any club being able to build a lasting relationship after a fabulous night out in May.

The second reason that this curvaceous silver dame slept both soundly and with a grin I reckon is that however Atletico Madrid do from now on, they've had some justice in this tournament. Across the two games of their quarterfinal against Barcelona, they were the better side, pound for pound.

The absolute best passages of football, played by Barcelona for most of the second half in the Camp Nou, only came in fits and starts. Post-match, Jordi Alba admitted as much, as did Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Atleti were deserving winners, and they merit being in the last four. This is what you want from elite competition: reward for merit.

As for what Atletico deserve generally, this part of the verdict is more for the romantics than those who thrive on objective facts alone. In Los Rojiblancos' two previous European Cup finals they have, each time, been winning 1-0 with only added time left -- handfuls of seconds. Each time they've been pegged back by the most dramatic of goals, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck for Bayern in 1974 and Sergio Ramos for Madrid in 2014. Each time they've gone on to take four-goal thrashings.

Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez and Barcelona missed out on their chance to become the first club to win back-to-back Champions League crowns.

When Gabi handled in the box as the final whistle approached, after referee Nicola Rizzoli had somehow ignored his duty to send off Andres Iniesta for preventing a clear scoring opportunity in the build-up to Atleti's second goal, there must have been Atleti fans of a certain age groaning: "No! Not again!" Begging for no more added-time misfortune, praying for this competition not to sneer at them, again, instead of smiling benignly. No more injustice, "por favor!"

But this is part of Atleti's attraction. They rise above circumstances. Under Diego Simeone, they are not just ferociously competitive, running until they're fit to drop, imbued with a total one-for-all-and-all-for-one spirit; they stay rigidly true to their philosophy.

No matter the brutal disappointment of Lisbon in 2014, no matter which great star player leaves, no matter Fernando Torres sitting in the stands suspended, Atletico stick like glue to their work ethic, their idea of how to play. I remind you again that Xavi believes Atleti are as good at enforcing their particular brand of football as Barcelona, at their best, are exemplary at enforcing theirs.

Completely different philosophies, emphasised again by the 72-28 ball possession percentages in favour of the Catalans in this match, but equal excellence at imposing them. That's some praise, and it helps explain what has happened in this tie. As does the fact that the winners ran 12 kilometres more than the defeated champions over the 90 minutes. A gigantic disparity.

"We've suffered much more than this in this stadium and won." Luis Enrique said afterward. Significant words. A way of admitting that his team were second best.

Now, with Friday's draw in mind, I guess that Atletico's loyal, ferocious (and now hoarse!) fans will be torn between wishing revenge on the German champions or their city neighbours in the Milan final. (No prizes for guessing in which rivalry they'll most crave some vengeance once they think about it a little.)

And if this wasn't to be the year when a club finally retained the Champions League trophy for the first time, then how about this for some other firsts to mark this stirring, gutsy, efficient 180-minute performance?

It's the first time Simeone has beaten a Luis Enrique Barcelona side in eight attempts. It's the first time Antoine Griezmann's scored against Barca since moving to the Spanish capital in 2014; 544 minutes unable to hit the net, then twice in less than an hour to put his club in the semifinal. It's the first time Atleti have ever been in the Champions League semifinals twice in three years.

Timing, it's all about timing. Timing hit Barcelona, too.

Their wobble started back at the Madrigal; two goals up on Villarreal, then a 2-2 draw and rocking on their heels for 20 hard minutes. Defeats to the two royal clubs, Madrid and Sociedad, and outplayed in the first half against Atleti last week. There's no question that you can see mental burnout.

Atletico MadridAtletico Madrid
Leg 2Aggregate: 3 - 2
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Across their three biggest matches since the international break -- Madrid and these two ties against Atletico -- we've witnessed moments when Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Iniesta looking like the ball isn't their best friend anymore.

Apart from the truly remarkable miss that Suarez produced in the opening moments of the Clasico, we're not talking about scandalous mis-controls. But we are talking about the ball bouncing off them, needing two or three touches to control it when, at their peak, the ball would have been shuttled to the next teammate seconds before, and a stream of misplaced passes.

When that happens to such talented players, you know that there's a big degree of mental wear and tear. "Saturation," the absolute top, top players call it. When they not only reach for their fifth gear and find that it's not there, but when they suddenly find that they aren't even excelling at what usually comes naturally to them.

Put it this way: most people are now familiar with Sir Dave Brailsford's successful training philosophy based on marginal incremental gains. He revolutionised British cycling and that concept of accumulating millions of minutes in training when little improvements mount up into huge incremental gains made him and his pupils successful and famous.

Take that idea and reverse it. As saturation plus mental and physical fatigue have accumulated at Barcelona in recent weeks, so have little errors. Positional errors, mistakes in choosing what to do with the ball, chances placed in the goalkeeper's arms instead of the net, passing options not only ignored but not seen. Human error. Not laziness, not a sudden disappearance of quality or an erosion of excellence.

What will really take a long time for Barcelona's fans and their most ardent philosophers to come to terms with after this quarterfinal defeat is the temporary abandonment of their philosophy.

"Perhaps we didn't quite expect Atletico to sit back and wait for us so much in the first half," Luis Enrique admitted.

Perhaps, by equal measure, that explains how Barcelona played. They weren't really in the game for just under an hour.

But it was the first half that was the strangest. They played keep-ball, but at the back. They did precisely what their club-trained players, their legends always said that they wouldn't do.

Antoine Griezmann
Antoine Griezmann, left, scored both tallies in Atletico Madrid's 2-0 win over Barcelona on Wednesday.

Time and again I've heard Barcelona's recent greats, both those who are at the club now and those who've moved on, stay loyal to Pep Guardiola's firmest conviction that "having the ball is not a sterile exercise; it's with a purpose and that's to drag the other team about, to break through their line of pressure and to try to score." I've spoken to Camp Nou legends who've admitted that while they might fall short sometimes, they'd die with their boots on; using the ball, attacking, taking creative risks, pushing the opposition back on their heels. Entertaining and attacking, attempting to win rather than attempting to contain.

Not in the first half.

While Atletico sat back and tried the "press-rob-break formula," Barcelona refused the option of breaking the lines of pressure, taking calculated risks, going at their marker one-v-one, of playing with their normal personality. Just think of this: Barcelona's first proper attempt on target? Minute 42.

The goal that broke the deadlock? Alba kicking the ball away from his own corner flag rather than attempting to play the ball out from a tough situation.

Win or lose, the club's trademark is to hold on to the ball in the most threatening and difficult of moments and to try to pass their way out of trouble. Yet the former Valencia man hoofed the ball toward the middle of the pitch, watched Gabi beat Iniesta to the loose possession and then Saul produce the most sublime cross from the outside of his boot so that Griezmann could head in.

Atletico won this tie with precisely the kind of goal that Barcelona would score when playing anywhere near their best. Pressure, force the opposition into kicking the ball away, win it, use it both brilliantly and quickly and score an outrageous goal.

So, absolute kudos to Atleti, Saul and Griezmann. What a way for the Frenchman to bury the bad news that compatriot Karim Benzema won't be picked for this summer's European Championships. "Don't worry, Je suis ici!" was Griezmann's message at the Calderon -- both to France and to Atletico fans.

The final four already has Sergio Aguero, Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, Thomas Muller, Kevin De Bruyne and Benzema. Monsieur Griezmann need not walk in any of their shadows after this. And, to tell the truth, he deserves to flutter his eyelashes a little and flirt with Europe's most curvaceous and desirable grand dame.

Perhaps they'll spend the night together in Milan next month.

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.


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